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Book Examines Corruption in Kenya

A new book about corruption in Kenya has triggered a storm of debate and controversy in the country, even though many book stores are refusing to sell it.

The book – It's Our Turn to Eat – is written by Michela Wrong, a correspondent, who has written at length about Africa. The book centers on Permanent Secretary for Governance and Ethics John Githongo's failed attempts to curb corruption in Kenya, causing him to go into exile. And later resign.

From London, Wrong spoke to VOA about her book and why she chose the title: It's Our Turn to Eat.

"It's our turn to eat is a phrase you hear a lot if you're living in Kenya. And people use it to mean it's our ethnic community's turn to eat. And when they say eat they mean to dig into state resources, to benefit from the patronage possibilities," she says.

Such possibilities arise when a member of a particular ethnic group is elected or appointed to a key government job.

"You've got your guy in state house and he's going to make sure that your ethnic community gets jobs for the boys…that your constituency gets investment in infrastructure and that all the public contracts go to people from your ethnic area," she says.

Wrong lived in Kenya for four years and continued to report on developments there even after leaving the country.

If patronage is widely known, why write about it?

"I was…just sort of wondering where does this problem with corruption come from? Why is it so ingrained? And then the story of John Githongo came along and he was an old friend… He went into anti-corruption campaigning. He joined Transparency International and finally he ended up in government as an anti-corruption czar," Wrong says.

However, she says Githongo soon ran into problems.

"He had basically come across a major corruption scandal called Anglo Leasing. And he discovered his key colleagues in government, key ministers, who were supposed to be backing him in the fight against corruption, were actually involved in it," she says.

Wrong, living in London at the time, offered to help.

"I said to him…if you need somewhere to stay, if you're in trouble, you can always come and stay with me in London. And very soon after that he took me up on my offer and basically went into hiding," she says.

She calls his story "fascinating," adding, "It told us so much about modern Kenya."

Wrong says the Kenyan government has not made an official statement regarding her book, but has made clear it is not banned.

But buying a copy was difficult.

"What seems to have taken place behind the scenes, I think there has been a level of intimidation applied. Because what we saw was that very soon after the book came out, the book sellers of Nairobi began to cancel orders for the book and you couldn't buy it anywhere," she says.

She says the book sellers claimed they were worried about being sued for libel.

"There's nothing in my book that Kenyans don't already know because the scandal…was already very, very familiar to Kenyans. It had been widely covered in the newspapers at the time," she says

More than one way to sell a book

"Just in the last week, we see this very interesting project, which I think is a testament to the extent to which Kenyan civic society is exasperated with the situation in Kenya – the continuing level of corruption, the failure of their new coalition government to deal with the problems," she says.

Churches in Kenya are discussing the book. Some local radio stations are giving away copies and a newspaper is offering it to its readers. The book is even being sold at traffic lights.

"All these people have got together and said this is a book, which confronts the problems that are dogging our society," she says.

Wrong says many Kenyans believe these problems will result in a new wave of violence similar to what occurred after the 2007 elections. More than a thousand people were killed.

US backs book distribution

"The coordination behind to project is from USAID (United States Agency for International Development)… They made sure that the books came in in a big consignment into the country and were cleared through customs. I was very afraid they might be seized at that stage," she says.

Wrong says she's "impressed" by the role USAID played.

"I think this is something very different for a development agency to be doing and very imaginative," she says.

Wrong soon visits Washington, DC to promote the US edition of It's Our Turn to Eat. She calls on donor nations to pressure Kenya on corruption and not be sidetracked by its potential for economic growth.

"We've really got to stop fooling ourselves. Corruption is a massive issue in Africa… Corruption can lead to political instability… Kenya…is now teetering on the abyss. People are very, very worried about the future there. And by turning a blind eye to corruption, donors can actually make those scenarios more likely," she says.

Government reaction

The Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission is disputing the contents of the book and [the allegation that the government is not doing enough to] fight corruption.

The commission's public relations officer, Catherine Wambui, describes what she calls an all-out war against corruption in the country.

"We fight corruption in three ways. Number one is investigation and asset-tracing…. We also fight it through preventive means and also through education," she says.

Doing our best

Wambui says when people are judging the efforts, they should look at all three fronts… But obviously we are putting our best foot forward."

Kenyan anti-corruption information is available on the government website (

"You will see the results of what we have been doing," she says.

The commission has not been pressured by government officials to tilt its investigation one way or the other, says Wambui.

"We investigate corruption big and small; we investigate corruption in government and out of government…. We have not had an instance where we have got a call from State House telling us don't investigate so and so… I think the government has been pretty supportive," she says.

No tolerance for corruption

"Corruption is bad whether it is big or small…. You can imagine how many years of corruption we are trying to undo…. The fight is gallantly on, we are certainly doing a good job."