Author Tells Story Of Kenyan Whistle-Blower

Michela Wrong i i

hide captionJohn Githongo turned to author Michela Wrong when he felt he had to flee Kenya.

Peter Chappell
Michela Wrong

John Githongo turned to author Michela Wrong when he felt he had to flee Kenya.

Peter Chappell
Book cover
Courtesy of HarperCollins
It's Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower
By Michela Wrong
Hardcover, 368 pages
HarperCollins
$25.99

John Githongo is a Kenyan who was given a dream job.

In 2002, a new government came into power in Kenya with a mandate to clean up government and recruited Githongo as its anti-corruption czar. His office was in the State House, the Kenyan equivalent of the White House, and he reported frequently and directly to the president. And then he ended up in exile.

Author Michela Wrong tells Githongo's story in her new book, It's Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower.

Wrong tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that the name of the book comes from the "rotating series of ethnic elites who have the opportunity to run Kenya as an opportunity to benefit themselves, and it's an attitude that has obviously destroyed the economy."

When Githongo started at the State House, he and President Mwai Kibaki got along very well, and he "gave the president 66 separate briefings ... I mean this was constant access," Wrong says.

In 2004, Githongo started hearing reports of corruption, in particular "a series of dodgy contracts being signed off by people in key ministries ... which in the end was nearly a billion dollars," Wrong says.

A worried Githongo turned to his colleagues to figure out what to do about contracts with shadow companies that were little more than addresses. That's when he realized that they were the same colleagues who signed off on the bogus deals.

The particular challenge of Kenya is that whatever government is in charge, its ethnic group has control. So the new leaders abandoned their pledges for reform and clean government, instead embracing the idea that "now it's our turn to eat."

Githongo started taping phone calls and let Wrong listen to those tapes. She heard death threats, other government officials who "very sneakily just suggest to John in an apparently friendly way that if he carries on doing what he's going to do, then he will end up dead."

There's also a lot of laughter.

"I think everyone's very embarrassed by these conversations," Wrong says, and that's why they're laughing. They know they said they'd take on corruption, and now they were enveloped in it.

The longer Githongo investigated his colleagues, the more he was reminded that he was in the same tribe as those in control in the government — and that they needed to stick together. His colleagues justified stealing the money because it would go into the next campaign fund. "Stop messing with your own tribe ... you owe it to us," Wrong says Githongo was told.

President Kibaki would tell the people of Kenya that corruption was a problem, and that his administration was investigating it. But that frustrated Githongo, Wrong says, because he had presented the president with the evidence he'd collected.

Githongo eventually fled his country because he "realized there was a big cobweb, and at the heart of it sat the president," Wrong says.

Today, Githongo has returned to Kenya to do aid work.

Excerpt: 'It's Our Turn To Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower'

Chapter 1: The Big Man

It was an amazing thing, for one moment in a hundred years, to all feel the same way. And to feel that it was good. — Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainana

A brown clod of earth, trailing tufts of grass like a green scalp, suddenly soared through the air and landed on the stage, thrown by someone high on the surrounding slopes. Then another one sailed overhead, this time falling short and hitting the journalists packed against the podium. Then came some sticks, a hail of small stones. The first rows of the crowd hunched their shoulders and hoped it would get no worse: there were plenty of kids up there from Kibera slum, the sprawl of rusty shacks that stretched like an itchy brown sore across the modern city landscape, and they had a nasty habit of using their own excrement as missiles. The mood in the open-air stadium in Uhuru Park on 30 December 2002, a year and a half before that strange meeting in the finance ministry, was on the brink of turning ugly.Mostly male, mostly young, the audience was getting bored with waiting.

For much of the morning the mood had been cheerful. The thousands of Kenyans who had begun streaming into the amphitheatre at 7 a.m. for the presidential inauguration – the first change of leadership via the ballot box since independence – had every reason to pat themselves on the back.With the simplest of acts, they had pulled off what felt like a miracle. They had queued patiently for hours in the sun, cast their ballots and in the process turned their backs on the retiring Daniel arap Moi, twenty-four years at the helm, the president credited with reducing East Africa's most prosperous economy to 'nchi ya kitu kidogo': 'land of the "little something"', homeland of the bribe. Campaigning on an issue that infuriated the public – the corruption souring every aspect of their lives – the opposition had united under the banner of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) and stomped to victory. It had told the electorate it was 'unbwogable' – uncrushable – and this had proved no idle boast, for it had broken the ruling KANU party's thirty-nine-year grip on power. It seemed as though Kenya's political parties had finally matured, realising that so long as they allowed tribal differences to dominate, with each ethnic group mustering behind its own presidential candidate, Moi would win. In contrast with so many of his African counterparts, the loser – Moi's handpicked protégé Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the nation's founding father – had gracefully accepted the results.

In the slum estates the night before,many had braced themselves for a military takeover, reasoning that Moi's security services would surely not meekly accept the people's verdict. They had been proved wrong, and the fact that power was about to change hands peacefully in an African nation, rather than at the barrel of a gun, was hailed by the Western press as a tribute to both the rule of law and a politically mature public's self-control. The partying had gone on into the early hours, with Tusker beer washing down roasted chicken. When it became clear which way the vote was going, residents had rounded up all the local cockerels and slaughtered the 'jogoo', hated symbol of the once-proud KANU, which Moi had promised would rule the country for a hundred years. This morning they were turning up to bear living witness to their own historic handiwork. Up on the dais, an array of African presidents and generals in gold brocade and ribbons sat fanning themselves. Next to them sweltered the diplomats, ham-pink under their panamas. Kenyan VIPs, finding no seats available, sat uncomplaining on the floor, their wives' glossy wraps trailing in the dust.As the timetable slipped by two, then three, four, five hours, the amphitheatre steadily filled. An incongruous aroma of Sunday lunch wafted through the air as thousands of feet crushed the wild garlic growing on the slopes. Nearby trees sagged under the weight of street boys seeking a bird's eye view. An urchin on the rooftop of the podium wiggled his ragged arse to the music from the military band, which, like all the armed forces present, was beginning to lose its nerve. They had rehearsed exhaustively for this event, but had never anticipated these kind of numbers: 300,000? 500,000? Who could count that sea of brown heads? At the start, police horses had plunged and reared as the General Service Unit (GSU), Kenya's dreaded paramilitary elite, attempted to clear the area in front of the dais. They had pushed the crowd back, only for policemen posted on the fringes to push it forward. But as the throng grew, and grew, and grew, the men from the GSU dismounted and quietly joined the onlookers, aware that the best they could hope for now was avoiding a stampede.

Gathered at the front, we journalists had long ago lost our carefully chosen perches and jealously cherished camera angles, swallowed up by the crowd pressing hard at our backs. Pinned against my neighbours, I could feel small hands, fleeting as lizards, fluttering lightly through my pockets in search of money, mobile, wallet. With a heave, I scrambled onto a creaking table where a dozen sweaty photographers and reporters teetered, bitching fretfully at one another – 'Don't move!' 'Hey, head down, you're blocking my shot!' 'Stop pushing!' – a touch of hysteria – 'STOP PUSHING!' The ceremony was now running six hours late. Rather than whipping up the audience, newly elected MPs were appealing for calm from the stage.

A Kenyan reporter next to me rolled the whites of her eyes skywards, gracefully fainted and was passed out over people's heads in the crucifix position, like a fan at a rock concert. I wondered how long it would be before I followed her. People were keeling over left, right and centre, ambulance crews plunging bravely into the throng to remove the wilting bodies.

Finally, amid cheeky cries of 'Speed up! Speed up!', accompanied by 'fast-forward' gestures from the crowd, the ceremony started. An aide walked on bearing a gold-embroidered leather pouffe. This, it turned out, was the Presidential Pouffe, there to prop up the plastered leg of winner Mwai Kibaki, who had survived the years in opposition only to be nearly killed in a campaign car crash. Next came Kibaki himself, his wheelchair carried by eight straining men. The ramp they laboured up had been the topic of a debate which exposed the establishment's nervousness. Frightened of being implicated, at even the most pragmatic level, in this near-inconceivable changing of the guard, jittery officials from the ministry of public works had refused to build the cement slope required, forcing an exasperated army commander to contract the work out to a private firm.

Kibaki was followed by the outgoing Moi, ornate ivory baton clutched in one hand, trademark rosebud in the lapel of a slate-grey suit, face expressionless. Later, it was said the generals had gone to Moi when it became clear which way the election was going and offered to stage a coup. In his prime, his hold on the nation had been so tight, cynics had quipped, 'L'état, c'est Moi'. But the Old Man had waved the generals wearily away, aware such times were past, Kenya was no longer destined to follow such clichéd African lines.

Eyes yellow and unreadable, Moi took his salute and delivered his last presidential speech without a hint of bitterness, hailing the rival by his side as 'a man of integrity'. This former schoolteacher's presidency had been an exercise in formalism, and he was determined to fulfill this last, painful role impeccably. But the mob showed no mercy – those watching the ends of Africa's dinosaur leaders never do. What fun, after a quarter-century of respectful forelock-tugging, to be able to let rip. 'Bye bye,' they jeered. 'Go away.' Others sang: 'Everything is possible without Moi,' a pastiche of the 'Everything is possible with faith' gospel sung in church. In the crowd, someone brandished a sign: 'KIBAKI IS OUR MOSES'.

Then it was Kibaki's turn. It was a moment for magnanimity – peaceful handovers, as everyone present that day knew, should never be taken for granted in Africa. And the seventy-one-year-old former finance minister, an upper-class sophisticate known for the amount of time he spent on the golf course, his lazy geniality, was not built in the vengeful, rabble-rousing mould. So the concentrated anger of his speech had those sitting behind Kibaki blinking in surprise. It offered a sudden glimpse of something raw and keen: a fury that had silently brewed under the suave façade during years of belittlement. Never deigning to mention the man sitting by his side, his former boss, Kibaki dismissed Moi's legacy as worthless. 'I am inheriting a country that has been badly ravaged by years of misrule and ineptitude,' he told the crowd. He warned future members of his government and public officers that he would respect no 'sacred cows' in his drive to eliminate sleaze. 'The era of "anything goes" is gone forever. Government will no longer be run on the whims of individuals.' Then he pronounced the soundbite that would haunt his time in office, destined to be constantly replayed on Kenyan television and radio, acquiring a different meaning every time. 'Corruption,' he said, 'will now cease to be a way of life in Kenya.' Whenever I hear it today, I notice a tiny detail that passed me by as I stood in that sweaty scrum, smeared notebook in hand, mentally drafting the day's article: Kibaki, always a laboured speaker, slightly fumbles the word 'cease'.

Lisped, it comes out sounding very much like 'thief '. The speeches over, the various presidents headed for their motorcades as the security services heaved sighs of relief. The inauguration had been an organisational débâcle, but tragedy had somehow been skirted, as was the Kenyan way. For Moi, one last indignity was reserved. When his limousine drew away, snubbing a long-delayed State House lunch in favour of the helicopter that would whisk him away from the hostile capital and to his upcountry farm, it was stoned by the crowd.

As I climbed down off the table, my bag momentarily became wedged in the mêlée, and hands reached out from the crowd. Remembering the little fingers at work earlier in the morning, I rounded my shoulders and gave my bag an aggressive yank. 'Oh, no, no,madam,' sorrowed a man, knowing exactly what was in my mind. 'Those days are over now in Kenya, this is a new country.' They were reaching out not to mug me but to help me, a member of the international press who had played a tiny part in Kenya's moment of glory by mere dint of witnessing it. 'You will see, this will be our best ever government,' chimed in a smiling student, sweat-soaked T-shirt plastered to his body, and I felt a spasm of shame.

In the days that followed I would often feel ashamed, for my professional cynicism was out of step with the times. There was a tangible feeling of excitement in the air, a conviction that with this election, Kenyans had brought about a virtually bloodless political, social and psychological rebirth, saving themselves from ruin in the nick of time.Many of those who had represented the country's frustrated conscience – human rights campaigners, lawyers and civic leaders who had risked detention, police beatings and harassment in their bid to drag the country into the twenty-first century – were now in charge. Mass happiness blended with communal relief to forge a sense of national purpose.With this collective elation went an impatience with the old ways of doing things. Newspapers recounted with glee how irate passengers were refusing to allow matatu touts to hand over the usual kitu kidogo – that ubiquitous 'little something' – to the fat-bellied police manning the roadblocks, lecturing officers that a new era had dawned. There were reports of angry wananchi – ordinary folk – storming an upcountry police station to demand refunds of bribes paid over the years. In ministries, at City Hall, at the airport, only the very foolish still asked for the customary backhander. Backs were straightened, desks cleared in nervous anticipation of an incoming deputy minister or mayor out to show the TV cameras that he would have no truck with sloth and incompetence. Large signs – 'This is a corruption-free zone', 'No bribes', 'You have a right to free service' – went up in government offices, along with corruption complaints boxes, which swiftly filled up with letters venting grievances that had festered through the decades.

The social contract taken for granted in so many Western countries, barely discernible in Kenya, suddenly began to make itself felt. 'Damn it all,' a Kenyan writer returning from self-imposed exile told me, with the air of a man making a possibly foolhardy concession, 'I'm even thinking of paying tax!' And just in case anyone was in danger of forgetting the past, the NARC government threw open the basements of Nyayo House, an ugly beige high-rise on the corner of Uhuru Highway, in whose dank cells opponents of the Moi regime had been beaten, reduced to drinking their own urine and killed. When Gallup conducted a poll, it found that Kenyans were the most optimistic people in the world, with 77 per cent saying they had high hopes for the future. Reserved and inhibited, Kenyans are sometimes dubbed 'the Englishmen of Africa' because of their refusal to live up to the stereotype of boisterous, carefree Africans. After decades languishing in the grey fug of the Moi regime, they could barely stop smiling.

Copyright © 2009 Michela Wrong. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All Rights Reserved.

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It's Our Turn to Eat
It's Our Turn to Eat

The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower

by Michela Wrong

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