Authors: Michela Wrong
His other recourse was religion. Having spent so much time in Britain, John had registered the scepticism, if not downright antago
nism, of his European acquaintances when it came to matters religious. His Catholic faith was something he never talked about with his
friends, I noticed, turning instead that side of himself with which they felt most at ease. Only the Virgin Mary medallion around his neck and the rosary ring on his fingerâone metal bobble for each Hail Mary to be recited, removed only during weightliftingâgave the game away. But one of his last visits before leaving Nairobi had been to call in on the Consolata Shrine, where troubled minds went in search of solace. And in those fraught early weeks in London he did a lot of praying.
As he quietly came and went, reuniting with girlfriend Mary Muthumbiâan advertising executive who flew to London to see himâofficially registering his presence with a Foreign Office that expressed only polite interest, a silent question mark was forming. Fleeing the country, in a way, had been the easy part. What, precisely, was he going to do next?
As far as I could see, there were only two options. Option One: Leave government employment and keep quiet. Give the tapes and computer materialâyour insurance policy against assassinationâto a British lawyer, along with firm instructions that should anything happen to you, they will be released to the press. Make these arrangements clear to those in power, and assure them you will never give another media interview in your life and will never go into politics. Work abroad, go into academia, get married to your long-suffering girlfriend and wait for the affair to die down. Eventually, maybe five years down the line, you will be able to return to Kenya, and while ordinary folk will look at you with a certain cynicism and think, âI wonder what he knew?', most will respect your discretion and commonsense. No man can single-handedly transform a system, and you will be joining the ranks of former civil servants with clanking skeletons in their cupboards. Your conscience may occasionally trouble you, and you will have to acknowledge that you tried and failed. But you will have got your life back.
Option Two was bleaker, more dramatic, and fitted straight into that Hollywood thriller genre. Lance the boil, go public. Blow the
government you once passionately believed in out of the water and say what you know. People who matter may hate you for all eternity. You may never be able to go home again, your family and friends may suffer by association, your colleagues may regard you as a traitor, but you will have done the right, the upstanding thing, and lived up to the principles that have governed your life. You will have shown the world that others may do as they please, but as far as you are concerned, âAfrica' and âcorruption' are not synonymous.
Most journalists, I suspected, would urge John to choose Option Twoâit made for a fantastic story. I urged him to choose Option One. Those journalists would not have to live with the consequences. My old friend, it seemed to me, had already done his share, and his country's fate was not his burden to shoulder alone.
Initially, he'd planned a press conference. The speculation and allegations being published in the Kenyan press irked him, he said, and he felt he owed the Kenyan public an explanation. I quailed at the thought of the bun-fight that would follow.
âIf you're going to hold a press conference, you have to be absolutely clear in your mind what you're prepared to say. Are you going to spill the beans now? Are you ready to explain what actually happened?'
âNo, not yet.'
âThen don't do it. The most infuriating thing you can do to journalists is to hold a press conference and say nothing. It'll drive them crazy. They'll either force you into making admissions you don't intend or rip you to shreds for wasting their time.'
Another idea he considered, urged on him by the few friends in London who were gradually discovering his whereabouts, was to record an âin the event of my death' videotape in which he named names and explained his departure. If he were killed, it would remain as devastating testimony. He toyed with the idea, but held off once again. Perhaps he was wary of creating such an incendiary tapeâwho could be trusted to keep such red-hot footage under wraps? But it was also a question of strategy. John's modus operandi, perfected over the years, was to painstakingly think through every eventuality,
harvesting the insights of well connected insiders, visualising every possible scenario before moving to action. âI try and dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s. I do this excessively, it's been my style throughout. And then, when I moveâBOOM!' The approach slowed him down, but he needed to feel he had set his intellectual house in order. If he taped an interview so early on, he'd be skipping the methodical preparation of the ground that felt like a necessity.
A fortnight later, with the key questions unanswered, John moved out. He headed first to the home of Michael Holman, another British journalist whose friendship with him was as little known as my own, and then to a scruffy flat next to a north London fish-and-chip shop.
I didn't like to admit it, but his departure came as both anticlimax and relief. There was no denying that my brush with a man at the vortex of a major political crisis had provided me with a vicarious thrill. But there had been a few close shaves, close enough to make me uncomfortable. My parents' flat happened to be situated around the corner from the Kenyan High Commission. Once I'd caught a bus that stopped just outside the building and two Kenyan women employees, leaving for the day, had boarded after me. To my alarm, they had ridden all the way to my bus stop. These women, who would certainly know John in his official capacity and recognise him if they bumped into him on the street, lived in my local area. Another time, John had been using a local cyber cafÃ© and a Kenyan customer had suddenly started chatting to him in Kiswahili. It was not clear whether he'd been recognised, or this was just a case of one East African being friendly to a fellow abroad. Had I been working for Kenyan intelligence, I would have simply toured all the London gyms with good weightlifting facilities, asking if a large black Kenyan had recently signed up. But John warned me that his emailing would be the activity that would eventually lead his pursuers to him. By analysing the emails he sent back to Nairobi, he said, it would be possible to eventually work out the geographical location of the terminals he'd used. Sure enough, a Kenyan newspaper editor who liked to show off the extent of his intelligence links would later drawl
when I walked into his Nairobi office, âSo I hear John Githongo has been holed up with Michela Wrong and Michael Holman in London.'
A few weeks after finding his own place, waiting on a London Underground platform, John realised he was being followed by two middle-aged Kenyan men who looked exactly what they almost certainly were: undercover agents. He sprinted down a passageway and hopped onto a train to lose them. Then one day, emerging at his local tube station, he was confronted by a Kenyan man, standing coolly watching him, making sure John registered his presence. They had tracked their prey down to his lair, and were showing off the fact that they knew where to find him.
Yet they did nothing. There was no attempted break-in to verify what, if any, material he held in his new lodgings, no raid to confiscate the incriminating laptopâstill in his possession and containing plenty of unbacked-up materialâno overture, no whispered threat, no attempt to lure him back to Kenya. They were hanging back, waiting. Waiting for what, exactly? Presumably for the same thing as the rest of us: waiting for the Big Man to make up his mind.
He moved yet again, this time to Oxford's St Antony's, a college with a history of offering sanctuary to those in political hot water. Professor Paul Collier, an expert on African economies, had come to the rescue with a not particularly demanding senior associate's post on its East African Studies programme. It was exactly the kind of academic berth John needed at this juncture, offering him accommodation, a work space andâcruciallyâthe time in which to gather his thoughts.
One of his first acts there was highly symbolic. Just as his government experience had been at its sourest, he had been named Chief of the Burning Spear, Kenya's equivalent of the Order of the British Empire. Coming when it did, the award had felt part consolation prize, part bribe. Now he arranged for it to be sent to an old Kenyan friend, Harris Mule. Mule, a former permanent secretary at the finance ministry, had been a loyal civil servant who had refused to play the political game. When he had fallen into disfavour, he had quietly accepted his fate. John had consulted him when things got
difficult, drinking in his wise advice. Now he sent Mule a medal he believed he himself did not deserve, and which Mule should have been awarded decades ago. If State House was ever made aware of that small gesture, it would have been well advised to take notice. There was a touch of the boat-burning about it.
Ensconced in his new lodgings, John was nothing if not methodical. Now that he had caught his breath, it was time to pull everything together: the contents of the diaries he had kept throughout two years in officeâwell-thumbed, numbered black notebooks transcribed in neat fountain pen, the sloping handwriting squeezed as close as possible to make maximum use of spaceâthe documents he had copied and quietly sent abroad, the digitalised tape recordings downloaded onto his computer. If he was ever to make head or tail of it, all this information needed to be scanned, logged, written up and placed in some logical order. To date, he had turned down every interview request, made no statements, held no press conference. He had marked his fortieth birthday, that psychologically significant moment in a man's life, with the start of a new, uncertain existence in a foreign country. All paths still lay open to him. But he would only know what to do next once he had understood exactly what had happened to him. And to Kenya.
âYouth gives all it can: it gives itself without reserve.'
founder of Opus Dei
There's a certain sameness about presidential lodgings in Britain's former African colonies, and Nairobi's State House, the former colonial governor's residence, is no exception. Fall asleep in the waiting room and on waking you could, in that bleary moment of confusion, think yourself in State House, Zambia; State House, Tanzania; or State House, Uganda. Behind the white-pillared porticoes they present to the world, these buildings are resolutely dowdy, content to remain stubbornly out of touch with modern trends in interior design. No stark minimalism here, no streamlined vistas, no clever games with reflection and light. The dÃ©cor is dark wood panelling, chintz sofas, red carpets and thick velvet drapes. The taste in pictures will usually be execrable: an anaemic watercolour of an English country scene, an uplifting motto urging the reader on to greater Christian efforts, an oil portrait of the incumbent so approximate it could have been sat for by someone else entirely. The carpet will be worn through in places, a clumsily carved piece of animal Africana will take up a great deal of space. The overall impression is of a dusty members' club crossed with a gloomy British country pub, and the effect is to make those indoors pine for the fresh green of the formal gardens outside, the only real area of beauty.
One of the peculiarities of Nairobi's State House is that it is invisible from the road, the only hint of its existence a formidable checkpoint and a challengingly high metal fence. Puzzlingly, this fence has repeatedly failed to do its job. In the wake of Moi's unceremonious exit, several solo intruders were discovered wandering the presidential grounds in the early hours. One was an Australian tourist, another a Ugandan. Arrested by the GSU, they could not satisfactorily explain what they were doing on the premises. After some initial headlines, they were never heard of again. Word spread amongst Nairobi's more superstitious residents. These mysterious visitors had been able to pass through State House's supposedly impregnable fence, then evaporated into thin air, because they were not men at all, but spirits. Jomo Kenyatta had refused to spend a single night in State House, convinced it was haunted by vindictive ghosts of the white administration. Moi, it was now said, had also left a malign parting gift behind, an evil genie, a curse which explained not only these night-time visitations but the variety of misfortunesâfrom Kibaki's near-fatal car crash to the death of his first vice presidentâthat were to befall its new incumbents.
It was here, in an old bedroom converted into a study, that John set up base in early 2003. On his desk he placed a framed picture, a present from Bob Munro, a Canadian friend who ran a slum-based soccer-club scheme. It was a copy of a Charles Addams cartoon, showing a skier whose parallel tracks in the snow surreally divide and rejoin on either side of a pine tree. âThat's going to be you,' Munro joked, anticipating the impossible demands that would be made on the future civil servant. John had initially established an office outside the main building, within the State House compound. The president was having none of it. âNo, no, no, I want you inside this building,' Kibaki had said, insisting that the newly appointed anti-corruption czar should be virtually within shouting distance of his own officeâjust two doors and a foyer separated them. âDon't brief anyone but me, don't bother making appointments, just check that I'm free and come straight in.' It seemed the president had taken John's message on board.
That physical proximity alone ensured John extraordinary influence. In a strong presidential system, being in a position to brush against the head of state in a corridor is worth a score of weighty-sounding titles. Whatever John's nominal grade, being granted free licence to update the president whenever he wished effectively placed him above many cabinet ministers in the pecking order. And Kibaki was true to his word. By the time he left, John calculated that he had given his boss sixty-six briefings, some of them stretching over two or three separate meetings. That walk-in access made him a player of huge interest to anyone wanting to cut through the layers of bureaucracy to reach the core of power. âPeople would give me information because they knew I could easily pass it on to the president. “You need to know this,” they would say.'
The first thing John did was to eliminate the traces of Kibaki's predecessor. Moi's official photo came down, replaced by a large one of KibakiââI was very proud of the president'âand a calendar from the Japanese embassy. The civil servants assigned to the department his office replacedârun by a former Moi speechwriterâwere sent packing. âI got rid of all the staff, with the exception of the driver. These guys' loyalties were clear. And in any case, I wanted to get some members of civil society in to lend a hand.' John had an inkling of how institutions and structures can end up insidiously moulding behaviour, rather than the other way round. When the administration assigned him one of Moi's official cars, a dark-blue BMW, he tried driving it around for a day and then returned it, too ill-at-ease to continue.
In came the new team: seven specialists in human rights, governance and the law, picked to roughly reflect Kenya's ethnic diversity. âOur office was very young. John was the oldest, and he was barely forty,' remembers Lisa Karanja, a barrister and women's rights expert recruited from Human Rights Watch's New York office. With youth, recalls Karanja, came irreverence, absence of hierarchy, and a deliberate adoption of the informal working practices of the non-governmental world from whence so many of the staff hailed. âWe were like an NGO at the heart of government. People would get very shocked, coming
into the office, to see John making me a cup of coffee. Here was this powerful manâbecause he did hold a position of huge influenceâand we were calling him “John”.' The contrast between these new arrivals' breezy directness and other government departmentsâmale-dominated, obsequious and bound by etiquetteâwas swiftly felt. âYou'd go to meetings with government officials and it would be “your honourable this”, “your honourable that” and “all protocols observed” before every speech, all this bowing and scraping,' remembers Karanja. âI was ticked off at one point for not showing enough respect when I corrected someone who made a legal point I knew was wrong. John had to intervene and say, “Look, she's not here just for decoration. She's not a child.”'
The NARC government, in those heady early days, was ready to try something new, opening itself up to its traditional critics. With Moi's departure, thousands of well-qualified Kenyans were returning from the diaspora, ready to put their professional skills at the service of the state. Transparency International, the newly established Kenya National Commission on Human Rightsâheaded by the outspoken Maina Kiaiâcivil society groups and human rights organisations were all invited to State House to exchange ideas and offer advice. âWe were sitting down with ministers, and discussing laws. It was unprecedented,' says Mwalimu Mati, who worked at TI-Kenya at the time. âThe only other time there had been anything remotely similar was after independence, when returning students came back to help Jomo Kenyatta's government.'
But there were risks inherent in John's approach, which he would only later learn to appreciate. By surrounding himself with outsiders and failing to cultivate the old guard, he separated himself from the system. When State House colleagues slapped him on the back and joked about âyou and your crazy NGO wallahs' they were underlining a difference that would come to bother them. The policy might insulate John from the sleaze of the previous era, but it also left him dangerously exposed.
There was another failing which John would come to regret: the ambiguity of his job description. âThe first mistake I made was not to
sit down and draft precise terms of reference.' He would try repeatedly to pin down his exact role, going to see the president on three separate occasions with ever more explicit definitions, but the initial error could not easily be rectified. His job, as envisaged by Kibaki, was not to formally investigate suspected corruption, nor did he have any powers to prosecute. Those tasks remained with the police force and the attorney general. His role was purely to advise the presidentâan interesting insight into the extraordinarily centralised nature of power in Kenyaâbut that duty, in his own view, gave him both the right and the obligation to prod and to poke, to nudge and to pressurise, in any area that seemed to merit attention. âWhen people asked about my remit, I would say, “The president asks questions, and I answer them.” My job was to pick up the phone and call ten people who could put together a picture allowing me to tell the president what was going on. Essentially, my job was to act as a catalyst.' Such vagueness would be an advantage when he enjoyed the boss's blessing. But it would leave him adrift when things were no longer moving in his direction.
Abandoning lodgings on Lower Kabete Road, in Nairobi's Westlands, John rented a house in the woody suburb of Lavington, close enough to State House to be able to get to work at a moment's notice, however congested the Nairobi traffic. He probably could have claimed a government propertyâhe now had a bodyguard and a small fleet of cars assigned to his office, after allâbut he did not want to go down that route: âIf you live in a government house, they own you.' Instead, he found his own place, an elegant villa with a large garden perfect for a pack of bounding, scruffy mongrels he had acquired, specimens of the breed ironically dubbed âKikuyu pointers'.
But he never really spent enough time there for it to feel like home. Always a workaholic, John now paused only to sleep and eat. âWe have an eighteen-month window of opportunity before the old, shadowy networks re-establish themselves,' he told reporters, and he was constantly aware of the clock ticking. Here was the chance of a lifetime, the opportunity to put everything he had preached into effective practice, and if it failed, it would not be for want of effort on his
part. âHe worked all the time,' says Lisa Karanja. âIt wasn't just late nights, or part of the weekend. He worked
the time. So much so that I worried about his health, because he'd had some problems with high blood pressure, and the way he was living didn't seem likely to help.' The dividing line between work and play blurred as John methodically extended an already enormous social circle to include any players with the insights and experience that might help him in the Herculean task of cleaning out Kenya's Augean stables.
Since childhood, John had possessed a talent for bonding with people from different spheres. Thrusting Kenyan yuppies and world-weary Asian lawyers, doddery white leftovers from the days of colonial rule and impassioned activists from Kenya's civil society, lowly taxi drivers and puffed-up permanent secretaries: they might not be able to talk to one another, but they could all, somehow, talk to John. He might not have the hormonal magnetism that allows a man to electrify a crowd, but when it came to the one-on-one encounter, few were more beguiling. Researching this book, I would at first be taken aback and then quietly amused to discover just how many people I spoke to were convinced they enjoyed a special bond with John, sharing unique intimacies and confidences. âTake it from me, it's you and a thousand others,' I was tempted to tell them. But in a way, they were not fooling themselves. The Big Man had a Big Reach and a Big Appetite. His interest, affection and trust in them were only rarely exaggerated or faked, as far as I could see. It was just that they weren't on exclusive offer. Like a woman of astounding beauty, John was always more loved and desired than he could ever love in return.
It was an instinctive sociability that served his masters well, turning him into a form of national mascot, the acceptable face of the Kibaki regime. John's State House office became a magnet for foreign ambassadors, whose governments picked up its incidental running costs. âThey made it very clear John and our unit were their darling. There wasn't a donor group that came through Kenya that didn't drop in on the office,' remembers Lisa Karanja. For aid officials who had decided to throw their weight behind the Kibaki government's good governance programme and the Western investigators assigned
to help it recover Moi's looted assets, a visit served as a refreshing pick-me-up. âWhen I came out of my first meeting with John, I felt like I was walking on air,' said one, not normally the type to gush. âWith someone like that in charge of anti-corruption, working for the government, what could possibly go wrong?'
It was impossible to engage with the man and not be won over. Like all charmers, he held up a mirror to those with whom he interacted, and in it they saw a version of themselves. Meeting Kenyan friends his own age he showed his African side: boisterous, loud, irreverent. With the
, you would think him a son of the soil. When he met with foreign donors, he was more analytical, he knew how to talk the development language of empowerment, benchmarks and governance. âI never cease to be amazed by the love affair you
all seem to have with John Githongo,' Kenyan businessman and columnist Wycliffe Muga once sardonically remarked. But why should he be surprised? John was the perfect dragoman, the go-between who held a pass into two very different universes, Africa and the West. He had lived in both, and could explain Africa's ways to Westerners and the West to Africans. Of course the
lapped it up. And State House, looking to donors for renewed funding, was happy to encourage the love affair.
During this period John's family virtually lost sight of him. His parents' hearts might swell with pride every time they saw him on television, but they were worryingly aware that these glimpses afforded their only real insight into what he was doing. âYou wouldn't see him from one month to another,' remembers younger brother Mugo. And when he did turn up, he might as well not have bothered, so seriously did he take the need for professional discretion. âJohn is usually a great gossip and storyteller. But at family lunches he would sit and say nothing, just raising one eyebrow,' remembers Ciru, his younger sister. âIt was unbearable. We lost him then, we lost him to the state.'