It’s My Turn to Read: Corruption in Kenya

Even though I’ve had Michela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower sitting on my proverbial shelf for over a year, I hadn’t found the time to pick it up and read it until just recently. It’s the story of John Githongo, an idealistic anti-corruption advocate turned government set-piece turned whistle-blower. After heading up the Kenya branch of Transparency International for a few years, Githongo was appointed anti-corruption czar when Mwai Kibaki won the presidency in 2002. Githongo took the position thinking he could contribute to a new dawn in Kenyan politics led by a party verbally committed to renouncing the crooked policies and practices of Daniel Arap Moi’s 24 years of money laundering and ethnic favoritism. Githongo soon discovered this “change” was more about changing who was favored/corrupt rather than eradicating favoritism/corruption. Githongo was disgusted by this betrayal, so he began documenting abuses and secretly made audio recordings of government ministers candidly talking about their shady deals. Eventually he helped expose a government scam in which over $750 million in government contracts were awarded to “Anglo Leasing” – little more than a mailing address in Liverpool that on paper masqueraded as a supplier for a variety of government services (these contracts were never fulfilled). Wrong’s book follows Githongo’s story while providing much context (some parts feeling a bit too tangential) on Kenya’s political and economic climate. It’s worth reading, although I felt like the book was stalling in its early chapters.

One of Wrong’s underlying themes is that aid organizations and Western donors have been helping to support this kind of corruption by providing stacks and stacks of money to governments without expecting much accountability in return. It’s doubly disappointing that, one, Githongo’s efforts had very little legal impact on those responsible for Anglo Leasing (there’s been little to no follow-though by Kenyan executive or judicial powers) and, two, that the revelation of large-scale and systemic corruption has had very little impact on the foreign aid Kenya receives (governments and aid organizations, having felt the catharsis of giving, fail to track who is benefiting from these “gifts”). It seems more and more people are moving away from the Jeffrey Sachs approach to poverty reduction and toward the “stop screwing our county with aid that hurts local entrepreneurship and encourages bad governance” camp. Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa is the newest addition to my bookshelf. Luckily it’s a short one. It might even be the perfect length for a flight from Nairobi to Chicago.

Another thing…in a sense, Wrong is arguing that corruption is a norm in Kenyan society. Not ‘some Kenyan politicians are corrupt’ or ‘many people have to deal with corruption’ in Kenya. Rather, she’s saying corruption is a regular part of Kenyan life, and those who work to stop corruption are the exception. “The contents of John’s dossier[…]matter far less than the fact that they emerged in the first place to challenge system” (p. 322). While this is a pretty damning argument, I have to say it resonates with some of my personal experiences here. Now, to say corruption is a norm is not to say that people like it. When my taxi driver was pulled over by two police officers on a dark road and forced to pay a 500KSH bribe, he was pissed. He immediately called a friend to complain about what just happened. But not liking something and not expecting something are two different things. Not too long ago, I was caught up with a few others in a situation where some guys took something of ours and were asking for a bribe to get it back. I wanted to be outraged by this, but most people I talked to gave the practical advice of “better to pay now than to wait and see what the price will be tomorrow.” So we paid, and we got it back. Still, what was the most baffling to me was the other most common response Kenyans gave to this story: “this is Kenya” (or it’s variant “TIA: this is Africa”). This is the same phrase a friend calmly stated after telling me that the money a sponsor sent for his school fees was embezzled. I was pissed at the injustice. How could anyone steal money from a young man trying to go to school? Why wasn’t this thief in jail? My friend was also upset. But he wasn’t so caught up in the injustice of the situation as he was disappointed that his time had come to be victim. I’m not saying that Kenyans are complacent. In fact, I think most are tired of the corruption and tired of being victims . But changing a norm is much harder than exposing one crime or prosecuting one criminal. It’s a cultural shift.

I think it will happen. But it will take time.

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