Wednesday, July 29, 2009

It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower

A review of a book by Michela Wrong. Published by Harper, NY 2009.

If you only read one book about Kenya this year; this should be it. Author Michela Wrong has written the definitive exposé on how Kenya’s political elite have skewed their country’s political, economic and social system via tribalism and corruption so that it operates to their benefit, but to the detriment of the nation and the wanaichi. To flesh out this tale of greed, Wrong uses the saga of John Githongo, a respected journalist and NGO operative, who – because of his respectable credentials - was recruited into becoming Kenya’s anti-corruption czar following the election of Mwai Kibaki in 2002. Imbued with a zealous sense of purpose Githongo strove to cleanse the Augean stable mess left by the previous Moi and even Kenyatta administrations. He found, however, that no matter how noble the rhetoric, embedded practices were impervious to reform. Instead of correcting matters, the new cadre close to President Kibaki – including, as Githongo reluctantly concluded, the president himself– persisted in clever organized looting of the state. The justification for this was tribal, after years of exile while Moi reigned, it was again time for the Kikuyus “to eat.”

Even while following the story of one man’s enthusiasm and disillusionment, the author carefully dissects the Kenya polity. She notes, “The various forms of graft cannot be separated from the people’s vision of existence as a merciless contest, in which only ethnic preference offers hope of survival.” This leads to a comprehensive discussion of tribalism in particular how it is not an atavistic force arising from centuries of tribal struggle, but rather a manifestation of modernization. Colonialism, education, Christianity, urbanization, the cash economy – in fact all the elements of recent times brought Kenya’s various tribes into face-to-face competition. Whoever controlled power and the apparatus of the state were able to reward their “community” at the expense of everyone else. Thus common identity - rather than merit - became (and still is) the means of personal advancement. Up to a point, of course, looking after kith and kin is not pernicious, but Kenyans have never drawn a good line. Helping your cousins is one thing, but expanding beyond that to blatant theft coupled with denigration and stereotyping of others on account of their tribe has led to inimical politics, which have resulted in repeated rounds of tribal violence – with perhaps more to come.

Ms. Wrong made the point that urbanization in many ways de-tribalized Kenyans. Ethnic customs, language, etc. all succumbed to the polyglot mix of the cities, broader education and the impact of western culture. Kids, for example, did not speak tribal mother tongues or English or Swahili, but created “Sheng” for common communication. Identities were being forged more as “poor” or “affluent” rather than Luo or Kikuyu. Unfortunately, those evolutions were swept away in the political violence of 2007 where tribe became the sole criterion. In the aftermath of that violence, it is doubtful if Kenyans can regain the social cohesion that they previously enjoyed.

Some of the worst manifestations of tribalism and unbridled presidential power have been the scandals of Goldberg (under Moi) and Anglo Leasing (under Kibaki), in which hundreds of millions of dollars were blithely stolen from government coffers by those charged to manage resources properly for the people, i.e. the office of the president, the chief of the civil service, members of government and the judiciary. It was this latter scandal that Githongo uncovered. Most distressing for him was the fact that people he knew and trusted; lied, schemed and connived to cover up their shenanigans. When finally confronted with facts (Githongo secretly recorded conversations and ran a network of informers), they plead that it was all for the benefit of the Kikuyu “community,” in effect, it was their turn to eat. Indeed, something was very rotten in Kenya. Githongo fled for fear of his life.

The international donor community did not escape Wrong’s righteousness. The World Bank was singled out for marked failure to link new lending to reform, thus convincing Kenyans leaders that there were no real consequences for even spectacular corruption. Wrong found one hero in British High Commissioner (ambassador) Edward Clay who argued forcefully in public, and against the policy of his own government, that donors ought to hold Kenya accountable for proper management of all its resources.

Ultimately, Githongo’s story just sort of wound down, with no clear cut victory for the good guys. But the impact of the book did not stop there. Although part of the book has been serialized in the Nation, it is not available for purchase in Kenya. Booksellers apparently fear the wrath of the named. Even so, It’s Our Turn to Eat is a hot commodity. Copies are being imported privately, even apparently by USAID. Githongo’s recordings are available on the web where many Kenyans are listening. Ms. Wrong recently told a Washington audience that she had not sensationalized events, but reported even handedly. While she agreed that Githongo might better have told his own story, he was not ready when she was. He cooperated fully. Finally, as is mentioned in the book, Githongo’s daring set an example for other watchdogs and has certainly raised the bar for public scrutiny of elected officials. Evidently, thieves are more careful now, but the underlying structure of Kenyan politics which bred the system of tribal patronage and corruption has not changed. The struggle for seekers of change, fairness, truth and accountability has not ended.

Reviewed by Robert Gribbin, July 2009