IN January 2003, Kenya—seen as the most stable country in Africa—was hailed as a model of democracy after the peaceful election of its new president, Mwai Kibaki.

By appointing respected long-time reformer John Githongo as anticorruption czar, the new Kikuyu Government signalled its determination to end the corrupt practices that had tainted the previous regime. Yet only two years later, Githongo himself was on the run, having discovered that the new administration was ruthlessly pillaging public funds.

“Under former President Moi, his Kalenjin tribesmen ate. Now it’s our turn to eat,” politicians and civil servants close to the President told Githongo. As a member of the Government and the president’s own Kikuyu tribe, Githongo was expected to cooperate. But he refused to be bound by ethnic loyalty. Githongo had secretly compiled evidence of official malfeasance and, at great personal risk, made the painful choice to go public. The result was Kenya’s version of Watergate.

Michela Wrong’s book is an account of how a pillar of the establishment turned whistle-blower, becoming simultaneously one of the most hated and admired men in Kenya, in a gripping political thriller. At the same time, by exploring the factors that continue to blight Africa—ethnic favouritism, government corruption, and the smug complacency of Western donor nations—It’s Our Turn to Eat probes the very roots of the continent’s predicament. It is a story that no one concerned with our global future can afford to miss.

When tribal mayhem erupted in Kenya following the 2008 elections, most observers were stunned. Kenya was considered Africa’s brighter spot. It held multi-party elections, had a solid economy, had never experienced a dictator like Idi Amin in next-door Uganda or descended into chaos like Somalia to the north. What, then, explained the madness of men with machetes and broken bottles slashing and pummelling men, women and children from other tribes? In a word, corruption.

When John Githongo was named anti-corruption tsar in 2002, by Kenya’s new president Mwai Kibaki, the country was almost giddy with hope. Kibaki had promised to clean up corruption in a nation where the ordinary citizen paid around 16 bribes a month to the police or some Government agency. Githongo was the perfect man for the job, and he attracted bright young idealists like himself to work with him. Government workers began inundating him with evidence of fraud and corruption.

There was enough low-hanging rotten fruit to keep his office busy for years. But Githongo knew he had to take on his own tribe, the Kikuyu, if the “it is our turn to eat” mentality was to change. The first President after independence was a Kikuyu, Jomo Kenyatta, and the Kikuyu grew rich. After Kenyatta’s death, anti-Kikuyu tribes joined forces and Daniel Arap Moi became President. He was a Kalenjin. Kalenjin politicians bought Mercedes, their wives shopped abroad. The Kikuyu, desperate to get to the trough again, persuaded other anti-Kalenjin tribes to join with them, and the Kikuyu Kibaki was elected.

Githongo’s target was Anglo Leasing and Finance Company Ltd. Registered in Britain, it had 18 contracts with the Kenyan government for the supply of everything from a forensic laboratory to a navy frigate and jeeps: 16 percent of the Government’s expenditure in 2003-04 went to Anglo Leasing. The company was no more than a street address in Liverpool. The American Ambassador, William Bellamy, said that the amount of money siphoned off was enough to supply every HIV-positive Kenyan with antiretroviral drugs for 10 years.

Michela Wrong, author of the acclaimed book In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo, is an exceptionally talented writer. She compares Kenya’s corruption to a huge garbage dump that has grown higher and higher over the years. “Each stratum has a slightly different consistency - the garbage trucks brought mostly plastics and cardboard that week, perhaps, less household waste and more factory refuse - but it all smells identical, letting off vast methane sighs as it settles and shifts.”

This is one of those rare books that deliver more than the title suggests. It is more than a story about a whistleblower, and more than about Kenya. It could have been written anywhere where corruption is endemic, and Wrong disposes of some general myths.

One is the refrain that the President is an honest, upstanding, God-fearing man; he’s not corrupt, it’s his undisciplined children. “In countries where Presidents have done their best to centralise power,” Wrong writes, “altering constitutions, winning over the army and emasculating the judiciary, the notion that key decisions can be taken without their approval is laughable.”

She also drives home this usually overlooked reality: for every corruptee, there is a corruptor. Or: “For every minister trousering a bribe, there had to be a western company ready to pay it.” Not just Western companies. Indeed, they are constrained by anti-bribery laws, however weakly enforced, while Chinese, Korean and Japanese companies pay huge bribes with impunity.

Further, Wrong makes depressingly clear that corruption in the developing world is aided and abetted by donor governments and the World Bank. Reflecting what she calls the bank’s “moral myopia”, the World Bank director in Kenya, Makhtar Diop, rented his spacious house from President Kibaki. Even when confronted with the full extent of the Anglo Leasing scandal, Diop in effect did nothing. His successor, Colin Bruce, continued to rent from the President and, despite evidence that the polls had been rigged in the 2008 election, assured his bosses in Washington that his landlord was the legitimate President of Kenya. Bruce was promoted to Director for Strategy and Operations in Africa.

Wrong praises Britain’s High Commissioner in Kenya, Edward Clay. When his quiet diplomacy with the Kenyan leaders failed, Clay delivered a speech to the British Business Association of Kenya: “We never expected corruption to be vanquished overnight,” he said about the transition from Moi to Kibaki. “We hoped it would not be rammed in our faces. But it has ... They may expect we shall not see, or notice, or will forgive them a bit of gluttony, but they can hardly expect us not to care when their gluttony causes them to vomit all over our shoes.” The speech had a profound impact - not on the Government, but on the Kenyan people. Matatu drivers cheered Clay, policemen waved him through traffic and shoeshine boys joked “Five shillings for shoeshine, 10 for vomit”.

In general, Githongo’s well-documented exposé of the Anglo Leasing corruption was treated with disdain by Kikuyus, who felt he had betrayed his own, and passively accepted by donors. Only the Netherlands froze aid.
Clay believed that, by failing to act forcefully, Britain and other donors “had set the worst possible precedent, not only for Africa, but to the recipients of British aid across the globe”, Wrong writes. “If the donors were not going to make an example of Kenya over Anglo Leasing, it is hard to see when they would ever get tough.” And in that depressing conclusion lies the larger story.

‘Now It’s Our Turn To Eat’ is currently available at the local bookshops across Windhoek and at the Office the Prime Minister’s new NIPAM library. PF