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“It’s Our Turn to East, The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower” by Michela Wrong, A Review

By Andrew Palmer
Feb 11, 2010 – 8:56:52 AM

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pub. Fourth Estate, London, 2009

This important book has recently been issued in paperback, and anyone who has any interest in Africa, the International “Aid” industry and the impact of corruption should read this well-written and researched book.

The central theme of this book is the nature of corruption in Kenya and the story of how John Githongo, who had accepted the position of Permanent Secretary in Charge of Governance and Ethnics in the new administration of President Kibaki and the NARC party.

The NARC (National Rainbow Coalition) government replaced the immensely corrupt administration of President Daniel arap Moi, and the KANU party and ended its 39 years in power. During his inauguration at Uhuru Park, Nairobi, on the 30th December 2002, President Kibaki said, “I am inheriting a country that has been badly damaged by years of misrule and ineptitude” and warned that he would respect no sacred cows in the drive to eliminate sleaze. He added that, “Corruption will now cease to be a way of life in Kenya.” Michela Wrong adds, “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’.”

However, this book is not really about John Githongo, although the author provides a detailed account of his life and the factors which lead him to expose the corruption of President Kibaki’s team. It is also not wholly about Kenya, rather she uses the facts which John Githongo exposes to weave a tale which involves the aid policies of western governments, and the actual indifference of governments, like Britain’s, to corruption. Then at the end of the book she interweaves the events of the 2008 Kenyan election, which was rigged by the NARC, to make the case that corruption undermines the entire system and that once politicians start “eating”, to use the Kenyan expression, there is no clear point at which they can stop, and stealing elections is merely another milestone on the road of duplicity, which they chose when they came into power.

It is wise to see this book as unveiling a series of onion skins; NARC corruption, then tribalism, the international complicity, then the loss of the rule of law and the markers along the road to civil conflict and ultimately to the status of a failed state. Kenya has not yet moved to that destination, but as Michela Wrong notes towards the end of this book:

“’The reason Al Qaeda came here in the 1990s wasn’t for the scenery; [US] Ambassador Bellamy told me. ‘If you can lie your way through immigration, if you can get your goods through customs, if you can induce law enforcement to turn the other way, if you can sort out your legal problems with a few attorneys and judges, if you can launder your money and invest in legitimate businesses, well, why wouldn’t you come to Kenya?’ And if Al Qaeda found Kenya a congenial environment, thanks to the ease with which officialdom could be bought, then so did global criminal syndicates, drug traffickers and warlords wanted by international war crimes tribunals. In the final stretch of his own posting, Bellamy had reached the same stage of hair-tearing exasperation as [former UK High Commissioner] Edward Clay before him. ‘The raid on the Standard was the nadir. It’s like watching a Greek tragedy, in which the protagonists are doomed from the start to take the wrong stand at every turn.’ The country had become a land of opportunity for the international underworld. Later that year, British Foreign Office minister Kim Howells revealed that Kenya had become a major transit point for drugs traded on British streets, with nearly a dozen domestic drugs seizures proving to have Kenyan links. Those at the top had bent the rules so often they could no longer tell the difference between the legal and the illicit.”

Corruption is a slippery slope, as has often been noted. It’s easy to start on the course, but once started there is no obvious off-ramp. Corruption literally undermines states, talk about deploying military forces to “deal with” failed states, like Somalia and Afghanistan, may be a commonplace of Washington briefings, but the reality is that the integrity of states requires boring things like good governance, an honest police force, and the acceptance that no one is above the law, no matter what their position, or their ethnic background, or social position.

Michela Wrong & John Githongo

This is a lesson that western states, not only African states, need to remember. It is western companies that, in the main, pay huge bribes for the sale of aircraft, military equipment and massive projects. Yet, Tony Blair was happy to stop the UK authorities pressing corruption charges against BAe, in respect of its Saudi Arabian activities, because this was “not in the public interest”. The billions of pounds, dollars and euros taken by African leaders from their people are not placed in banks in Africa, instead it finds its home in London and Zurich, and in the other great financial centres of the west, and western lawyers and accountants are more than ready to accommodate their African clients.

As Michela Wrong writes:

“Donors would do better focusing on removing the beam form their own eye, by targeting the Western companies, lawyers’ chambers and banks which make it possible for crooked African leaders to spirit hundreds of millions of dollars out of the continent each year. Deepak Kamani and his brother Rashmi, suspected of involvement in a dozen Anglo Leasing contracts, regard Britain as a second home.”

The experience of John Githongo, as Michela Wrong makes clear, tells us lessons about the wider world, not only about the realities of modern Kenya. If we see political corruption as a specific African problem, which we need no concern ourselves with, arguing that this has always been the case and that the money will slowly trickle down to the poor we are ignoring the facts, as Michela Wrong makes clear. President Kibaki’s administration has ensured that the main beneficiaries of the corruption that affects Kenya so profoundly, are a relatively small group of men from the Kikuyu tribe; as she says, writing about the violence that erupted after the 2008 election:

“Some Western reports wrote of ‘atavistic tribal tensions’ bubbling to the surface, implying the hostility between Kenya’s communities was a mindless, irrational thing. But under a system which decreed that all advancement was determined by tribe, such hostility was entirely rational. Had all Kenyans believed that they enjoyed equal access to state resources, there would have been no explosion. As Bill Clinton said in another context: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’

This violence was horribly up-close and personal. In Korogocho, Mathare, Dandore and Kibera, neighbour raped neighbour, husband murdered wife, schoolmate killed schoolmate.”

Michela Wrong draws the chain of causation clearly, the killings in 2008 have their origins in the corruption of the NARC government, and the way in which the Kikuyus running that government ensured that they and their community benefitted at every opportunity. She says, “It was other’s turn to now share John Githongo’s revelation. ‘People are beginning to realise it’s not a question of Kibaki being misled by hardliners around him,’ one investment expert told me. ‘He is the hardliner’.” She describes how Kenya divided itself in 2008 on the basis of tribe:

“Even the health system showed signs of Balkanisation, with ODM supporters checking into hospitals where they were sure not to be treated by Kikuyu staff. The voluntary zoning, first symptom of national disintegration, took place to begin with irrespective of class and income.

Kenya’s crisis could be encapsulated in a single archetypal image: a Toyota pick-up, piled high with mattresses, a chest of drawers in one corner, bed frame in the other and a medley of pots, pans and plastic bowls in between.”

Look north to Somalia and you can see where such a process can lead.

It’s obviously worth also understanding the details of Kenyan corruption, the way in which KANU had benefitted from the Goldenberg scam and the Anglo Leasing scandal which was the vehicle by which the NARC party followers enriched themselves, a scandal which John Githongo slowly revealed and documented. The author says that the essence of Kenyan corruption was that well “only a tiny elite got obscenely rich on the back of it”, many others benefitted from a wider distribution of “gifts by the corrupt.

The author records in detail how John Githongo was reluctant to believe that the President himself was involved in schemes like Anglo Leasing, and regularly briefed Kibaki on the progress of his investigations. Finally it became clear to him that a small group of men around the President, whose activities were well-know to Kibaki, were responsible for corruption on a huge scale. John, himself a Kikuyu, was expected to allow his tribe to “eat” from the trough. Michela Wrong writes:

“As he stumbled on lie after lie, John continued briefing the president on what he was learning. On the morning of 18 June [2004], noting that Kibaki seemed in high spirits, John decided the time had come to make his pitch. Circumstantial evidence kept pointing to the same players, he told the president over breakfast. Given the shambolic nature of Kenya’s judicial system, the matter could not safely be left to the law. A political gesture was necessary; heads must roll.

He had overreached himself. Looking across at the man he admired, John caught an expression he had never seen before: Kibaki seemed, well, sheepish. Like a boy caught with his hand in a biscuit tin. The president urged John to slow down.”

The Anglo Leasing scandal showed that Kenyans needed to take no lessons from the Nigerians when it came to organizing scams. This involved, as far as John knew, eighteen separate deals for equipment and services supplied by a company with a Liverpool address, as the author says:

“It didn’t take a genius to work out what was really going on. The Anglo Leasing contracts were a crude device for extracting large wads of money from the Kenyan treasury. Where the funds would eventually end up was anyone’s guess, but it was safe to assume they would be split between those in government who authorised the deals and the entrepreneurs who provided the necessary camouflage by setting up a range of respectable-sounding shell companies and credit provider – ‘looting pipes’, John called them.”

John Githongo

What this book also makes clear, apart from the ease with which the incoming NARC administration were able to mirror the corruption of their predecessors, if not surpass it, was the fact that international donor organizations were, in the main, indifferent to reports of corruption, despite public statements to the contrary. The anger with which the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) greeted the attempts of the UK High Commissioner to Kenya, Sir Edward Clay, to highlight the problem of corruption, shows that the imperative of such organizations was to meet distribution targets to “help Africa”, rather than ensure that the money was honestly spent. Other organizations, including the World Bank, took a similar line. As Michela Wrong says:

“DfID had promised the British electorate, and the rest of the G8, that it would massively increase aid. But once you subtracted oil- and mineral- rich African states that didn’t need foreign aid, then removed those who were undoubtedly dirt-poor but whose governments were considered beyond the pale, the list of governments meeting the criteria for partnership became embarrassingly short. ….

Small wonder, given these various factors, that DfID in 2004 had little appetite for the antics of a high commissioner who appeared to have launched a personal; crusade against government venality in a key African ally. ‘They found it an embarrassing obstacle, because it got in their way of their plans to spend more,’ says Clay. ‘They found it unpalatable to have an ambassador who had a high-profile role on it and was not going to pipe down’.”

In short this book uncovers a series of issues, like a set of Russian dolls, you open one and another is inside. I feel that you cannot afford not to read this book, even if Kenya is not your first interest. It deals with the relationships of states and the effects of corruption in undermining the values by which states need to be governed, if they are to retain the allegiance of their citizens and maintain their integrity. The dangers of corruption are, as Michela Wrong so clearly points out, that, “Corruption can reach a point – …. where an entire nation is there for the taking, where sleaze has security implications not just for the nation concerned, but for its neighbours and allies.” If you are interested in the process by which states fail this book signposts the route they take.

Finally, once you have read this book, and understood the role of western donors and financial institutions in facilitating corruption in Africa, you will no longer be able to claim that Africans are institutionally corrupt, the greedy politicians and businessmen work hand in hand with westerners; this is a global problem, not merely an African one. Western governments also have skeletons in their cupboards, they may just be better at hiding them: we need more John Githongos, in London, Paris, Bonn and Washington.

I should also mention the excellent review of “It’s Our Turn to Eat” in the New York Review of Books (14th January 2010) by Jeffrey Gettleman, “East Africa: The Most Corrupt Country.”

Joshua Hammer also reviewed the book July 2009 in The New York Times –

“It’s Our Turn to Eat” is available from and

About Andrew Palmer (275 Articles)
Book by Andrew Palmer explores today's fundamental & systemic problems of the world. Proposes a framework for understanding the forces that are driving change.

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