Known as the “anti-corruption czar” when he worked as the Permanent Secretary for Governance and Ethics in the Mwai Kibaki administration, JOHN GITHONGO has been fighting graft since he founded the Kenya Chapter of Transparency International in 1999. During his tenure as Permanent Secretary, Githongo exposed a procurement scam worth $600 million, which came to be known as the Anglo Leasing scandal, the subject of British writer Michela Wrong’s book, It’s Our Turn to Eat. He is currently the founder and publisher of The Elephant, an online magazine devoted to analysing politics and society in Kenya and across Africa. RASNA WARAH asked Githongo about the state of corruption in Kenya today and whether he believed that the war against this vice has been lost.

Q. You exposed what came to be known as the Anglo Leasing scandal nearly two decades ago during the Mwai Kibaki administration. Fearing retaliation, you went into exile in the United Kingdom and your story became the subject of journalist Michela Wrong’s book, It’s Our Turn to Eat. Last week, after an 8-year trial, some of the key suspects in the case were set free by a Kenyan court. How do you feel about that?

Unsurprised by the outcome. Unfortunately, large and complicated corruption prosecutions fail more often than they succeed and that’s just the reality of it. Even in developed countries, successful prosecution is rare especially when the process is drawn out over many years. Prosecution is truly the bluntest instrument against corruption and we’ve always known that. Now we have entered a kind of anti-corruption twilight zone, not only here in Kenya but around the world, where it’s almost as if corruption has been transcended in public affairs by other considerations. Geopolitical competition supersedes anti-corruption even as popular outrage with regard to corruption starts upsetting regimes as it last did in the early 1990s.

One of the interesting things about the Kenya Kwanza administration is they never promised to fight corruption and that’s one promise they have been dutiful in keeping – not planning to deal with corruption. With regard to Anglo Leasing, one of the interesting asides is the couple of million dollars frozen in Switzerland – whose is it now or should it be returned to those who misappropriated it?

Q. Corruption scandals in Kenya seem to be getting larger in scale and more frequent. In fact, those accused of corruption seem to be rewarded with government jobs or other positions. How did we get to this place and what can be done about it?

It’s an unusual moment last experienced during the Cold War when corruption, bribery and theft were preferred tools of political management. The phase of putting anti-corruption at the forefront of public affairs in Kenya lasted from 1990 to around 2010 in terms of policy innovation. In part, today geopolitics has shifted considerably. It used to be the case that the West were the primary advocates of their model of good governance, democracy, accountability and human rights, etc. And their activism at the global level in this regard chimed with the aspirations of hundreds of millions of people in Africa, especially as the 1980s was ending. This coincidence has ended. Even the West has lost some of its confidence and become in many cases ambivalent about democracy and liberalism. Larger domestic political contradictions and serious international geopolitical preoccupations have kicked in. Democracy is facing challenges in the West too and at the end of the day while democracies are corrupt as well, they have more tools for mitigating it. Then you add to the current narrative a massive China that has lifted hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty using an essentially authoritarian but efficient governance system and we now have competing narratives of governance.  Welcome to our multipolar world.

Given the aspirations of younger Africans and what’s happening in the rest of the world, we need to define our own model of inclusive democracy. I’d like to think that has started. The problems anti-corruption is facing are currently primarily political. There isn’t any further technical fix available in this area – we’ve passed all the laws and created all the institutions needed and endless academic studies have and continue to be carried out. Their utility is declining as they begin to all say the same thing. Still, corruption provokes great indignation and outrage among Africans collectively even if a kind of helplessness has developed about it. Kenyan public opinion, however, can absorb a lot of corruption-related scandals. Times of economic difficulties of the kind we are experiencing today always drive the shift from outrage to agitation and from agitation to policy action.

Q. You are the publisher of the online magazine, The Elephant, which was conceived as a bold alternative to mainstream media, with its insightful analyses and commentaries. Yet magazines like yours are struggling to survive. What do you think is the future of alternative media like yours?

Alternative media via digital online platforms as a media model in Kenya is maxed out on the basis of its current funding model. [Journalist] John-Allan Namu describes it as a cottage industry that needs to grow to the next level because right now it’s a series of shops stuck in dukawallah mode when we need to move into larger aggregated entities.  

Q. Civil and media spaces seem to be shrinking worldwide as more authoritarian regimes suppress alternative views and dissenting voices. Is the world witnessing a resurgence in dictatorship and how is this affecting the news business?  

That’s true. Democracy has been in retreat globally since around 2007 – the year we had our national near-death experience as Kenyans around the post-election violence that year – at least that’s what experts like Stanford’s Larry Diamond have compellingly argued. Authoritarianism has become far more sophisticated and the most successful autocrats hold elections, and create and dominate all the institutions associated with a more liberal and accountable system of governance. Life was easier when we had really outrageous autocrats like Mobutu and Bokassa. Today’s figures are far more sophisticated: they are good with media, are sophisticated in foreign affairs and domestically can intimidate, bribe and kill while making it look like it is about something else entirely.  

While life has become far more unpleasant for the media globally, the ‘hit them over the head’ model is complemented with the ‘bribe editors and squeeze their bottom line by manipulating advertising, etc’ model. What’s interesting is the extent to which service sector actors working towards repression have globalised – banks, law firms, security consultants, PR companies, reputation launderers – they have no borders. For every one Unilever multinational there are three dodgy firms easily working out of London, Washington or Madrid that is selling its services in the dark arts of manipulating democracy across the developing world – these are the most versatile multinationals of our current age.  

We need to ask ourselves whether this model of democracy we have today in Africa that dates back to the early 1990s is now tired in its current permutation. It worked brilliantly between 1990 and around 2010. Economic and political liberalisation yielded many of the great freedoms we enjoy today. It transformed economies that had stagnated in the 1970s and 1980s. Across the continent though, all the polls show a discontent with the current situation among young Africans – they want more democracy. Current democracies are not delivering public goods at anything near the pace that our very young population expect. There is a profound scepticism with power and suspicion of the West, in particular, among this African demographic; we are witnessing their powerful sentiments across the Sahel and especially on social media. Ironically, those celebrating coups in the Sahel today are the most vociferous about corruption and sadly don’t remember their parents dancing in the streets for new dictators in the 1990s.

Q. The protests earlier this year, in which several people are reported to have been killed by the police, suggest that the current regime of President William Ruto is exhibiting signs of intolerance to dissent. Are we in danger of sliding back to dictatorship?  

Kenya won’t become a dictatorship overnight. Too much has changed since the early 1990s for that, or maybe I’m being overly optimistic. That said, we have seen that it is possible for democracy to be progressively disassembled until it feels like a dictatorship but doesn’t look or sound like one in the media. The regime’s response, thus far, to Ms. Mercy Tarus’ activism in Uasin Gishu over the Finland Scholarships scandal demonstrates their capacity to respond to public demos in a civilised manner within the Constitution.


  • Rasna Warah

    Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist with over two decades of experience as an editor, writer and communications specialist. She wrote a weekly op-ed column for the Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading newspaper, for many years, and has contributed to various regional and international publications, including, the UK’s Guardian, Africa is a Country, The East African, The Mail and Guardian, The Elephant, and Kwani? She has worked as an editor and writer at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and has published two books on Somalia: Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) and War Crimes (2016). Her first book, Triple Heritage (1998), explored the history of South Asians in East Africa. Her latest book, Lords of Impunity (2022), examines the failures and internal contradictions of the United Nations and what can be done to transform this global body. She holds a Master’s degree in Communication for Development from Malmö University in Sweden and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and Women’s Studies from Suffolk University in Boston, USA. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.