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Vol. 31 No. 6 · 26 March 2009

‘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, 978 0 00 724196 5
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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.’

There were reasons for this. Corruption needs to be widely tolerated in order to persist. It can be tolerated out of deference, or fear, or because sleaze doesn’t seem to affect ordinary people very much, which is the situation in comparatively wealthy countries. Or it can be tolerated because ordinary people, as well as the bigwigs, can expect to gain from it. In Kenya, Wrong claims, it was generally accepted that the ruling group – the tribe, or coalition of tribes – feathered not only its own nest but also the nest of its ‘people’, for example by building roads and schools in its own ethnic areas; and this was tolerated by the other groups so long as they thought they would get their go when the next election came around. Hence Wrong’s title: when your tribe takes over, it’s your ‘turn to eat’. It was a kind of ‘trickle-down’ effect: arguably more effective, because less fickle, than the one free-market economists favour. The rigged election of 2007, however, denied the opposition its turn at the trough.

Until then tribal differences had seemed to be softening. They had always been there, the result ultimately of those artificial colonial boundaries, and probably always would be, but they were usually, it seems from this account, pretty harmless: waspish little stereotypes trotted out without any serious import – thrusting and hard-nosed Kikuyu, flashy but superficial Luo, simple macho Kalenjin and so on. It was part of the fabric of Kenya’s society, as it is of Britain’s: the Welsh, Scots, English, northern English etc. (A Kikuyu taxi driver said to Wrong not long before the recent US elections: ‘I see you Westerners have problems with the Luo too.’) But Wrong sees a general melting-down of these prejudices and barriers occurring before 2007: among the many Kenyans who went abroad for their higher education (Githongo studied economics and philosophy at Swansea); and, less predictably, among the throngs of youngsters in the slums of Nairobi, who even developed their own polyglot street language (‘Sheng’) to bridge tribal divides – as well as to mystify their elders. It could have marked a beginning, against all the odds, of a truly national Kenyan identity: the ideal that Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki had always preached but had never been able to enforce from their corrupt heights. The riots that followed the 2007 election put an end to that. ‘Before, tribe had been something to whisper over, joke at and bitch about. Suddenly it was the only thing that mattered.’ It was corruption, Wrong maintains, that had done this, exploiting a relatively harmless tribalism until it became toxic.

This is why she is impatient with those who claim that it doesn’t matter, that the West should concentrate its aid on relieving popular hardship and starvation rather than reforming political systems: the Make Poverty History brigade, for example, whose pop idealism she regards as dangerously naive. She’s on Paul Wolfowitz’s side here. It was Wolfowitz who, during his brief tenure as president of the World Bank, insisted on linking aid with action against sleaze, on the grounds that the latter ‘distorts markets’. Githongo had dinner with him once, in January 2006, where he found himself ‘inwardly cheering’ him for this; it would have been difficult to cheer outwardly, of course, in view of Wolfowitz’s widespread unpopularity, which – together with a minor bit of sleaze of his own – lost him the World Bank job shortly afterwards. Before him, donor governments had been reluctant to make the linkage for a number of reasons: because if they did, other governments might not be so scrupulous, and so would reap the benefits that come from disbursing aid; because it would seem to make the poor suffer for the crimes of their governments; because they wanted to give in any case, for the warm feeling it gave them; because they assumed that Africans were incapable of anything better; and because of a pervasive post-colonial hang-up about intervening in the affairs of ex-colonies in ways that could be seen as neo-colonial.

In Githongo’s eyes it is this kind of mindset, rather than Wolfowitz’s, that is ‘condescending, implicitly racist’ and almost neo-colonial. It certainly has an imperialist pedigree, in the British colonial philosophy of the early 1900s which taught that Africans (and others) ought to be ruled ‘indirectly’, as it was called, or ‘on native lines’, because ‘their’ cultures were not the same as ‘ours’. This was problematical at that time too, especially among Western-educated Africans, who saw it as a way to stifle their aspirations for something ‘better’, but who then came into conflict with fellow Africans genuinely attached to the old ways: perhaps because there was something in it for them, like the chance to exercise traditional leadership, or favours from their colonial masters; or out of simple conservatism. It was also unpopular among foreign capitalists, who required more ‘modernisation’ – for example, of labour practices – in order to ‘develop’ Africa as they wished. Another problem was that it stereotyped Africa as a whole as something different from the ‘West’. That is a common perception today. Corruption and tribalism – to take the two main problems featured here – are seen as peculiar to the continent, endemic and entrenched: ‘This is Africa, after all. What else can you expect?’

It doesn’t help that many Africans appear to have internalised this stereotype, thus reinforcing the apathy (what is the point of struggling?) and making things difficult for people, like Githongo, who have been part-Westernised by their education and so distanced from their cultural ‘roots’. The name for them in Kenya, Wrong tells us, is ‘coconuts’: brown on the outside, but white inside. ‘The people John really wanted to impress were not the House of Mumbi, but the House of Windsor,’ a Kenyan journalist said to her. ‘His loyalty to Western values – things like a belief in the importance of rules, transparency, honesty and accountability – was greater than his loyalty to the tribe.’ It was a kind of tribal treachery. He was even accused of being in the pay of the British. (If that charge had stuck he could have been hanged for it.) Another of the smears directed at him – that he was a member of a (probably non-existent) ‘Royal Gay Society’ – milked this feeling. ‘Royal’ was clearly meant to associate him with the hated Brits. But even on its own ‘gay’ would have been enough to damn him as somehow alien, in a society where homosexuality is widely regarded as a Western colonial import.

Githongo’s problems were compounded by his decision to reveal the extent of Kenyan corruption to the whole world, not just privately, in the ‘proper circles’; and even more by those secret tape-recordings: in normal circumstances a fundamental breach of hospitality and trust. Even friends and supporters were uneasy about this. Later he came to share, or at least to understand, their misgivings. It was ‘morally disastrous territory, the worst form of betrayal, the most discomfiting thing I’ve done in my entire life.’ He had embarrassed his own people. ‘If your mother is naked,’ a Kenyan suggested to Wrong at the end of her investigations, ‘you throw a blanket on her, you don’t call the neighbours round to have a look.’ Githongo’s answers to this kind of criticism seem reasonable. What else could he have done? He had gone through all the ‘proper’ channels – mainly his direct line to President Kibaki – to no avail. And ‘can you imagine how I would look now if I hadn’t taped those conversations? Just some loony in Oxford making crazy claims.’ But it was unlikely to make him loved. ‘I thought as a whistleblower,’ he told Wrong, ‘you should be treated with high esteem. But it appears that when you do such a thing no one appreciates it.’ Few whistleblowers get the recognition they deserve. Kenya’s tribal loyalties simply made things worse.

This legacy of sensitivity and resentment, real or feigned, on the one side, and remorse on the other, one of the most pernicious after-effects of European colonialism, immensely complicates the fight against corruption in Africa. Wrong picks up a particularly rich irony when she finds prosperous Kikuyu appealing to their tribe’s anti-imperial past to defend the status quo, when she knows that most of them, or their parents, were in fact collaborators with the British against Mau Mau in the 1950s – which is how they managed to become prosperous in the first place. Mugabe is of course the all-time champion at tarring every kind of foreign criticism as ‘imperialist’ – part of the fiendish British plot to recolonise his country – but it’s a common Third World argument against any Western appeal to ‘human rights’. The Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s immediate reaction to the arrest warrant issued against him by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur was that he would not ‘kneel to colonialists’. African Anglican bishops use the same argument when they think Canterbury is trying to foist gay priests on them. In fact, a Sri Lankan journalist wrote in 1999, reacting against Tony Blair’s pontificating, ‘like everything else, human rights . . . are not absolute and are relative. They are relative to the culture. The present-day human rights are relative to the present West, which has been successful in establishing their hegemony over the entire world.’ To some Western liberals, steeped in post-colonial guilt – not entirely unreasonably – this argument has a certain appeal.

Of course, there is something in it. Western criticism of other cultures often proceeds from very narrow cultural or ideological assumptions of its own. Wolfowitz’s emphasis on ‘markets’ is an example. Insistence on multi-party systems – forced on Moi as a condition for foreign aid in 1992 – is another: political parties are not of the essence of democracy, and in some instances might actually divert or obstruct the popular will. There are cases where this can be shown in the West: over Britain’s part in the Iraq war, for example, or healthcare in America. In Kenya, Moi claimed that parties exacerbated the evils of tribalism. And Western criticism can be very mote-and-beam: blind to ways in which other cultures might be thought to be superior to the West’s. (Arab hospitality and African treatment of the elderly are two examples.) So why is the criticism always one-way?

Most damaging of all are probably the notions that Africa’s ‘culture’ – the thing that all these evils are supposedly rooted in – is somehow distinctively African, and cannot be changed. The first of these propositions is easily dismissed. For every African leader taking bribes there is usually a Western company dispensing them. Anglo Leasing was called ‘Anglo’ because its main office (or front) was in Liverpool. In that case the Serious Fraud Office tried to mount an investigation but was blocked (it appears) from the Kenyan side. In the case of BAE Systems, however, suspected of bribing the Saudis, it was Blair who notoriously pulled the rug from under the SFO, for what he called ‘national security’ reasons, thus ‘in one fell swoop’, as Wrong puts it, reducing Britain’s ‘outspoken stance on corruption to . . . so much hypocritical posturing’. At the news of it, she claims, ‘contemptuous laughter resounded across the African continent.’

The West has its own fair share of most of these ‘African’ ills. It seems unnecessary these days to point out the increasing potency of ‘tribalism’ and its associated violence in other parts of the world, under other names: in the former Yugoslavia and USSR most obviously. Britain and America have their ‘ethnic’ problems too, Britain’s main one (in Ireland) going on now, often bloodily, for more than 200 years. Nor are corruption and sleaze peculiarly African, or worse there than elsewhere. As the present economic crisis bites, more of it is coming to the surface in the West – again, the examples are too recent and well known to need mentioning. Senior Western politicians are not immune, either from criminal corruption (Berlusconi), or from a kind of legitimised greed – profiting from high office quite legally but surely distastefully (the Blairs) – which comes very close to it, and to what we affect to deplore so in African rulers. Everyday American congressional politics is riddled with a kind of corruption (‘pork-barrel’), and it remains to be seen whether this will change under Barack Obama. The 2000 presidential contest was hardly a model of electoral propriety. It can be argued that the old Labour-Conservative see-saw in British politics was much about whose ‘turn’ it was to eat, or to eat well – which class’s turn, that is. All of which is not to downplay these problems in Africa, still less to excuse them. In poor countries the effects of corruption are clearly far more damaging than in rich ones, unless you go for that ‘trickle-down’ defence. That’s probably why it stands out more in Africa; that, plus the fact that Western aid is in some instances subsidising it. No one likes charity being siphoned off into the pockets of the ‘Big Men’. But it is useful to be aware that Africa, or the ‘Third World’ generally, is not the only offender. This is a general, human societal problem; not a racial one.

On the second of these broad assumptions – that you cannot change Africa – Wrong is especially severe. No cultural value-systems anywhere are immutable: ‘they shift all the time, as the West’s own history – witness, for example, the view our courts take today, as opposed to fifty years ago, of a woman’s rights in marriage, or of racism in the workplace – amply demonstrates.’ Possible agents for change in this particular case are the blogosphere – Wrong cites an enterprising local website (www.mzalendo.com) which is keeping a watch on MPs’ financial interests – and this book itself. Kenya still has a free (or free-ish) press – it broke Githongo’s revelations originally – and bookshops that will stock the book, even if some have announced that they won’t. (But isn’t that a sign of the book’s potential impact?) That ‘colonial’ slur is still an obstacle, but might be overcome if, perhaps, the West reins in its criticisms a little (I’ve always thought that Britain was the last country that should be pillorying Mugabe, however awful he may be, in view of its past relations with his country); and if Africans could come to regard ‘transparency, honesty and accountability’ as just as much African values – they will certainly have some African precedents – as ‘Western’ ones. You can’t go on blaming imperialism for ever, even when it was as unsettling (to put it mildly) as in Kenya’s case. A new generation of Kenyans is now breaking that mould. One is presently the leader of the free world. John Githongo is another. In The Constant Gardener, set in Moi’s Kenya, John le Carré has an old white blimp say of one of the heroes of the novel: ‘My God, they didn’t make blacks like him in our day.’ They do now.

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