It’s our turn to eat – tribalism and corruption in the post-colonial state

Sun, 7 Jun 2009 Source: Amenyo, Kofi

NB: This is a book review, specially written for ghanaweb

Today, many of us may have forgotten John Githongo, the man chosen by a new Kenyan government to fight corruption, who had to run away for his life from the pressures of doing a job too well. But his story lives on in Michela Wrong’s book, It’s Our Turn to Eat – an excellent account of tribalism and corruption in the post-colonial African state. This story is about Kenya but it is also the story of tribalism and corruption in Ghana and in any other African state for that matter.

In 2002, John Githongo, at a mere 37 years, was appointed to head the anticorruption unit specially set up by the new president. He had worked with Transparency International, was a journalist who wrote incisive articles on his country’s politics and was, in many ways, the right man for the job. He took it up with gusto, appointed a staff of young Kenyan iconoclasts all determined to fight the graft that has ruined their country for so long. The president showed his determination to support the appointee by having John’s office almost next to his in the State House. He had direct access to the President and didn’t need to book time to see him.

Githongo found that corruption cut across the political divide and specific corrupt practices passed on from one government to the other. It was exceedingly tribally based and involved the very topmost of leadership – the president himself! He discovered something else: not only was corruption difficult to fight, it was also dangerous to try to – very dangerous.

Of all the corrupt deals the author describes, one, the Anglo-Leasing affair, stands out. This involved contracts for 18 projects worth a whopping $750 million. Ministers had their fill with overbillings, one of the companies involved had an address in a Liverpool backyard that no one knows of and contracts were signed without anyone in the government having a clear idea of with whom it was being signed. Githongo investigated all these, sometimes, working like a spymaster with paid informants to whom he had given code names. In a controversial move, he also took secret recordings of conversations he had with top government officials openly discussing stealing money – all in an attempt to have concrete evidence. Four ministers were forced to resign over the deal. Two of them, like Anane, would be back within two years. The law does not stop the president from reappointing a minister the courts had not found guilty no matter the irreprehensible nature of what he had done.

The backlash against Githongo was cruel and came in different forms. Blackmail was tried. They spread rumours that he was a homosexual. There were strange telephone calls at night and even outright death threats. It was time to flee for his life and it was to the UK he fled. He was born there.

The author discusses the motives behind corrupt acts on our continent. Poverty makes its usual appearance. She discusses the family ties that make any African in position to do so to take bribes. Kenyan (and Ghanaian?) politicians will tell you they need to use graft cash to fund political campaigns (“resource mobilisation” is the euphemistic name they give to this act) in order to maintain positions and also to prevent the other side from taking over. But, often, a lot of this money goes into private pockets. We remember cadres of the defeated NPP complaining that some of the money allotted to their campaign went into private pockets while the party heavyweights are still smarting over the opportunities they let go to the NDC.

Perhaps the most interesting thing that emerges from the book is when the author draws out the tribal underpinnings of corruption in Kenya. When Kenyatta was in power, he promoted his own Kikuyu tribesmen. When Moi came, he did the same thing with his much smaller Kalenji tribe. The Kikuyus got the momentum back when Kibaki took over. The Luo (the third largest tribe) was, for long, denied a place at the table. The author calls the Kikuyu clique controlling affairs the “Mount Kenya Mafia”. Ghanaweb readers will readily recollect the “Dzelukope Mafia” (was that term coined by Okoampa-Ahoofe?) but it is not quite the same thing.

“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,” Ms Wrong writes. That was why the Kikuyus saw John’s work as a gross act of betrayal of the tribe – this from one of their own belonging to the House of Mumbi. And that was also why the Luo anger knew no bounds when they felt robbed of their turn to also eat. She observes that many young urban poor Kikuyu had actually voted for the opposition ODM in protest against the aloofness of Kibaki to the plight of the poor but when the fires started, they were directed strictly along tribal lines. Tribe trumped class when it came down to it.

It may be tempting for the Ghanaian reader to try to find comparisons between the Kikuyu and the Asante. While there are some similarities, there are several important differences. The Asantes are highly centralised unlike the Kikuyu who do not have the equivalent of an all powerful Asantehene. Both ethnic groups fought the British but the Kikuyu quickly adopted the ways of the white man giving them leverage in Kenya’s socio-political life which Asantes do not really have in Ghana. The Kikuyu elite would so imbibe the colonialist’s ways that they would come to enjoy what the author calls the life of “an African English country squire”. The Kikuyu think they are better than their other countrymen – something many forumers on ghanaweb accuse the Asantes of. And Kikuyu pride (arrogance?) is resented by non-Kikuyu Kenyans. On a lighter note when the author describes the Kikuyu’s notorious habit of transposing the pronunciation of “r” and “l”, you are immediately reminded of the Asante. I had a light chuckle when the author talked about the Kikuyu describing the “ligged erections”. A few of our Asante brothers and sisters must certainly have said exactly the same thing about our last “rigged elections”. Are the Ewes the Luos of Ghana? That will be stretching it too far.

A comparison of the workings of the tribal dynamics in Kenya and Ghana makes for some interesting reading. No ethnic group in Kenya accounts for more than a fifth of the country’s population but the Kikuyu alone have an influence far beyond their numbers. The Akan form more than 40 per cent of Ghana’s population but their influence, comparatively, is far less than that of the smaller percentage of Kikuyus. Can this be due to the fact that our country’s first president, Nkrumah, was from a minority tribe and could not have possibly set his ethnic group above the others or was it because of his particular brand of socialism that de-emphasized tribe in favour of nation – indeed, Africa? One gets the feeling that we in Ghana have it better, when it comes to friction between the ethnic groups, than Kenya despite any nonsense you may read on ghanaweb. That is no reason to drop our guards. When the fires died down after the troubles, Kenyan society became more tribally divided than before as people voluntarily moved to their own tribal areas – the so called “ancestral homelands” even though many had never lived there before. Imagine the Anlos, who had spent all their lives peacefully in Kumasi, leaving their places of abode carrying their worldly possessions and heading to villages around Keta, to homesteads they had never known and which, perhaps, had long been washed away by the sea.

The author has some harsh words for the role of the west, donor agencies and NGOs in enabling corruption on the continent. Kenya’s help to the USA in its global war on terrorism meant the US would turn a blind eye on the irregularities in the country’s administration. The two World Bank representatives in the country during the period come out badly too. Both were third world citizens (a Senegalese and a Guyanese) and both chose to live in premises they hired from the President’s wife! The author feels Wolfowitz’s Governance and Anticorruption Framework was a great idea and describes a bit of World Bank internal politics in the build up to Wolfowitz’s resignation which she describes as throwing away the baby with the bathwater. She talks about how China’s role in the continent negates efforts by other agencies to fight graft since the Chinese lend to African governments without any questions asked. The British Department for International Development, newly set up by the Blair government, also comes in for criticism. This time, it is the over-enthusiasm to spend over-abundant aid money that pushes concerns about graft to second place. How much money was disbursed became more important than where it ended. The book contains useful discussions of the new approaches to aid, the Millennium goals and the efforts of NGOs. The latter reminds you of the local NGOs that have lately mushroomed in Ghana with their progenitors being more interested in their own pockets than the poor whose sufferings they claim to want to alleviate.

Ms Wrong dismisses “the old man himself is ok” argument in which the African leader, the father of the nation, is exonerated from the corruption that goes on around him. The same thing was said about Nkrumah, that he, himself, was clean and it was the ministers around him who were corrupt and let him down. She states categorically: “If a leader is surrounded by shifty money-grabbing aides and family members, it’s because he likes it that way. These are the people he feels at ease with ... Far from being an aberration, the entourage is a faithful expression of the autocrat’s own proclivities.” That argument is not being applied to Kufuor probably because most Ghanaians already know of that man’s inordinate greed.

The author mentions the fact that African governments already have structures in place to check corruption by public officials. Some of these were left by the British. New ones are made like the Public Officers Ethics Act but all such efforts have a canny way of failing. In certain cases an Official Secrets Act is used as a legislation to hide misdeeds by government officials. Recommendations of committees which find individuals guilty are not often carried out especially where the president is involved. Anti-corruption commissions are headed by members of a politicized judiciary made up of lawyers of old who are adept at taking refuge in legal niceties. The cure becomes part of the problem when those who are to check corruption are integral parts of the problem. And when the president is reluctant to deal with his cronies caught with their hands in the public till, no amount of regulations will suffice. Prof Lungu may shout himself blue in the face about FOI, when the president’s heart is not in it, mere passage of the bill will not bring about the much needed changes.

Today in Kenya, John Githongo has been forgotten, even by his old compatriots in the anti-graft trenches. He has now visited the country he fled (with bodyguards by his side) and plans to enter parliament even though he can easily get a good international job having worked on several committees and was an expert on the World Bank’s Department of Institutional Integrity headed by Paul Volcker. The author concludes that any single individual fighting corruption faces a most formidable task. He will be beaten by the system he sets out to cure.

Ms Wrong has hope for Africa and thinks things will change. “Cultural values are not immutable,” she writes and “the continent is no bizarre exception, impervious to the trends and processes that affect the rest of humanity.” We all hope she is right.

The lady writes very well. Oh yes, she does. What do you expect of someone who writes for both The Economist and Financial Times and won a prize for her first book on the Congo? The quality of writing is miles away from the usual stuff we get on ghanaweb. There are passages of sheer beauty like when she describes the landscape as she drives towards the heartland of the fertile Kikuyu country. Perhaps our own Benjamin Tawiah or Kwesi Yeboah, at their lyrical best, may touch such heights...

Now that Ghana is facing a gigantic economic boom from oil, we may also need an anti corruption tsar. If we do, which individual Ghanaian will you, dear reader, suggest for such a job? Or shall we set a thief to catch a thief by appointing either of Kwadwo Mpiani or Tsatsu Tsikata to the post?

It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle Blower by Michela Wrong is published by Fourth Estate, London, Harper Collins Publishers, 2009. At 354 pages, it includes a glossary, notes and index. Paperback cover price: £12.99. Available on amazon.com at $17.15

Kofi Amenyo (kofi.amenyo@yahoo.com)

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi