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Betraying the Tribe: Michela Wrong and the Foundations of African Corruption

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The list of corrupt African leaders in modern history is a long one.

Idi Amin of Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Frederick Chiluba of Zambia, Sani Abacha of Nigeria -- to name just a few -- pilfered their countries and/or brutalized their people to a flabbergasting degree.

Why so many? It's a question that's rarely asked. While the reticence might be attributed to fear of being labeled a racist, in fact it's the silence itself that reeks of racism. After all, doesn't the sustained quiet speak of lowered expectations of these rulers? Michela Wrong's new book, It's Our Turn To Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower, confronts the question of African corruption head on and finds there's plenty of blame to go around.

In early 2003, Wrong's friend John Githongo was tapped by incoming President Mwai Kibaki to be Kenya's new anti-corruption chief. Kibaki had been swept into office on a platform of fighting graft, and his appointment of Githongo, a former journalist and Transparency International worker, was supposed to indicate that he meant business. Reeling from the scandals of the Daniel arap Moi regime, Kenyans had finally had enough of the rampant corruption that permeated virtually every aspect of their lives -- a 2001 survey found that the average city-dwelling Kenyan shelled out 16 bribes per month.

Githongo excelled at his job; corruption decreased during his years as czar. Two years after his appointment, however, Githongo fled Kenya afraid for his life. On February 6, 2005, he surfaced at Wrong's London apartment bearing secretly taped recordings of Kibaki's ministers. These recordings, along with other evidence Githongo would eventually make public, suggested that top government officials, including Kibaki, took part in a $750 million procurement scam - a scam that would become known as Anglo Leasing.

It's Our Turn to Eat
, released in the U.S. a few weeks ago, recounts Githongo's attempts at bringing the architects of Anglo Leasing to justice. But it's only partly a political thriller. At its core, It's Our Turn to Eat is an examination of Kenya's - and by extension, Africa's - corrupt culture. In unearthing the foundations of this culture, Wrong points directly to colonialism and tribalism. But her book also serves as a searing indictment of western aid donors and the World Bank, which Wrong accuses of being complicit in Africa's corruption for turning a blind eye to thieving regimes.

None of this is entirely new, but Wrong, who covered Africa for 15 years for Reuters, the BBC and the Financial Times, argues convincingly that the evils of colonialism entrenched tribal differences to such a degree that the "patterns being reproduced today" - thieving regimes out to take care of one group at the expensive of everyone else - "began in the Nineteenth Century."

When the British colonized Kenya, they established separate tribal reserves, with virtually no travel allowed between them. These instilled a belief that members of other tribes were foreigners -- a belief that became so ingrained that today, Wrong says, many Kenyans expect their president to take care of his tribe first and the country second. All of the alleged participants in Anglo Leasing were members of the Kikuyu and neighboring tribes. Githongo was also Kikuyu, which is why his fellow officials were in such disbelief when he went 'off the reservation.'

Like Dambisa Moyo's Dead Aid, released earlier this year, It's Our Turn To Eat argues that aid fuels corruption in African nations by removing accountability between governments and citizens: a government less reliant on taxes thinks it owes less to its people. While Wrong, unlike Moyo, sees some value in systemic aid, Wrong paints a more vibrant portrait than Moyo does of the sicknesses in the aid relationship.

Wrong offers up-close-and-personal accounts of World Bank directors so cozy with Kibaki that they lived on his estate; of Britain's diplomat Sir Edward Clay, who resorted to mocking Kenya's corruption in public after his concerns were ignored by the Blair Administration; and of a meeting between Githongo and Britain's development ministry in which Githongo's "allegations" were dismissed with an attitude of "This is Africa; it's always been corrupt."

Wrong is particularly critical of the World Bank. She, like Moyo, describes the Bank as the center of a barely tameable "aid industry" in which half a million employees rely on aid for their salaries. This creates an almost unstoppable impetus to keep the money flowing - even in the face of blatant thievery. Incentive structures are also a problem. "No one gets Brownie points back at head office for closing down a program or putting a relationship with a client government on ice," Wrong writes, "even if this was, in fact, the most constructive course of action."

So if colonialism, tribalism and aid compose Wrong's foundations of African corruption, the top layer, of course, is the thieving governments themselves. Wrong is certainly unblinking in her criticism of the Kibaki regime, but she occasionally veers toward excusing the corruption by pointing so often to its historical roots. She addressed this in a recent interview with me for Guernica Magazine.

To understand is not to absolve," she said. "Colonialism played its part in laying corruption's foundations - the belief that 'everything is permitted because it's us against the world' - and donors hypocritically indulged it. But the level of corruption in countries like Kenya and Nigeria stands as a terrible indictment of African leadership since independence. The fact that some nations have gone down a different path shows that it is not necessary, or inevitable, for African countries to be this way.

There are many tragic moments in It's Our Turn To Eat, not least of which is the end. Wrong leaves her hero with his findings dismissed, his name disgraced (in some quarters), and his life still in danger -- yet most of the Anglo Leasing suspects remain in power, including Kibaki, who managed to steal the 2007 elections. But Wrong's book nevertheless is an essential case study of one African government's descent into corruption placed within the context of the historical factors that made it such an easy plunge to take. The real tragedy of It's Our Turn To Eat is that you're left knowing one more name has been added to the long list: Mwai Kibaki.