Top positive review
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
27 March 2016
John Githongo's story is that of a moral giant overwhelmed by moral pygmies. He started out against the background of high hopes. His boss, Mwai Kibaki, had defeated Daniel Arap Moi, in the Kenyan 2002 presidential election. Moi's rule had been blighted by despotism and corruption. His successor declared war against graft Githongo was the man he chose to wage it.
A few years' later, Githongo turned up out of the blue at the author's flat. He had fled the country, fearing for his life. The man who had appointed him to head the war on corruption had turned against him; he was persona non grata. He had rocked too many boats. His crime was not just he exposed the promises of the new incumbent as hollow. He had turned against his own tribe in questioning their right to 'eat' – to milk the state for the benefit of the tribe, at the expense of everyone else. For this, he was considered a traitor by his own group. Githongo's rise and fall encapsulates, in the story of one man's battle against corruption, the failure of post-independence Kenya to build a state that serves the interests of all its people, and not just those who happen to hold office. The hold of tribalism seems impossible to break.
Wrong is critical of outside powers, like Britain, ignoring these realities, and handing out aid to the new incumbents, without asking too many questions about where it was ending up. In the mid-2000s, Kenya was enjoying robust growth figures. The hope was that the wealth would trickle down and that a rising tide would lift all boats. The bloody aftermath of the 2007 elections confounded such hopes. Endemic corruption had seen the proceeds of growth flow to Kibaki's Kikuyu, especially their stronghold of central Kenya, while other regions languished. Corruption and the blatantly unfair allocation of resources exacerbated and compounded ethnic antagonisms, boiling over in the aftermath of the rigged 2007 election. At one point, the spiral of violence seemed to threaten a Rwandan-style conflagration.
Though the story is well-told, it leaves out any explanation as to why tribalism is so tenacious, other than the now-hackneyed explanation that it is a legacy of colonialism, which fails to explain its persistence in the absence of colonialists. Tanzania's rulers have done much more than Kenya's did to overcome the inherited colonial divisions of tribalism but it does not score much better in corruption indices or other measures of human progress. Further, corruption, deplorable as it is, does not necessarily stymie development, as examples in East and South East Asia show. That does not mean that it is something to be indulged or tolerated. The less corrupt a country's institutions are, the better it does. It just means the presence of corruption does not not rule out the possibility of socio-economic progress. Still, Kenya is not South Korea and I am probably not comparing like with like.
Githongo returned to Kenya and carries on his work. The country's corruption indices have enjoyed modest improvements, albeit from very low levels. We once had to rely on moral giants like him to win the sorts of things we take for granted today, in the UK. In our country, we expect that a Conservative government will provide asphalted roads and decent health services to parts of the country that did not vote for it – like Scotland. Kenya's people are still long way from enjoying what we take for granted: the fair allocation of public goods, that they are entitled to enjoy, regardless of which way they voted. Read this book and be grateful.