Our turn to eat

Leaving John that day, I felt a deep tinge of melancholy. Working in Africa, I’d grown accustomed to compromised friendships, relationships premised on willful ignorance on my part and an absence of full disclosure on my friends’.

When visiting a former Congolese prime minister, sitting in a garden whose bougainvillea-fringed gardens stretched across acres of prime real estate, I knew better than to ask if his government salary had paid for all this lush beauty… And when I shared a beer with a Great Lakes intelligence officer I’d befriended in a presidential waiting room, I knew that one day I’d probably come across his name in a human rights report.

…Life was complicated. The moral choices needed to rise to the top were bleaker and more unforgiving in Africa than those faced by Westerners.

It was easy for me, born in a society which coddled the unlucky and compensated its failures, to wax self-righteous. I had never been asked to choose between the lesser of two evils, never had relatives beg me to compromise my principles for their sakes, never woken to the bitter realization that I was the only person stupid enough to play by the rules. If I was to continue to like these men and women – and I did like these men and women – it was sometimes necessary to focus on the foreground and willfully ignore the bigger picture.

That is Michela Wrong in It’s Our Turn to Eat, the tale of her friend John Githongo, anti-corruption crusader of Kenya. As it turns out, John did not disappoint; he wrecked his life and career and family in an effort to expose some of the most egregious corruption scams in his native land. In their first years in office, President Kibaki and his cronies would loot nearly as much money as entered Kenya in aid.

Wrong is among my favorite journalists writing on Africa (a favorite piece is here). Her new book is superb – part journalism, part diary, and part Le Carre novel. The academic in me wasn’t always pleased; her assessment of ethnic politics is thinly constructed (this syllabus might come in handy), and her portrait of Githongo can’t help but be influenced by a close friendship. But a more interesting and readable book on Africa is hard to find.

Kibaki and the ‘Mount Kenya Mafia’ emerge as the real villains of her story, but the World Bank and DfID come out second and third. A series of Bank country directors enjoyed an uncomfortably cozy relationship with the President, one exiting in semi-disgrace after the horrendous 2007 election. Wrong faults both donors for putting budget imperatives ahead of common sense.

The trouble with doubling foreign aid: ready or not, that money has to go out the door. Add an American desire to maintain an important ally against terror, and we get a state unaccountable to its donors and well as its citizens.

I don’t know the full Bank and DfID side of the story (readers: any insights?) but I’m sympathetic to Wrong’s point of view. Donors repeatedly tell African leaders to walk the talk on fighting corruption, but those same leaders know from experience that dallying has few consequences.

Leaders like Museveni and Kibaki are showered with money and praise irrespective of their toothless corruption campaigns. Exporting the Patriot Act seems to take precedence over pushing the transparency agenda. Unfortunately, it seems to take a violent debacle like Kenya’s 2011 election to wake up the snoozy aid agencies to reality. Let’s hope the same is not true of Uganda’s 2011 poll.

4 thoughts on “Our turn to eat

  1. It's a fantastic book – and I agree one of the more disturbing passages was DfID 'shutting up' the British Embassy for speaking the inconvenient truth on corruption.

    As to whether it will happen here in 2011, I think unlikely. Museveni's vote is not based on one ethnic group like Kibaki's is and the opposition is too fragmented here to see a popular uprising behind one candidate. However, if Museveni gets less than 50% in the first round then there will be a chance of violence during the run off.

  2. is the second to last line an attempt at prescience or do you perhaps mean Kenya's 2007 election?

  3. The Chamber of Commerce has done great work on key issues facing America — assessing our country's strengths and weaknesses and outlining the public policies we must pursue to succeed in the world economy. I was glad I could help take action on their web site (http://tinyurl.com/nvhah8) with several petitions focusing on everything from the economy and energy to healthcare and legal reform.

  4. Chris,

    I puzzled over the same passage — and had slightly harsher things to say about it — in my review of the book. Still, it's the best book about Kenyan politics in a while.

    Thanks for the link to the v. interesting syllabus.