It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower
In January 2003, Kenya was hailed as a model of democracy after the peaceful election of its new president, Mwai Kibaki. By appointing respected longtime reformer John Githongo as anticorruption czar, the new Kikuyu government signaled 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 secretly compiled evidence of official malfeasance throughout the new administration. Unable to remain silent, Githongo, at great personal risk, made the painful choice to go public. The result was a Kenyan Watergate.
Michela Wrong’s account of how a pillar of the establishment turned whistle-blower—becoming simultaneously one of the most hated and admired men in Kenya—grips like a political thriller while probing the very roots of the continent’s predicament.
“A fast-paced political thriller…. Wrong’s gripping, thoughtful book stands as both a tribute to Githongo’s courage and a cautionary tale.” —New York Times Book Review
“On one level, It’s Our Turn to Eat reads like a John Le Carré novel…. On a deeper and much richer level, the book is an analysis of how and why Kenya descended into political violence.” — Washington Post
Called “urgent and important” by Harper’s magazine, It’s Our Turn to Eat is a nonfiction political thriller of modern Kenya—an eye-opening account of tribal rivalries, pervasive graft, and the rising anger of a prospect-less youth that exemplifies an African dilemma.
About the Author
Michela Wrong has worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters, the BBC, and the Financial Times. She has written about Africa for Slate.com and is a frequent commentator on African affairs in the media. Her first book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, won the James Stern Silver Pen Award for Nonfiction. She lives in London.
Half British, half Italian, Michela Wrong has spent nearly two decades writing about Africa. As a Reuters correspondent based in first Cote d’Ivoire and former Zaire, she covered the turbulent events of the mid 1990s, including the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko and Rwanda’s post-genocide period. She then moved to Kenya, where she became Africa correspondent for the Financial Times. In 2000 she published her first non-fiction book, “In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz”, the story of Mobutu. Her second non-fiction work, “I didn’t do it for you”, focused on the Red Sea nation of Eritrea. Her third, “It’s Our Turn to Eat”, tracks the story of Kenyan whistleblower John Githongo. “Borderlines” is her first novel.
- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (June 8, 2010)
From Publishers Weekly
Kenya’s dysfunctional state is the subject of this gripping profile of an anti-corruption crusader. Journalist Wrong (In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz) tells the story of John Githongo, a journalist and activist (and Wrong’s personal friend) who joined newly elected Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki’s administration in 2003 as anti-corruption czar. Githongo’s reformist hopes were betrayed when his investigation of a contracting scandal earned him the enmity of colleagues, death threats and smear campaigns. He fled to Britain in 2005, taking along secret recordings of conversations in which powerful officials implicated themselves in the scam. Githongo, a charming idealist with an intransigence bordering on egomania, is a magnetic protagonist for Wrong’s exposé of the machinery of corruption. She dissects the deeper problem of Kenya’s patronage system, which exploits the state as a source of loot and makes allowances for the tribal parties in power. The resulting graft and discrimination—which Wrong argues fueled the communal slaughter surrounding Kenya’s 2007 election—reinforces Kenyans’ view of existence as a merciless contest, in which only ethnic preference offers hope of survival. Githongo’s saga highlights this pan-African problem and addresses possibilities for change. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
In 2003, when Mwai Kibaki was elected to replace Kenyan president Moi, the peaceful transition was hailed locally and internationally as the end of rampant corruption and tribal favoritism. John Githongo, a former journalist and longtime critic of government corruption, was named to head an anti-corruption commission. But Githongo was alternately hopeful and skeptical about the new government. Soon scandals and rumors of scandals emerged of officials eating at the government trough. Githongo, a member of the leading Kikuyu tribe, began to surreptitiously tape conversations with government figures to document corruption and became the target of threats. Journalist Wrong provided temporary shelter when, two years after joining Kibaki’s administration, Githongo fled Kenya, taking with him incriminating evidence of graft. Wrong offers a compelling analysis of Kenya’s history of tribalism and corruption, dating back to British colonialism, and the dramatic story of one man’s bravery and the ultimate price he paid. Written with the pace of a thriller and a depth of analysis of a nation and a man, this is a compelling look at a nation struggling to overcome its past. –Vanessa Bush –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“Wrong’s book is packed with detail and solid sourcing and tells its story clearly.” –Jeffrey Gettleman (New York Review of Books)
“Important and illuminating…Reads like a John Le Carré novel…On a deeper and much richer level, it’s an analysis of how and why Kenya descended into political violence.” (Caroline Elkins, Washington Post)
“A fast-paced political thriller—with echoes of Graham Greene and John le Carré…. A gripping, thoughtful book.” (New York Times Book Review)
“…urgent and important…” (Harper’s Magazine)
“A gripping saga…a down-to-earth yet sophisticated expose…a devastating account of how corruption and tribalism reinforce each other.” (The Economist)
A solid investigative exposé (Kirkus Reviews)
“Written with the pace of a thriller and a depth of analysis of a nation and a man, this is a compelling look at a nation struggling to overcome its past.” (Booklist)
“A gripping profile of an anti-corruption crusader…. Githongo…is a magnetic protagonist for Wrong’s expose of the machinery of corruption.” (Publishers Weekly)
“A tumultuous journey through the official networks of sleaze that drained billions of dollars from Kenya’s coffers… The extent of the fraud, and the level of destruction it wreaked, is shocking…” (Newsweek International)
From The Washington Post
From The Washington Post’s Book World/washingtonpost.com Accompanying the fanfare of President Obama’s visit to Ghana in July was a chorus of well-founded praise for that country’s functioning democracy. The U.S. president pointed to his host country as a shining example, while warning other nations on the continent that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” Political pundits and the media reinforced Obama’s message, holding up Ghana as Africa’s success story. Not so long ago, Ghana shared the limelight with Kenya, the country of Obama’s paternal past. But the vote-tampering and widespread ethnic violence that marred the 2007 Kenyan elections left observers shaking their heads, wondering how the idyll of East Africa could have gone so wrong, so quickly. A well-functioning, multiparty government buoyed by an impressive 6 percent annual growth rate had made for a potent combination in the post-colonial dream world. The blurring of fantasy and reality, however, was laid bare in the smoldering rubble of election violence that left some 1,500 Kenyans dead and at least 300,000 internally displaced. Journalist Michela Wrong provides a very important and illuminating account of Kenya’s present-day political and economic morass. On one level, “It’s Our Turn to Eat” reads like a John le Carré novel as it traces the cloak-and-dagger maneuverings of Kenya’s political bosses, and the heroic but futile attempts of John Githongo — the government’s internal, anti-corruption watchdog, and the protagonist of Wrong’s account — to stymie them. On a deeper and much richer level, the book is an analysis of how and why Kenya descended into political violence more than a year and a half ago. For Wrong, the insidious bedfellows of corruption and tribalism inhabit nearly every sphere of Kenyan existence. At the upper echelons of government, members of parliament connived to defraud the country of some $750 million through the notorious Anglo-Leasing scheme; at the lower levels of society, the ordinary Kenyan doles out on average 16 bribes a month to government agents simply to get by. These factors, as Wrong points out, have been present in Kenya since the inauguration of the country’s first independent government in 1963, despite the rather rosy and misplaced image that characterized the nation, at least in the Western media, for decades. First, under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta, the Kikuyu, Kenya’s ethnic majority, benefited disproportionately from the state’s spoils. Kenyatta surrounded himself with a coterie of loyal ethnic supporters who systematically excluded non-Kikuyu from participating in their quest for power and ill-gotten wealth. Subsequently, when Daniel T. arap Moi took power in 1978, the new president continued with the tribally based corruption. Only this time, Moi, who came from the ethnic-minority Kalenjin of western Kenya, redirected the flow of wealth and power to his tribal base of supporters. For the Kalenjin and other closely related tribes, it was their turn to eat. It was Githongo — a Western-educated, physically imposing and exceedingly shrewd man — who was to herald the literal and symbolic end to this vicious cycle of corruption and ethnic favoritism. When Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, took presidential power in 2002, he declared his election a mandate for reform and appointed the young Githongo, also a Kikuyu, to root out the old bogies that had undermined Kenya’s progress. It wasn’t long, though, before Githongo’s starry eyes cleared, only to find his revered mentor, Kibaki, knee-deep in the corruption game, with a supporting cast of legislators aiding and abetting theft from the state’s coffers. With much drama, Githongo eventually fled Kenya, taking with him piles of documents and secretly taped conversations. He landed on the London doorstep of Wrong, an old acquaintance. Given this personal connection, Wrong is notably self-aware of her position as both author and partial subject of her own book. Indeed, her personal involvement scarcely compromises her excellent analysis of Kenya’s twin evils; rather, she deftly points to the fact that corruption and tribalism are not endemic just to Africa, but inhabit the contemporary, worldwide landscape, and that complicity reaches to all corners of the globe as well. If the old-boy system is not an African artifact, and if undemocratic processes have no boundaries — many a Kenyan will snicker at the mention of a hanging chad — how then does Wrong make sense of the localized events in Kenya? By “probing the roots of a dysfunctional African nation” and its British colonial legacy, as well as Kenya’s more recent entanglements with the likes of the World Bank and Britain’s Department for International Development, Wrong takes a decidedly Paul Wolfowitz-like stand. That is, political systems are at the heart of the problem and must be reformed if there is any hope for the alleviation of poverty — and not just in Kenya. It’s difficult to argue against Wrong on this point, though the roots and solutions to Kenya’s problems are far more embedded in the country’s past than she suggests. Colonial Kenya — with its white tribe of settlers and administrators, economic monopolies and perpetuation of African tribalism, and a governor who ruled with highly centralized powers and a posse of loyal underlings to support him — bears an uncanny resemblance to the country today. Moreover, while Wrong praises Britain’s former highest-ranking ambassador to Kenya, High Commissioner Edward Clay, and his anti-corruption stance, she fails to mention that, while Clay was making his strongest denunciations of corruption, the full impact of Britain’s colonial violence and coverups was finally being disclosed in Kenya. Britain’s colonial legacy has undermined its moral authority and continues to influence processes in Kenya, no matter how complicit Africans have been in perpetuating corruption and tribalism. The historical phenomenon of colonialism and its long-term impact vary across the continent, making the trajectory of a former settler colony such as Kenya distinct from that of Ghana, and many other African nations, for that matter. If strongmen are to be eliminated and institutions reformed — as both Obama and Wrong urge — then the historical differences among various African countries, and the ways in which these differences inform and shape present-day governing structures and cultures, must be thoroughly understood.
President Kibaki’s loose-fitting Rolex
I came to this book after listening to an interview with John Githongo on NPR’s “Planet Money” podcast in which he casually mentioned (amid chuckles) that part of his remit as Kenyan corruption watchdog was to investigate so-called “Nigerian” scams and found out that the majority of their victims were Latin Americans. I thought: I have to read this book! And I was not disappointed. It is not riveting “All the President’s Men” stuff, with moonlit meetings in Nairobi parking garages. Rather, it is the relatively simple story of Githongo, who thought he could make a difference by becoming a new government’s anti-corruption czar. When he actually tries to do his job, he realizes that the rot he is trying to cut out begins at the very top, among the Cabinet. And then the point comes when the price demanded by the ringleaders is not simply silence but a simple choice between outright complicity and unpleasant consequences. With the twist that Githongo went completely off the reservation by taping his senior colleagues discussing every tawdry detail of their procurement scams.
In general, one cannot find major faults in Wrong’s narrative, but one aspect of the book raises some doubts: her focus on the international aid donors as silent accomplices of African plutocrats. Of course, their failure to denounce scandals and practices like Anglo-Leasing is outrageous. I was reminded of the book when reading that the incoming Conservative government in Great Britain had ring-fenced only two budgets from spending cuts: the health service and foreign aid –meaning that the obdurate bureaucrats who continue to shovel millions into the pockets of scoundrels will continue to do so undisturbed for at least five more years. However, Wrong does not discuss how much leverage these organizations actually have, since, according to her own figures, aid only accounts for 5% of modern Kenya’s state budget (p. 184). I imagine she would respond that: 1) even small leverage should be deployed to secure better governance; and 2) the “ideal reader” for this part of the book is the taxpayers of Western nations who believe their funds are being used to feed hungry children. Both points are well taken. Nonetheless, the overall tone of pessimism about the “aid community” is slightly off the mark. From my point of view, even though Githongo ultimately failed to dislodge the Cabinet ministers who participated in the scam permanently, my takeaway was not despair: his gesture and the firestorm it provoked will in the long run probably be more decisive than anything Western diplomats and aid agencies can do by cajoling or threatening. His story is a small (albeit failed) baby step toward better governance in Africa, but at least a step of some kind.