NAIROBI, Kenya — Four years ago, Africa's most famous whistle blower was forced to flee for his life after exposing the extent of corruption in Kenya. Now John Githongo is back.
"Sadly, corruption has intensified" with the new power-sharing government, Githongo told GlobalPost in an exclusive interview.
Although Githongo has returned to his Kenyan home, he remains wary of the businessmen and senior politicians — many still in government — whose death threats forced him to flee in 2005 with a briefcase of documents and secret tape recordings under his arm.
Githongo's concerns over security are so high that the interview could only take place following a series of text messages and arrangements made via a middleman in Britain, where he lived until recently. The interview took place in an ordinary apartment block in Nairobi.
The towering 43-year-old wears tortoise-shell spectacles stretched across his broad face. His bass voice is soft but resonant, showing the steely resolve for which he is known.
Githongo studied law in Kenya and Britain before going into journalism. He wrote a series of investigative pieces for the East African newspaper that won him a popular following. In 1999 he founded the Kenyan chapter of the anti-corruption organization Transparency International.
Mwai Kibaki was elected Kenya's president in 2002 by pledging to wipe out Kenya's corruption. Kibaki appointed Githongo to be his "anti-corruption czar" and hopes were high that he would clean up the government.
But Githongo quickly learned that the new Kibaki administration did not want any scrutiny of its dealings.
Githongo is Kikuyu: the same ethnic group as Kibaki and the ruling clique. They had expected he would put tribe above all else and look the other way at new shady deals that they were making. But, like many young, educated Africans, Githongo would not be bound by traditional allegiances at the expense of his country. When he exposed corruption in the Kibaki government, they denounced him as a "traitor to his tribe."
Soon Githongo was denounced in public by cabinet ministers and received death threats in private. In 2005 he decided to leave Kenya for Britain where he delivered a damning dossier on a large corruption plot.
Githongo revealed the $100 million Anglo Leasing fraud in which money was siphoned off from inflated government security contracts via a phantom company listed in Britain. That investigation ground to a halt only this month when exasperated officers at Britain's Serious Fraud Office gave up, complaining of a lack of cooperation from the Kenyan government.
Githongo said he returned to Kenya earlier this month because he believes he is a bit more secure. The year-old coalition government has brought other ethnic groups into Kibaki's previously Kikuyu administration. Now, Githongo is less fearful for his life and keen “to reconnect with my country.” He is spending time on the road, catching buses, meeting everyday people, begging for a place to stay at night and talking about everyday issues. But what he is finding does not inspire hope.
"In the past, the scandals that we had were of a scale that was mind-boggling to most people. Big sums, hundreds of millions of dollars! Those are many zeros and sometimes difficult to connect to your everyday circumstances," he said. "What is happening now is having a very direct impact on the poor."
He cited two recent scandals that have hit the poorest Kenyans hard. An oil scam pushed up the cost of petrol and transport, while a maize scheme has restricted the supply of the country's staple food.
The title of Michela Wrong's book about Githongo — to be published in the U.S. in June — is "It's Our Turn To Eat," referencing the Kenyan slang for corruption. But while Kenya's political and business elite enjoy their feast, ordinary Kenyans are facing starvation.
In the maize scheme, the state-owned National Cereals and Produce Board reportedly sold emergency stocks of maize to political insiders at discount prices. The bags of maize were then sold at a profit, some of it to neighboring Sudan, or stockpiled until prices rose.
The resulting maize shortage combined with poor rains, the high cost of fertilizer and a terrible harvest caused the World Food Program to warn that about 5 million Kenyans face severe food shortages in the coming months.
Even as some in his clique profit from the shortage, President Kibaki in January appealed to the international community for $400 million to help feed those affected by this latest "national disaster."
"In the past the corruption did hit Kenyans in the pocket, it did hit them in the stomach but not in a way that was as direct and as blatant as what is happening now," charged Githongo.
"If we talk about the cost of corruption everyone is always asking is it $1 billion, $20 billion, $400 billion that Africa is losing? But this is the real cost: it takes food out of the mouths of the poor," he said "The poor are the hardest hit in a very direct way."
There were hopes that the horrors of last year's post-election violence — in which 1,500 died in the weeks following the disputed vote — might encourage the new coalition government to rein in corruption. Instead, Githongo said, it is "a free for all" with both sides scrambling to grab public funds.
Corruption cannot be written off as simply the way of doing business in Africa; it can become a strategic threat. Kenya's growing corruption makes it a haven for money launderers, drug dealers and terrorists, according to a recent report by the British government's foreign office.
Githongo does see a tiny flicker of hope, however. "For me the grounds for optimism are that Kenyans are seeing that corruption does not discriminate: the maize crisis is affecting all tribes. That is a positive thing."
Other Dispatches by Tristan McConnell: