Good Book

Book Review: It’s Our Turn to Eat

Previously Reviewed 5/10/18.

by Michela Wrong.

Reviewed by Alagi Yorro Jallow.

Fatoumatta: I highly recommend this excellent book to students of Political Science and public policy influencers and all journalists and genuine activists. Journalists and those interested in African politics, the cankerworm of corruption, and how it is challenging to fight it in Africa. This book is an exciting and sad reflection on the problems in Africa, dealing in this instance mainly with Kenya. The western world would appear to be more than happy to appease its conscience, giving billions of dollars in aid to African countries.

Whether these donations reach the grassroots level is a debatable point. A rather sad indictment of the endemic corruption so prevalent in many governments and so-called charitable institutions, not just in Africa. Michela Wrong is a vivid writer who seemingly has an excellent grasp of African and Kenyan daily life. This book is well researched, and the anecdotes are painstakingly retold to make sense to any reader.

However, for an African, you will uncover more than a few eye-opening truths about how the country is run. This book helps you understand why things are in Kenya while considering the magnitude of the work that needs to be done to root out corruption. Explore the dark belly of development funds, government corruption, and what it takes to be a high-stakes whistleblower. While this book is focused on Kenya, it is a highly illustrative condemnation of a rot that can be found in many other countries. Although a fascinating book, it reads like a thriller. I highly recommend it. The author of the acclaimed book In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo, Michela Wrong, is an exceptionally talented writer.

It is easy to imagine George Clooney turning her account of the risks John Githongo took – the way he was tailed by Kenyan intelligence after he fled to Britain; the malicious smear campaign against him at home into a tale of government malfeasance and a crusade along the lines of Michael Clayton. She compares Kenya’s corruption to a vast 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.”

Fatoumatta: In January 2003, Kenya was seen as the most stable country in Africa and was hailed as a model of democracy after the peaceful election of its new president, President Mwai Kibaki. By appointing respected longtime reformer John Githongo as an anti-corruption czar, the new Kikuyu government signaled its determination to end the corrupt practices that tainted the previous regime.

However, only two years later, Mr. John Githongo was on the run, having discovered that the new administration was ruthlessly pillaging public funds. Under former President Moi, his Kalenjin tribespeople ate. “Now it is our turn to eat,” politicians and civil servants close to the president told John Githongo. As a government member and the president’s own Kikuyu tribe, Githongo was expected to cooperate.

However, he refused to be bound by ethnic loyalty. Githongo had secretly compiled evidence of official malfeasance and, at significant personal risk, made the painful choice to go public. The result was Kenya’s version of Watergate. Michela Wrong’s account of how a pillar of the establishment turned whistleblower, becoming simultaneously one of the most hated and admired men in Kenya, grips like a political thriller.

At the same time, by exploring the factors that continue to blight Africa–ethnic favoritism, government corruption, and the smug complacency of Western donor nations–, It is 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.

Fatoumatta: Michela Wrong has written a perceptive and deeply troubling account of corruption in Kenya and one anti-corruption crusader’s failed attempts to curtail it. John Githongo became permanent secretary for governance and ethics after the democratically elected president Mwai Kibaki took office in 2002, promising significant change. Naive but persistent and principled, Mr.Githongo soon uncovered massive corruption at the apex of the state, within a Kikuyu ethnic Mafia around the presidency whose members believed that it was after years out of power time for their ethnic group to benefit.

A fellow Kikuyu, Githongo, had been expected to play along. Instead, when he went public with detailed evidence, he was fired, discredited, and threatened. (He fled the country in 2005.) In telling this story, Wrong covers a wide swath of contemporary Kenya with great precision and telling details, from the dynamics of ethnicity to the grinding poverty of the Nairobi slums and the cozy lifestyle of the country’s establishment. The book trenchantly analyzes the complacency of Western donors and accuses the World Bank of actual complicity in Kenya’s corruption.

Amazingly, successive country representatives from the bank rented a house, shared a garden with Kibaki in Nairobi, and maintained it at taxpayers’ expense. As a result, Githongo was briefly feted in various feel-good international forums for his troubles. Still, the Kibaki regime was barely admonished, and aid continued to flow into the country.

Fatoumatta: 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 Kenya. It could have been written anywhere where corruption is endemic, and Wrong disposes of some general myths. The refrain is that the president is an honest, upstanding, god-fearing man; he is not corrupt; it is his undisciplined children. “In countries where presidents have done their best to centralize 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.”In most of Africa, the author also drives this usually overlooked reality: there is a corruptor for every corrupted. Alternatively: “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. However, at the same time, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese companies pay huge bribes with impunity.

Furthermore, 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. Despite evidence that the polls had been rigged in the 2008 election, he assured his bosses in Washington that his landlord was the legitimate president of Kenya. Bruce was promoted to director for strategy and operations in the African region.

Fatoumatta: 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 President Moi to President 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. However, 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 the shoeshine, 10 for vomit”.In general, John Githongo’s well-documented exposé of the Anglo Leasing corruption was treated with disdain by Kikuyus.

The latter felt he had betrayed his own and was 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.”

Moreover, in that depressing conclusion lies the larger story. John Githongo, a well-known Kenyan journalist and anti-corruption campaigner, is appointed by then-President Mwai Kibaki to clean up Kenya’s rotten government. Soon after taking the job, Githongo uncovers a monumental act of corruption, forcing him to resign and, ultimately, to flee into exile in fear of his life. Can honest individuals break the cycle of ethnic chauvinism, elite enrichment, and poverty in Africa, or are these patterns doomed to repeat?

My reflections: African whistleblowers tend to have a difficult time when calling out corruption. They make themselves a target of ruthless governments intent on protecting their patronage networks upon which they depend and go against the grain of ethnic solidarity. International aid agencies often unwittingly perpetuate corruption in recipient countries. They break the accountability link between citizens and leaders by failing to impose stringent conditions on African governments. There is a soft bigotry of low expectations regarding corruption in Africa. Foreign governments want to be seen doing the right thing. Still, they shy away when holding local leaders accountable for corruption. Aid agencies are rewarded for dispersing funds, not for results, and suffer from scope creep and the sunk-cost fallacy.

Governance matters for development. Without a culture of accountability and legal protections for whistleblowers, you will struggle to emerge from poverty. Growth is not simply a question of policy, it is also contingent on the rights of individuals. Quotes: “The fixation shocks other Africans, who privately whisper at how ‘backward’ they find Kenya, with its talk of foreskins and its focus on male appendages. ‘There’s no ideological debate here,’ complain, incoming diplomats, baffled by a political system in which notions of ‘left’ or ‘right’, ‘capitalist’ or ‘socialist’, ‘radical,’ or ‘conservative’ seem irrelevant: ‘It’s all about tribe.'” ~ p.44″‘What we Africans have realised is that your leaders need to lend to us more than we need to be lent to.'” ~ p.205″Playing to the industrialised world’s guilt complex, the Make Poverty History campaign, Africa Commission, and Gleneagles summit all shared one characteristic: the emphasis was on Western rather than African, action. Top-down, statist, these initiatives were all about donor obligations, pledges, and behaviour.

What they definitely weren’t about – despite token references to the importance of ‘good governance and a supposed pact between North and South – was highlighting the shortcomings of African governments set to benefit from future Western largesse.” ~ p.206″ The wristband-wearing activists who linked hands around Edinburgh in solidarity with the Make Poverty History cause might bask in the glow of moral righteousness, but to John, an unarticulated ‘It’s Africa, what else can you expect?’ lay behind their pitying stance. ‘There’s a condescending, implicitly racist argument with regard to Africa, which says that “excessive enthusiasm” in the fight against corruption somehow undermines the task of fighting poverty. But corruption, systemic corruption, is the most efficient poverty factor on the continent.'” ~ p.266″Worried Westerners, who so often seem to fall prey to a benign form of megalomania when it comes to Africa, would do well to accept that salvation is not theirs to bestow.

They should be more modest, more knowing, and less naïve. They owe it not only to the Western taxpayers who make development organisations’ largesse possible but to Africans whose destinies they attempt to alter.” ~ pp.325-6.”‘If you pump money into a system where there is leakage, you effectively reward leakage and disincentivize those trying to stop it,’ says Paul Collier. ‘Change in Africa can only come from Africans fighting against terrible odds. On the whole, they fail. They end up in exile or come to a sticky end. If you don’t, as a donor, support people like John, you are counteracting their fight for change.'” ~ p.326.

Fatoumatta: Lovely beautiful book Michela Wrong has gone the entire drive over here, giving you all the different views of what she is telling. At the beginning of the book, you start reading it, feeling inspired, wanting to go all John Githongo but in the end. The cost is very high; Githongo lost a relationship, and David Munyakei lost his life due to his short memory span of Kenyans. Moreover, I found out about him through this book, an unsung national hero. He died of the most tragic of causes, poverty… It makes you think twice… Yes, the untouchables are touchable, but what is the cost?

Fatoumatta: This book summarises the Kenyan’s story and probably most of the African country’s stories on corruption. If only John Githongo’s efforts were appreciated, this would have set a precedent in the war against corruption. While I read this book, the Gambia came to mind for efforts to fight corruption to be taken seriously at the beginning of 2017 when Yahya Jammeh was sent into exile. Still, I think President Adama Barrow, the judiciary, the Legislature, and independent journalists will be ready to fight corruption. I recommend turning it into a good book into a teaching book, so students learn of the courageous Mr. John Githongo and are inspired to fight corruption.

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