Wrong has got it right

Saturday February 14 2009

By DAVID KAIZA

One winter morning in February 2005, a large man in a leather trench coat came in from the cold through Michela Wrong’s door in London, carrying an inordinate amount of personal luggage, four mobile phones and secrets that could have killed him.

She was not surprised to see him and the overtones of espionage that hung about him would become all too real (leaving a London hotel minutes earlier, he had hired two taxis, sent the decoy in a wrong direction and boarded the second).

But it was her lack of surprise that was most ominous; two years earlier, she had warned this same man against taking a hazardous job back in Nairobi.

The appearance of John Githongo – on the run from what he felt was a threat to his life, from a job that people like Richard Leakey had warned him against taking – on Ms Wrong’s doorstep, started a chain reaction of rumours and counter-rumours that would headline in the international media and feed speculation in Kenya.

His high profile “escape” from Kenya and the break with the NARC government has become part of the sediment Kenyan politics is precariously balanced over – a latter-day prelapsarian tale to burden the national narrative of how right went wrong.

In a way, the drama of Githongo’s life presaged the killings and burnings that convulsed Kenya last year - if not for the colour it added to the buildup to the clashes, then for the ominous shadow it cast into the future.

His “escape”

The dimensions of his “escape”, and what it foreshadowed was enough to drive Michela Wrong, already a veteran journalist/writer with a landmark novel of Mobutu’s Zaire, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz under her belt, into writing what already has the makings of a major book.

Mr Githongo was, and in a way remains, a man on the run. The optimism occasioned by the end of President Moi’s 24-year rule had come crashing down earlier for him than for any other Kenyan.

As “anti-corruption czar” he had booked a front row, middle seat in the murky drama that is African governance. But more than that, he was a protagonist in that Beckettian play as well, one in which nothing goes right and all our worst expectations come to pass. He was never going to slay the dragon for the simple reason that this dragon was actually a hydra.

In a suspenseful paragraph in It’s Our Turn to Eat, a man in high office (speaking of the Anglo-Leasing scandal), tells a very disillusioned Githongo, “Anglo Leasing is us.”

From that point, there was nothing much to do. The penny had dropped – in fact, a lot of pennies – some $751 million’s worth of them, a sum larger than the total aid money given to Kenya in the 2003/04 financial year.

Within these pages, we stand eyeball to eyeball with corruption. The book is an ironclad tell-all that mercilessly bares all to the light. It feels dangerous to just read, let alone write. We can only imagine what is like to live it, as Githongo does.

We are close enough to smell the nervous sweat staining the armpits of the people involved in this story. Among Nairobi’s literati, there is talk already that this is the most far-reaching book written on Kenya to date. As one Nairobi wit puts it, Michela Wrong has got it Right.

A suspenseful read, a nail-biting narrative, a driving analysis into not only the yet-unconcluded dire straits a young, naive man got himself into, but also an update on the character of a dramatic nation, It’s Our Turn to Eat is a transferable tale whose larger thrusts afford insights into a Nigeria, a South Africa, a Uganda as much as a Zimbabwe.

In a way, Ms Wrong was lucky. When the apprehensive Githongo walked into her flat, so did the book. She was friends with him, she discloses early on in the book. She knew Nairobi and Kenya more intimately than perhaps any other country on the continent.

The book is two things. First, an invaluable insight into the ways in which corruption is done. Second, just as important, it is a portrait of Githongo as a symbol of the vulnerability of idealism, as a symbol of the moral strength; also a sobering disclosure of how brittle courage can be.

The blurb on the back of the book asking, “What is it about African society that makes corruption so hard to eradicate…” misses the point by asking an outsider’s execrable question — conflating “African society” with the state is silly, and perhaps whoever wrote the blurb should tell us about the Western Credit Crunch.

Told in 17 chapters, the book draws from the widest possible contexts to tell that tale. Ms Wrong has imbibed Kenya — ethnicity, class, youth, land and history woven together to give several perspectives into her subject.

She knows a good story and has the language to tell; it starts at breakneck speed, which reassuringly slows to become to become analytic, fulfilling and, finally, sobering.

It is telling that she starts with the image of Githongo fitfully concealing his legendary taping of conversations and ends with an epilogue on the life and death of another whistle-blower, David Munyakei. She gets very close to her subject.

Githongo is here turned inside out for our scrutiny. Was it naivety or idealism that drove him? Was he appointed PS because the Wazee thought him ethnically safe? Could the pull of tribe and class have been even more powerful than John suspected? What was crossing his mind as more and more meetings at State House were conducted in Gikuyu?

We know he was alarmed because he warned (from today this sounds prophetic) that this will “fix us”.

To the first question, there is much in the book itself to suggest that Githongo was perhaps more idealist than realist. To the second, there are suggestions that his class and background may have played a role for he repeatedly excused his acceptance of the PS’s job with the statement that the “old men” made him do it.

Was he unable to resist the pull of power? He worked a few metres from the President’s office and several times talked to him right in his bedroom. So, in a manner of speaking, there was no distance between him and the President. As these things go, people anxious to get to the President found they could beat the bureaucracy by passing information through Githongo.

The charmer

We are given Githongo the charmer – to whom “thrusting Kenyan yuppies”, “world weary Asian lawyers”, “doddery white leftovers”, “impassioned activists”, even “lowly taxi drivers” were drawn. But she also writes, “Like a woman of astounding beauty, John was always more loved and desired than he could ever love in return.”

For the reader, Githongo rises up as a King Lear of sorts. To power, he may have fatally thought he was close. But President Kibaki was the older man, experience his edge over the younger man.

Had Mr Kibaki not watched these same idealists rise and disintegrate right from the 1960s, when Githongo was only a toddler? Was he really able to read this circumspect veteran who gave tacit approvals and at times only laughed and never gave an opinion or was he too star-struck to do so?

It is hence telling when Ms Wrong writes that Githongo was a man “who did not recognise the gulf in perspective between himself and the president”. This is also an enigmatic statement – at least as this story is not yet finished – that will unravel in time, for while we have Githongo’s “perspective”, we cannot with certainty say what the president’s was at the time.

This book is a live wire. The principal actors in it are still alive, and holding office. As such, It’s Our Turn to Eat is one of those books that influence the very flow of events they write about.

It will be illuminating for non-Kenyans. But it is an unforgiving, disturbing expose that will lacerate its Kenyan audience.