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Ojeifo: Corruption, ethnicity and religion in Nigeria (1)

By Emmanuel Ojeifo
25 February 2015   |   11:00 pm
“Sir, we can set up all the anti-corruption authorities we want, spend all the money we want, pass all the laws on anti-corruption, but it all depends on you. If people believe the president is ‘eating’ the battle is lost. If you are steady on this thing, if the leadership is there, we will succeed.”…

“Sir, we can set up all the anti-corruption authorities we want, spend all the money we want, pass all the laws on anti-corruption, but it all depends on you. If people believe the president is ‘eating’ the battle is lost. If you are steady on this thing, if the leadership is there, we will succeed.” – John Githongo, Kenya’s former anti-corruption tsar.

THE story of John Githongo, Kenya’s own version of Elliot Ness, well documented by the respected British journalist, Michela Wrong in her book, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-blower (2009), offers a remarkable but powerful testimony of the near irreparable damage that corruption, backed by impunity, can do to a nation. The cocktail becomes even more perilous when it wears a big overcoat of ethnic loyalty and religious affinity. At the inauguration of his presidency in one hot December day at the tail end of a dramatic election year back in 2002, then Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, declared: “I am inheriting a country that has been badly ravaged by years of misrule and ineptitude.” He warned future members of his government and public officers that he would respect no ‘sacred cows’ in his drive to eliminate sleaze. “The era of ‘anything goes’ is gone forever. Government will no longer be run on the whims of individuals.” To roaring applause, Kibaki pronounced the sound bite that continues to haunt his time in office: “Corruption will now cease to be a way of life in Kenya.” 

   In executing his euphoric dream of a corruption-free Kenya, Kibaki invited a relatively young man, John Githongo, a couple of years shy of his 40th birthday, to be part of shaping a new Kenya by taking charge of the country’s anti-graft department. Githongo was a young man who had made a name for himself as a respected reformer and investigative journalist. It was a momentous task to be sure, but in the end he took the job for a number of reasons. One, he was an idealist, understandably seduced by the opportunity to be the change he hoped to see in Kenya. Two, his acquiescence was practically taken for granted by the men who nominated him, his father’s contemporaries, men he held in high regard. Three, Kenya was in a state of euphoria. During his confirmation interview with President Kibaki, Githongo was forthright with his future boss. The quote that stands at the beginning of this article is what Githongo said to President Kibaki. He was certain he had been heard.

   There was every suggestion of 180-degree change in direction in those days. According to Michela Wrong, “There was a tangible feeling of excitement in the air, a conviction that with this election, Kenyans had brought about a virtually bloodless political, social and psychological rebirth, saving themselves from ruin in the nick of time. Many of those who represented the country’s frustrated conscience – human rights campaigners, lawyers and civic leaders who had risked detention, police beatings and harassment in their bid to drag the country into the 21st century – were now in charge. Mass happiness blended with communal relief to forge a sense of national purpose. With this collective elation went an impatience with the old ways of doing things.” Newspapers recounted how irate passengers refused to allow bus conductors to give bribe to “fat-bellied police manning the roadblocks.” University lecturers knew that a new era had dawned. In ministries, airports and city halls, it would be foolish for civil servants to ask for bribe. In government offices and on the streets, there were large signs and signboards with inscriptions such as “This is a corruption-free zone”, “No bribes”, “You have a right to free service.” Corruption complaint boxes in government offices were literally filled up with letters venting grievances that had festered through the decades. Everyone in Kenya knew that the era of “business as usual” was over!

  As permanent secretary in charge of combating corruption, Githongo’s office was located within the State House, down the corridor from the president’s office, thus giving him unprecedented access to the president and making him extremely powerful in the scheme of things. He formed his team, drawn for the most part from civil society rather than from the ranks of the civil service. He rejected the seducing offer of a dark-blue BMW assigned to him as an official car and set out enthusiastically to work.

  Soon, Githongo became painfully aware of an ethnic polarisation taking place around the seat of power. Whereas Kibaki had won his handy election victory surrounded and supported by people from diverse parts of Kenya, slowly his inner circle distilled into one constituting fellow Kikuyus and their allied tribes. The State House shrunk into a mono-ethnic enclave. Although Githongo was a Kikuyu, he was young and urban-bred and was surely discomfited about the scenario playing out in the State House. He was further dismayed by the fact that his tribesmen, now the occupants of the State House were almost singlehandedly responsible for delaying the process of drafting a new constitution, despite a clear election promise to deliver a new constitution to Kenyans.

   Then, persistent rumour of new graft, of dodgy procurement contracts and lavish spending began to wait his way, corroborated by a sophisticated network of informants he had cultivated. It turned out that the high level operatives within Kibaki’s government were responsible for the signing of 18 procurement contracts that would cost the taxpayers three-quarters of a billion dollars. “Under former President Moi, his Kalenjin tribesmen ate. Now it’s our turn to eat,” politicians and civil servants close to the president told Githongo. As a member of the government and the president’s own Kikuyu tribe, Githongo was expected to cooperate. But he refused to bow to the philosophy of ethnic loyalty. Valiantly, he tried to do his job – to identify the culprits and bring them to book. But he failed. Sensing resistance from his boss and fearing for his life, he fled. To cut a long story short, on February 6, 2005, Githongo showed up at the doorstep of his long-time friend, Michela Wrong’s house in London, lagging a load of luggage. He had come to stay a while. The famous anti-corruption tsar had turned into an international fugitive.

  The rest, as they say, is history. However, my concern in this article is to situate Githongo’s experience in Kenya within the Nigerian socio-political climate of today. In Githongo’s Kenya as in today’s Nigeria, we see how unbridled greed and brazen theft that come accompanied by an irrational sense of personal entitlement at the expense of all others can bring a once prosperous nation to its knees. Since the first military coup of 1966 that brought an abrupt end to Nigeria’s First Republic, corruption mixed with tribalism stand together as two vices that have continued to hover ominously over Nigeria’s future, threatening her wellbeing and shaking her very foundations.

• To be continued tomorrow

• Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja.