Kenyan anti-corruption campaigner – and ONE advisor – John Githongo passed through London recently. He was in town to give a public lecture on “The Paradox of Two Recessions”- looking at the underlying causes of last year’s violence in Kenya and drawing lessons for Africa as a whole.
John is becoming increasingly well known because of his own dramatic story, pieced together in the recent book “It’s Our Turn to Eat” by British author Michela Wrong.
Due out in the US next month, it tells how the former journalist and Transparency International expert was appointed ‘anti-corruption Tzar’ by Kenya’s newly democratic government in 2003.
Housed in the office of President Mwai Kibaki, a man he admired and trusted, Githongo uncovered the painful truth – that corruption in his country went to the very top. He eventually decided to blow the whistle and fled to England in fear of his life.
Speaking quietly in the chill atmosphere of the 12th century church of St Bartholemew the Great, John described how Kenya experienced rocketing economic growth in recent years, but how this was accompanied by a “democratic recession”. Those in power – under Kibaki mostly drawn from the Kikuyu ethnic group – used this power to enrich themselves. Growth did not trickle down to ordinary people who remained locked in poverty.
This “ethnicised inequality”, John argues, was responsible for the violence that convulsed Kenya after the 2007 elections, and will be the critical issue for the coming decade.
“The state in Kenya accumulated extraordinary executive powers that were used to protect a minority,” he said. “ We’ve had 40 years of state-building, but we abandoned nation-building, the forging of a common identity, and now we’re paying the price.”
In other countries such as Tanzania – “for better or worse”, there had been a more concerted effort at nation building since independence, he said.
While the problems in Kenya are ingrained in its political system, John said he saw reason for optimism.
“I have spent the last five months travelling and living with ordinary people at the grass roots, listening to them, talking late into the night.. All Kenyans know what needs to be done. There is a common understanding there..”
The answer, he argues, lies in root and branch reform of the institutions of the state, in “deepening democracy” by moving away from reliance on elections to genuine participation by the whole population.
More to come on John Githongo and Michela Wrong’s book soon.
-Helen Palmer, Media Relations Director, Europe