Book Review: It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower, Michela Wrong (HarperCollins, 354pp, 2009)
by Edward B. Rackley
A fast-moving tale of intrigue, deception and murder, It’s Our Turn to Eat follows conflicted patriot John Githongo into battle with a $1 billion USD corruption scheme directed by co-workers in Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki’s administration. The arc of events leading to his exile in Britain, the barrage of threats by Kenyan security agents and Githongo’s prodigal return are recast through the lens of classical tragedy, but with a single, telling anomaly: there’s no redemption, no glory. This is the real world, not Hollywood.
Returning in 2007 after two years in hiding, Githongo watches Kenya plunge into a fratricidal abyss following botched national elections. Waves of inter-ethnic violence push Kenya to the brink, with much of the bloodshed fomented by political elites, six of whom are now wanted by the International Criminal Court. That political violence between ethnic communities was not caused by tribalism, as many outside observers believe, but was a direct result of state-sponsored corruption is the deep water current in this book.
Michela Wrong has written two previous accounts of visionary leaders gone mad; the first on Mobutu, ‘Le Roi du Zaire’ (In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo), the second on post-independence Eritrea (I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation). How the poorest pay the price for their country’s corrupt leadership is a recurring theme, but It’s Our Turn to Eat stands above her previous work thanks to the author’s friendship with the protagonist and proximity to his plight. Wrong risked her own safety by sheltering Githongo when he first landed in England.
The result is a distinctly personal portrayal of Githongo’s psychological makeup and his inner conflict between principle and belonging, Kenyan citizen and Kikuyu brother, as the scams reveal themselves and relations with Kibaki, initially an advocate of accountability, grow tenuous and distant. Readers will visualize a film adaptation of this thriller that, unlike John LeCarre’s The Constant Gardener, casts Africans as crusaders risking life and limb to reset the course of wayward leaders.
Githongo’s principled resistance reads at first like a dream-come-true for practitioners like myself who work in public sector reform, demand-driven accountability and anti-corruption in developing countries. The portrait of Githongo the man is fascinating and helps answer the perennial question – “Who in this country can lead real reform?” But by the end of the story, we see Githongo alone, tilting at windmills and abandoned by the global aid industry that initially championed his cause.
The closing chapters are devoted to teasing out the motivations behind donor silence, a passivity that Wrong, along with most average Kenyans, finds indistinguishable from complicity. And what of local opposition to corruption and tribalism’s destructiveness, why its seeming absence from the national psyche? Wrong has answers to that question too.
Several salient lessons emerge from Githongo’s efforts to rescue Kenyan politics from itself. First, and capital, is the clear causal link between elite corruption and popular violence. ‘Turns at the trough’ may be standard political culture and as familiar as the daily petty corruption seen on the street, but it fuels grievance and inter-ethnic hostilities, which ultimately erupt in mass violence with a ‘political’ face. For donor governments and aid practitioners to discount corruption as ‘aberrant local behavior’ or, worse, pardon it in the spirit of cultural relativism, is to accelerate the march towards conflict.
However impossible to assess as a counter-factual, one wonders if the vicious side of tribalism would still exist were grand corruption not common practice. Githongo considers tribalism itself a form of corruption, a betrayal of the foundational ideals of modern statehood.
Second, Githongo may be a remarkable pioneer and role model, but he’s no black swan. In oxygen-deprived, cronyistic regimes ‘governance’ cannot transform itself in the absence of individual reformers like Githongo, whose wide exposure and relationships with diverse international institutions helped shape his vision and convince him that his risks were warranted to bring about change. In my field work I regularly see national staff move up the ladder into national politics, local administrations and media prominence. We do a poor job of maintaining contact with these people, cultivating relations that extend beyond the life of a contract, despite the fact that many of us have long histories in these countries.
Third, foreign aid is constantly under fire, and those who deliver it must be able to explain it through deed and word. The percentage of foreign aid in a country’s budget, even in Kenya (3%), is too small to wield significant leverage over politicians’ errant behavior. We can’t expect much there, nor should our local colleagues and beneficiaries. But stoic silence in the face of such scandals only digs deeper the grave of western hypocrisy and perceived collusion with corrupt leaders. I encounter conspiracy theories and disinformation regularly in the field, widely held beliefs that place the US or the 'international community' among the core reasons for a given country’s crisis. Perceptions create reality, and to ignore these urban myths in our interactions with local media, colleagues and officials is tantamount to whistling-in-the-dark.
Closer to home, parallels with the Githongo story abound, particularly in light of the current Wikileaks affair. Julian Assange and John Githongo, both accused of treason and espionage, operate with the conviction that transparency leads to justice, that disclosure is an underutilized weapon against entrenched, self-serving power. Both are driven by a strong desire for retribution for the deceptions committed by an elite few against a trusting, dependent majority. Githongo had evidence of state-sponsored criminal activity leading directly to the president; Assange has the ‘dirty laundry’ of classified diplomatic cables—embarrassing to some but well short of legal evidence of wrongdoing.
As a campaign for accountability, Wikileaks has yet to effect any temporary or lasting change. Githongo’s disclosure achieved the resignation of three ministers in two weeks, although the ‘way things are done here’ continues. Unlike Assange, Githongo is no utopian. The realism of his démarche falls squarely in the ‘rule of law’ camp. Privy to insider information on multiple no-bid government awards to fictitious companies held by Kibaki’s cronies, he patiently accumulated evidence, crying foul only when his legal case was solid. Assange’s tactic is to bully political elites with the threat that their secrets will be made public, a reversal of the Orwellian eye, and somehow society will be made just. This is fantasy and self-glorification.
In Githongo’s dashed hopes, Kenya gained a national role model for honest government. But the country’s failure to support him means the ‘our turn to eat’ concept of public service continues apace. The fact that the book is not available in Kenya says much about the state of free speech and access to information in country. In this regard Wrong’s book serves an important end, censored or not.
As for Githongo’s struggle, Wrong believes he was “proven correct in the most terrible way. [He] recognized graft's potential to destabilize and destroy a society.” Ultimately, she argues, “the public's sense of unfairness, caused by the very abuses the donors were determined to ignore, eventually bloodied the machetes in Kenya.”