‘This is Africa, after all. What can you expect?’

Bernard Porter

  • It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower by Michela Wrong
    Fourth Estate, 354 pp, £12.99, February 2009, ISBN 978 0 00 724196 5

You can’t just march into someone else’s country, give it entirely arbitrary boundaries, decide to rule it with only the minimum of resources, settle an alien population on its best land, brutally suppress any sign of resistance, then scuttle before you’ve properly prepared it for self-government – and expect everything to turn out OK. That’s with the best will in the world; of which there was some, but not enough, in the British Empire. It probably hasn’t ever happened in history. It certainly didn’t happen in Zimbabwe, where Britain more or less washed its hands of the country from the start.

Kenya initially seemed to buck the trend. For a start, the settlers were fewer and sillier, and the official British policy – hard-won by Labour governments and the more liberal imperialists in the Colonial Office – proclaimed ‘native paramountcy’: giving precedence, that is, to African claims over European and Asian. Even that was not enough to prevent one of the bloodiest of Africa’s liberation wars in the 1950s: Mau Mau, the ‘Emergency’ and all that. Again, no Briton could have been surprised if the African government that emerged from this in 1963 had turned out ‘badly’. At first, however, it appeared not to. Jomo Kenyatta, the new nation’s first president, decided to let bygones be bygones – even to disown Mau Mau (‘we shall not allow hooligans to rule Kenya’) and to preach reconciliation – with the result that unexpectedly, and quite undeservedly, Britain was able to claim a decolonisation ‘success’. (By this time ‘success’ had come to mean handing over to a government that seemed to work. In many liberal imperialists’ eyes this could even be taken to justify the colonial process, as if ‘preparing peoples for self-government’ had been the idea all along.) After all the horrors of the 1950s, it looked too good to be true.

It was. Corruption and ethnic favouritism grew under Kenyatta. Under his successor, Daniel arap Moi (1978-2002), from one of Kenya’s minority tribes, things got a great deal worse. (Michela Wrong acknowledges that the word ‘tribe’ ‘raises eyebrows’ in the West, but points out that it is still used in Kenya today, and is indeed essential to an understanding of its society.) Great hopes were placed in the man who peacefully replaced him, Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu like Kenyatta; he preached national unity (as they all did). One who hoped much from him was John Githongo, the hero of Wrong’s fascinating, richly researched and important new book, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower. Githongo believed Kibaki when he proclaimed an end to corruption, and became his right-hand man in the task of flushing it out. But he got almost nowhere. At first he attributed this to the people who were surrounding the rather ‘indolent’ Kibaki (the ‘Blame the Entourage’ line, Wrong calls it), all of whom seemed to be taking backhanders, especially from a very dodgy commercial outfit called Anglo Leasing and Finance; he came to the realisation that Kibaki had his own hand in the till only quite late in the day. Wrong reckons he was a bit naive here. He then came to think that he had only been given the anti-corruption job because he was a privileged Kikuyu, and so could be depended on to be loyal to his ‘own people’ when push came to shove. When he refused to go along with this he was set aside, smeared, then threatened. Eventually he fled to London, clutching masses of incriminating evidence, including tapes of conversations he had recorded surreptitiously, to land on the doorstep of Michela Wrong – whom he had known as a newspaper correspondent in Kenya – in February 2005. A year later he went public, in the pages of Kenya’s Daily Nation. The American ambassador described the effect as ‘like a grand piano falling out of the sky’.

It should have flattened the Kibaki government. But it didn’t. Ministers were dismissed, but later reinstated. In the next general election, in December 2007, the vote was rigged to allow Kibaki to continue in office – and all hell broke loose. Riots cost the lives of at least 1500 people, some of them slaughtered with unspeakable brutality. Wrong describes victims being circumcised with broken bottles before being beheaded. Most of the violence was inter-tribal. There was widespread ‘ethnic cleansing’, conjuring up memories of the 1994 Rwandan genocide (Rwanda is not far away), as well as stirring more atavistic Western racial fears. And this in what at one time had been Britain’s favourite ex-colony, a vindication of enlightened imperialism, a model for the rest of the continent, and the living proof that not all African states had to go the way of the worst of them. As Wrong puts it, ‘the myth of Kenyan exceptionalism – the notion that the chaos associated with other parts of Africa simply “didn’t happen here” – has been for ever laid to rest.’

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