John Githongo is the CEO of Inuka Trust and former Permanent Secretary for Governance and Ethics appointed by the then President, Mwai Kibaki, in 2003. His struggle to reveal high-level corruption in the Kibaki administration (known as the ‘Anglo-Leasing scandal’) is described in Michela Wrong’s book; It’s Our Turn to Eat.
1. What is the atmosphere in Kenya currently like – particularly for those people who work in the civil society/human rights world?
There is definitely less space for civil society and those in the rights’ fraternity to operate. And this space continues to shrink. It would appear to be the government’s intention to not only roll back hard won freedoms, but to recreate Kenya into the Cold War condition of fear and repression.
These reversals are being orchestrated blatantly in terms of partisanship; with an infantile sense of panic and disgruntlement in terms of foreign policy – all of which have been surprising; and, with a disregard to the new constitution that was hailed as the most progressive since South Africa’s. So there is anger, fear, disgust and also disappointment and hurt.
The positive out of all this is a deeper appreciation of what we have in the way of freedoms, their worth and fragility; and, it has started to cause different fraternities dedicated to a just society to coalesce. We have reached the end of complacency. This is a good thing.
2. What are your views on the repressive legislation recently tabled? For example, the Media and Communications Bill and Public Benefits Organisations Act
Repression and impunity are most damaging to a society when they wear the cloak of legality. The two Bills are simply attempts to provide this veneer of legality to what are attempted giant steps backwards vis-a-vis basic freedoms. Worse, they are totally against the letter and spirit of our new constitution. This is painful to witness and be part of the high-speed dismantling of our constitution.
It’s easier currently to think of Kenya as a company with a few well-heeled shareholders accustomed to impunity, dedicated to profit, who worship the unfettered market; and for whom the population are a labour pool. Constraining basic rights and freedoms is informed by the logic of breaking unions in the interests of ‘efficiency’. Health, education, security etc are part of a kind of official ‘corporate social responsibility’ junket to keep ‘restive natives happy’.
3. What impact would the anti-civil society legislation have on the operational capacity of these organisations?
It would undermine their capacity to operate from a bureaucratic point of view but perhaps release more organic energies that may have been smothered by the bureaucratisation of the last decade and half. Every dark cloud has a silver lining.
4. What effect did the Supreme Court judgment on the election have on people working in the human rights sector?
The Chief Justice, Willy Mutunga, is the guru of the human rights sector, the most respected leader and mentor to an entire generation of activists. So there were those who were deeply betrayed, hurt and disappointed by the decision, not because it was a decision of the Supreme Court, but that it had Dr Mutunga’s name on it. That’s the perspective one has to have to understand the angst that has continued around the decision. It does to remember though that he is Chief Justice in a deeply hostile, dishonest and counter-reform environment.
5. What sort of leverage do allies (e.g. military) and donors have over the current Kenyan government?
The leverage of allies has been temporarily undermined in part because they had not anticipated the virulence of the attack against them and its petulant aggression that doesn’t lend itself to normal diplomatic solutions. So they were quite confused and headless for a while. That’s abating. Also the era of ‘donors’ in the traditional sense is ending. On the security front things are far more urgent however.
That said, no matter how self serving, the Jubilee Government’s ‘turn to the East’ and more importantly its rediscovery of PanAfricanism is not in and of itself a bad thing. It’s just uncomfortable that it’s those leaders consumed most with a spirit of selfishness in terms of holding on to personal power, rather than the selflessness demonstrated by Africanist doyens of the 1950s and ’60s, who are cheering loudest at its current permutation.
Also, the economic model we copied from the West seems to be faltering even there (in the West) and it’s plainly clear that the democratic model – especially the management of elections and their place in the wider scheme of creating a just, harmonious and equitable yet diverse society in the African context – needs to be rethought as a matter of priority. Right now the fulminations of authoritarian corrupt rulers upset about accountability are merely reactionary responses that bear no relationship to the aspirations, hopes, ambitions and desires of the majority of Africa’s peoples.
6. What should ‘Red Lines’ be for Kenya’s allies as regards our relationship with the Kenyatta administration?
I am reminded of Neville Chamberlain’s famous statement of September 30th 1938: “I have returned from Germany with peace for our time”. The day before, he’d sat at the table with Herr. Hitler and participated in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia – so strong was the desire for peace, that this was rationalised at that time. So we need first to ask what red lines may already have been crossed or re-coloured to look grey. Kenyans themselves will judge the character of nations by how they respond to this – especially to the threats and tantrums thrown about ostensibly in the interests of sovereignty.
7. How likely is non-compliance by Kenyatta with the ICC?
We don’t have long to wait to see the answer to that and it is perhaps one of your ‘red lines’. The president has been consistent that he will cooperate. On the other hand, the entire government machinery – and to an extent the Kenyan people as represented by that government – has become a giant human shield against the ICC. The last time a move remotely similar to this was pulled off was by Charles Taylor when he stood for President of Liberia seeking votes on the basis of fear – “you killed my Pa, you killed my Ma, I’ll vote for you.” But Kenyatta is no Charles Taylor! So it is very confusing that there are those in his administration unable to appreciate the growing similarities their sycophancy-driven conduct is conjuring up in this regard.
8. How personally secure do you and other advocates for human rights and accountability currently feel in Kenya?
Security is a challenge for all. The regime is insecure; its legitimacy non-existent in large swathes of the country; the polarization along ethnic lines deep; and even some of its initial believers increasingly disillusioned as a result of the obvious crisis in the security sector, continuing graft and continuously increasing cost of living especially for the poor in a country where inequality – not poverty per se – is now the number one development challenge. So the attempt to buy, intimidate, tarnish the names of, or even kill opponents is unsurprising. The Rift Valley, sadly, has always been our cauldron of political violence and intolerance, which is contradicted by the incredible hospitality of the resident communities. Things are coming to a head.
9. Do you identify a broader illiberal trend across Eastern Africa, particularly as regards the media and civil society?
The democratic recession that’s underway has accompanied improving economic prospects since the year 2000. The price is political volatility and violence.
Questions by Magnus Taylor – Editor, African Arguments. For our previous interview with Muthoni Wanyeki, former CEO of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, click here.