John Githongo: Anti-Graft Czar

Githongo, a former journalist who spent years investigating Kenya’s rampant culture of bribery and fraud, now heads President Mwai Kibaki’s anti-corruption unit.

The new “high priest of good governance” so called by the BBC, symbolizes creativity, boldness, and audacity. Githongo, 38, the former executive director of  Transparency International (TI) Kenya, is Kenya’s secretary for governance and ethics under President Kibaki, whose National Rainbow Coalition came to power at the end of 2002.

It must be Githongo’s dream job. “I’ve always been fascinated by the connection between corruption and politics. It starts from the top and ends at the top.” And that is exactly how he is going to clean up a country ranked by TI as the world’s 6th-most corrupt: from the top down, sparing no one.

In December, after a six-month secret international investigation that he coordinated, Githongo identified former and serving politicians and civil servants in a US$1 billion corruption probe. He is now building a case for prosecution. Bribery and fraud cost Kenya as much as US$1 billion a year. The majority of Kenyans live on less than $1 per day, but according to TI’s “Daily Bribery Survey,” they are made to pay an average of 16 bribes a month—in two of every three encounters with public officials. Parliament recently passed three crucial anti-graft laws that provide President Kibaki with the legal framework to embark on a five-year campaign against corruption.

An anti-corruption commission was established whose main targets will be the public and civil service sectors, the police, immigration, the Revenue Authority, and the Ports Authority—even government officials. (For more on corruption in Kenya, see “Kenya’s Filthy Rich Civil Servants,” WPR, January 2004.) The judiciary has already come under fire: Six of the nine Appeals Court judges have been found to be corrupt; 17 lower-ranking judges have been suspended.

Githongo graduated from the University of  Wales with a degree in economics and philosophy. He then set up and ran TI’s Kenyan chapter, and for eight years, he wrestled with the Moi regime through his acid columns in Nairobi’s weekly The East African.

Many attempts have been made to bribe Githongo, and his life has been threatened. He has gathered evidence of corruption and fraud and collected his findings in a vast private archive that will now be his main weapon in sorting out the truth from propaganda and false allegations.

He is a “robust creature of the dot-com generation,” wrote Bartholomäus Grill in Hamburg’s Die Zeit. “Liberal, ambitious, determined, well educated—a man who is immune to the luxuries of the elites.”

“[This] is a blow-by-blow the trenches of bureaucracy,” cautions Githongo, who is known to be clean as a whistle.

“Don’t think the culprits will just sit back. They fight. Corruption fights back.”