A Discussion with John Githongo, CEO of Inuka Ni Sisi!

With: John Githongo

November 9, 2013

Background: John Githongo is well known as a courageous advocate for integrity and honesty in governance in Kenya and beyond. In this discussion with Angela Reitmaier, during the International Anti-Corruption Conference in Berlin, Githongo focuses on his values and Christian upbringing. He voices his concern regarding the impact of growing inequality and the inadequate role the media plays in addressing the problems facing economy and society. He returns several times to the important example of Pope Francis. Commenting on corruption in Kenya, he points to ethnic mobilization during the recent elections. Growing violence in Kenya is a serious threat, even beyond the terrorist attack at the Westgate mall. Of special concern is violence in the northeast that includes grenade attacks and killings of policemen and civilians. He further finds that inequality has replaced poverty as a development challenge. Githongo sees creating a collective identity beyond tribe and integrating young people into the economy as Kenya’s primary challenges. He argues that the global economic system is dysfunctional and unjust in many ways, illustrating the point with the vast scope of trafficking in girls. Githongo takes hope from increasing signs that global youth are increasingly aware of the need for greater social justice.

As an anti-corruption campaigner, from where do you draw your strengths and values?

You draw your values from your upbringing, from the things you are taught as a child, about the difference between right and wrong.

My paternal grandfather was Mau-Mau, so he was very suspicious of the white mzungu religion. He said, “This man Jesus, I like him, he has the right ideas, the right philosophy, he is very courageous, he is willing to die for doing the right thing, and he is defending the poor; but his agents here are not behaving like him.” So he was mistrustful of the Catholics. I grew up a bit like my grandfather, but my inspiration is Jesus as a radical for justice.

One draws ones values from such fundamentals. I was born in the U.K. My mother and father were students there. My family was Catholic from long ago. My father was baptized by Irish missionaries, who were called the “White Fathers” (they were the ones who brought the coffee to Kenya). In fact, my father was the vice chair of the Eucharistic Congress when Pope John Paul II came to Kenya in 1985; that was a very exciting moment.

I tend not to talk much about religion. But right now, I am quite excited about the new Pope, Francis. I also admired his predecessor, Benedict, because he took such a thoughtful and rigorous approach to dogma; he led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for a long time. The way he retired was very clever, very dignified. But now we have Pope Francis. On my Facebook, I post cartoons of Gado, a political cartoonist in Kenya, and of the Pope because they have such important and telling messages. On Twitter, I follow Papa Francis, as we call him. I have a photo of him with his Renault Roho. Roho in Swahili means heart, that’s what everyone calls the Renault in East Africa, Renault Roho.

Corruption remains pervasive in Kenya. What is your view of how it can best be tackled?

Kenya has a growing economy and a growing middle class for which corruption is still profitable. So I do not think that we are ready yet to act seriously to bring it to an end. The poor are tired of corruption, but at the same time, they are trapped by it. It is partly these contradictions that make Kenya a volatile place, despite so many good people and so many good things happening.

At this morning’s conference of Transparency International, I was asked why young Kenyans continue to vote for corrupt people, even though they are opposed to corruption. In Kenya, we do not have political parties, we just have voting machines. People are mobilized along virulent exclusivist sub-nationalistic lines, which in a more mature democracy would be illegal. The situation in Kenya at the last election resembled that of Yugoslavia, before it fell apart. It was very divisive. The emotions of tribe, or race, are very powerful, especially when they are driven by fear; fear of domination or marginalization of this tribe or that tribe. These emotions can easily overtake your hatred of corruption, and you vote along one line. Then the next day, you are complaining about corruption. So what has to become key is accountability. It is even more fundamental to work for accountability than to fight corruption head on. From there, we can and must work backwards.

Do you think that the new constitution of Kenya will help establish accountability?

On paper the constitution strengthens accountability. But the members of Parliament have since added amendments that water it down. This causes us now to question whether we should not have been more pragmatic.

Can devolution increase accountability?

It will devolve both good and bad traits, so it will devolve corruption, but also increase accountability. So it will be contradictory. Kenyans, especially from smaller communities, chose devolution because of historic mismanagement and marginalization by the central government. It was not their first choice; it was not an ideology. It was simply a way of getting the big tribes off their backs. It has been the big safety valve politically.

What role can churches play in the fight against corruption?

On this subject, I can only refer to the Holy Father’s recent forthright comments. They demonstrate such inspirational leadership. The only time Jesus was ever “violent” was when he was confronted by corruption—in the moneylenders in the temple incident. Corruption disproportionately affects the poor—in particular women and the less educated in society. Corruption is at the core of the Church's mandate; it was at center of the way Jesus lived his life. However, too often the Church acts as a deeply conservative institution with a corporate attitude towards issues. Property is an example; in Kenya, the Church is one of the biggest corporate landowners. This can undermine the Church‘s ability to speak for the poor. So God bless the Holy Father.

After the elections of 2007, ethnic violence occurred on an unprecedented scale. Since then, there have been significant peacebuilding efforts, and violence was in fact contained during the March 2013 elections. There were, however, questions about the counting of votes and fairness of the election results. The Supreme Court handed down a decision, yet the uneasiness remained. Were arguments about the election muted for fear of a break-out of violence?

I think this is mainly an attitude of the middle class and the donors, who feel we dodged a bullet. And the terrorist attacks at the Westgate shopping center recently moved that up to a reality. An unprecedented number of Kenyans, including policemen and other government officials, have been killed between January 2012 and now. Just a few days ago, the mother and father of a member of parliament (MP) were decapitated. This kind of gruesome north Mexican style violence has become very intense. And Human Rights Watch estimates that 118,000 people have been displaced. It just has not been reported much in the media. More recently, we have seen intense violence in the Moyale area; grenade attacks; and, more killings of policemen together with ordinary civilians. The sense that something could go catastrophically wrong, that sense has not disappeared. The risk of an existential event, like genocide, has not gone. Yet, our GDP grew.

But the point I always make, is that if people do not feel that they are being treated properly, if people do not feel respected, if people feel they have been lied to by their leaders, if people feel they are being used and abused, there is no amount of hardware that you could give them that would calm them.

I look at Iraq and the violence taking place there, despite the billions of dollars spent for development. For a country to register development, people have to be at ease with themselves and with each other. I always give the example of Cotonou, where I traveled in the mid-1990s. Benin was a very poor country compared to Kenya. Only a few roads were tarmacked. But I remember, during the night, four of us went for a walk, and people were sitting outside in the streets, in little cafés, drinking, eating, and laughing. In the bus park, a lot of poor people were sleeping in the open. At no time did we feel any sense of insecurity. You counter that with a Nairobi slum where you must always look over your shoulder. So I got a sense of a place which was poor, but people were comfortable in their own skins. They had their own dignity. You can build highways, whatever you want, but if you have somehow been robbed of your dignity, especially in this era, when development is coming with deep, stark inequalities, then development can actually increase volatility.

You had once said that inequality has replaced poverty as the world's number one development challenge.

Since the end of communism in 1989, when the Berlin wall came down, in this city [Berlin], we are afraid to imagine a different model of how we human beings should live with each other and develop. The productive sectors, whether agricultural or industrial, are no longer the key sectors of the economy. And those are the ones in which the majority of people work, especially women. If you leave out women, inequality increases automatically. We had a banking crisis in 2008; the financial system of the West almost collapsed. The European Central Bank reduced the interest rate on November 7 to 0.25 percent. What will happen, if the interest rate goes up by 2 percent? When I talk to my Greek or Spanish friends, austerity is hurting the poor. We have a growing concentration of wealth in the hands of people, who are not producers of anything. So we have banks that are too big to fail, bankers who are too big to jail, and (I read recently), financial institutions that are too complex to discern.

You did not run for office at the last elections. Why not? Could that change in the future? You have ideas and concepts about change…

No, I did not run for office. There are many forms of public service. Kenya will have to deliberately work to create a sense of collective identity beyond the tribe. We will have to imagine and create an African economic system that delivers to all of us in our diversity and a political one that produces governments that enjoy the kind of legitimacy essential to implement difficult policies. We will also have to transform our massive youth bulge from a threat into an engine of growth and harmonious development. Finally, we will have to get on top of our security situation. Without security, ‘development’ is hollow.

In America, democracy is very robust. Americans elected a black man as president just 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. America is full of contradictions, but in its versatility, it is very strong. On this trip, which took me to many countries in two and a half weeks, I started off in America. I talked to the taxi driver, an Arab. He complained about the usual things, that America is meddling in the Middle East, and so on. But we agreed that if he talked like that in his own country, what would happen? He laughed and said that he would be finished. But in America, he can make money, send some home to his family, and speak however he wants about his leaders without being put into prison.

America has its weaknesses, but also its strengths. Having a Democrat as president, who is black, has created problems. There seem to be a lot of people, especially in the southern parts of America, who are unable to live with this.

What could the present global system be replaced with?

It would need to be a system which is just, and fair. The one we have is not. 300 million people may have been lifted out of poverty in China. That is good, but it also meant dispossessing millions of people of their property rights, their human rights, and their freedom to speak or to associate. The current system in China even has an impact on our wildlife in Africa, with rhinoceroses rapaciously being poached for their horns.

The era of Charles Dickens is with us again. We have a new slave trade. For the past two years, trading in girls has been one of the most profitable organized crime syndicates in the world, more than, say, heroin. With the most profitable “commodity” that you can trade in being girls, what kind of world is this? We need to stand back.

So there is an inherent dysfunction in the global system, and even my neo-liberal economist friends agree. I have studied what has happened in Greece. A huge part of personal debt was accumulated when Greek banks, that had gotten their money from German banks, gave loans to Greeks so that they could buy German things. The most popular car for the Greek middle class was the Porsche Cayenne. So what have we become? These things own us. And when we lose them, we become naked.

That is why I have become excited about the new Pope, because of what he is doing. He may be saying a few radical things, and doing some interesting things on the corruption front, but when he drives a Renault Roho, and sacks a German Cardinal for being Mr. Bling Bling, that is earth shattering! That gives the message that we will all have to fit on this planet, and stop decimating it. And the explosion that will be coming, we are beginning to see the signs of it.

Never has Brazil grown richer more quickly, than in the last 15 years, and yet, you recently saw some frantic demonstrations there. The other day, we saw demonstrations in the U.K., and across America. So even in the West, there is disquiet. Across the entire Middle East, we have seen a convulsion. I think this is driven partly by inequality. We have this simple model, that everybody grows rich, everybody makes money, and if you make money, there will be some trickle down, and everybody will be ok. It is not really working.

Overall, the model is simply not working. And in some places, we have seen change beginning to get teeth, for instance at the UN with the Responsibility to Protect, an idea that has to be taken further, instead of shooting each other. We have seen how in the eastern Congo, once given a mandate for a bit more robust peacekeeping, the UN is working quite successfully to bring peace to what has been the most fierce conflict that we have seen in the twenty-first century.

So everything is changing and I am happy to say that young people are willing to play their part. There was a time when everybody wanted to work for Goldman Sachs, and buy a Porsche. This tendency has diminished. The 1969 baby boomers generation wanted peace and love, and an end to the Vietnam War. They had their moment, perhaps we are looking for our moment now. I do not think the hippies will come back, but clearly bigger groups are beginning to say that what we have right now, does not work. Trickle down does not work.

A major problem is that there is a convergence of political and commercial interests in the media. The same way we have inequality in the economy, we have terrible asymmetries in the media, where too much media is owned by too few people, who have an agenda. The moment you try to say something else, they say, oh you are a ‘socialist.’

Can you add any positive notes to this gloomy picture?

The positive note for me is that we have reached the bottom. I see events in Syria as the bottom of a horrific conflict, which no one has any idea what to do about. Any conceivable intervention will deepen sectarianism. But the world cannot allow this to continue. Sometimes you reach the bottom, and proceed upwards from there. You see it among the young people, and the questions they ask. We have not had time yet to formulate our answers, but in the next 20 years, the UN will look very different, the number of veto countries within the UN Security Council will have changed. The World Bank may have been abolished and turned into a research organization. Huge changes are coming. We just do not want them to come from war. In the past, they always came with war. The growing consciousness of global youth vis-à-vis issues of social justice is encouraging. That’s what I mean when I say dignity comes before development. I am more than a consumer, a buyer of things.

How would this relate to the actions the new Pope has taken?

When the Pope got his Renault, second hand, that must have been surprising to people. He also left tire chains for ice in the trunk, just in case. I don’t think he wears Prada shoes in his Renault. In action his message is clear—from where he lives in the Vatican, to how he speaks and about what he speaks.

Let’s see what happens when you know the answers…

The thing is not going to hold. As long as the U.S. dollar remains a reserve currency, as long as everyone is part of the game, it may be working. The Chinese have to keep on buying American bonds, to keep enough money in American pockets, to buy Chinese goods, but even they know now the paper is worthless. There will be a big correction. I just feel that the truly sad thing is that those who will suffer the most are the poor. And eventually they will get angry. We saw that in Brazil with Brazilians willing to interrupt even soccer tournaments!

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