A true reflection of the system

Issue: 126

Ken Olende

Michela Wrong, It’s Our Turn To Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle Blower (Fourth Estate, 2009), £12.99

Kenya was long seen in the West as a stable country where journalists, NGOs and Western businesses could set up their headquarters. In 2002 the long entrenched and notoriously corrupt government of Daniel Arap Moi was finally removed in a remarkable election. Two central features were the degree of public participation and the break from the entrenched “tribalism” that has plagued the country since independence.

The new National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) government appointed former journalist John Githongo to look into “corruption”, reporting directly to the new president, Mwai Kibaki. Githongo took his job very seriously, but he soon ran into a problem. His research into what would become known as the Anglo-Leasing scandal showed that corruption had not stopped dead with the change of government. Some contracts in the Anglo-Leasing deal were signed under the previous Moi government, but some under Kibaki. Githongo was worried that those at the top of the government appeared unconcerned. Corruptly paid money was mysteriously returned, no one was exposed or punished and the case was regarded as closed.

Former Financial Times correspondent Michela Wrong’s book mixes racy reporting of events, that sometimes reads like a spy novel, with more in depth background on the reasons why the participants behaved as they did. It is excellent at balancing the contradictions of a complex and changing society. Wrong is very clear about the specificity of the events she covers, but the pressures apply to many poorer countries. It also gives a solid history of the country, which puts the role of British imperialism centre stage.

What makes it valuable for a more engaged reader is the way it deals with the spread of corruption, the complicity of the West, and the hold of tribalism. The book’s title refers to how the mindset of getting resources for one section of society—usually defined by tribe—is endemic. So many leaders say that when they get their hands on any kind of power it will be their turn to “eat”, rather than doing anything to stop the general graft. A comparison can be made with Northern Ireland, where the Protestants and Catholics are encouraged to regard each other as competing communities who can only get resources for jobs and development at the expense of the other.

This favouritism has concrete results. Wrong reports that “a 1998 survey found that Kalenjin children were 50 percent less likely to die before the age of five than those of other tribes, despite the fact that most lived in rural areas where life is generally tougher” (p56). Predsident Moi was a Kalenjin, and during his time in office Kalenjin areas benefitted from better investment in clinics, schools and roads. For the poor, tribe is a real but unhelpful division. Most Kalenjin continued to live in abject poverty and the long period of Moi’s rule helped Kenya become one of the countries with one of the world’s greatest wealth gaps between rich and poor.

Before long Githongo realised he was being played for a fool. The government, right up to the president, was mired in corruption. Ministers thought they could rely on his tribal loyalty to keep him quiet. Instead he wired himself up to make recordings, got solid evidence against people at the highest level and fled to Britain. He released what he knew and his revelations made the headlines. But very little changed on the ground in Kenya. Neither the government nor investors wanted to look too closely. It was left to ordinary people to admire Githongo’s nerve.

The book’s weakness is its theoretical framework. It accepts the commonsense liberal worldview and therefore ends up with no agency to dispose of corruption beyond those it has undermined. Particularly it fails to see how imperialism—as opposed to colonialism—is still a central factor in the global economy. For instance, Wrong argues, “Scoured by the brisk winds of economic liberalisation in the 1980s, the Kenyan state shrivelled… Although structural adjustment reforms were often met with horrified cries from the like of Oxfam and Christian Aid, the expansion of the private sector, the birth of a vibrant civil society and the blossoming of the media opened up a range of interesting new job opportunities” (p160).

She is arguing that it was liberalisation that allowed space for people like Githongo and the free press that reported him to grow. This argument seems a lot weaker in the case of another whistleblower, David Munyakei, who worked for the Kenyan central bank. His story did not make the international press because he was poor and had no international journalistic contacts, not because he worked in the state sector.

Similarly it is always a mistake to simply equate economic and social liberalisation. The early years of Ghanaian independence after 1957 show that it was quite possible for an African state to become more socially liberal even as the government was taking control of sections of the economy. On the other hand privatisation is not usually accompanied by the growth of a vibrant free press. Economic donors in Kenya demanded social liberalisation because they were worried by the unrest that had grown up alongside the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford) in the early 1990s.

Having accepted these ideas, it is not surprising that Wrong looks to individual solutions to solve Kenya’s problems. She spends time pointing out the limitations of initiatives like Make Poverty History, but proposes weaker alternatives. “Donors should be pouring their money into boring old institutions African regimes have deliberately starved of cash over the years: the police force, judicial system and civil service” (p327). But why would they behave any differently? Wrong rightly points out that none of this will be taken seriously if Western countries don’t take corruption seriously.

The book climaxes not with the publication of Githongo’s revelations, but with the 2007 elections, where all faith in the Narc government had collapsed and the worst features of post-colonial Kenya came to the fore. Impoverished slum dwellers attacked others from a tribe whose wealthy leaders were associated with corruption. The West’s response has tended to reinforce tribal divisions. This is as true of the IMF and the World Bank as the corrupt bribers. Wrong sees a world where capitalism is basically a fair system in which corruption is a distortion, rather than a true reflection, of the way the system operates.

In mid-February 2010 BBC radio news reported an anti-corruption march in Nairobi. Marchers filed past the parliament building calling out “Thieves” and demanding that MPs be sacked. The demonstration was small and might appear insignificant, but demonstrations are rare in Kenya and have in the past been met with brutal police violence.