The Anglo Leasing Files
”It always seems impossible until it is done”
Headquartered in one of Nairobi’s , most eccentric buildings-a zebra-striped, twin-pillar folly which bears more than a passing resemblance to a giant liquorice allsort, the Daily Nation is not Kenya’s oldest newspaper. It is, however, its largest and its best, flagship of a vibrant media group whose radio studios, television stations and newspapers are sprinkled across Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Curiously, East Africa’s version of Ruport Murdock is the Aga Khan, spiritual head of the Ismaili religion, whose influence over the region is quirkily out of kilter with the modest size of the community he represents.
Under Moi, the Nation was a must-read for any thinking Kenyan. When cautious diplomats buttoned up their lips and nervous international lending institutions kept their mutterings private, it often seemed that only the Nation had the guts to denounce the latest abuses. But, when NARC came to power, the Nation lost its moorings. Top management, heavily Kikuyu, was close to the former opposition leaders now running the country. ”The message from the NARC government was: ”Look, we’re on the same side. You want change, we have an agenda for change, give us a chance,” a Nation editor told me. New instructions came from the top: in future, there were to be no more scoops quoting anonymous ‘government sources’. If the sources couldn’t be named, the story would not be printed. The instruction effectively closed down most reporting on government sleaze. One Western diplomat in the habit of leaking titbits noticed the change. ‘Even the good guys were scared stiff. They wouldn’t publish anything unless I could provide documents to back it up. And things that would have been really easy to follow up just weren’t’. Readers noticed that their favourite sharp-tongued columnist were either leaving the newspaper or wrote far less. ”These days you have to read the standard to know what’s going on” a friend told me, ”You just cant trust the Nation.’ So how would management react when John Githongo, one of the Nation Group’s former columnist, dangled the scoop of the decade under its nose?
The link with the Nation was one of the many relationships John had been careful to maintain since leaving Nairobi. It had flared into vibrant life after the referendum, whose outcome had demonstrated how out of touch the Nation’s board was getting with the public sentiment. Falling circulation figures showed Kenyan readers were snubbing a newspaper increasingly perceived as a Kikuyu-dominated government mouthpiece. In mid-December, Joe Odindi, the Nation Group’s managing editor, confirmed that he and editorial director Wangethi Mwangi had persuaded their bosses to send them to oxford to find out what the anti-corruption chief had to say. ‘The train has left the station’, John told me.
For John, those febrile four and a half days together were as cathartic as any Catholic confession. ”All these time, you know, except for you and Michael and a couple of others, no one has actually known what happened.’ he told me. Unburdening himself was not only a massive relief, it allowed him to confirm the significance of this material. Compiling the dossier, John had become numbed to its intrinsic shock value. Now he watched the faces of the two journalists, hunched in their headphones in his study as they followed his emotional itinerary, their expressions moving from perplexity, through disbelief, to horrified acceptance. ‘These were veteran journalists, very hard-nosed guys, and they were stunned to hear guys openly discussing stealing money’.
The fight against corruption has always been handicapped by a lack of evidence, he told them. This was no longer true, and the Nation was being given the chance to scotch a pattern of behaviour that dated back to independence. ‘If we can strike a blow against that way of doing things, confuse it,, disorientate it, I see that as a major contribution.’ Breaking the story, he argued, was a patriotic duty. The continent’s regeneration could not be left to outsiders, whose low expectations of Africa were part of the problem. ‘It’s our country. Let’s do this. If we act on the premise that , ”oh, this is African politics.” then its a self-fulfilling prophecy.’
Putting in fifteen-hour days, interrupted only by the short walk along North Parade to clear their heads, the three planned a fortnight’s worth of coverage. The Kenyan public, newsmen agreed, will be hit by day after day of devastating exposures. ‘It can’t just be one set of headlines’. ‘We must rub it in and rub it endlessly.’ urged John. he had essentially given them the story, but the Nation still needed to build it, block by block. In view of the Official Secrets Act, the dossier could serve as no more than a backbone, a skeleton to which the Nation would attach the flesh, sinew and skin. The paper’s chafing battalion of journalists must be let loose to dig out the quotes, anecdotes and details that would not just corroborate John’s tale, but take it to a higher level.
Carrying the dossier with the reverential care of two Knights of the Round Table bearing the Holy Grail, Wangethi and Odindo flew back to Nairobi and immediately onto Mombasa, where a member of the board was spending his Christmas holidays. ‘We must do this or we are finished.’ was his reaction. The managing board and the Aga Khan swiftly concurred, and a team of reporters was assigned. Time was of the essence. State House was certainly aware of Odindo and Wangethi’s trip to Oxford, and would soon, thanks to its contacts on the newspaper, learn of the Nation’s plans.
Braced for the storm, John suddenly received a blow from the most unexpected quarter. For months he had been discussing what was to come with Mary, his girlfriend. Yet clearly she had never really taken in his words. Now, belatedly, she panicked and alerted his parents, who tried to stop the speeding juggernaut. ” You’ll destroy the family firm” said Joe. It was far too late, and Mary’ loss of nerve was a setback from which the relationship would never totally recover. ‘It’s like someone using a walking stick, and the walking stick is suddenly knocked away”, recalled John. ‘I had no words. It was huge’.
The story finally broke last week of January 2006, days before the first anniversary of John’s departure. Having tried so carefully to state-manage the scoop, John found his plans sabotaged by messy reality. Aware that the story was about to break- he had sitting on a copy of John’s dossier for weeks after all- KACC Director Justice Aaron Ringera did his best to neutralise its impact by cannily announcing an impressive-sounding blits of Anglo Leasing-related interrogations. Those called for questioning included Vice President Moody Awoori, finance minister David Mwiraria, Justice Minister Kiraitu Murungi and former internal security minister Chris Murungaru. Simultaneously, an officer at one of Nairobi’s biggest embassies invited a handful of British Journalists to read a copy of the dossier that had been quietly circulating in diplomatic circles. Obliged to double check every allegation, the Nation had taken too long, allowing itself to be scooped by a recently-arrived Western reporter who had never even met the anti-corruption chief, Xan Rice of The Times.
Excerpt from Michela Wrong’s It is Our Turn to Eat