Former Kenyan Official Says Graft Widespread

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Kenya's former anti-corruption czar, John Githongo, took office in 2003 with hopes of cleaning up a notoriously corrupt system. Instead, he fled for his life last year. Farai Chideya speaks with Githongo about corruption in Kenya.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is News and Notes. I'm Farai Chideya in for Ed Gordon.

In his 2002 campaign, Kenyan president, Mwai Kibaki vowed, quote ”Corruption will now cease to be a way of life in Kenya.” But since the reformer took power, allegations of corruption have racked his administration and forced the departure of two government ministers. Few critics have been more outspoken than the former anti-corruption czar, Kibaki himself appointed. John Githongo was an investigative journalist and head of Transparency International before he took the anti-corruption post in 2003.

But he soon realized his role was little more than window dressing, for a government as corrupt as the one it had replaced. Githongo fled Kenya in January 2005, fearing for his life. He has since gone public with a laundry list of government graft allegations, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. I recently spoke with Githongo, and he says the scandal has infuriated voters who elected Kibaki to clean up Kenyan Politics.

Mr. JOHN GITHONGO (Former Anita-Corruption Czar, Kenya):

One has to keep in mind the shear scale of the victory that was won by the opposition, against the former ruling party that was headed by Daniel arap Moi--its about 70 Percent. So, it was an overwhelming mandate for reform. Kenyans wanted change. They stood in the hot sun and voted for change.

CHIDEYA: Now you have unearthed evidence that there were these shell companies, faked goods, hundreds of millions of dollars in payments for things that were never delivered to the Kenyan people. Tell us what you found.

Mr. GITHONGO: One of the most fascinating realizations for me was the ease with which the brokers of corruption from the previous administration--who really should have been persona non grata for reformist administration--we found were still actively doing business with our government. And the scam was simple. Was essentially, create a fictitious company which purports to deliver goods or services to the Kenya government. The dummy company creates an affiliate, which tends to be a financing company or bank which then lends money to the Kenya government. So, the Kenya government is ripped off twice. First, in the bogus loan for which you pay interest, and secondly--either because You're paying an inflated price for goods--or you're paying for goods that are never delivered at all.

CHIDEYA: Do you believe that this scandal goes all the way to the president?

Mr. GITHONGO: I think that there was a fundamental lack of political will to address this issue, in a serious way, at the very top. Otherwise, I would not have resigned my position.

CHIDEYA: You didn't just resign your position. You left the country. What prompted you to leave?

Mr. GITHONGO: By that time it was clear that my position was untenable, and that the issues that I was inquiring into, reached as close to the top as they could reach. And since nothing was going to be done about them, and I wasn't planning to back down in their regard, the best thing for me to do was depart. I had received an assortment of warnings, that if I continued on the path that I was pursuing, that some physical harm could come to me. And that informed the actions that I subsequently took in terms of leaving the country, spending some time preparing, and then moving forward.

CHIDEYA: You were an investigative journalist, and recently in Kenya we saw newspapers burned, journalists threatened--some of the worst government crack-downs on reporters in the country--in perhaps, the modern history of the country. What was going on there, and is the president responsible for the turn against Kenyan journalists?

Mr. GITHONGO: Kenyan media is the primary mobilize of public opinion against corruption in Kenya. We have a highly sophisticated media, and it is really, for a long time, was the primary vehicle of political accountability in Kenya--in a situation where many of the institutions that would of held politicians to account, really didn't work. It was the media that played this role. The recent attacks on the Kenya Television Network and the standard newspapers, was an outrageous, and also an unprecedented act, and a low point really in terms of government/media relations in Kenya. President had made no apology for this attack, so one presumes that this happened very much with his acceptance and with his acknowledgement that it was the right thing to do, which is extremely unfortunate.

However, I think that the positive side to this is that, one gets the feeling that the Kenyan media have not been cowed by this action, despite the very bizarre and outrageous manner in which it was conducted. One gets the feeling that Kenyan media remains steadfast, and doesn't plan to lift its foot off the pedal of the fight against corruption.

CHIDEYA: Well, the Kenyan media certainly had been instrumental in echoing the investigation that you launched, and now I'm sure, that the countries newspapers and television stations are very concerned with the drought that's going on. It's one of the worst draughts on record. There have been stories, even in the U.S. papers, of Masai herdsman loosing some of their flock because they simply can't find enough water and food for them. At the same time, because of this ongoing corruption investigation, will the country be penalized by the international aid community? Will it become impossible for Kenyan's who are in trouble to actually get aid, because the funders don't believe that the aid will reach the people?

Mr. GITHONGO: Well, I hope not, Farai. I think that one has to know the distinction between non-development aid--aid which goes to the government to fund different government projects--and in humanitarian aid, which goes into helping with the famine; you know, helping with natural disasters; helping with HIV/AIDS pandemic in a country like Kenya. I would like to think that they'll get distinction drawn and that assistance is still given to deal with the famine.

CHIDEYA: Let's look at Kenya in terms of the continent. There have been so many corruption scandals in so many countries. You have, right now South Africa, Nigeria, other nations embroiled in corruption scandals, ministers resigning, and there have been many different analysis of why corruption is a persistent problem in African continent politics. Certainly, no country's exempt from it, but you have some theories about relationships between people and the cities who may go into government jobs and their families and the country. What do you think may be the persistent source of pressure on people to involve themselves in a system that is already corrupt?

GITHONGO: You know, one of the most commonly used excuses to justify the levels of corruption one finds in Africa, is just that the extended family, the tribal and ethnic affiliations, that when one gets a good job and opportunity, they are automatically become a patron for their relatives and for their wider ethnic group. I would like to think, Farai, that, that is no longer true, and in places where it is, that is what we should be moving away from in Africa.

Africa is urbanizing very rapidly. A majority of Africans are young, are below the age of twenty-one, and many of these relationships that one would say upheld sway and may have led some of these tendencies. I don't think they are as sound as it's made out to be. I am also very uncomfortable with cultural arguments for corruption.

There are those that say that, we in Africa, there has been a culture of gift giving. For example, that if one visits somebody, deliver a gift. If the chief performs some service to you, you would deliver some sort of gift, and that bribery has grown quite naturally out of this and has made the modern state dysfunctional. I don't believe this. I don't think that any cultural particularities to Africa that make corruption more pervasive in Africa than other places.

What's unique about corruption in Africa is the fact that, often it is a small elite that is disproportionately looting resources from the state for itself, in a situation where you already have extremely stark economic inequalities--where wealth is concentrated in a very, very small number of people, and where the vast majority of people live in grinding poverty.

Now, that small elite often demonstrates very conspicuous consumption that is really quite offensive, but will capture the attention, not only of Africans, but of the entire world. Somebody like Mobutu Sese Seko…

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you something to follow up on this. It strikes me that one of the more interesting kind of news developments in the past couple years around corruption on the continent has been the role of Swiss bankers in shielding these assets, and now they're trying to create some transparency in their own banking system. What needs to happen--do you have any theories about what needs to happen in terms of places to hide the money? If there's all this money being skimmed from various governments, there's got to be places to hide it. Will there eventually be some ways to prevent this kind of large scale corruption from being feasible in a banking system?

Mr. GITHONGO: That's a very good question. I think that the experience of the Swiss banking sector, as a result of the manner in which the resources of the Holocaust victims were used by the Swiss banking system, had a huge reverberating effect throughout that system, which is, I think, a positive effect. I think with regard to Africa, what I have to say, that especially in grand corruption--the corruption that sees the misappropriation of hundreds of millions of dollars, especially from countries that have serious extractive industries like oil and gold, et cetera--the serious grand corruption in those countries can not take place without the facilitation of key players in the West in the service sector—bankers, lawyers, accountants, et cetera--in the West, who are very integral to architecture of the corporate entities that are created to facilitate this looting.

And one of the things that is happening, you know, in countries like the United Kingdom--and I would like to think here in the U.S., as well--is an increasing liberal scrutiny of the role of the service sector in facilitating corruption in Africa. And I think that this is a positive development, and one would like to see it accelerated.

CHIDEYA: You're just 40 years old. You have any number of paths ahead of you that you could take in life, but reporters are starting to ask if you have designs on the Kenyan presidency yourself. Do you?

Mr. GITHONGO: No, no. Farai, I am currently a senior associate member at Oxford University. I'm very comfortable. It's a quiet existence, much more quiet than I had before. And you know, I've seen politicians close up, and what I saw wasn't very edifying. I will spend a bit more time thinking about them and writing about them, before thinking of taking the plunge into such a murky pool.

CHIDEYA: John Githongo served as Kenya's anti-corruption czar from 2003 until he fled the country in January of 2005. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. GITHONGO: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Coming up next, Muhammad Ali sells the rights to his name and his image for $50 million. And, Dave Chapelle opens up about why he walked away from his wildly popular TV show. We'll discuss these topics and more on our roundtable, up next.

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