Friday, August 21, 2009

A book worth reading: It's our turn to eat

When the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC)—a loose conglomeration of opposition parties in Kenya won state power in 2002—most of the country chose to wine and dine. The celebration was not just because 24 “dictatorial” years of President Arap Moi were coming to an end; it was because most Kenyans perceived this as a burial of two major ills that had defined Moi’s regime; tribalism and corruption.
NARC, under Mwai Kibaki, had run on the change ticket and had promised to make graft and ethnicism history in Kenya. The man charged with the duty of fighting corruption by the new government was John Githongo, a Western-trained journalist and a former country director of Transparency International, who was barely in his 30s.
It’s Our Turn to Eat is a dramatic narration of Githongo’s hopes, just like of all Kenyans, which were raised in 2002, only to be dashed a few years later when he, just like most countrymen, realised that the change in leadership—only meant that. Corruption and tribalism under Kibaki had taken an even more cancerous jacket, enveloping the state with unrelenting vigour.
When Githongo was named anti-corruption czar, little did he know that his tribesmen, who were plotting a grand lootocracy of the country, were actually expecting cover from him. He even misunderstood the President’s gesture of offering him an office next to his (Kibaki’s) as a show of trust and support.
Determined, Githongo plunged into his job with the fervour of a newly-ordained priest. However, some months into his work, he realised something was amiss. Informers gave him tips that seemed to point to a mass theft of Kenyan public money by a clique of top ministers, most, like Githongo, hailing from the President’s central region. A deeper investigation is what led to the unearthing of the infamous Anglo-Leasing scandal, a major thrust upon which this biography is built.
Githongo discovered that the ministers had created a procurement scheme in which a non-existent company, Anglo-Leasing and Finance, purportedly based in Liverpool, UK, had been paid up to $750 million (Shs1.5 trillion), for supplying “ghost” goods and services to Kenya. When he confronted the suspects with this information, he was reminded about his Kikuyu roots and told his loyalty lay first with the tribe. Sure that these ministers were acting alone, he approached the President with the information and for his hard work, Kibaki announced Githongo’s demotion during a cabinet reshuffle, only to retract it verbally the next day!
It is at this point that Githongo, like many idealistic Kenyans who had injected faith in the new government, realised how things had remained the same. Like the animals in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, they saw no distinction between the pigs (NARC) and man (KANU).
But in telling Githongo’s story, renowned journalist Michela Wrong, who served as an African Affairs correspondent for the BBC, Reuters and Financial Times, also weaves the heart-rending tale of governance and politics gone wrong in Kenya. She exposes the misperception of state and resource control as an opportunity for self-enrichment and aggrandizement by a ‘tribe’ or clique in power, a concept from which the book derives its title.
Interestingly, the appeal to tribe by a small group of political vampires even when obviously the larger section never gets anything or only settles for crumbs is not just Kenya’s story. You can remove the Kenyan principals in this book and you will conveniently get replacements from about three-quarters of the rest of Africa. Such is the continetality of the corruption theme and bad governance.
So, what makes this book stand out? Michela Wrong’s narrative style is unique. She sets the book on a fast tempo that at some points, one thinks they are watching an action-packed movie. She is also a stickler for detail and mentions the nitty-gritty, which blend well with a pendulum swing into the historical and political past of Kenya.
The book’s integrity credentials are engraved further by the fact that despite being English, Michela Wrong bats no lid in exposing her government’s complicity in aiding vice in Africa. She writes about the British government’s decision to turn a deaf ear even when it was clear graft was eating away the Kenyan fabric and the UK was in position to call the shots. Instead, relying on cooked-up figures of economic recovery, they inject millions more into Kenya, knowing that the money will only end up in the purses of few politicians. The World Bank country directors, for example, opt to rent Kibakis’ house and live next to them!
When Githongo realised he was exposed and lacked political support, he opted to go into exile, instead sending his findings to the media. As the Kenyan public bayed for blood, some of top ministers named resigned. But like is the typical African plot, the now-soiled Kibaki brought them back to cabinet when the tempest had passed.
Anyone interested in Africa’s double tale of betrayal, sleaze, and manipulation, countered by patriotism, determination, hope, should have this book in their shelves.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Monitor will soldier on...despite harrassment

I am writing this from the cold confines of my work station at the Daily Nation head offices in Nairobi. With print copies of my home papers not easy to come by, I have been hooked unto the net for the online versions and this morning, the headline that immediately caught my attention, just after logging unto the Monitor website was, “Bunyoro: Police grill Monitor editor”.
The long and short of the story was that top detectives had for over six hours on Wednesday grilled my boss, Daniel Kalinaki, the managing editor, over the publication of a letter by President Museveni that basically was calling for alienation of immigrant communities in the elective politics of Bunyoro region. This region has lately been discovered to be rich in oil, and the State is trying to make love overtures to it.
What followed the publication was a general public furor, with a bigger section of the population accusing the President of sowing seeds of discord and tribalism. Leaders of the immigrants in Bunyoro have subsequently written to the President and disputed his assertions. Some have threatened to sue him for high treason!
And trying to dodge the tempest, the high powers have moved to crack down on the messenger. I have it on good authority that the Daily Monitor sourced that document from a very reliable source; it is not in doubt that what the paper ran was an authentic document circulated by the President to his presidency minister, Beatrice Wabudeya, who is heading a team trying to “correct the historical ills of Bunyoro”.
The President’s cocoon now is to claim that the document was adulterated and that simple spelling mistakes occurred in the Monitor version. He also claims that the document was confidential and never meant for public consumption! What State House cannot contest is the fact that Museveni penned a document whose details were largely captured by the Monitor report. In fact some of his minions from Bunyoro, like Minister Matia Kasaija, have come out with blazing guns to back that position.
You would expect the President, in this charged atmosphere, to come out and defend his position; for I believe he had pretty good reasons for writing what he wrote. Why then employ his terror machine on innocent relayers of information? Is this not an admission of faulty thinking on his part? Has he finally realised that what he was saying was foolhardy? Or is he, in his mistaken thoughts convinced that he can stop the wheel of truth and debate by threatening professional journalists?
In these summons and harassment of my boss, I gain a sense of personal relief and gratification. Many people have tried to mudsling the Monitor by claiming it is a sell-out after its majority ownership was taken over by the Aga Khan. Others have tried to ridicule us, considering how young our newsroom is. Others have tried to give an impression that we were silenced when it comes to sticky issues regarding the presidency.
But once again, we have demonstrated that we still cherish the core values for which our paper was founded. We have sent a clear message to the public that nothing is too hot to handle, even if it involves the presidency. We have proved that we shall continue setting the agenda despite how “young or unexposed” we are. It is why we broke the Temangalo story and exposed the daylight misuse of power and influence. It is why we brought to light the freedom Lt. Magara was enjoying even as families of those he shot, maimed and killed were wallowing in misery. And it is why we stayed on it until justice was seen to be done. It is why one of our journalists, Moses Akena, was detained this week for refusing to be used as a state pawn in a hopeless political contest. It is why the press association yesterday demanded that former IGG Faith Mwondha be investigated for detaining our photojournalist, Stephen Otage.
The bottom line is that we believe in fairness but never silence.
And that will continue, even if it means handcuffing us at the altar of truth. It was the determination I read in Mr Kalinaki’s text that he sent me the night before his quizzing, saying he was not cowed by the CID summons. No believer in truth and press freedom should!