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Story Publication logo November 20, 2012

Kenya: A Conversation with John Githongo


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Global hunger affects nearly one billion people. Emergency food is not enough. This project examines...


John Githongo knows first-hand how bad governance can undermine development. He blew the whistle on the widespread corruption in the government of Mwai Kibaki, who appointed him to expose graft. Mr Githongo, who reported for The Economist (among other journals) in the 1990s, was then forced to flee Kenya in 2005 and went into hiding in Britain. He has since returned to the country, where he is head of INUKA Ni Sisi! ("Rise up, it is us!"), an NGO that does work on citizen empowerment and good governance. His story, and the story of how corruption undermines Kenyan society, was told in Michela Wrong's "It's Our Turn to Eat". He recently spoke to Baobab about the challenges facing Kenya.

Baobab: Recently we've seen outbreaks of violence around the country, including the massacres of villagers around Tana River in the east and the slaughter of police recruits in Samburu county in the north. So far an estimated 500 people have been killed. Is this a repeat of the election-related violence in 2007 and 2008, or is it something else?

John Githongo: Violence as a political tool is something that has long been used in Kenya. We have a rich history of using it strategically. It comes with our kind of politics. What we are seeing now is localized violence, the result of a struggle for power that comes from the competition for resources due to an increasing amount of international and local elite interest in our newfound oil, natural gas, gold, as well as our fertile land. All those things combined means that the politicians are still using violence as a political tool. But unlike 2007, it is at a local, contained level. It is below the radar of the international criminal court. It is, however, spreading and exposing the dysfunction in our security infrastructure.

Baobab: You are saying that the violence is due to a political struggle over resources, but in the press these conflicts are often described as ethnic or tribal clashes.

JG: The boundaries are being redrawn in a country where politics have always been organized along ethnicity, and therefore all major boundaries are also ethnic boundaries and so, people have a sense of ownership of these resources. It's our oil, it's our gold, and therefore you have the intensity of violence in those kind of areas rising as a result of elites wanting to ensure that they are in a position to profit from this increased interest in Kenya's mineral and natural resource wealth. It has been given a very political face by the fact that we are entering a devolved political system, so we will have governors and senators in these regions who will conceivably have a say in terms of how these resources are extracted and used, who see themselves as having the ability to charge rents around these resources.

Baobab: So what does that mean for the people who live in these areas?

JG: What's happening is that there is a massive land grab underway in these areas of the country that have lots of pastoralists, so their livelihood is being turned inside out. Now, there's oil. There's gold. There's gas. There's pasture. And when you combine that with devolution and international investment—the stakes rise higher and higher. The political intensity increases, and that's why in these regions the violence has just exploded.

Baobab: So the violence is really a problem of corruption? Wasn't that what the constitutional reforms were supposed to address?

JG: The fundamental reason Kenya went for a devolved government was to increase accountability. Before, power was centralized to the point that we had a one-party state - it was very corrupt, there was a climate of fear. And it was with a great sigh of relief that we left that almost authoritarian rule. So the things that Kenya has been pushing for ever since—improvements in the judiciary, in the police force, in government institutions—has all been focused on increasing the accountability of the elite. We have a very entrenched elite in Kenya, a very ossified elite.

Baobab: Kenya has a chronic hunger problem: this year 2m people do not have enough food, last year it was 4m. It is predictable, and yet is continues. Is this a corruption problem, is this an incompetence problem, is this a political problem? How do you think about it?

JG: It is a broad governance problem. A drought is made by God, a famine is made by man. It draws on all the issues you mention. It used to be every 10 years that we would have a big drought. Then it became every four years, and then it became every two years. This is due to climate change, increase population, soil degradation, etc. We have a strategic grain reserve, and that's when it becomes a corruption problem. Drought is big money for the corrupt elite—because it gives you the opportunity to import maize and other staples into the country and make a killing off of the backs of hungry people.

Baobab: Do you mean that humanitarian agencies are declaring a hunger crisis in order to help the elites?

JG: No. I think that there is a deliberate lack of preparedness on the part of the elites. Kenya does not need international assistance. Kenya collects enough in taxes to feed its people. We actually don't need all this assistance, but the preparations are not made. It's an underlying fundamental governance failure that creates a situation where you have this rather ridiculous relationship that is sustained and really you know, it is up to Kenyans to sort ourselves out in this area. The humanitarian agencies are stuck – what can they do? They come in—they genuinely save lives in a situation where the local government is not that interested in doing that. Then they step back and go to another place where the same thing is happening and then come back in a few years time. I think some of the humanitarian agencies don't have it as part of their mandate to look at these governance issues—they respond to emergencies.

Baobab: Is Kenya more corrupt than other African countries?

JG: Kenya is more corrupt than other African countries.

Baobab: Why?

JG: It's our history. At independence, the state that emerged was a colonial one in many respects - small, aggressive, violent and engineered to serve the interests of only a small elite. Corruption can create an elite which creates a system of patronage that in itself produces a level of stability, where the goodies are being shared out by an elite, and a bit of it trickles down to the poor. Those poor who complain are locked up or killed, and that's the way it has been for a long time.

TE: Is one party better than the other?

JG: There is not much difference within the elite. Elections concentrate political minds, and that creates forces, tactics that are sometimes not dissimilar regardless of who's wearing the hat. Elites are using old methods to keep themselves in power. I want to say that we talk about tribes in Kenya—there are really on two tribes: rich and poor.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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