Anatomy of 21st cen­tury cor­rup­tion

The con­nected world de­mands new re­sponses to graft, says a Kenyan ac­tivist

Mail & Guardian - - Africa - Si­mon Al­li­son

There’s al­most a nos­tal­gia in John Githongo’s voice when he talks about fight­ing cor­rup­tion 20, 30 years ago; it’s as if he misses the days when it was pretty clear who the bad guys were and how to stop them. “When you think back to cor­rup­tion in the 1990s, you have politi­cians, bu­reau­crats, shady busi­ness­peo­ple … now we talk about glob­alised net­works that in­clude so many dif­fer­ent types of play­ers.”

Githongo has been fight­ing the good fight for a long time. He started as a jour­nal­ist in Kenya, ex­pos­ing graft in the Daniel Arap Moi regime, be­fore mor­ph­ing into an out­spo­ken ad­vo­cate for trans­par­ent and ac­count­able gover­nance. In 2005, he was ap­pointed as Pres­i­dent Mwai Kibaki’s anti-cor­rup­tion czar, only to find that Kibaki him­self, along with other se­nior gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, was com­plicit in the mul­ti­mil­lion­dol­lar An­glo Leas­ing scam, Kenya’s most no­to­ri­ous cor­rup­tion scan­dal.

Githongo blew the whis­tle, but was forced into ex­ile for his trou­bles. He re­turned to Kenya in 2008 and has since been in­volved in var­i­ous grass­roots anti-cor­rup­tion or­gan­i­sa­tions. Now he is run­ning The Ele­phant, an on­line me­dia out­let that is his re­sponse to the chang­ing na­ture of cor­rup­tion in the 21st cen­tury.

“Civic en­gage­ment in Kenya, es­pe­cially around issues of good gover­nance and hu­man rights, has had a cer­tain model where you ar­tic­u­late pol­icy po­si­tions, you lobby gov­ern­ment, you hold press con­fer­ences, etcetera. We found these old tac­tics are no longer as ef­fec­tive as they were in the 1990s and 2000s.”

Now it’s all about hav­ing an ef­fect on­line, be­cause ral­lies and marches aren’t as im­pact­ful as they used to be. In this era of fake news, Face­book, and dis­ap­pear­ing news­pa­per sales, “it is im­por­tant to cre­ate plat­forms to de­fend this space”.

In some ways, the glob­alised, root­less na­ture of the dig­i­tal world mir­rors the way cor­rup­tion works to­day. “Gone are the days when dic­ta­tors were mov­ing cash around in brief­cases. Now you do it on your tablet or mo­bile phone,” says Githongo.

He iden­ti­fies five main groups of peo­ple who all work to­gether — “like the mafia of old” — to ef­fect cor­rup­tion on a grand scale. Politi­cians, bu­reau­crats (civil ser­vants), se­cu­rity sec­tor op­er­a­tors (po­lice, mil­i­tary, in­tel­li­gence), the pri­vate sec­tor and, per­haps most im­por­tantly, the ser­vice sec­tor — the bankers and lawyers and au­di­tors and ac­coun­tants who are the back­bone of glob­alised cor­rup­tion.

“The ser­vice sec­tor plays a much more im­por­tant role now than it did 15 to 20 years ago, sim­ply be­cause it can move such huge sums so quickly,” said Githongo. This is a les­son that South Africa is learn­ing too — just take the role played by KPMG and Bell Pot­tinger in cor­rupt deals linked to the Gupta fam­ily.

“Law firms have be­come very im­por­tant, es­pe­cially in off­shore sec­tors … You will find the same firms have a pres­ence in Jo’burg, Nairobi, Sey­chelles, Dubai, Licht­en­stein and Switzer­land. This spi­der’s web of law and ac­coun­tancy firms have made cor­rup­tion more so­phis­ti­cated and white-col­lar,” he says.

As cor­rup­tion be­comes more so­phis­ti­cated, more transna­tional, so must anti-cor­rup­tion efforts, Githongo ex­plains. The old model for fight­ing cor­rup­tion — na­tional anti-cor­rup­tion agen­cies in each coun­try — is un­equipped to deal with the “mul­ti­ten­ta­cled oc­to­pus” of cor­rupt net­works.

One pos­si­ble, but not prefer­able, so­lu­tion is to re­ject en­tirely the in­ter­na­tional sys­tem that fa­cil­i­tates this cor­rup­tion.

“My sense is that we have come into that phase where the only peo­ple who are able to re­spond to the con­tra­dic­tions of this sys­temic cor­rup­tion are the na­tion­al­ist pop­ulists, but they in­vari­ably fail. They will shoot a lot of peo­ple, break agree­ments, start wars, tar­get mi­nori­ties.”

In­stead, Githongo ar­gues, gov­ern­ments must act now to co-or­di­nate a transna­tional re­sponse to ter­ror­ism, and the huge in­equal­i­ties that it gen­er­ates.

Iron­i­cally, this may be the only way for these gov­ern­ments to pro­tect them­selves against “pub­lic rage” about the wide­spread poverty that is ac­com­pa­nied by the con­spic­u­ous that con­sump­tion of the elites.

“The one thing that would make a difference, that would send a strong mes­sage, is to limit the move­ment of thieves es­pe­cially lead­ers who are thieves: those in­volved in grand eco­nomic crimes, but also hu­man rights abuses. It’s a prob­lem that some­one who can mur­der and steal in one coun­try can cross the border and live like a king in an­other.” Tan­za­nia won’t fol­low the lead of the United States and re­lo­cate its em­bassy to Jerusalem, Foreign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Au­gus­tine Mahiga said less than a week af­ter Tan­za­nia be­came the 15th African coun­try to open an em­bassy in Is­rael. Mahiga told re­porters that open­ing an em­bassy in Jerusalem would con­tra­dict the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil’s res­o­lu­tion “that Jerusalem is a con­flict­ing area”.

WHO to roll out Ebola vac­cine

The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion has been given the go-ahead by of­fi­cials in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo to im­port and use an ex­per­i­men­tal Ebola vac­cine in the coun­try, WHO di­rec­tor gen­eral Te­dros Ad­hanom Ghe­breye­sus said on Mon­day. “We have agree­ment, regis­tra­tion, plus im­port per­mit, ev­ery­thing for­mally agreed al­ready. All is ready now to re­ally use it.” Ghe­breye­sus said vac­ci­na­tions could be­gin by next Mon­day.

Uganda won’t tax God’s word

The head of Uganda’s rev­enue author­ity has de­nied a re­port by pri­vately owned news­pa­per Daily Mon­i­tor about a plan to tax Bi­bles and Qur’ans. Doris Akol said the story was “fake news”. It was pre­vi­ously re­ported that Ugan­dan au­thor­i­ties had or­dered reli­gious groups to pay taxes on the sale of reli­gious texts. The re­ports came af­ter months of dis­cus­sions be­tween the groups and tax au­thor­i­ties. The sec­re­tary gen­eral of the Uganda Mus­lim Supreme Coun­cil, Ra­mad­han Mu­galu, told the news­pa­per that the gov­ern­ment had “gone too far”.

In the room: Kenyan anti-cor­rup­tion ac­tivist John Githongo now runs an on­line me­dia out­let, The Ele­phant. Photo: Si­mon Maina/AFP

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