"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


book review: It's Our Turn to Eat

After months and months of waiting, last week I finally got my hands on a copy of Michela Wrong's expose of corruption in Kenya, It's Our Turn to Eat. The book will be published in hardcover in the states at long last later this week. Wrong, a journalist and author of two other very readable books on African states (including one that is a decent, if incomplete introduction to the D.R. Congo), does not disappoint in this unfortunately all-too-true story of lies, corruption, death threats, and intrigue.

It's Our Turn to Eat is the story of John Githongo, a Kenyan tapped to lead an anti-corruption crusade in the heady days after the country's 2002 elections. Voters finally threw Moi out of office in 2002, and the Kikuyu-led National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government took over almost immediately, with promises to end the culture of corruption that had infiltrated every sector of the Kenyan government since independence. Wrong and Githongo are friends; he fled to her flat in north London when he was forced to leave the country after uncovering corruption at the very highest levels of government. As such, it is an intensely personal account of Githongo's situation.

But more importantly, the book provides a modern political history of Kenya that manages to untangle the web of ethnic affiliations, familial loyalty, disintegrity, and donor idocy that drive political events in the country of 32 million people. It's therefore a very sad story of rising hopes and complete disillusionment with a system that seems beyond repair.

I lived in Kenya as a student in 1998 and did not return until 2005. In those last dying years of the Moi regime, one simply did not discuss politics unless among close, trusted friends in a private space. Moi's henchmen were not as strong as they had once been, but people still disappeared in the middle of the night, were harassed by police at checkpoints, and lived with much fear. Nothing in the city worked, not traffic lights or police services or, for several hours a day, the electricity. The Nation newspaper openly criticized the government, but no one else dared do so in public.

The difference between 1998 and 2005 was like that between night and day. I came to Nairobi on a break from being in the DRC and was astonished from the airport forward. No longer was it necessary to lie to the immigration agents; they just smiled, welcomed me to Kenya, and asked why it had taken so long for me to return. There were no porters acosting me the moment I came down the escalator to baggage claims. There were no police checkpoints anywhere I went, streets had been repaved, and - miracle of miracles - the traffic lights worked. Mostly. There were malls with real stores, huge supermarkets all over town, not just on Ngong Road, and you could even get a decent quesadilla at Java House. Even more remarkable, the Nairobi City Council had put in place a law that the matatus (minibus taxis) had to provide one seat per passenger - and the people enforced that law, insisting to the drivers and touts that extra passengers could not ride. In a city in which I once rode on the outside of a matatu, legs held in by a seated passenger so I wouldn't fall off, it was clear that something had changed.

As Wrong demonstrates, however, the changes in Kenyan society that came after the 2002 elections were in many ways only a smokescreen for those in power. In his role as an anti-corruption czar, Githongo soon discovered that the old patterns of corruption continued as before, particularly in the massive Anglo Leasing scandal that saw government ministers (and probably President Mwai Kibaki himself), steal money equivalent to a significant percentage of Kenya's GDP.

One of the most important aspects of Wrong's book is her emphasis on the importance of ethnic identity. It's not fashionable to talk about "tribes" or "tribal politics" anymore, but as Wrong notes, "in Kenya much of what takes place becomes incomprehensible if you try stripping ethnicity from the equation." She clearly shows, the Kikuyus in charge of the NARC government believed that they had suffered deprivations at the trough of government wealth during the Moi era and were determined to steal as much money from the government to benefit Kikuyus (mainly themselves) as possible. Again and again, Githongo (also a Kikuyu) is criticized for asking too many questions about his tribesmen. These criticisms soon turn into threats, and Githongo, who taped conversations in which government ministers freely admitted their roles in the scandal, eventually had to flee Kenya for London in order to preserve his life.

The book also does a nice job of tracing the role of Kenya's privileged, moneyed elite, who have a tendency to enjoy lavish lifestyles while manipulating their poverty-ridden ethnic kinspersons into voting them into office again and again. Githongo was part of this elite, which made his role as a whistleblower even more controversial. He didn't simply betray the Kikuyu; he betrayed most of the social class that produced him.

Finally, Wrong does an excellent job of dismanteling Western government rationales for continuing aid to a government whose ministers are clearly stealing funds from government coffers. The book is particularly damning towards Britain's DfID aid agency, which, in addition to having a stupid logo, also looked blindly away from the corruption, ignoring the impassioned (and at times hilarious) pleas of the British High Commissioner in Kenya, who had no illusions as to what was going on.

Wrong balances arguments about the need to protect the poor and provide health and education services to vulnerable populations with the difficulties associated with giving that aid directly to governments nicely. As she points out, the new global focus on "saving Africa" means that the West has lots of money to give, and losing a "partner" like Kenya would mean that agencies like DfID and USAID might lose portions of their budgets. There's nothing a bureaucracy hates more than seeing its budget diminished, even if those funds aren't being put to good use. The West's willingness to set a lower standard of conditionality for African states, Wrong argues, led to the UK and others' willingness to either only make small symbolic cuts or to not cut aid at all. Thus the lesson Kenya's leaders took from the whole affair was that corrupt behavior wouldn't really hurt anyone at all. A minister or the president could steal millions of dollars from government coffers without hurting anyone at all.

Except it didn't turn out that way. The scandals that came to light from 2004-2007 turned public opinion against the NARC regime, and, more significantly, against the Kikuyu. NARC lost a large percentage of parliamentary seats in the 2007 elections and almost certainly stole the presidency through ballot box stuffing in the Central Province, where presidential returns were last to come in despite the fact that parliamentary results from the same polls arrived hours earlier.

The stolen election resulted in ethnic riots that claimed the lives of hundreds and that displaced at least 300,000 people, and probably caused another 300,000 to move back to their "ancestral homelands." The media - and most middle and upper class Kenyans - responded with shock and horror, but as Wrong points out, "under a system which decreed that all advancement was determined by tribe, such hostility was entirely rational. Had all Kenyans believed they enjoyed equal access to state resources, there would have been no explosion."

But there was. The violence was horrific and the population will not recover for a generation or two, Wrong believes. I agree. Her analysis is absolutely damning, and one of her closing points - that "saving Africa" is a dangerous basis for a foreign aid policy that turns a blind eye to destructive social forces - is extremely prescient. And as she makes it clear, difficult choices have to be made:
"Worried Westerners ... so often seem to fall prey to a benign form of megalomania when it comes to Africa, [but] would do well to accept that salvation is simply not theirs to bestow. They should be more modest, more knowing, and less naive. They owe it not only to the Western taxpayers who make development organisations' largesse possible, but to the Africans whose destinies they attempt to alter."
As readers of this blog well know, that's one of the many reasons I believe it's better to direct aid to local organizations that have already figured out how to do good work on the ground, with strict monitoring and controls for corruption. There are lots of smart, capable people in places like Kenya who are already doing good things. They need our support, not our savior complex and low standards. We would all do well to take the lessons of John Githongo's experience to heart.

Don't forget that if you're in Kenya, there's a discussion of the book (and the opportunity to purchase a real copy) this Sunday from 2-5pm at the Kenya National Theatre. If you attend, I would love to hear your thoughts on the meeting.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michela Wrong is also speaking at Cato in DC on June 22. http://www.cato.org/event.php?eventid=6133

Tuesday, June 09, 2009 12:52:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks for the heads-up! And what an interesting venue...

Tuesday, June 09, 2009 5:45:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am in the middle of reading this book purchased surreptitiously (or so I thought) yesterday from a newspaper vendor on the way to work. It has been made available through the Nairobi Star newspaper vendors at a price of Kshs. 1,000.00.

Michela and John have done a great job of giving some historical perspective to the events pre and post independence in Kenya as well as the irrational thinking of the neo-colonialist leaders that still thrives in Kenya today on why it was OK to loot from public coffers.

It makes me wonder what kind of country our leaders wish to bequeath to their own children,my children and generations of children to come. This is a sordid account of our country's history that I trust will be incorporated in future history school text books as a shameful reminder of the excesses of a clique of greedy a corrupt leadership that promised to eradicate corruption but delivers scandal after mega corruption scandal!!

We need more Githongo's to continue exposing our leaders for what they are.....greedy, selfish and uncaring buffoons !! W. Mwangi, Nairobi

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 1:57:00 AM


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