BOOK REVIEW: It's our turn to eat - The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower

Friday, November 24, 2017

Michela Wrong

Michela Wrong has built a distinguished literary career telling stories of African corruption and Western complicity. A former Africa correspondent for Reuters and The Financial Times, Wrong attracted wide attention with her first book, “In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo,” a chronicle of societal collapse in the country then known as Zaire. She followed that with “I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation,” which told how an Eritrean rebel movement, ignored by the West, defeated a much stronger Ethiopian Army, then transmuted into an autocratic and bankrupt state.

In “It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower,” her third book, Wrong’s subject is John Githongo, a newspaper journalist who became Kenya’s first anti corruption czar. Two years later, he tendered his resignation and fled the country after unearthing evidence of graft at the highest levels of government. Githongo, an old friend of Wrong’s, took refuge at her London flat and hid there for weeks while the press corps, along with Kenyan secret agents, searched the city for him in vain. Githongo’s sojourn with Wrong was the genesis of a fast-paced political thriller — with echoes of Graham Greene and John le Carré.

Wrong’s story begins on Dec. 30, 2002, with the inauguration of Mwai Kibaki, the country’s first democratically elected president. Tens of thousands of jubilant Kenyans gather in a Nairobi park to witness Kibaki’s swearing-in, and to hurl stones at the limousine spiriting away the former president, Daniel arap Moi, who had ruled the country as a one-party state for 24 years.

(Moi surprised everybody by stepping down gracefully and retiring to his farm in the Kenyan highlands.) Under Moi, the country developed two identities: an island of political stability with a thriving tourism industry, and a kleptocracy run by a dictator whose motto, many Kenyans joked, was “L’état c’est Moi.” (As Newsweek’s Nairobi bureau chief in the ’90s, I was twice threatened with expulsion after writing articles about corruption and repression in Moi’s Kenya.)

 A classic Big Man, he plastered his image on bank notes, ordered his portrait hung in offices and shops, enriched tribal cronies and alledgedly stashed billions of dollars in his overseas bank accounts. Meanwhile, the country stagnated. At independence in 1963, Kenya’s average per capita income equaled that of Malaysia; about 40 years later, Malaysia’s was 10 times as high.

As the agent of his country’s redemption, however, Kibaki was hardly an inspiring figure. The first African graduate of the London School of Economics and a man who had often been described as “brilliant” by his peers, Kibaki in recent years had become, Wrong writes, “a man with a reputation for soft living and hard drinking. . . . Like the latter-day Ronald Reagan in the grips of early Alzheimer’s, he came across as an urbane, delightfully charming old duffer, but not a man anybody would want running the country.” He was also a member of the Kikuyu tribe, the country’s largest, who had benefited from patronage, land giveaways and other perks under the country’s founding president, Jomo ¬Kenyatta, but who had been marginalized by Moi, a member of the rival Kalenjin tribe. Soon enough, Kibaki stocked his cabinet with fellow Kikuyus — known as “the Mount Kenya Mafia” — who were eager to enjoy the spoils of power after years in the wilderness. Like the Kalenjins who preceded them, the newly ascendant Kikuyus were driven by a crudely avaricious philosophy: “It’s our turn to eat.”

Enter Githongo, an energetic and principled bear of a man with a nose for sniffing out graft, sharpened by years spent as a muckraking reporter and an investigator for Transparency International, the Berlin-based watchdog group. His father was a successful accountant who ran afoul of Moi’s Kalenjin-dominated government and moved his family to London when Githongo was a boy; his mother was a fiercely religious woman who brought him under the tutelage of the Roman Catholic movement Opus Dei.

Both parents honed a skepticism of politicians and power and helped him to transcend tribal ¬allegiances. Recruited to head the new ¬Kenyan anti corruption authority by Kibaki’s inner circle, Githongo came to the job as an admirer of the new president, and for the first few months, he was somewhat star-struck by his proximity to power.

But that changed as Githongo, through a network of informants, uncovered an elaborate fraud, set up by Kibaki’s associates, to siphon hundreds of millions of dollars out of the Kenyan treasury through inflated no-bid contracts to a phantom corporation called the Anglo Leasing and Finance Company. After repeatedly being told to back off by Kibaki’s inner circle, he turned whistle-blower. In one nail-biter of a scene, Githongo surreptitiously wore a recording device while colleagues discussed the details of the Anglo Leasing scheme — only to have it malfunction and begin playing back their incriminating conversation.

Wrong provides a damning account of the role played by the major donors to ¬Kenya, including the World Bank and Britain’s Department for International Development, whose top officials reacted with indifference after Githongo came forward with his evidence.

Kenya’s impressive economic expansion under Kibaki and its loyal support for the war on terror contributed to their reluctance to challenge the status quo. (Wrong points out that the 6 percent annual growth rate did little to improve the lot of Kenya’s impoverished masses.) So did the officials’ cozy relationships to the country’s political elite. The World Bank’s representative rented a villa from Kibaki in the plush Muthaiga neighborhood, a conflict of interest that went unremarked on by the organization’s own auditing team.

As Stephen Brown, associate professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa, tells Wrong, “the donors’ primary concern appeared to be the avoidance of any path that could lead to a breakdown of the political and economic order. . . . Donors actually forestalled fundamental change.”

Wrong’s book has its shortcomings. I could have used more detail about the inner workings of the Anglo Leasing scheme, which remains frustratingly amorphous. Wrong never gets to the bottom of Kibaki’s role in the scam: was he an eager participant, or a stroke-incapacitated bystander who followed the path of least resistance? And the cabal surrounding the president could also have been fleshed out more. They come across as an interchangeably sinister group of thieves.

But these minor weaknesses pale before the sureness of Wrong’s pacing, the depth of her reporting. She offers incisive discourses on Kikuyu history, the international development world, the language of Nairobi’s cosmopolitan youth — and her portrait of a courageous, conflicted protagonist. Githongo is an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation, and forced to make excruciating moral choices.

The upshot of Githongo’s revelations was dispiriting. A few token officials lost their jobs, Kibaki was let off the hook and then it was back to business as usual. “It’s Our Turn to Eat” ends with Kibaki’s blatant attempt to steal the presidential election of December 2007 from the challenger, Raila Odinga, an opposition leader from the Luo tribe — and the tragic denouement that Githongo had feared. Pent-up tribal resentments, exacerbated by a long tradition of graft, exploded when Kibaki had himself sworn in with unseemly haste and rejected calls for a new vote or negotiations with his opponent. The fraud set off a wave of ethnic killings and displacements, ruined many businesses and sent Western tourists scurrying. “Five years of economic recovery were sabotaged in a matter of weeks,” Wrong observes. Odinga was eventually installed as prime minister, and Kenya staggered back to its feet.

Githongo remained fearful of retribution from the officials whose mischief he had exposed.

Wrong’s gripping, thoughtful book stands as both a tribute to Githongo’s courage and a cautionary tale about the dangers of challenging a thoroughly corrupted system.

Available at Timbooktoo tel 4494345