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Going Too Far


June 9, 2009

The longtime Africa correspondent discusses the Kenyan whistleblower who risked his life to end corruption, why she rejects Dambisa Moyo’s thesis about aid and democracy, and how she learned to love Paul Wolfowitz.

Michela300.jpgOn February 6, 2005, John Githongo appeared at Michela Wrong’s London doorstep, on the run and fearing for his life. Githongo, Kenya’s anti-corruption czar, had done his job too well. Over the past two years, Githongo had uncovered a string of shady procurement deals that led directly to the same ministers who had hired him, including President Mwai Kibaki. In the largest of these, a mysterious British firm called Anglo Leasing was awarded government contracts at hugely inflated prices. When Githongo investigated the company, he was told to back off, eventually discovering that Anglo Leasing did not exist—“Anglo Leasing,” one minister told a stunned Githongo, “is us.” Then the death threats began. Wrong, a long-time Africa correspondent for various British publications and a friend of Githongo’s, had extended the invitation for a London stay at their last dinner together, where Githongo seemed nervous and distracted. That was three months earlier. Now here he was, suitcase in hand, in need of a safe house.

It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower is Michela Wrong’s account of government corruption in Kenya, a book that has been banned in the country it concerns. Wrong uses Githongo’s ordeal to explore the rifts that permeate Kenya today: tribalism, colonialism, western aid, and, of course, corruption. Wrong argues that Kenya’s corrupt culture (a 2001 Transparency International survey found that 31 percent of the average Kenyan’s household income went to paying bribes) is tied directly to tribalism. From tribalism she draws a straight line to Kenya’s colonial past, when the British divided the country into native reserves. These reserves, she says, instilled a sense that Africans outside them were foreigners, and the effects of these divisions are still being felt. With independence in 1963, each successive Kenyan president has enriched his fellow tribesman at the expense of the country. Anglo Leasing, the $750 million procurement scam Githongo uncovered, turned out to be just one more example.

Regarding aid, Wrong assails the current model. She goes far in bolstering economist Dambisa Moyo’s recent contentions that much aid is wasted and, if not targeted smartly, fans the flames of corruption. But she is quick to point out where Moyo is wrong—for instance, in the role democracy must play in rooting out corruption. Wrong gives us accounts of glaring conflicts of interest (the World Bank representative in Kenya, who is responsible for recommending aid allotments, lived on the estate of Kenya’s president), and of beleaguered diplomats—like Britain’s Edward Clay—whose countries refuse to acknowledge the widespread graft while continuing to push for increased aid. For its poor oversight, Wrong accuses the World Bank of “complicity in corruption,” though it may surprise some that Paul Wolfowitz, bank president from 2005 to 2007, had proposed restructuring aid programs to crack down on graft. Wrong argues that ousting him over Iraq was a case of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”; it may have been in Africa’s interest if he had remained president.

All of this plays out against the turbulent Kenyan political scene. It’s Our Turn to Eat begins in 2002 with the transition from the blatantly corrupt Daniel arap Moi regime to the ostensibly honest one of Mwai Kibaki, whose appointment of John Githongo was lauded as a sincere effort to stem the “eating”—Kenyan slang for government thievery. It turned out, however, that Githongo, a former journalist, had been a mere “fig leaf” used to fool the electorate. And though Githongo eventually absconded to England with secret tape recordings of corrupt officials that he made public, Wrong’s book closes not with Kibaki getting his comeuppance, but rather with his victory in the 2007 elections—elections Kibaki rigged, which sparked riots that killed fifteen hundred people.

Covering Africa for fifteen years, Michela Wrong was stationed on the Ivory Coast in the early nineteen nineties by Reuters. Then she moved to Kinshasa, where she covered the fall of Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and post-genocide Rwanda. Between 1995 and 1999, she was based in Nairobi for the Financial Times. She’s been freelancing and writing books about the continent ever since. I recently spoke with Wrong by phone, catching her at the same London flat John Githongo used for safe harbor.

—Jake Whitney for Guernica

Guernica: In your book, you describe the moment when John showed up at your door. You say you suddenly felt like a character in a Hollywood thriller—you began suffering from insomnia, became increasingly paranoid. Did you really fear for your own life as well as John’s?

Michela Wrong: It seems very melodramatic to think in that way. But I was very aware of Kenya’s history, one in which prominent political players have been assassinated in mysterious circumstances: Robert Ouko, who was a minister under Moi; Tom Mboya, who was a great hero of the Luo community; and J.M. Kariuki. And there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that they fell foul of the regimes of their day. But those assassinations took place inside Kenya. So I felt that it was unlikely to happen on British soil. But here in Britain, we’ve had instances of regimes taking people out, such as the Litvinenko poisoning [Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian KGB agent, was poisoned to death with radioactive material in 2006]. So I didn’t feel that an attempt on John’s life [in Great Britain] was entirely impossible.

Guernica: While it’s tempting to view your book as a straight-up political thriller with John as the protagonist, there are such strong themes running through it—tribalism, colonialism, aid, corruption—that in the end it seems your book is not really about John, but rather the root causes of corruption in Africa.

Michela Wrong: My aim was to use John to tell a larger story. Within John were so many important ideas I had come across, not just in Kenya, but working in Congo, working in West Africa. I’d seen the importance of ethnic identity and the way that it’s changing with this new generation. I was also interested in the relationship between citizens and their governments—which so often in Africa are predatory, looting governments that don’t have the citizens’ well being at heart. These were the themes that interested me, and I was using John’s story to discuss them. One very important element is the role of colonialism, which has left very insidious patterns behind. Essentially the story of Kenya has been a story where elites despoil the country for their own benefit. As a British citizen, I’m aware that the first elites to do that were my own compatriots when we colonized Kenya. The pattern you see being reproduced today began in the nineteenth century.

Guernica: Tribalism plays such a central role in Kenyan politics. You mention a discussion in a Nairobi taxicab around the time of the 2008 U.S. presidential election where you expressed doubt about Obama’s chances of winning, and the cabbie said, “So you westerners have problems with Luo, also?” He was referring to the fact that Obama’s father was a member of the Luo tribe. Why is tribalism so entrenched in Kenyan society?

Michela Wrong: A lot of African countries are experiencing a resurgence of ethnic self-awareness, an increasing hypersensitivity to ethnic identity, as Kenya is. The one trend that is leading toward a more cosmopolitan attitude is urbanization; this massive rush to the cities where people tend to mix together, where they date and marry across tribal lines, and are educated next to people from other tribal communities. But against that, you have multi-party democracy. Paul Collier [professor of economics at Oxford] wrote a book that explores how when a political race [in Africa] becomes fierce, then the card that politicians will play is the ethnic card. You’re seeing that now—democratic races where real power is at stake, where it’s not just an aging president handing power over to a successor. So ethnicity is coming through as this very dangerous thread, which is being whipped up by local politicians to get ahead in these increasingly fierce races.

Guernica: You say colonialism is at the heart of it.

Michela Wrong: When you talk to older Kenyans, these old guys will tell you that the British didn’t invent tribal differences; they were always there. But when you talk to historians, they’ll say, “No, the Brits didn’t invent them, but they entrenched them.” The colonial tendency was always to think of Kenyans in these very stereotypical ways: Kalenjins are good at this; Maasais are good at that; you don’t employ someone as a house servant unless it’s a Kamba. So these labels became very rigid, and the trend continued under the black administrations that followed. So it would be wrong to say that the colonial administration invented tribalism. But what crept in under colonialism is that so many of your life chances were going to be determined by which ethnic group you belonged to. And then there were these reserves [that the British created]. So if you were a Kikuyu, you went to the Kikuyu reserve; if you were a Maasai, you went to the Maasai reserve.

Guernica: Here’s a quote from your book: “The new [president] was expected to behave like some feudal overlord, stuffing the civil service with his tribesman, and sacking those from his predecessor’s region.” It almost sounds like you’re making excuses for thievery—saying that these government officials who steal millions in aid and taxpayer money, that it’s not really their fault.

When a political race in Africa becomes fierce, then the card that politicians will play is the ethnic card.

Michela Wrong: I wouldn’t want to say that it’s not their fault. Not every African state was content to just adopt the system left by the departing colonial powers. People often make the comparison between Kenya and Tanzania. Just across the border in Tanzania, you had Julius Nyerere, a president who wanted to create a new nation-state where everyone felt like equal citizens. He wanted to break down ethnic differences, so he imposed Swahili as the national language, created a new capital city called Dodoma, and introduced what ends up being a rather disastrous villigization program. But people who visit Tanzania today, they say it’s like chalk and cheese between Tanzania and Kenya. Nyerere is to be thanked for creating a sense of Tanzanian citizenship that isn’t just based in ethnicity. In Kenya, you hear much talk of national unity and all these national days are celebrated—but it really doesn’t go far into people’s psyches. It’s quite interesting if you read the memoirs by white Kenyans who stayed on after independence. They say that when they met Kenyatta [Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president], it was very apparent that he was a Kikuyu first and president of the nation second. It was all about making sure his Kikuyus did very well in the new nation-state.

Guernica: One of the most tragic things about your book is that the government John exposed as being so corrupt—the government of Mwai Kibaki, who’s still the president of Kenya—was elected on a platform of ending corruption. Kenyans were sick and tired of all the graft. And yet, after John made his revelations public, a large segment of society was furious with him. Was tribalism behind it?

It would be wrong to say that the colonial administration invented tribalism. But what crept in under colonialism is that so many of your life chances were going to be determined by which ethnic group you belonged to.

Michela Wrong: It’s interesting to look at the people who are angry with John. An awful lot of them are members of his own Kikuyu community. There’s a feeling of real paranoia in that community, which was deliberately whipped up before the last elections by its political leaders. There are members of the Kikuyu community who feel that yes, there was corruption—but they don’t ever query whether what John revealed is true. This is what is quite striking. None of them will ever say, “Oh, he made it all up.” Everyone in the Kikuyu community seems to agree that Anglo Leasing was a very greedy scandal. But what they can’t forgive is that John basically ratted on his own people.

Guernica: I recently interviewed Dambisa Moyo, the Zambian-born economist who’s very critical of African aid. You seem to support many of her assertions.

Michela Wrong: I agree with her on some things. She’s good at spotting that aid is intrinsically emasculating, and that it creates an environment in which corruption thrives. And she’s right that aid creates a system where you have a government that doesn’t see itself as accountable to its voters. That certainly has happened in Kenya. But I think Moyo simplifies a lot of things and has forgotten some key elements in these equations. She doesn’t talk much about history, and the Cold War relationship was incredibly destructive of good governments in Africa. Because you had governments—and Kenya was one of them—which knew that as long as they remained on the right side of either the Soviet Union or the Americans—in Kenya’s case, it was the Americans—the aid would just keep flowing. There’s no better way of encouraging abuse than to allow an African leader to know that whatever he does, he’s always going to be seen as the Golden Boy of Washington. Kenya was regarded as a key strategic ally, and until the nineteen nineties, the government there knew that pretty much anything would be tolerated. So I think she’s very good at identifying the sicknesses in the aid relationship. I don’t think she’s much good at suggesting solutions.

Guernica: Do you feel, like Moyo, that all systematic aid to Africa should be stopped?

Everyone in the Kikuyu community seems to agree that Anglo Leasing was a very greedy scandal. But what they can’t forgive is that John basically ratted on his own people.

Michela Wrong: Africa is in pretty dire straits at the moment. In Kenya, there’s a severe drought, and because of all the violence that exploded after the last elections, the economy is really suffering. If you cut all aid to Kenya, people are going to die. So I don’t think that’s a solution. But I will say that aid donors have to look very closely at what they do. If you have a government whose ministers are setting out to steal the equivalent amount of money that they receive in aid, then you have to wonder why western donors are continuing with that relationship. I don’t think the answer is to cut them off, but the answer lies very much in doing what Edward Clay, the British high commissioner of the day, was doing. Which is to be very confrontational, to humiliate these people in public, to call them to account, to deny them visas. The aid relationship needs to be less automatic, less lazy, less complacent, and much more abrasive. And if the Kenyan government of the day doesn’t like it, then they can find their money elsewhere. But if you’re going to hand over western taxpayers’ money to governments that are willing to preside over scams like Anglo Leasing and Goldenberg [the major scandal of the Moi regime], then you’re partly responsible for the explosions of violence that break out. So we can’t carry on lending without asking questions of governments. It’s not responsible. One of the points in my book is that this form of top-level looting eventually leads to violence on the streets because people become very aware that one section of the community is doing strangely well and the rest aren’t.

Guernica: Would you also prescribe more free-market solutions to help Africa’s economy, as Moyo does?

Michela Wrong: Yes, my long-term conviction on Africa is that aid is a plaster; it’s sticking tape. Aid prevents people from dying of starvation. You shouldn’t completely cut it off for that reason. But you won’t rebuild an economy, you won’t save a society, you won’t restructure it through aid. And so in the end, yes, I think [a strong African economy] will come through the private sector. It’s going to come from young Kenyans, who are great entrepreneurs. They’re going to be the people who restructure their society. Aid can help in very minimal ways. It can help by raising educational standards. That is something that I approve of. My country has put a lot of money into Kenyan education. But the Jeffrey Sachs thesis that you can save an entire country or economy through aid, I don’t see any evidence of that.

Guernica: Paul Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank from 2005 to 2007, was on the verge of ushering in a hopeful new era at the Bank with proposals to restructure lending programs to seriously crack down on corruption. These never came to be because Wolfowitz was ousted after it was revealed he signed off on a generous severance package for his girlfriend. Do you think he got a raw deal?

Moyo doesn’t talk much about history, and the Cold War relationship was incredibly destructive of good governments in Africa.

Michela Wrong: He was an example of someone who paid the price for something done in a previous life—revenge for Iraq. I was a great critic of the Iraq war. Maybe it’s fitting that he paid the price for it. But it always seemed that the reason for his sacking was paper-thin. There was a certain community [at the Bank] that just couldn’t stand him and what he represented. I gather he also has a very abrasive and non-collegial way of running organizations. But yes, ironically, I, too, found myself cheering him on. I started out in Kinshasa, Zaire, and my first book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, recounts the incredible relationship between Mobuto Sese Seko and the World Bank. As part of that whole Cold War logic of the day, Mobuto could do anything: steal any amount of money from World Bank coffers, spend any amount of money on his palace in the jungle and his trips on Concorde, and, because he was a strategic ally, the World Bank would nod and smile and give him more aid. So this has gone on an awful long time. We did see some moves to get tougher on corruption before Wolfowitz. But I don’t think it’s gone half as far as it should, and it’s still an issue. I think it’s a very, very cynical role that the World Bank office in many African countries ends up playing. So yes: How I learned to love Paul Wolfowitz (laughs).

Guernica: Do you think it would have been better for Africa if Wolfowitz had remained Bank president?

Michela Wrong: My general impression now is that nobody wants to talk as loudly about the fight against corruption as Wolfowitz did because it’s very much a campaign that’s associated with his doomed era. It’s a very unsexy subject.

Guernica: What about the hypocrisy of the corrupt way he helped sell the Iraq war and yet he’s criticizing African governments for being too corrupt?

Michela Wrong: Yes, and he had alienated all these member states that sit on the World Bank board by being so heavy-handed and so bullying over Iraq. So yes, I imagine they looked at him and said, “Well, why should we listen to you now? You can’t play that game anymore. You’re working in an institution where you need our agreement and our support and you’re not getting it this time.”

Guernica: John Githongo risked his life, his reputation, and lost his girlfriend to expose the Kibaki regime’s corruption. And yet Kibaki ends up retaining his presidency after stealing an election. Was John’s whistleblowing in vain? And if his revelations can’t change things, what can?

Michela Wrong: This is not a happy, Pollyanna story. But I’d say the jury is still out. This is modern history we’re talking about, and it’s changing every day. But yes, you have this depressing scenario where four or five years after Anglo Leasing first came to light, nobody has been prosecuted, there haven’t been any trials, and one of the key ministers involved—Kiraitu Murungi—is back in government, at the energy ministry. So what you have is a system that never punishes cabinet ministers who are caught with their hands in the till. But although there’s not a happy ending at the moment, the positive thing is that everyone is now aware of these things. They are openly discussed in the press. Human rights organizations are writing reports. Anti-corruption groups are campaigning. You have a very healthy civil society. And then you have this sclerotic, poisoned, discredited Kenyan leadership. One can draw encouragement from the fact that the system is breeding its own antibodies. There are more and more people like John standing up and saying “No, we won’t accept this anymore.” One of the points I try to make in my book is that it’s not just John Githongo. He’s a particularly interesting character because he encapsulates many of these themes. But there are a lot of very brave people who are either campaigning journalists or running anti-corruption groups or running human rights groups, and they’re all fighting the good fight in Kenya today.

Guernica: Another argument Moyo makes is that democracy is not needed to squelch corruption, that economic growth can come first, once aid is cut off. In your experience in Africa, how important are freedom of the press and freedom of speech in the fight against corruption?

Michela Wrong: I agree with Moyo that aid can foster corruption by undermining a government’s accountability to its voters. But when John Githongo was working at State House in Kenya, we had the example of a government that was hugely efficient at collecting taxes from its population, was therefore far less reliant on aid, but which still proved to be hugely corrupt. So it’s more complicated than Moyo suggests. She recommends that African governments raise funds on international capital markets, rather than relying on aid, but never considers that the same African leaderships who steal aid money might prove just as skilled at stealing funds raised through capital bonds. One of the points I make in my book is that you won’t get rid of corruption until a society’s tacit acceptance of it—the generalized belief that bribery and nepotism are entirely normal ways of operating—has been challenged by its own citizens. Institutions like a free press, feisty parliament, and vocal civil society groups play a key role in destroying that tacit acceptance. So I reject her thesis.

Guernica: What’s the status of your book in Kenya at the moment? Is it officially banned?

Michela Wrong: The government has said that it’s not banned. But booksellers aren’t selling it because they’re frightened of being sued for libel by the politicians and businessmen discussed. But why would they sue now and not four or five years ago when John’s dossier was first leaked onto the internet? It’s kind of a de facto ban, really, with the booksellers doing the censoring instead of the government. I suspect that behind the booksellers’ positions, some pressure is being applied by the security forces who’ve probably called them and said, “You might not want to sell that book.” But a lot of copies have been taken in from neighboring countries. There’s also a project underway, which USAID has got behind, to distribute five thousand copies. I don’t think anyone’s actually going to be suing because I don’t think anyone involved in Anglo Leasing wants to appear in court.

Moyo never considers that the same African leaderships who steal aid money might prove just as skilled at stealing funds raised through capital bonds.

Guernica: In the book, you describe a meeting John had with Britain’s development ministry in which they dismissed John’s “allegations” about Anglo Leasing. Their attitude was: “This is Africa; it’s always been corrupt.” John described the West’s trend to always push for more aid as “neo-colonial.” It also sounds like straight-up racism.

Michela Wrong: John certainly thinks so. He regards it as racism because he feels that Africans are being held to much lower standards than other people. The expectations are terribly cynical—that whole attitude of “they can’t help themselves.” That’s a racist attitude. And his conviction that this is a form of racism has become stronger with time, not weaker.

Guernica: Where is John now? Is he where you left him in the book—back in Kenya attempting to build a constituency for a run for office?

Michela Wrong: Yes, although he hasn’t been talking about the run at politics. He feels that the time is not right. The political scene in Kenya is in a state of stagnant, febrile indecision with this coalition government that could fall apart at any moment. There’s a huge amount of wrangling between the president and the prime minister, and that’s not something that John wants to get involved with. He’s talking about grassroots activities now. He’s spending a lot of time with ordinary Kenyans in the slums. Everyone in Kenya is saying there’s trouble ahead, and I think he wants to be working with the constituencies where that trouble is likely to bubble up.

Guernica: In the book, various friends and government ministers tell him it wouldn’t be such a good idea to return.

Michela Wrong: He is very careful. He takes a lot of security precautions. He doesn’t go out alone; he has bodyguards. It’s an extremely tense situation. We had two human rights activists gunned down in March on a central street in Nairobi—a street I actually used to live on—five hundred yards from the president’s office in State House. They had been highlighting extra-judicial killings by the police. There’s a feeling in Kenya at the moment that anything’s possible. So it was a very brave decision of John’s to return permanently. It’s a decision that many people would not have taken. I don’t think it’s risk-free by any means.

Photo by Peter Chappell

Editors’ Recommendations:

It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower by Michela Wrong

Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa by Mark Seal

Aiding is Abetting by Jake Whitney

To contact Guernica or Michela Wrong, please write here.

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One comment for Going Too Far

  1. Comment by Ochieng on October 18, 2010 at 10:35 am

    Ms.Wrong,I have just read your interview with Guernica.I am a Kenyan man,living in Arlington,Texas.

    I must say you are a brave woman but more important than that is your keen insight on governance failures in Africa,Kenya in particular.
    John Githongo is a hero to millions of Kenyans for daring to stand upto a corrupt and venal regime.

    Recently,I read your book ” It’s our turn to eat”.I was shocked by the revelations and even more shocked that there are people who hate Githongo for ratting out on his own people.

    I agree with you that booksellers in Nairobi are being intimidated by shadowy characters possibly with links to the authorities into not selling the book.

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