February 12, 2009 / 4:34 PM / 10 years ago

Business Books: Corruption drains Kenya as donors turn blind eye

LONDON (Reuters) - Kenya’s rulers plundered their country to enrich themselves and preserve an ethnic clique’s hold on power while Western donors turned a blind eye and kept the aid flowing, according to a new book.

In “It’s Our Turn to Eat” (Fourth Estate, 12.99 pounds), journalist Michela Wrong delves into the corruption that has poisoned African societies, put a brake on development and discouraged investment.

It is certain to stir controversy in Kenya, where a power-sharing government, formed less than a year ago after post-election bloodshed in east Africa’s biggest economy, has been embroiled in a new series of corruption scandals.

“These are not merely Kenyan issues. Ethno-nationalism is emerging as Africa’s most toxic problem, challenging the continent’s very post-colonial structure,” the author writes.

The book centers on the struggle of Kenyan anti-corruption whistleblower John Githongo, who turns up on Wrong’s London doorstep with stacks of evidence of graft and afraid of potential retribution by those he stands to expose.

Suspense-filled passages track Githongo’s efforts, which start in 2002 with his appointment by President Mwai Kibaki to help lead the fight against corruption — which had been at the center of Kibaki’s election campaign.

As Githongo unearths details of the Anglo Leasing scandal, in which millions of dollars were paid to phantom firms, the circle of the accused widens to include many top officials, members of the Kikuyu tribe, to which both Githongo and Kibaki belong.

The book, to be published in Britain on February 23 and in the United States by HarperCollins in June, ties together the personal theft with the determination of an elite from the Kikuyu tribe never to let power slip.

The portrayal of Githongo, one of a rare breed of corruption fighters in Africa, is not always sympathetic.

He often appears indecisive, as well as naive for failing to realize how far the responsibility reaches as he secretly tapes officials, sometimes laughing with them as they discuss plans for diverting state funds.

LAUGHTER

“I would always respond by trying to make a joke of it,” Githongo is quoted as saying.

“It was the only way. If you fell silent and the room went quiet then ... Then you would have to deal with the uncomfortable realities as they had just been presented.”

The book paints a damning picture of a country that was long regarded as one of the continent’s most stable and a favorite of Western governments and donors.

Those donors emerge looking particularly tarnished, from World Bank officials cozying up to the administration to the British state aid agency, whose main concern is presented as being to meet its targets for handing out money.

The title of the book, “Our Turn to Eat,” is a reference to the idea that each tribe in Kenya wants a turn at the trough.

“Kenya’s foreign partners failed to grasp that a system of rule based on the ‘Our Turn to Eat’ principle was explicitly designed to prevent the trickle-down on which they counted for progress,” she said.

Although Githongo’s eventual expose caused a ruckus and a series of departures from government, there was no major upheaval. Some of those accused found their way back into the administration.

Anger over corruption was a big factor in the 2007 election, which ended in bloodshed after opponents accused Kibaki of fixing the results to win re-election. About 1,300 people were killed before the two sides agreed to share power.

The new administration has since been accused of a series of new scandals over everything from the sale of a hotel to supplies of fuel and the staple maize. Githongo has described it as “free-for-all graft”.

Britain’s Serious Fraud Office this month decided to abandon its investigation into the Anglo Leasing scandal because Kenya’s government had failed to provide evidence.

“The John Githongos of this world have their work cut out,” Wrong writes.

Reporting by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Eddie Evans

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