Why the Conscience of Kenya Came Home

By Howden, Daniel | The Independent (London, England), February 17, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Why the Conscience of Kenya Came Home


Howden, Daniel, The Independent (London, England)


When death threats forced anti-corruptiontsar John Githongo to flee into exile, he inspired a book - published this week - about the parlous state of East Africa's biggest economy. Now he has returned, still determined to fight corruption. Daniel Howden talked to him in Nairobi

It is hard to imagine John Githongo in hiding. A great bull of a man with a booming voice, he doesn't look the sort to be easily intimidated. Nonetheless the former anti-corruption tsar has spent years in exile from Kenya chased by death threats all the way to London for daring to expose the rapacious fraud of his government colleagues.

While he insists that he's no longer in hiding, Africa's most famous whistleblower has tried not to trumpet his return by stages to Kenya and works from an office in a nondescript apartment block in Nairobi. This gradual, low-key homecoming has been exploded this week as a new book about his life and work has taken Kenyans back to the corruption scandals of the past just in time to remind people that they are at the root of the country's present parlous state.

His animated face was stretched across most of the front page of yesterday's Daily Nation under a headline taken from the book, It's Our Turn to Eat. For people seeing the title across the country it seems an excruciatingly precise diagnosis of what is wrong now - not just in 2005 when Mr Githongo revealed how Kenya's leaders plundered the public purse to enrich themselves using a fraudulent security contract.

It was written by Michela Wrong after Mr Githongo fled to her doorstep in London, carrying the evidence of grand corruption and in fear of his life. Her book has touched such a raw nerve that advanced copies are being sold under the counter in Nairobi. Selling it openly is considered too high a risk and violence is too fresh in most memories.

A year on from the bloodshed set off by a crudely stolen election and Kenya's grand power-sharing coalition has achieved one thing, Mr Githongo asserts, and that is to stay in power. "Its most important achievement, in fact its only achievement, is to survive," he says.

The outlook in east Africa's biggest economy is grim. Famine has taken such a hold that it has been declared a national emergency, fuel shortages are becoming a plague, tourism is in decline, and each one of these crises has arrived with the depressing echo of another corruption scandal.

Perhaps the greatest outrage has been the news that food shortages from a chronic drought have been made worse by the theft of emergency maize reserves, sold by corrupt officials for a profit in south Sudan. "This coalition is held together by corruption," says Mr Githongo. "What we are seeing now is a feeding frenzy."

It's Our Turn to Eat is the author's indictment of a political system based on the idea that each tribe will get its turn at the trough. The analysis, backed by Mr Githongo, explains how an ethnic clique hoarded wealth, exacerbating tribal tensions in Kenya while international donors stood idly by, often complicit in the worst of it, only to declare themselves shocked when violence exploded last year.

This "poisonous politics" created by one group that "dominates access to wealth" is then compounded when "that group flaunt it, indulging in conspicuous consumption while people are starving".

Mr Githongo watched this happen from a ringside government seat as his own tribe, the Kikuyu, talked about "trickle-down economics" while concentrating power, privilege and the proceeds of record growth as narrowly as they could.

The 43-year-old former investigator says the story began much earlier though. It didn't start with the Kikuyu clique of the current President Mwai Kibaki, the bitter divisions and repression of Daniel arap Moi before him, or even the failures of the independence leader Jomo Kenyatta. They simply inherited a state that was set up to enrich a small minority - originally the white settlers - regardless of the needs of the rest.

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