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.

3 comments:

wesonga said...

John was behaved like a reporter who had tough questions for a president of a backward State.

But when they met, reporter fell for citizen number one’s smooth talk, smooth skin and because the beefcakes did not shove reporter aside.

That is expected of small people, not somebody of John Githongo’s Oxford education.

The best bit to me was on civil servants serving as scapegoats for the big bad guys.

Often, one hears, even journalists who should know slightly better, mouth that cliché that the big guy is not bad, it is the advisors who are misadvising the big good guy.

If the advisors are soiling the big guy’s name, why then doesn’t big guy drop them?

The same people will later, at a different forum, tell you that, ‘birds of a feather flock together’.

Listen to this: “People are beginning to realise it’s not a question of Kibaki being misled by the hardliners around him,’ one investment expert told Wrong. ‘He is the hardliner.’

One may urge that the investment expert was wrong. But he ain’t the first with misgivings against the lousy bunch of guys bewitched to lengthen their stays in many African State Houses.

Our views can be weighed against Robert Greene’s 26th Law of Power.

Greene in the 48 Laws of Power says: “If there is something unpleasant or unpopular that needs to be done, it is far too risky for you to do the work yourself. You need somebody to do the dirty dangerous work for you. The cat’s-paw grabs what you need, hurts whom you need to hurt, and keeps people from noticing that you are the one responsible. Power cannot survive without the constant squashing of enemies – there will always be dirty little tasks that have to be done to keep you on the throne.”

Getonga, Kiraitu, Murungaru and Mwiraria took the flak on Kibaki’s behalf. As Githongo states in Wrong’s book, “Ultimately, it became clear. I was investigating the president.” It is more believable coming from a bloke who once in a while would meet Kibaki in Kibaki’s bedroom.

Most African Presidents prefer to keep instructions verbal so that no trail leads to them.

The other bit was about the fake anti-corruption crusaders. As Wrong pointed out, “...John’s father and his friends launched themselves...into anti-corruption...not because they believed in the cause...but because they had been economically boxed out by the Kalenjin.” It was not about the country. It was about them.

So we should be cautious of especially the city-based anti-corruption outfits. At least Uganda’s Apac anti-corruption association at the beginning of August did something worth mentioning when it prompted the arrest of 13 public officials on fraud charges. Yeah, the city-based NGOs people will tell us they built the capacity of these Apac people.

Karisa Maitha, then local government minister in Kenya’s first National Rainbow Coalition administration showed by clearing the streets in early 2003 albeit for a short time of street urchins, that many NGOs do not offer the vulnerable persons much hope.

And - I thought the Nation had tougher balls. But after reading that Nation lacked the courage to broadcast Kiraitu’s blackmailing of Githongo, I think the company has squishy nuts and thus chooses its enemies wisely. That is not a sign of toughness – just opportunism.

To sum up, Wrong’s book shows that the Western powers, which we sometimes look up because we have minus zero faith in many an African electoral commission, are equally useless.

Their relationship with our States’ leaders is like the Serpent and Eve’s back then when grandpa and grandma strutted around naked in the Garden of Eden. The Serpent could have simply bitten Eve. But it chose to trick her to get to Grandpa Adam.

These Western countries use our leaders. We the masses are used as the leaves – to clothe our leaders’ nakedness.

The Western States emissaries, Wrong says, hail many our rigged elections as steps in the right direction!

All the above do not mean that I agree with Wrong's book 100 percent. But I will spare my comments until next time.

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