John Githongo: “We are in a global democratic recession”

Clara Zid, April 2021

John Githongo. Copyright Amos Ndumos

John Githongo’s life sounds like a movie. He is a celebrated Kenyan journalist, activist and thinker against corruption. John has been close enough to power to reveal the dishonesty of the elite, who later organized a plot to assassinate him. Today he has international recognition and leads several projects to fight fraud and bring dignity to the African people.

In 2003, Githongo’s fight against corruption took him to take an official government position: Permanent Secretary for Ethics and Governance in the office of the Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki. But two years later he resigned, fed up with the corruption that he witnessed around him.

In 2005 Githongo was forced to go into exile in Britain after receiving death threats. The threats were later confirmed by the United States diplomatic cables leak, that was leaked by Wikileaks in 2010. In a secret cable to the US State Department dated September 2009, the US ambassador in Kenya talks on leading politicians, including ministers of parliament, plotting to kill Githongo.

When Githongo went into exile, he brought crucial government papers relating to tens of millions in corrupt deals, later known as The Anglo Leasing Scandal. The scandal revealed that the vice-president of Kenya and several ministers being involved in scams worth $500M. The president, according to Githongo, was complicit in the affair.

Corruption is most effectively fought from the bottom up”.

In 2008 Githongo returned to Kenya and Michaela Wrong published his fight against corruption in the book: It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower”. In 2009, Githongo started the social movement Inuka Kenya Trust, which still today is active and fighting for its core values of respect, diversity and self belief to empower Kenyans by connecting individuals and grassroots organizations. Githongo is convinced that “corruption is most effectively fought from the bottom up”.

Today John Githongo, with more than 280.000 followers on Twitter, is CEO of Inuka, publisher of The Elephant, trustee at OpenCorporates and board member of Protimos, African Centre for Open Governance, International Growth Centre and Trasparency International.

“The most insidious impact of corruption in society is not the money that is lost but the trust it undermines among people.”

John, why did you choose to dedicate your life to fight corruption?

The most insidious impact of corruption in society is not the money that is lost but the trust it undermines among people in their leaders, institutions, politics and sometimes even among themselves. Corruption among leaders forces them to rationalize it; to distract citizens from their profligacy; justify it to themselves – none of these can be achieved without creating divisions in society to weaken popular forces coalescing together against the abuses corruption implies.

What have you learned about corruption during all these years?

It is in all societies to some extent. Over the past 30 years we have focused on building Western style institutions and passing associated laws to deal with corruption. This has not worked without us engaging the norms of society. Corruption is diminished at best and managed at worst when there are social sanctions that attend to it in a society. When thieves are celebrated; when they even ascend to high office; when they continue to be accepted in general society – that creates a permissive environment for graft that no law or institution can manage.

What are the most corrupted organizations today?

Globalization has made the legal sector, banking and other service sector players central to the architecture of corruption. In the past we treated politicians and businessmen as the originators of corruption; today where a group of accountants, lawyers, bankers, public relations professionals and briefcase influence brokers meet – the most sophisticated scams are engineered. As a result, some of the most corrupt places on the planet are jurisdictions in developed countries where illicit funds are hidden and protected jealously and with impunity.

John Githongo. Copyright Amos Ndumos

Do you see any improvements in the field?

It is encouraging that there are countries adopting beneficial ownership registers (a central repository of information held by companies and societies in respect of the natural persons who enjoy the benefits of ownership of their legal properties) so that the secrecy that has allowed the protection of grand looting of the poorest countries on the planet can start to be mitigated.

How has the corruption in Kenya progressed the past years?

The past eight years have been the most corrupt period in the history of Kenya in part because the elite has been able to concentrate on white collar corruption that is slower and more difficult to detect early. The signs of this are rapidly increasing debt levels and debt distress in many countries.

You are know to be a fearless corruption whistleblower. Wikileaks, who revealed the plot against you, has suffered hard the past decade. Do you think whistleblowers should be better protected?

Yes, and I’m happy to say there is greater attention given to this subject and we watch to see if this will translate into action. We are still a long way off. Wikileaks was new and so controversial. I’m not sure the Arab Spring would have happened the way it did without Wikileaks, however, so it is a game-changer on a scale whose true impact will only properly assessed many years from now. For an entire generation it was an invaluable glimpse into how statecraft actually works behind the scenes.

There are still threats to your life?

No, I feel pretty safe now.

Together with one of our #Fighters, Rafael Marques de Morais from Maka Angola, won the Allard Prize for International Integrity together in 2015. Do you still collaborate?

We are in reasonably regular touch and I continue to be a great admirer of Rafael and his work. He is an inspiration.

You are the publisher of The Elephant, a Pan-African online news outlet that was blocked in Uganda during the 2021 elections. Why do you think the Elephant was targeted?

We can only speculate on that, but it would seem the Ugandan government targeted a range of progressive independent African media sites in the period preceding and immediately after their elections in January 2021. The Elephant often publishes authors who have difficulty being published in their own countries and on subjects that governments would rather remain hidden such as corruption among the elite.

Qurium’s Bifrost mirror was absolutely essential to keeping the Elephant running during this time. The services of organizations like Qurium are essential to freedom of speech and an independent media. This is becoming all the more important during the global democratic recession we are in and the impact this has had on the media which is the cutting edge of democracy.

Qurium hosts The Elephant since its birth in 2016 and provides a Bifrost mirror of the site to circumvent the blocking in Uganda.