Saturday, April 11, 2009

‘It’s Our Turn to Eat’ now in electronic bookshop

By OTIENO OTIENO

A book that offers rare insights into the power games inside and outside the Kibaki State House in the first three years of his presidency is now selling in the electronic bookshop.

The book, It’s Our Turn to Eat, by British author and journalist Michela Wrong, stirred considerable excitement in Kenya after a lot of publicity in the local media last month. Ms Wrong covered Africa for Reuters and the Financial Times for a number of years. Her first book, In the Foosteps of Mr Kurtz, published in 2002, is about Mobutu’s Zaire and has received widespread critical acclaim.

There is no official ban here on It’s Our Turn to Eat, which came out in Britain in February, but it has been curiously missing from the shelves of the bookshops in Nairobi and major towns. However, a few copies of the book have found their way into Kenyan hands, mainly as giveaways and through guerrilla-selling tactics.

A pirated version that did not include all chapters of the book was initially circulated as a PDF file. In an e-mail currently making the rounds of electronic mailing lists in Kenya, Ms Wrong says that the giant publisher Harper Collins has come up with an e-version of her book.

“So Kenyans can buy the PDF file and there’s no excuse for any further piracy or bootlegging … we’ve tried to keep the price as low as possible – you’ll see that it is a lot cheaper than the hard copy,” she says. Arrangements are being made to make it possible for people who don’t own credit cards to buy the book using M-Pesa, the mobile phone money transfer service operated by Safaricom, she adds.

Ms Wrong has herself apparently turned to e-marketing in Kenya because bookshop owners apparently fear the possibility of attracting potentially costly libel suits if they were to stock copies of the book.

The names of a number of influential politicians and other personalities are mentioned in the book, whose basis is an account of John Githongo’s experience as President Kibaki’s adviser on corruption between 2003 and 2005. He was officially the permanent secretary for ethics and governance.

Mr Githongo went into exile while on business in Britain, citing threats to his life after he said he had come across evidence of fraudulent deals involving influential people in the Kibaki administration and Anglo Leasing-type contracts and attempted to stop them. He has since returned to Kenya several times.

The Anglo-Leasing financial deals are thought to have cost Kenyan taxpayers billions of shillings. Mr Githongo is currently locked in a legal battle with Dr Chris Murungaru, a former powerful minister for Internal Security, over the matter.

Kenya’s power elite are famously litigious over issues they perceive to be damaging to their reputation. Huge awards in damages arising from libel cases have emboldened them. Nicholas Biwott, the Moi-era powerman, holds the record for collecting the largest amount of money in libel case payouts in Kenya.

In 2000, a Nairobi court awarded Mr Biwott Sh30 million in damages from a case in which he sued the British forensic expert Dr Ian West and others for linking him to the 1990 murder of Dr Robert Ouko, the then Foreign Affairs minister.

Dr West was part of the Scotland Yard team led by John Troon that investigated the death of Dr Ouko and recorded his account in Dr Ian West’s Casebook in which Mr Biwott said he was defamed.

Mr Biwott had earlier the same year won Sh10 million from Bookpoint, the popular Nairobi bookshop, for stocking copies of the same book. Critics say the awarding of huge sums in defamation cases amounts to suppression of constitutionally protected freedom of expression.

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