In Kenya, corruption exposé is too hot to sell

Booksellers won't stock 'It's Our Turn to Eat,' fearing reprisals. But it's sold on street corners – and read aloud in churches.

By , Staff writer

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    Back: Former anticorruption adviser John Githongo (second from left) arrived in Kenya last August, ending his exile.
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    A flier (left) promotes book discussion.
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When British journalist Michela Wrong published her book about the crushing effects of Kenyan corruption a few months back, she knew her material would be explosive.

After all, her story of the crusade of one man, John Githongo, to investigate and document corrupt practices by officials illustrated just how deep graft had wormed its way into Kenyan politics, becoming a standard practice of the country's elite and top cabinet ministers, and receiving the tacit approval of Kenya's supposed reformist president, Mwai Kibaki.

What Ms. Wrong didn't count on was fear. Even today, no bookstore in Kenya offers her book, "It's Our Turn to Eat" for sale. Many booksellers, noting past lawsuits for defamation, fretted over reprisals by politicians named in the book.

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Yet the anger of ordinary Kenyans has overcome fear. Today, one can buy the book on street corners at giveaway prices. Radio talk-show hosts excerpt it on the air, and church ministers read from it in services, paired with biblical parables about the importance of standing up for principle. It's a grass-roots movement of people who know that corruption, in a poor country, can be as deadly as war.

"This is about free speech and good governance," says Wrong in a phone interview. She adds that she is "flattered" by the groundswell around her book, but has not organized it herself. "The idea is that once you've got 5,000 copies of the book out there, then the boycott will be meaningless, and any bookseller with an ounce of entrepreneurialism will say, 'You can buy the book on the street corner, so I might as well sell it, too.' "

Citizens waking up to graft's effects

Corruption, of course, exists in every country. Defense-contract scandals haunt politicians from the United States to South Africa; British tabloids publish the taxpayer-funded expenses of parliamentarians. But in the cash-strapped developing countries of Africa – where graft costs the continent an estimated $150 billion annually – corruption can kill. Treating government revenues as a personal piggy bank is stealing money from millions of the world's poorest citizens, many of whom have been displaced by war, famine, or – as in Kenya's case – politically motivated violence. Unassisted, many of these Africans go hungry and even die.

"Kenya is not a natural-resource-rich country, so there is a limit to how much taxpayer money one can steal," says Mwalimu Mati, an anticorruption crusader with Mars Group Kenya, a think tank that documents corruption. "In the past, if a minister took 10 million Kenyan shillings [$128,000], a person would think: 'What does that have to do with me?' It was normal. But in the current economic environment, and particularly after the postelection violence, people are thinking, 'Goodness, corruption is rampant. This is affecting me personally.' "

The inspiration for Wrong's book is anticorruption crusader John Githongo. A member of Kenya's intellectual and ethnic elites, Mr. Githongo felt an almost religious revulsion to corrupt government officials' depleting Kenya's meager resources.

During the dictatorship of former President Daniel arap Moi, he worked for Transparency International Kenya to publicize the way politicians were misusing public funds. Like many idealists then, Githongo thought Kenya's problem was that it was a one-party state, and that with competition the system would cleanse itself. Rivals would expose one another's misdeeds, courts would prosecute the guilty, and a free media would ensure that no politician could misbehave with impunity. When Mr. Moi's government was thrown out in the 2002 elections, Githongo accepted new president Mwai Kibaki's offer to be his personal adviser on corruption in government.

Corruption is 'the glue that holds it all together'

It didn't take long for Githongo to realize that his trust in Mr. Kibaki was misplaced. Many of Githongo's investigations led to fellow cabinet members, who appeared to be acting with the tacit knowledge of Kibaki himself. Githongo pressed on, leaking information to the press about a contract to a fictitious company called "Anglo Leasing." Anglo Leasing was a mere $54 million scam, but it was part of a larger pattern of fictitious procurements by Kibaki government ministers that added up to $655 million.

Soon afterward, Githongo began to secretly tape conversations with officials, and to ship those tapes out of the country. Eventually, persistent death threats forced Githongo to flee the country for London.

"People already knew a lot of the stuff that was in the book," says Githongo, "but it is because we put it together into a chronological order, with the background and the conversations of the people involved" that it has had such an effect.

The current government of national unity – a compromise coalition formed between Kibaki's Party of National Unity and Raila Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement after months of postelection violence – has let the country down, Githongo says.

Greed, he says, brought Kenya's politicians close to civil war, since they were willing to unleash ethnic violence to be able to control the Kenyan government, which forms the bulk of Kenya's economy.

"Corruption is the glue that holds it all together," says Githongo, who returned to Kenya last year. But greed may also bring this government down, as the anger of ordinary Kenyans and the courage of civic-minded groups and churches grows to confront politicians.

"I think the system is folding in on itself," Githongo says. Older corrupt politicians will die off, he says, and a growing urbanization of Kenyan society will weaken the tribal ties that give Kenya's traditional politicians their power. "Change will not be neat. But change will come." •

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