Review By Daniel Waweru
Saturday/Sunday, March 07-08, 2009.
Michela Wrong has written a book that will change Kenyan history. But this is a review, so nasty things must be said. I'll say them first, to leave a clean taste at the end.
It's Our Turn to Eat suffers an acute identity crisis. It's billed as the story of our most famous unpleasant symptom of the illness, and it certainly has the power to finish off the patient, but it is not itself the pathology. It's a mistake to locate the failure of the state here.
The crucial connection is drawn at page 43: "The various forms of graft cannot be separated from the people’s vision of existence as a merciless contest, in which only ethnic preference offers hope of survival." The persistence and flagrance of Kenyan corruption is supposed to follow on from this. If Wrong were anywhere near right, you'd expect the tribe to be an internal democracy: looters would be compelled to share the loot with their co-ethnics. That follows because, by Wrong's reckoning, the only bonds strong enough to hold leaders to account are ethnic.
But Kenyans aren't even good tribalists: they fail to get their share of the loot. What allows ethnic barons to strip ethnic outsiders of their property is the same thing that allows them to keep the loot out of the hands of their co-ethnics. In neither case can the people hold their leaders accountable; ethnic preference is too frail a reed on which to rest one's survival.
Wrong's slightly cloying hero-worship is a second, if minor, flaw. There's an awful lot of explaining away of John Githongo's unreliability, overconfidence and naivety. And there is a consistent tendency to gush: her insistence that of all her African friends only Githongo lacks a dodgy hinterland (p. 17) probably won't be met with universal joy.
So it's a relief to report that the book is at its very best when it delves into the interplay of a group of powerful men utterly corrupted by money, power and ethnic arrogance; and the tragic failure of the one good man who believes that he can stop them. Reading the central chapters induced despair, disgust, and a desire to undergo some sort of ritual purification: so thick and dark is the fog of moral corruption, so forlorn the hope that it will clear.
The central relationship -- and it is a relationship -- is Githongo's and Kibaki's. President Mwai Kibaki has been at the centre of the state almost his entire adult life. He was one of the drafters of the Independence Constitution; he co-wrote Sessional Paper number 10, and implemented it as Kenya's most influential Minister of Finance. Kibaki was also a key figure in the erstwhile President Daniel Arap Moi’s accession to power, and his Vice President for many years; he is now Kenya's longest-serving member of Parliament. Only Kenyatta, Mboya and Moi have been as influential. As the writer Martin Kimani once said, Kibaki is Kenya.
Hence, the first of the two central psychological puzzles of the book: how could anyone as able and independent as Githongo bring himself to believe that a man with this history was the man to usher in Kenya's new era?
Wrong's masterly feel for the actors in her drama is at its best here: the puzzle simply disappears once the telling details are filled in. It's not too much to say that the relationship begins in seduction.
Following National Rainbow Coalition’s (NARC) euphoric victory in December 2002, the fatherly concern shown Githongo by the new President Kibaki -- and Kibaki's treatment of Githongo as an intellectual equal -- completely disarms Githongo's good sense. The scene, at page 70, where the President and his Permanent Secretary for Ethics and Governance retire to the Presidential bedroom to discuss the price of oil, is genuinely tragic, in at least two senses. Kibaki's 'woolly bonhomie', nicely highlighted by Wrong, turns out to have been a very potent weapon; it is hard to believe that as independent a man as Githongo would have taken to an authoritarian President. John Githongo and the President, father and son, set out to save Kenya.
Githongo's tenacity is awesome: he builds his own intelligence network, and knows about Anglo-Leasing before almost anyone else does. It's also slightly troubling: the taping of his colleagues counts as a breach of trust, albeit a justified and probably necessary one. The odiousness of his colleagues is gradually revealed: by the end, the air is thick with blackmail and credible death threats. It can't, and doesn't, last. Githongo gamely hunts down the monster; the monster, it turns out, is his father.
Githongo might have shared the burden by working harder to institutionalise the fight against corruption; he might have been more careful in leaving himself an out. Set beside his naked courage, these criticisms are nothing. So deep is the betrayal that he seeks an Archbishop's advice. The depth of deception and Githongo's devoutness, as well as his hankering after moral order -- all vividly and sympathetically brought to life by Wrong -- account for the rigour of his response. Which solves the second central puzzle of the book: how was Githongo able to break out of the web of obligations -- ethnic, filial, patriotic -- that held him in place?
Githongo's vignette about the greed of those close to State House implicitly and aptly identifies it with lust in its shamelessness and limitlessness (p. 80). The sloth, stupidity, prejudice and greed -- the complete moral collapse -- of Kenya’s political class is laid bare: our fathers lie naked to the world in all their ugliness. Nothing will ever be the same.
Daniel Waweru is a Kenyan writer. His response to those who would like to know more about him is: ’No farther seek his merits to disclose/ Or draw his frailties from their dread abode…’