'Traitor' who stayed true to Kenya

Saturday February 14 2009

Former President Mwai Kibaki’s anti-corruption advisor, John Githongo. Photo/FILE

Former President Mwai Kibaki’s anti-corruption advisor, John Githongo. Photo/FILE 

By PARSELELO KANTAI

A few weeks after Narc came to power, I was asking a civil society friend what line his organisation was going to take with the new government.

The NGO he worked for had spent the 1990s agitating against the abuses of the Moi government, pushing for constitutional reform, promoting civic education and so on.

My friend, like me, was in his early 30s.

He had graduated from the University of Nairobi in the mid-1990s with a law degree but turned his back on a potentially lucrative law career.

He would have done well: He had that quiet intensity of the boardroom lawyer, and liked his cuff-linked white shirts and dark suits.

Instead, he had plunged into civil society, and soon devoted himself to the art of producing carefully irreverent analyses on the madness of the time.

He was not a mass-action man, did not put himself in the path of GSU batons and teargas, and you rarely saw him at those Chester House press conferences stridently demanding Moi’s departure.

His work was incremental rather than revolutionary.

Papers, pamphlets, workshops, cross-sectoral networking — this was his terrain: That invisible but essential part of the infrastructure that had developed to challenge the Moi system.

Now we were standing at the edge of a new era, at the main bar in the Nairobi Serena hotel. A constitutional expert was going to speak, over a donor-funded dinner, about the future of the Bomas process. The talk was preceded by a cocktail.

There was a smattering of reform luminaries, the old warriors from the Ufungamano and Bomas meetings.

But many of those invited had chosen to skip the event. The struggle was already beginning to feel hazy, sepia-toned, historical.

With Moi just weeks gone, attention had now turned to that familiar Kenyan game: The jostling for positions.

For many young people who had spent the 1990s as activists, Narc represented an opportunity for both personal and professional advancement.

There was a feeling among some that the age of anti-establishment criticism had ended with Moi’s departure.

Many prominent activists who had spent their 20s and 30s in a kind of perpetual anti-establishment adolescence saw the coming of the Narc era — an era that they had midwifed — as a kind of rite of passage, a time to grow up.

Maybe it was with this in mind that my friend answered my question about his organisation’s direction: “Well, it’s quite difficult. We’ll continue to watch these guys, but you know many of us are expecting phone calls.”

The phone call and the expected appointment did not come for him. We lost touch. I later heard he had left for a job in Geneva. For many other activists, the call did come, and with it began the process of civil society co-optation into the Narc government.

This is roughly the point at which Michela Wrong opens her riveting account of John Githongo’s life, It’s Our Turn To Eat: The story of a Kenyan whistleblower.

Githongo’s appointment as anti-corruption advisor to President Mwai Kibaki was heralded as a sign of the Kibaki government’s determination to fight corruption.

In those heady days following Narc’s victory, few suspected any ulterior motives.

After all, John Githongo was the face of the anti-corruption crusade in Kenya. A journalist and the founder director of Transparency International-Kenya, Githongo came with impeccable credentials.

Wrong, who was based in Nairobi at the time, working as the Financial Times regional correspondent, and had already become a close friend of Githongo’s, witnessed first-hand Kibaki’s inauguration in front of a crowd one-million strong at Uhuru Park.

Having reported on Kenya in the last decade of Moi’s rule, she too was swept up by the promise of Kenya’s rebirth, temporarily suspending her reporter’s cynicism to believe that after years of misrule, Kenya’s a-ha! moment had come.

Like many people who know Githongo, she had been deeply impressed by the man — not just his overwhelming physical presence (she and her foreign correspondent colleagues began to call him “the Big Man”) but by his charisma, idealism and breadth of vision.

But she was dismayed by Githongo’s elevation into Kibaki’s inner circle and even recalls trying to dissuade him. She had seen many bright African idealists who embraced the system they had once criticised later being consumed by it.

It would be very easy at this point for Wrong to revert to foreign correspondent mode.

After all, the literature of the foreign correspondent is almost a genre in itself.

Invariably autobiographical, with the anonymous natives on their harsh, unpredictable terrains forming a canvas on which the author seizes on an obscure event and navigates a personal adventure from shanty city to rural pastoral before heading to the airport and back to Europe.

In between, s/he encounters familiar stereotypes: The bungling, whisky-swilling politician, bloated by ego and corruption; the ever smiling, ever faithful Juma of a servant; the inscrutable warlord, modern noble savage, and the wide-eyed victims as ignorant of the unfolding events as is, perhaps, the writer.

These books fall somewhere between libel and magical realism.

Real events are soft-focused as the writer reaches for a Conradian narrative of dread and strangeness, war and primitive peace. In the end, the objective is always the same: The reinforcement of Africa as an impossible “other” to the sophistication and solidity of the West.

Wrong failed to succumb to the temptation.

Piecing together the events that forced Githongo to resign and take refuge in her London flat from three years of interviews with him, his family, friends, critics and others, Wrong tells a tale that is in parts biographical, spy story, memoir and contemporary political history.

Many will be familiar with the basic facts of the story, and much of the incriminating evidence she presents — some of it taken from Githongo’s infamous “wires” — against Kibaki and his cronies is already public.

But the story has never been told like this. John’s co-optation into the circles of power had begun long before his elevation to government.

His father Joe Githongo was an accountant who, by the late 1960s, had set up his own firm — the first African accounting firm — and counted among his clients the Kenyatta family.

In fact, John’s appointment as President Kibaki’s anti-corruption advisor was engineered by some of Joe Githongo’s friends including Joe Wanjui, Harris Mule and George Muhoho, the first two also doubling up as board members of TI-Kenya.

Githongo Snr and Wanjui had founded the organisation in the mid-1990s, after years of business frustration from the Moi government.

It is this enmeshed nature of the associations around John that makes the drama so compelling.

The relationships themselves are typical of the narrative of the “firsts” – First Family, first doctor/lawyer/engineer/PhD holder, first millionaire — the network of families, friends and clients that formed the bedrock of the Kenyatta-era elite.

Wrong describes an encounter at a party with a young Kenyan woman who tells her that among the Kenyan elite there is one degree of separation — from each other and from the inner circle of power.

It was never truer than with John.

He went to school at St Mary’s Nairobi, favoured by the first families and counted among his schoolmates the likes of Uhuru Kenyatta, Gideon Moi, President Kibaki’s sons, and others, including former Kibaki personal assistant Alfred Gitonga and Jimmy Wanjigi, both of whom would be implicated in the Anglo Leasing scam.

At the heart of the book is a question:

“What makes a law-abiding functionary… lift his or her nose above the daily grind and turn sneak, risking exposure, prosecution and dismissal?”

In attempting to answer it, Wrong finds herself on a journey into the political economy of tribalism, and specifically the tribal patronage that informed the corruption of the Kibaki administration.

It’s a subject that Kenyan writers and journalists have always been afraid to mention in print.

At the height of the post-election crisis, a popular columnist finally broke the mould and named tribes specifically; 45 years after Uhuru and three major rounds of ethnic clashes later, it was a first.

But it would not last. The media swiftly retreated behind the hypocritical policy that mentioning tribes by name would foment ethnic violence.

Wrong understands that only by going into the mouth of ethnicity can she understand the logic of “eating.”

None of this will be new to the Kenyan reader.

It is when this history is brought into the context of the Narc era — and the almost inexorable build-up to the post-election violence — that the business of tribal animosity becomes so chilling.

In an interview with the BBC on the day that he released the recordings of Kiraitu Murungi urging him to “go slow,” Githongo described himself as a traitor. “I am a traitor to my tribe,” he said.

In a sentence, he had summarised everything: The real motive for his appointment as anti-corruption czar, and the sense, first of bafflement and then of anger and more among his government colleagues when he persisted with his investigation into Anglo-Leasing.

And more than a year after he had gone into exile, the “tribe” was still cajoling him to “go slow.” In 2005, just before the Constitutional Referendum, he received two visitors — a Cabinet minister and a major in intelligence. They met for dinner at a restaurant in Oxford.

When Githongo failed to heed the pleas by the visitors to keep quiet about Anglo Leasing, the visitors lost their tempers and left. Between 2005 and 2007, he would receive several such delegations, each of them leaving baffled by his stubbornness.

The miscalculation they made was fundamental. They assumed that Githongo’s loyalties lay first and foremost with the tribe.

They failed to understand — and this is the point Wrong makes — that Githongo, for all his privilege and connectedness, identified himself with a much wider constituency: Kenya. In the Narc era, as the politics grew increasingly polarised along ethnic lines, this was puzzling.

It’s difficult to say what the effect of It’s Our Turn to Eat will be.

Books on transition periods in Kenya have always caused ripples.

I am thinking of Philip Ochieng and Joseph Karimi’s The Kenyatta Succession, which documented the ethnic jostling at the sunset of the Kenyatta years.

Whatever else Michela Wrong has done, in refusing to flinch at the enormous and controversial material that landed on her doorstep in January 2005, she has started the process of setting the record straight