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Kenya sleaze book sparks shop ban

A new book about exiled Kenyan corruption whistleblower John Githongo is considered so potentially explosive that some major book shops in Nairobi are refusing to stock it.

Author Michela Wrong's expose looks set to cause further embarrassment to Kenya's public servants amid public anger at continued allegations of high-level corruption.

The title - It's Our Turn to Eat - may evoke thoughts of sitting down to lunch or dinner for most readers around the world.

But in Kenya, this simple phrase is filled with sinister meaning that symbolises the rot crippling the East African country.

Right now, all of Kenya is in danger
John Githongo
For years Kenyans have referred to corruption by the euphemism "eating".

In the past, Kenya's resources were known as the "national cake", to be shared among its citizens by the government.

Political power was seen as an opportunity, even duty, to "eat" as much of the national cake as they could, and share with those closest to them.

'Massive looting'

Perhaps this was the inspiration for the phrase that would later grace the cover of a book about Mr Githongo, the man who tried to stop the "eating" going on at the very top table.

Mr Githongo is described by Wrong as "a remarkable man who did something quite astounding".


We don't have it because it can bring problems, you never know with this government
Nairobi book shop owner

A former adviser to President Mwai Kibaki, Mr Githongo fled to the UK in 2005 claiming that his life was in danger after accusing top government officials of "massive looting".

A former journalist and the founding director of Transparency International-Kenya, Mr Githongo had earned himself a stellar reputation in the fight against corruption.

When he was appointed, many in the country believed he was the only man who could fight the deadly scourge.

Instead, he faced decisions with huge personal consequences.

And he was called a traitor and coward by the officials who had put him in that awkward position in the first place.

Turbulence

One cold February morning, Mr Githongo turned up on the UK doorstep of Wrong, whom he had met while she was working as a foreign correspondent in Kenya,

In the days that followed, Wrong writes that she too was afraid, amid reports the Kenyan government had launched a manhunt for Mr Githongo in Kenya and in Britain.

Unrest in Kibera slum, Nairobi
When [tribalism and the inequitable distribution of wealth] are combined with corruption, politics is so poisoned that it results in the sort of violence we witnessed
John Githongo

"I was aware that he had left Kenya for a reason. He didn't just turn up just like that. I assumed that the reason was because he was afraid for his life," she says.

But she adds Mr Githongo played his cards close to his chest, as he contemplated what to do.

When he finally went public, the revelations of the man who formerly had the president's ear sent shockwaves through Kenya.

"He had all his ducks lined up. He had his information in order - he wanted people to believe him and the better organised his evidence was going to be, the more likely that was," says Wrong.

While those in power wished they could quickly discredit and dismiss his claims, audio recordings of government officials urging Mr Githongo to "go slow" in his investigations forced Kenyans, and the world, to listen.

It was a very turbulent time for Mr Githongo, and for Kenya, as several cabinet ministers were sacked pending investigations.

But the government "investigations" turned to naught, the sacked ministers were quickly reinstated and corruption allegations continued to rock the country.

'Too hot to handle'

Years later, with the publication of the book, his allegations remain a sore spot for the government.

Mr Githongo still lives in the UK, and while he has stated that this is because of professional commitments, there is still an element of fear to the whole affair.

Nothing perhaps better illustrates this than the disclosure by some major book stores in Nairobi that they will not be stocking the book.

President Mwai Kibaki
President Mwai Kibaki came to power promising to end corruption
"We've decided not to stock it because it's too political. It's too hot to handle," one store owner says.

"We don't want any legal action so we've decided to stay away from it."

"We don't have it because of government controversy. It can bring problems, you never know with this government," says another book store owner.

But in this day and age, readers will not find it difficult to lay their hands on a copy of the book.

Already the country's top-selling newspaper, Daily Nation, has published portions of the book and this is sure to whet readers' appetites.

Mr Githongo says he no longer lives in fear although he continues to be cautious.

In the last year, he has made several trips back to his home country.

"Last year's election violence changed this country," he says. "I thought about it in the UK and decided that even if I am afraid for my life, my brothers, my family fled from their homes.

"So I cannot say that I am in more danger than my fellow Kenyans."

His revelations and refusal to turn a blind eye came at great personal cost, but he adds: "Right now, all of Kenya is in danger."

'Poison'

This may be one of the reasons why he agreed to reveal what he knew in the potentially-explosive book, published this month in the UK.

"The purpose of the book is to expose how corruption is destroying the country. If the country is developing the way it is supposed to, there must a be a situation where it can be said that it is time for every one to eat," he says.

Inter-tribal post-election conflict in Western Kenya, 1 March 2008
Kenya is still recovering from last year's violence
The violent aftermath of the disputed 2007 elections seems to have been an important turning-point for Mr Githongo.

After those polls, he said: "What makes corruption in Kenya a poison that damages politics is tribalism and the inequitable distribution of wealth.

"When these two are combined with corruption, politics is so poisoned that it results in the sort of violence we witnessed."

Some 1,500 people were killed as the election dispute ignited deep-seated rivalries, largely over access to economic resources such as land.

The rival political leaders formed a power-sharing government to end the dispute but allegations of high-level corruption have continued.

Mr Githongo seems to want to use his status to give voice to public outrage.

But there are some in Kenya who think that he should fade gracefully from the spotlight.

Many feel that Mr Githongo and It's Our Turn to Eat have nothing to add as most of the information surrounding the various scandals is already public knowledge.

But there is no ignoring Mr Githongo's strong convictions of right and wrong and his hard-won reputation for integrity.

"Individuals can make a big difference," says Wrong. "There have been a series of corruption scandals this year so you can't say that he changed the system.

"But he caused huge embarrassment [to the government] and he put his mark down in history and he also showed other Kenyans that you don't just have to go along with the system."

In this way, Mr Githongo might become a compelling role model for Kenyans who are increasingly getting fed up with the entrenched and crippling culture of official corruption.

"There will be many other John Githongos, there are already many other John Githongos in Kenya. He's not the only one," the author says.

Those who wish to follow his example are likely to find the book of most value, and certainly not the Kenyan politicians who will once again find themselves in the spotlight.

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