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Young women walking to a food relief center in the drought-stricken village of Nadapal, Rift Valley province, Kenya, October 2, 2009; photograph by Stefano De Luigi

According to the United Nations, the average Kenyan makes $777 a year. Yet members of Kenya’s parliament are among the highest paid in the world, with a compensation package of $145,565 (most of it tax-free). That is 187 times more than the country’s average income and would be the equivalent of an American congressman making $8.5 million a year. And this is simply what is earned legally.

Kenya is notorious for corruption, from scandals cooked up in the president’s office involving fake companies and hundreds of millions of dollars, to police officers on the street who have a fondness for stopping drivers, inventing new traffic laws, and whispering the magic words kitu kidogo, which in Kiswahili means “a little something.” This is the land of a little something, where no senior officials have ever been punished for graft. Just a few months ago, a drought-induced famine steadily spread toward Kenya from neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan, threatening millions of lives in a lush, bountiful country that should be able to feed itself and more; but at the same time, several top Kenyan politicians were implicated in a scheme to illegally sell off millions of pounds of the country’s emergency grain reserves, at obscene profits.

The front pages of Kenya’s biggest papers alternated between pictures of the well-coiffed politicians incredulously denying the charges and people in the hinterland with their rib cages exposed. None of this is secret. There have been countless studies of corruption, thousands of headlines about it, and intense scrutiny of Kenya from the World Bank and organizations like Transparency International, which recently ranked Kenya the most corrupt nation in East Africa. A survey done a few years ago indicated that the average urban Kenyan pays sixteen bribes a month.

It was only early in 2008 that the crookery in Kenya led to widespread violent protest. A dubious election in December 2007 ignited long-standing ethnic and political frustrations: people were getting sick of being treated like dirt by the Kenyan government and the long-privileged Kikuyu tribe, to which the incumbent president Mwai Kibaki belonged. After Kibaki appeared to steal the election from opposition leader Raila Odinga, who is a Luo, violence exploded across the country between Luos, Kikuyus, and other ethnic groups. More than one thousand people were killed, many quite brutally, with poison arrows to the heart or a club to the head. The pastoral images of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa were rapidly blotted out by thick, black smoke. This was more like Hotel Rwanda.

Driving it all was an unpleasant truth that had been buried for decades. Kenyans may have built an impressive-seeming state—one of the most developed and prosperous in Africa, a place of gleaming office towers and well-oiled bureaucracy—but they had utterly failed to build a nation. There was never any true national cohesiveness, which was not a great surprise for a young, multiethnic country created on the colonial carving board. Each of Kenya’s ethnic groups or tribes had come to see itself as a separate entity to be protected at all costs. That tribalism, coupled with foreign aid and cold war politics, helped produce staggering levels of sleaze, and eventually bloodshed.

Michela Wrong lucidly brings this all together in her new book, It’s Our Turn to Eat, a title that expresses the winner-take-all ethnic politics endemic to many African countries. Wrong examines Kenya’s corruption scandals in detail, concentrating on one whistle-blower within the Kenyan government, John Githongo, and using him to tell the broader story of greed and graft in Africa and how a continent with so much promise, and so many natural resources, remains locked in poverty and war. The book carefully unpeels the ethnic politics behind Kenya’s corruption, and names names.

But what could be a sorrier commentary on the state of Kenya today than the fact that it is exceedingly difficult even to find this book in Kenya? It’s probably easier to buy an ounce of cocaine in Nairobi—or a stash of illicit ivory—than a copy of It’s Our Turn to Eat.

Booksellers are terrified to touch it. The very culture of corruption that Wrong reveals—the vast, ethnic-based patronage networks and the danger of exposing Kenya’s leaders—is still as firmly entrenched as ever. Most of the men who fill the pages of her exposé, from the current president, Mwai Kibaki, on down, are still in power. Kenyan booksellers are afraid of provoking them and getting sued for libel. About the only place you can find this book nowadays is in the middle of Nairobi’s traffic-plugged streets, sold by street boys with little to lose. The American embassy and a Kenyan church group are subsidizing the sale of the book, trying to get copies in the hands of as many Kenyans as possible, which is how the street boys get theirs, and how I got mine.


Kenya is a prime case of the backsliding that has taken place across Africa. A burst of hope blew across the continent in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as military regimes crumbled and democracies seemed to take root, partly because of the American policy shift in Africa from fighting communism to promoting human rights. Perhaps nowhere else in the world, besides Eastern Europe, did the end of the cold war mean so much. Kenya held its first democratic transfer of power in 2002, in which the party that had ruled the country since independence in 1963 was resoundingly booted out of office. The members of the new government, led by President Kibaki, said they were reformers and promised to address ills going back to colonial times. Clearly, they had their work cut out for them.

Kenya was one of the few African colonies, along with Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa, and Namibia, to attract masses of white settlers, including more than a few British aristocratic misfits. There was a famous expression from this time: “Are you married or do you live in Kenya?” By World War I, the British had established huge farms and built a railroad from the East African coast to Lake Victoria. To fill the ranks of their growing society, the settlers typecast Kenyans: the Maasai were the guards, the Kikuyu the farmhands, the Luo the teachers, the Kamba the bureaucrats, etc. It wasn’t simply divide and rule but also a way to make sense of the dizzying diversity. You didn’t have to be an Oxford anthropologist to appreciate the differences in dress, traditions, and language among Kenya’s forty-some ethnic groups.

This diversity, of course, was true across the continent. But to make ethnic differences the overriding basis for policy, to professionally segregate and divide up land into ethnic “reserves,” to solidify the often fluid distinctions among ethnic groups with the rigid categories of officialdom—this was all done more energetically in Kenya than in most other places in Africa. Wrong, a former Financial Times journalist who has written two other excellent books about Africa, one on Congo, the other on Eritrea, sums it up nicely: “The settlers wanted Africans to act small, think local. It made them so much more manageable.”

This was the Kenya that Jomo Kenyatta, the first president, inherited. But he didn’t do much to reverse it. He wasn’t like Tanzania’s patriarch Julius Nyerere, who promoted specific policies to deemphasize ethnicity, such as mandating Kiswahili to be used whenever possible and not mother tongues (which remain widely spoken in Kenya). Or like Mobutu Sese Seko, whose authenticité campaign for Zaire (now Congo) outlawed neckties and Africanized all names.

Mobutu may have been the most wickedly corrupt man ever to rule in Africa. But he was not a total fool. Somehow, in a country the size of Western Europe with two hundred–plus ethnic groups, he instilled a national pride. When Congo was invaded in the 1990s by more than seven foreign armies, the country stayed intact. Congo’s war has been one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II. But it’s more of a heavily armed contest for mineral spoils than a battle between ethnic groups, some of whom are linked to neighboring Rwanda. Despite all the hardship and bloodshed, Congo’s beleaguered people still know what it means to be Congolese.

Kenyatta strongly favored his fellow Kikuyus, who already had advantages because they hailed from the mild, fertile highlands where many whites had settled and therefore tended to be better educated and more involved in small business than other Kenyans. He helped Kikuyus take over farms vacated by settlers who bolted after independence, even if those farms were miles away from the Kikuyu highlands and included land that other communities felt was rightfully theirs. And he systematically denied top jobs to non-Kikuyus, even if they were extremely qualified, like Barack Obama’s father, a Harvard-trained economist who was one of Kenya’s most educated men at the time of independence, but also was a Luo.

Kenyatta blew a huge opportunity. He came into office in 1963 revered by many Kenyans as a true patriot, a man who, armed with little more than his tactical intelligence and a silver-handled fly whisk, fought for—and won—their liberation. Yet he died in 1978 widely reviled as a tribal chief. Kenyans were even more poisonously divided than they had been under white rule, because now some Kenyans, a certain, specific ethnic group of Kenyans, were getting fabulously rich while their neighbors were living off scraps.


This can only last so long. Somalia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Liberia, and even to some degree Darfur, Sudan, are all places where pronounced tribal identity, along with unequal opportunity, have led to war. I’ll never forget covering the Kenyan election crisis in 2008 and meeting a farmer whose house had just been torched by his neighbors. He was Kikuyu. His neighbors were Kalenjin. When the mob formed at his door, he assured his wife that things would be OK. These weren’t outsiders. They were simply the boys next door.

“So I went outside and told these people, ‘What’s the problem? We’ve been friends for years.'”

But all the farmer got back was the cold glare of strangers. The disputed election had apparently changed everything.

“Today is today,” the mob said. “You are no longer our friend.”

What explains how this switch can be flipped so easily, as it was in Kenya last year? How can ethnicity be benign one day and fatal the next? Why has Africa so violently resisted the path of the other continents, which were also, at one time, divided primarily along clan and ethnic lines, but have since found other bases for identity as their economic circumstances improved?

I spoke to John Githongo, the former Kenyan government official who features prominently in Wrong’s book, about these questions. He’s now back in Kenya, after getting death threats for exposing high-level corruption and hiding out in England for a few years. He’s trying to start a grassroots political movement, having given up, for now, on reforming the upper echelons of government. What is really dangerous and what gives ethnicity its edge, he explained, is inequality.


Khalil Senosi/AP Images

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, left, and Kenya’s former anti-corruption adviser John Githongo, Nairobi, August 20, 2008

“That’s where Kenya is unique,” he said. “We are one of the most unequal societies in the world. And when you have systemic corruption, conspicuous consumption, and stark inequalities—and you ethnicize all those inequalities”—that, he said, was “absolutely toxic.”

This is what happened in Rwanda, the scene of a genocide in 1994, in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed. The majority Hutus were mobilized by a murderous ideology that twisted a historic Rwandan truth, that the minority Tutsis had long enjoyed greater wealth and social status. In Tanzania, you had the opposite. At independence in 1961, it was a nation of peasants, pretty much equally destitute, without the gaps between privileged and unprivileged groups that were already beginning to show up fifty years ago in Kenya. Tanzania has remained poor but it is a rare African model of interethnic harmony. Sharp social and economic difference, it seems, helps to politicize identity.

Kenya’s second president, Daniel Arap Moi, was not a Kikuyu; he was a Kalenjin, and throughout the 1980s, he seemed eager to make up for all the time his people had spent away from the trough. According to a lengthy report by the Kroll consulting firm, Moi’s network of Kalenjin politicians and businessmen (in Kenya, it’s hard to separate the two) siphoned more than $1 billion of government money, buying a Belgian bank and fancy flats around the world and colluding with Italian drug lords.

One of the most outrageous scams was a complex financial arrangement between the government and a Kenyan company that was allegedly exporting large quantities of gold, even though Kenya has very little gold. At least $600 million of desperately needed public funds disappeared this way. Kenya has a mostly agrarian economy. There are no extractive industries, no oil funds to embezzle, no diamonds to smuggle out in Ziploc bags, which is the case in many of Africa’s other notoriously corrupt countries, like Nigeria and Congo. In Kenya, the stolen public money essentially comes from foreign aid. Or, ultimately, from sweat.

Ethnic-based patronage networks thrived under Moi, and Kenyan politicians were seen as fools if they didn’t rob the national coffers—or shake down businesses—and sprinkle the money around their constituencies. In a country that had very little national ethos, this was simply how things were done. It’s one reason why there hasn’t been a revolution against parliamentarians who make a salary 187 times the average income. While the middle class in Nairobi may be outraged by corrupt government demands, out in the poorly serviced rural areas where most of the country lives, the MP is still seen as a provider, often the only provider.

Wrong is especially harsh on international aid organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, describing them as willing enablers. During the cold war, Kenya was handsomely rewarded for the anticommunism of its leaders, and the donors barely grumbled about graft. Only after 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, did the United States and others begin putting pressure on Moi to clean up his act and make some democratic reforms, which in a way bred only more corruption, because suddenly Kenyan politicians had a new, pressing need for cash, if they were to run for reelection.

When Moi decided to step down in 2002, the reformers thought they could install an honest government. This is where Wrong’s whistle-blower comes in. John Githongo was a well-educated muckraking journalist, the son of a politically connected Kikuyu family. Moi’s successor Kibaki, also a Kikuyu, appointed him as the new anticorruption czar. He had excellent access to the President and to the inner workings of the new government. Within months he stumbled upon yet another enormous looting spree, this time by members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu-dominated clique. The scandal came to be known as “Anglo Leasing,” after the name of a company formed to pilfer hundreds of millions of dollars of Kenyan government money through fishy contracts, many connected to national security (meaning the contracts received less scrutiny than normal). Anglo Leasing is the heart of Wrong’s book, which is packed with detail and solid sourcing and tells its story clearly:

It didn’t take a genius to work out what was really going on. The Anglo Leasing contracts were a crude device for extracting large wads of money from the Kenyan Treasury. Where the funds would eventually end up was anyone’s guess, but it was safe to assume they would be split between those in government who authorised the deals and the entrepreneurs who provided the necessary camouflage by setting up a range of respectable-sounding shell companies and credit providers—“looting pipes,” John called them.

Githongo reported his findings to the President. The other Kikuyus in government told him to back off or else—making clear their intentions through anonymous death threats and attacks on his character and reputation. They seemed shocked that he would even think of betraying his tribal brethren. Githongo fled to England in early 2005, and in 2006 released secret recordings he had made of government ministers trying to blackmail him into silence.

No one was prosecuted. A few ministers resigned, though some were later reinstated and remain in government today. At the highest levels of government, there is no interest in stopping corruption or the dominance of ethnic politicians. As before, impunity rules.

By the time of the Anglo Leasing affair, it had become obvious that the situation in Kenya was becoming explosive, even for those living eight thousand miles away:

Ethnic-based tribal politics has to stop. It is rooted in the bankrupt idea that the goal of politics or business is to funnel as much of the pie as possible to one’s family, tribe, or circle with little regard for the public good. It stifles innovation and fractures the fabric of the society…. It divides neighbor from neighbor.

Prescient words, spoken by Senator Barack Obama at Nairobi University during a visit to his fatherland in August 2006. The Kenyan government’s response was to dismiss his speech as the “very poorly informed” ramblings of a “junior senator.” (Kenya tried to redeem itself in 2008 and declared a national holiday when Obama won the presidency. Still, Obama made Ghana his first Africa visit as president and has remained decidedly cool toward Kenya.)

In 2007, Raila Odinga, the leading opposition figure and a veteran of Kenyan politics, ran for president. His long-marginalized ethnic group, the Luos, one of Kenya’s biggest, have felt for a long time that they have not gotten their fair share of the spoils. Odinga succeeded in broadening his appeal beyond the Luos. He tapped into growing anti-Kikuyu frustrations, and pre-election polls predicted a big Odinga win.

But the Kikuyu elite simply wouldn’t let it happen. Intercepted communications from the days leading up to the election indicated that Kikuyu leaders would never allow Kenya to be ruled by “an uncircumcised boy,” a vicious dig against Odinga, whose Luo people traditionally don’t practice circumcision, in contrast to Kikuyus, who do.

According to Western election monitors, the voting itself was carried out fairly, but when it came to counting votes, Kibaki’s agents altered the tally to steal Odinga’s lead and deliver a narrow, eleventh-hour victory to Kibaki. Odinga supporters—including Luos and other groups—exploded in outrage, burning tires and stoning police. Even in dictatorial societies, stolen elections are no longer swallowed easily, as they were, say, ten years ago. Governments are still blatantly rigging elections, but technology is working against them (whether Twitter in Iran, videotaped ballot stuffing in Afghanistan, or Web posts in Zimbabwe).

Kibaki’s team figured they could ride it out, because they had been dominating the Luos for years. But they misread the Kalenjin, big Odinga supporters and known for their warriorlike ways. In the Luo areas of Kenya there was much civil disobedience, which took the form of riots and looting. But in the Kalenjin areas—where many felt they had lost their land over the years to Kikuyu control—there was a murder spree. Kalenjin death squads swept the Rift Valley hills, methodically hunting down Kikuyus, using the stolen election as an excuse to settle old scores.

Almost overnight, Kenya came to resemble Rwanda. Roadblocks appeared all over the country. Mobs demanded to see ID cards to determine which ethnic group people belonged to. No place was safe. In a small village in western Kenya, dozens of women and children huddling in a church were burned alive. Young men were so full of rage that they would excitedly tell me how they attacked their rivals with knives—and then spell out their names and pose for a picture. They had absolutely no fear of being prosecuted and they were right. None have been punished so far, neither the foot soldiers nor the parliamentarians, nor ministers who, according to some reports, bought their machetes. Once again, Kenya’s leaders refuse to prosecute their own. The International Criminal Court has begun preliminary investigations, intent on making Kenya an example of how to end this failure of a broken criminal justice system.

It was only because of the persistence of Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general, and intense pressure from Western powers, especially the United States, that Kenya’s warring political factions agreed to form a coalition government in February 2008.* That stopped the bloodshed. But it has accomplished little else.

The country is still ethnically segregated, with hundreds of thousands of people who were driven off their land during the election crisis refusing to go back for fear of violent attack. Nearly two years later, some are still stuck in disease-infested camps. Corruption continues to flourish. There have been scandals related to hotels, fuel, corn, and guns. In the fall of 2008, Somali pirates hijacked a Ukrainian ship full of tanks and other weapons. Though Kenyan officials insisted the arms were theirs, the pirates produced paperwork showing that the weapons were actually headed for southern Sudan and that Kenya was merely a secret—and probably very lucrative—way station. Pirates, unlikely whistle-blowers, had to correct the cover stories of national governments.

“I don’t have high expectations for this coalition government,” Githongo told me when we spoke in September. “These guys can’t seem to agree on anything except greed and impunity.” As far as corruption goes, he said, “it’s a feeding frenzy.” According to Githongo, Raila Odinga, who agreed to be prime minister in the power-sharing government, remains the most dynamic political force in Kenya. But his job, Githongo said, is “a dog’s breakfast” because he has no real power. The police are still centrally controlled by the security apparatus dominated by Kikuyus and men close to the President.

The judiciary seems just as rotten as the rest of the government. As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton put it when she visited Kenya in August, people in Nairobi say, “Why hire a lawyer when you can buy a judge?” In the past few months, the Kenyan government has taken a few small steps toward progress, such as demoting the national police chief who had been blamed for hundreds of extra-judicial killings and looking for a new anticorruption czar. But Western donors are hardly satisfied. The American government recently threatened targeted sanctions against a number of Kenyan officials who continue to block reform. Nairobi seems fairly normal, though. New buildings are going up everywhere. The tourists are back. There’s even talk that booksellers may soon be stocking It’s Our Turn to Eat. “But don’t be fooled,” a Kenyan friend warned me. “It’s not peace. It’s a cease-fire.”

—December 16, 2009

This Issue

January 14, 2010