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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 February 2006, 16:21 GMT
A fearless Kenyan whistle-blower
By Fergal Keane
BBC News

The BBC has learned of a major corruption scandal in Kenya, through evidence provided by the country's former anti-corruption chief John Githongo.

When I first met him he was one of a new breed of African campaigners - highly articulate, politically savvy and very brave.

That was nearly a decade ago. At the time Kenya was groaning under the kleptocratic rule of President Daniel Arap Moi with billions of dollars lost in corruption.

John Githongo headed the local office of Transparency International, the world's leading anti-corruption group.

He had his hands full in Kenya where in one scheme more than $1bn was ripped off through a fake scheme for the export of diamonds and gold.

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From the outset Githongo impressed. Not for the quality of his rhetoric but the sheer force of his integrity. At a time when it could be dangerous to take on powerful people he was fearless.

I remember so well his description of what was happening to his country. "It's looting," he said. "Looting and grand corruption."

John also had a delightful sense of humour with the capacity to see the funny side of the most unpromising situations. He was soft spoken but steely, a man with a forensic mind.

Back then it seemed as if the Moi regime would last forever. It dispensed patronage and cash to hold on to power.

But a new mood was sweeping much of Africa. The people were no longer prepared to accept misrule and graft. After more than two decades in power Moi was swept from power by Mwai Kibaki's coalition in December 2002.

Soon after that the man I had known as an anti-corruption campaigner was sitting in State House.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki during the swearing in ceremony
Mr Githongo was hired by Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki

John Githongo had been appointed permanent secretary for ethics and governance in the office of the president. It was a job he must have dreamed of. Now there was a real chance to tackle corruption.

But after about 18 months things began to go badly wrong. The suspicious deals were starting again. Huge sums were being awarded to companies that didn't exist. Business cronies of leading politicians were favoured.

Worse, when he began to probe he was told by ministers to back off. The president he had hoped would represent a new beginning did nothing to protect him.

Explosive dossier

By the time we met again in late 2004, John knew his days in office were numbered. Sitting in the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi he said he had a 50-50 chance of staying in his job. I think the odds were significantly worse by then.
We can handle our own business, stop the old neo-colonial mentality, Mr Githongo
Kariuki Wachira, Nairobi

The next I heard was that John Githongo was in Britain. He had resigned and gone into exile, taking with him crucial papers relating to tens of millions in corrupt deals.

He took up a fellowship at an Oxford college and got to work on his explosive dossier. I kept in touch with him and when his dossier leaked to the Kenyan press asked if he would do an interview.

It took some time for him to agree but in the end he felt it was his duty to the Kenyan people to speak out.

Though he lives in exile now, Githongo badly wants to go home. Making it safe for him to do that will be a true test of Kenya's democracy.

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