Thursday, February 2

Book Review: It's Our Turn to Eat by Michela Wrong

A New Beginning?

Kibaki’s inaugural declaration: “corruption will now cease to be a way of life in Kenya” made to roaring applause one hot December day at the tail end of a dramatic election year back in 2002 now reads like a line of pure comedy penned by a cynical scribe scripting the great African leadership farce. If they replayed that clip on television today, you would likely choke on a chortle for how far the present reality is from that lofty ideal to which we attached our national hopes.

This was not always so.

Once upon a time, we were true believers, high to delirious on hope.

Michela Wrong begins by reminding us of that time, a time when we polled as the most optimistic people in the world.

I remember the time. I remember the feeling. There’s a word for it: euphoric. We were euphoric.

Enter into this euphoria a relatively young man, a couple of years shy of his 40th birthday, invited to be a part of shaping the new Kenya by taking up the position of anti corruption tsar. His name: John Githongo.

It was a momentous task to be sure, but in the end, there were a number of reasons that compelled him to take the job. One, he was an idealist, understandably seduced by the opportunity to be the change he hoped to see. Two, his acquiescence was practically taken for granted by the men who nominated him, his father’s contemporaries, men he held in high regard, men he trusted. Three, we were in a state of euphoria, remember?

So he took the job.

It was an auspicious beginning.

During his confirmation interview with President Kibaki, Githongo had been forthright with his future boss:

“Sir,” he had said, “we can set up all the anti-corruption authorities we want, spend all the money we want, pass all the laws on anticorruption, but it all depends on you. If people believe the president is ‘eating’, the battle is lost. If you are steady on this thing, if the leadership is there, we will succeed.”

He was certain he had been heard.

Same Old, Same Old
There was every suggestion of 180-degree change in direction in those early days. As Permanent Secretary in charge of combating corruption, his office was located within State House, down the corridor from the president’s office giving him unprecedented access to the president and making him extremely powerful in the scheme of things. He formed his team, drawn for the most part from civil society rather than from the ranks of the civil service. He said ‘thanks but no thanks’ to the dark-blue BMW assigned to him as an official car. He set to work enthusiastically, participating in the new government’s effort “to carry out a detailed public tally of Kenya’s corruption problem.”

He immersed himself into the system and applied himself wholeheartedly to the task as he envisioned it. He grew fond of his new boss, President Kibaki, might have been star-struck even.

Alas the honeymoon was doomed to be shortlived.

Soon, he became painfully aware of an ethnic polarisation taking place around the seat of power. Whereas Kibaki had won his handy election victory surrounded and supported by people from diverse parts of Kenya, slowly his inner circle distilled into one constituting mainly fellow Kikuyu and their allied tribes. The State House became increasingly mono-ethnic. Although Githongo was a Kikuyu, he was young and urban-bred, his ethnicity was far from his primary identity and this scenario discomfited him greatly.

Further, it dismayed no end that this new grouping was almost singlehandedly responsible for delaying the process of drafting a new constitution, despite a clear election promise to deliver a new constitution to Kenyans.

Then, persistent rumours of “new graft, of dodgy procurement contracts and lavish spending by members of the NARC administration,” began to waft his way, corroborated by a sophisticated network of informants he had cultivated. It turned out that the high level operatives within the NARC government were responsible for the signing or approval of 18 procurement contracts which would cost the taxpayers three quarters of a billion dollars, easily outstripping aid to Kenya in that year which was pinned at circa half a billion dollars.

Valiantly he tried to do his job—to identify the culprits and help bring them to book. Miserably he failed. Sensing resistance from his boss and fearing for his life, he fled.

Anti Corruption Tsar Turned International Fugitive

On 6th February, 2005, he showed up at Michela Wrong’s doorstep in Camden Town, London, lagging a load of luggage, come to stay a while. The anti-corruption tsar had turned international fugitive.

He had determined to resign. His life, he felt, was in danger. He had with him a secret arsenal of documents, diaries and recordings meticulously accumulated in the course of duty. They were highly damaging to the government in general and to specific highly-placed individuals in particular. They were also his reputation insurance policy. If he had attempted to make the claims he made about what he had seen and heard without this indisputable evidence, he would have been dismissed a madman.

This book, “It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower” turns on these somewhat dramatic events, hovering over them broodingly, occasionally darting backward a generation or two in an attempt to gain perspective and forward a few years to show context and consequences.

All the while it forces us to retread painfully familiar, garbled territory: the “unbridled greed” that comes accompanied by an irrational sense of personal entitlement at the expense of all others and what it has wrought in Africa and why it has wrought it in Africa. The central theme as suggested in the book’s title, then, is the politics of consumption. To hold the reins of power in Kenya is to be custodian to the key to the national pantry. (I wonder whether Amartya Sen meant a double entrendre with his assertion that “no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” or that’s just the way the chips happened to fall.)

In the end, in this book, tribalism and corruption stand together as two vices that hover ominously over Kenya’s future, threatening her wellbeing, indeed shaking her very foundations. We always knew that these were our most pressing problems, but what Wrong has succeeded in illustrating is the way in which they are inextricably intertwined. If we create a system in which equitable access to national resources is guaranteed regardless of any form of affiliation, then people will no longer feel the need to fall back on these affiliations either defensively or offensively and political leaders who then seek to exploit our differences for their own ends will find themselves without followers. If the system is fundamentally flawed, malevolent, then people will be forced to look for crutches to help them navigate its turbulent waters. One such crutch is tribal patronage.

The Man Behind the Drama

I had always wondered what made Githongo tick, why he chose to do what he did in exactly the way he did it. This book attempts to provide answers to these questions.

The Githongo depicted here is hardly all saint and no sinner. He may be the hero, the protagonist, but he is humanised by his flaws. For prominent example, he has the irritating knack of overpromising himself and then under-delivering—he is well-known for standing people up. So much so that in his circles, the synonym for being stood up is being Githongoed. He is also, per Wrong’s description of him, an “inveterate conspiracy theorist intrigued by tales of plots and subterfuge.”

Wycliffe Muga, a journalist, disparages him a coconut, black on the outside, white on the inside, while, David Ndii, prominent in the Kenyan civil society, muses in retrospect that, he was patently unsuitable for the role to which he was assigned by dint of his personality: “he probably didn’t have the right character for the job,” and “he went in with a lot more idealism that I thought warranted.”

Opinions abound about how Githongo should have responded to the circumstances in which he found himself. Perhaps he should have persevered, been more pragmatic—African politics are what they are. How did his dramatic exit serve, in the end?

On the other hand stand those who wonder at how long it took Githongo to catch on to the fact that he was being used.

It is on this side that Wrong appears to stand. At the outset, the portrait of Githongo that she paints gives off more than a whiff of the naïve. We read a barely concealed incredulity in the subtext:

“Tracking John’s itinerary, there’s something mystifying about the sheer time it took him to recognise the obvious. The dossier he eventually produced can read like a log of a year-long refusal to face the truth. How many times did John Githongo, a man of no mean intelligence, need to be told that his closest colleagues had hatched Anglo Leasing on the pretext of election fundraising before he believed it?”

This bent is particularly striking because not more than six months before Githongo showed up at her doorstep, Wrong had written an article for the New Statesman brimming with her own enthusiasm, celebrating a new Kenya. The ugliness that came to blight the NARC administration was already bubbling to the surface, and while she acknowledged these flaws, her tone was determinedly optimistic. She too had embraced this notion of ‘a new wind blowing.’

I mention this to lead into the fact that I too was duped, in the beginning. Many of us were. And perhaps on account of the high hopes that we held, we were frozen in a particular place of disbelief for a moment too long.

Like Githongo, as things fell apart at the beginning, I too was reluctant to lay the blame squarely at Kibaki’s feet. He was not himself, following the accident and the stroke, I rationalised. In my mind, therefore, someone else was taking advantage of his weakened state, to wreak havoc on the country. Wait till he got better, I told myself, reminiscent of my adolescent days when the do-gooder’s last resort was always, “wait till daddy comes home.”

So I read with a sense of resignation Githongo’s damning indictment made in retrospect: as he (Kibaki) got better, things got worse.

Soon enough, Githongo had to bow to a different wisdom:

“If a leader is surrounded by shifty, money-grabbing aides and family members, it’s because he likes it that way. These are the people he feels at ease with, whose working methods he respects. Far from being an aberration, the entourage is a faithful expression of the autocrat’s own proclivities.”

I reach back in memory and have to concede that certainly things did not get better.

So, again, why did it take him so long to jump ship when at last it dawned on him beyond reasonable doubt that the government for which he worked was hopelessly dirty? The answer, we find, is twofold:

One, it is about the circumstances he was in.

He “had been too close.” As Wrong paints it, once he was in his job, he became a prisoner to it. He could not do his job, but he could not easily quit it. So the option available to him was to stay as token, “a pet monkey performing tricks to reassure the regime’s critics,” or to flee as he did.

Two, it is about who he was.

In this instance, character proved to be destiny. “When John trusted someone, he did it completely. And when he was disappointed, he flipped completely.”

And then when he finally admitted to himself that something was horrible wrong, he procrastinated, but then again, “John was always ready to admit that procrastination, which follows on from the need to control events as night follows day, was one of his character flaws.

The Swing of the Pendulum

Once, however, a certain bridge had been crossed, there could have been no doubt that he was going to leave. David Ndii describes Githongo as having a “conviction” type of personality, one prone to “emotional volatility” and prone to the “melodramatic.”

Githongo’s style, it appears, harkens unto Obama. He confessed of himself: ‘I try and dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s. I do this excessively, it’s been my style throughout. And then, when I move – BOOM!’

His initial inaction could be attributed to a propensity to over-examine. Mwalimu Mati, another civil society luminary in his own right explains it with: “No mistakes are tolerable to him, and that accounts for the inaction.”

But when at last the pendulum swung the opposite direction, it was a dramatic and complete swing. He burned his bridges as he advanced. There was no going back.

No matter if you think it took inordinately long or he was too quick to judgment, there can be no diminishing the significance of what he did:

“I thought for a bit, but couldn’t recall a single occasion in which a government official of John’s stature had blown the whistle on an African administration,” Gitau, Githongo’s brother remarks to Wrong. Wrong agrees. Not that she can think of, there isn’t.

In my experience, earth has no torment like an idealist disillusioned.

Wrong puts it this way:

There is such a thing as “the fury of frustrated zeal,” and unscrupulous persons seeking to misuse the idealist to achieve their own ends ought to be very wary of its manifestations. When at last he was done with the NARC government and all its cheating ways, he was done with it, he was furious at it and he was bitter.

Judging the Book by More than Its Cover

The story itself is definitely worth telling, and Wrong has proved a worthy custodian.

I approached the book with a defensive scepticism, antennae up, mind braced, expecting a predictable caricature of an African nation in broad strokes of pitch black and sparkling white. She makes no sweeping indictments in the tradition of Kapuscinski and Naipaul before her. Where she feels a need to cluster, and a number of times she does, she goes to reasonable extents to corroborate, to defend, to illustrate. I do not always agree with her, but I recognise the effort she makes to deliver nuance, and applaud her effort. Except that one time when she ruefully remarks: “Working in Africa, I’d grown accustomed to compromised friendships, relationships premised on wilful ignorance on my part and an absence of full disclosure on my friends’.” But I chose to forgive her that.

This does not mean that I did not find much that was wince-worthy. It’s hard to read about all the different ways in which a thing that you cherish is broken. Even when you know full well that it is broken. To think that Kenya, in the early days of the NARC government, was the first country to ratify the UN Convention against Corruption. Irony of the highest order. Irony that ought really to be feted and knighted. Maybe even crowned.

Sometimes, I bristled. As against her contention that tribe and tribal affiliations define the Kenyan landscape and predominate. But I concede that she is justified and that in light of recent of events, it is hard to argue now: we as a nation do suffer from “an acute ethnic self-awareness”.

In the end, Kenya’s recent political history can be summarised thus:

The ethnically-based white settler tribe was kicked out (or reluctantly relinquished power, depending on who’s writing the history) to be replaced by a Kikuyu president who inherited a system and abused it to serve his own people, and then when he died, was replaced by a Kalenjin president who promptly followed in the footsteps of his predecessors and so on and so forth. What saddens is that everyone plays this as a zero sum game in the name of “restoring balance” by overcorrecting past partisanship.

While she’s at it, Wrong finds the time (and space) to insert her voice into the aid debate, appearing to side with Dambisa when she notes that “Western donor governments, their media and their expatriates, had become the ultimate, trusted arbiters of Kenyan reality.” By this she means that aid was a stick that western governments had and they could use it and that their money bought them the right to an opinion that could be heard whereas “ordinary Kenyans, thinking the same thing, with a hundred times more intensity, could do nothing about it, and there lay their ultimate emasculation.”

Wrong also contends that aid is self-serving. Realpolitik. It is not free. There are reasons that funds flow to certain coffers. But then she turns the corner, perhaps in a quest for balance, and suggests that there was also the case of the gaze trained brutally on the long term, because instititutions, checks and balances, civil society, etc, take time to build.

There are other questions that arise around aid in this particular story that should give us pause. For example, how, even after Githongo’s damning dossier had been made public, the aid for the most part, kept flowing:
“Demonstrating a truly remarkable sense of timing, the World Bank chose to announce $145 million in new loans to Kenya – the first credits approved by the executive board for fifteen months – just three days after the leaking of John’s dossier, signalling that, as far as this institution was concerned, a $750-million procurement scandal was no grounds for querying the wisdom of re-engaging with the Kenyan government. The same emollient message came from DfID, which had announced a £58-million grant a few days before John’s leak, and saw no reason to reconsider.”
I sent a text message to one of the people I do life with who also happens to work with a World Bank affiliated institution asking her what she thought of how the World Bank had been portrayed in Wrong’s book. She responded by conceding that oftentimes, they murk up implementation and they end up botching things seriously, but nonetheless, the people she works with are some of the most idealistic people she knows, and they are honestly committed to make our world a better place.

(Which echoes a rising sentiment in me: it’s not the heart that is in the wrong place, it is the hand that is responding in the wrong way. In this respect, aid idealists and aid sceptics ought really to dialogue as on the same side, wanting the same thing, giving benefit of doubt, assuming goodwill unless proven absent. But that is another article, for another day.)

As for the writing: on occasion she gets mired in descriptive terrain but most times, she moves the narrative along at a brisk lyrical pace, drawing you into the vortex of the story. Her language is elegant and her imagery vivid, as when she writes that “centralised systems of power are like onions: each layer faithfully mimics the core,” or when she describes those who “belong to an international elite that automatically turns left on entering a plane.”

To her credit, she is astute at sending subtle signals that are bound to alert the Kenyan reader as to her intimacy with the context. She sprinkles her book with familiar anecdotes: I relate immediately to her description of how we Nairobians drive at nervous speed past the woodland on Ngong Road on our way to Karen for fear of carjackers. I smile as she remembers to me the first escalator in Nairobi, at Yaya Centre, in the eighties. (I remember taking two buses to get there to ride it.)

If these particular signals do not resonate, the book is replete with others, I am confident you will find ones that do. This is the detail, but it speaks volumes, as I’m sure she knew it would. (I was amused that she baptised South C as scruffy as against the more pristine parts of Nairobi, of course, Muthaiga and Runda for example). The message is clear: she is foreigner, but she is not stranger. She has reported on Kenya for a dozen years. She worked, once, at the Standard Newspaper.

Is There Only Elijah Left As A Prophet in Israel?

You will have to judge for yourselves, on the reading, whether indeed the forces shaping John Githongo were “calculated to produce the perfect whistleblower” as is Wrong’s contention. I for one am uncomfortable with the notion that some among us were predestined to blow the whistle, that there is a specialness, a set-apartness, a one in every ten million-ness about Githongo.

It carries a faint echo of Elijah’s episode of self-pity in the desert, cast as sole crusader in a world where Jezebel’s tentacles reach wide and deep and she had sworn to kill him.

For those not familiar with the story it goes like this:

Elijah had long been standing up against King Ahab for all his injustices against the people of Israel and finally Queen Jezebel, had had enough. She swore by all that she knew that she would kill him if it was the last thing she did. Elijah fled to the desert, with a death threat from no less than the King’s wife hanging over his head and in the days that followed, he became increasingly depressed. When God came by and asked him what the matter was, he was quick to grouse. He was being zealous for God, doing what God wanted him to do and everybody else had either abandoned the task or been killed on account of it but here he was, sticking with it, and now look, he too was in danger of being killed. God gives him a long answer, but the part of that answer that interests me is the “hey look, you’re actually not the only one left, there are seven thousand others out there.”

Talk about putting things in perspective.

The point I make is not that Githongo does not deserve our admiration, respect and applause. He does. I mean, he really does. He stood up against a formidable system that tried to bring him to heel. He chose to do what was right when there was tremendous pressure to do otherwise. In a country, indeed a continent, that suffers a dearth of political heroes, he stands out, and for good reason.

The point I make, though, is that we need to make every effort to identify Kenya’s seven thousand, to encourage them to continue to be strong and not to give up the good fight and to empower them to rise up and make their difference. That in the end should be the skew of this story at the re-telling. If there is an Elijah there must be seven thousand. The country that raised Githongo could not have raised Githongo alone. Ergo, there is hope.

Tomorrow Has Come

What has become of John Githongo? Well, these events have changed him. Life has happened to him. He has developed the cynicism of a jaded idealist. Words such as calculating and ruthlessness and self-serving pop up in Wrong’s description of the latter day Githongo, and indeed, are implied in his own evaluation of who he has become. Perhaps it is a good thing, a necessary thing.

But the idealist in him continues to lurk just beneath the surface. He has been back to Kenya for a visit since. He is considering relocating back to Kenya, to live in Mathare, to interact with the young people who are the country’s future and maybe to run for political office.

In the meantime, he has become the global courier of a sobering missive: “systemic corruption, is the most efficient poverty factor on the continent.” Like it or not, if they do not pay it heed, it is a message that threatens to ground the ship that ferries Bob, Bono and Blair’s determinedly sanguine Make Poverty History campaign, not because their hearts are not in the right place, but because they fail to diagnose the underlying condition correctly.

UPDATE: You can now buy a copy of the book at The Kenya Shop


Tamtam said...

Great post, that encapsulates most of the issues raised in the book.

It was not easy reading this book as a Kenyan, yet I believe that it was important that the truth was staring me in the eye.

I take and hear your point, about the other seven thousand out there.

I hope that the other seven thousand can remain motivated,and remain willing to walk the walk despite the costs involved.

As you know in Kenya, it can cost you your life to speak out against the establishment.

Rombo said...

Thanks, Tamtam. I quite enjoyed processing the book and blogging certainly helped.

You're right: it's a difficult book to read as a Kenya but I hope as many Kenyans as can get round to it.

kachwanya said...

Most young Kenyans complain and talk of old guards being corrupt and not caring about their future but very few of them do something to remedy the situation. I think it needs a lot of courage to stand up to the establishment and more so people from your tribe. Anyway i have read the book halfway and hoping to finish it in the coming week. Thanks for this wonderful post

Rombo said...

You're right, Kachwanya, many people in our generation know what is wrong and have good solid ideas about how to fix it which is why it's sad that we're disinclined to play a more active role in the political space.

Enjoy the rest of the book.

Michela Wrong said...

Thank you for a dispassionate (and beautifully-written) assessment of the book. Many Kenyans are giving angry, knee-jerk reactions to something they haven't even read. You not only read it, you summarised it with huge insight and clarity, mulling over its messages and deciding which ones you agreed with and which ones you rejected. I don't expect everyone to agree with the book, I don't expect anyone to agree with all of it, I just hope they will open their minds to it and taste the contents before they make up their minds. Thank you, Rombo.

Rombo said...

Michela Wrong, chez moi, I'm honoured.

I can understand that it's a difficult a book to read for most Kenyans. It certainly was for me.

I'm glad I stuck with it though. I hope enough Kenyans do and then make up their own minds what they think.

Prousette said...

Hi Rombo
That summary was wonderful. I cannot wait to read it!
You have not told us how to get this book and some of us have no idea. I know it is available online somewhere but for those of us not used to online transactions is there a way.
Please let me know.

Rombo said...

Hi there Prou. Good to see you. How you been?

So, here is a link to the page on Harper Collins e-books where you can purchase the book in PDF:

Once you get there, the process is quite straightforward, the signage is clear.


Look forward to hearing what you think about it after you've read it.

SHIMI said...

blog walking
nice to be here

MsTypo said...

Great post! I have this book on my Amazon wish-list and am even more excited about reading it after your post. Thanks!

Wikiwaka said...

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and informed post on the book. I really enjoyed reading it and will be sharing it with friends. I was considering reading the book and I admit I had already pooh-poohed it as another book written by a so called "Kenya expert expat" You piqued my interest. Keep Writing!

Riaga said...

A compelling review of 'It's Our Turn to Eat'!

Reading through the book, I just couldn't put it down, especially coming across the filth that all along I feared existed in our political system. If Kenyans are to learn that greed for power go beyond tribal affiliations, then we will need a fearless warrior to get us out of such a mess. Githongo has shown through Wrong's narration that that is the only way out to a prosperous nation!

Emmanuel Ojeifo said...

Reading this review stands almost on equal grounds like reading the book itself. For three years I have searched for this book in every reasonable bookshop in Nigeria, to no avail. Once I saw a copy in a bookshop but had no enough money to get it. I ran home quickly. Before I came back, it was no longer on the shelf. I will keep searching for as long as possible. But Rombo, thank you for this beautiful review. It has fired up my passion to get the book. Thanks for making me restless!!!