It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower
Michela Wrong
Harper. 368 Pages.
The job was meant to last a year, but it ended after seven months. From my work as an editor with Voice of America, based in Washington, D.C., I returned to my native country, Nigeria, and entered its fractious political terrain as a senior special aide to a cabinet minister.

It was in January 2009 that I received an unexpected phone call while I was traveling in Nigeria on business. The caller from Abuja was a national figure, known and respected for her commitment to public service. The signal she sent to me indicated that all seemed positive and possible so when she invited me to a meeting, I went. We talked about the challenges facing the nation and we focused on the need to have individuals who were committed to working together to move Nigeria forward. She asked me to join her as senior aide in her quest to make the government more transparent.

After a short wrenching time of prayer and consultations, I accepted, even though this meant leaving my job at Voice of America.

After spending nearly 20 years as an independent journalist, I knew that what we were talking about would require a significant transition. Through the years I’d dealt with threats posed by various government officials regarding my reporting in Nigeria.  To now have this opportunity to work as RELATED ARTICLE
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part of a democratic government was one I felt I could not pass up. Similarly, I felt it was time for me to move to the other side and force the hand of change. When I made this decision, I had no doubt that the change I envisioned was possible, in part because I was convinced by what this cabinet minister told me.

Somehow, I failed to realize the extent of all that still remained broken. I never saw that I would have to deal with a political system that is steeped in corruption, ineptitude and indifference to the plight of the millions it was designed to serve and protect. Those who now held power worked, as past dictatorships had, only to serve the needs and protect the interests of the few in privileged political positions.

Perhaps it was my patriotic longing that pushed me to embrace the promise, even as I looked past the realities. Like many other Nigerians, I wanted to play a part in bringing about democratic changes. Unfortunately after taking this job I soon realized that, due to a lack of political will and of coordination among all levels of government, there was no process for change.

Political inertia resided at the top levels of government. I was surrounded by people who were resigned to the way things were being done. For many with whom I spoke, change was a distant dream. For them, life had become a daily battle of how best to bend the system to one’s advantage. Within three months of being on the job in Abuja, reality collided with expectation. I began to feel a sense of things closing in as frustration combined with anger at a system that was already being prepared for slaughter.

From my desk in the Ministry of Information and Communications, I could see the government’s inner workings. I able to keep close tabs on the various federal ministries and I interacted with a number of senior government officials charged with important assignments. I sat in several meetings where policy directions, especially within our ministry, were decided. I saw at close range how the government dealt with important national issues. And I observed how government officials communicated with people, something they did more as a favor than a responsibility.

A general lack of urgency was pervasive in all that government did, and in the process this—plus inefficiency—crippled any possibility of change. What was most alarming to me was the fact that the institutions set up by the government—many of which are money guzzlers—only served a few powerful people, their families, and cronies, to the detriment of the larger population. After spending nearly nine years living and working in the United States, I was taken aback by the lethargy I found within Nigeria’s government.

Echoes of Corruption

My experience reminded me of the book, “It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower.” It is a detailed narrative about John Githongo, a journalist and activist who joined Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki’s government in 2003 as anticorruption czar. Githongo quit when he could no longer tolerate the corruption and deadly ways of his tribesmen.

Githongo’s experience—portrayed so well in the book—provides insight into what is happening in other African countries, such as Nigeria. Those in power in Kenya turned the government into their tribal or personal property with a thirst to seek out and destroy any person who dared to stand in their way. And the endemic corruption, about which Githongo obtained firsthand information, gave him a clear sign of a state in decay.

No one with a conscience and progressive beliefs can remain within a government that is in the vice-grip of power mongers and dictators in civilian garb. The exposé in the book, written by a friend of Githongo’s, is a valuable contribution to the literature about the circumstances that halt positive development and change in so much of Africa today. The book is powerful as it details the sheer audacity of the actions taken. There are people in Africa who could turn things around, but they aren’t in power.

Newspapers in Nigeria are dominated by negative news—about what fails to work, about missed deadlines for the delivery of a government service, about hardships that Nigerians endure, and about disasters caused by neglect or tribal warfare. People have lost hope that government can perform.

I witnessed the full extent of their distrust—tinged with disgust—when my ministry launched a rebranding campaign with the goal of correcting people’s perception of the country. Mostly with their silence, the people signaled their powerful rejection of this attempt to gloss over reality with a veneer of pretty words. Yet as I traveled with the minister and senior officials preaching the rebranding gospel to people throughout the country, what we heard most often was the following refrain: It is the leaders who should first be rebranded from their corrupt and callous ways. Fix the power supply, the bad roads, and unemployment and deal with the lack of security and educational and health infrastructure before government officials come out with a redemptive sermon.

But the case for a top to bottom rebranding of government continued apace. Nigerians were told they should still play a part in this effort while praying that the government will change its ways. With their usual progressive posture, the news media sided with the people to demand that the government heal itself first. After we devoted months to the rebranding campaign, our effort suffered two disastrous train wrecks; the first was the government’s handling of the Halliburton bribery scandal; the second was the shameful and near criminal handling of the Ekiti State elections.

From my position within the government I wrote a few opinion pieces in support of the good thinking behind the rebranding that were published in Nigerian newspapers. Even as I wrote these articles, I did not spare those in government. And some point soon after that, I realized there were irreconcilable differences between what I’ve fought for as a journalist for nearly two decades and what was happening in the government.

Here I was working for a government I didn’t respect. In August 2009, I turned in my resignation letter. I wanted my freedom back—the freedom to be able to tell truth to power. Most importantly, I was no longer willing to lend my professional skills and intellectual training to a government without traction and focus.

When I quit on principle, I became jobless, but at least I had my freedom. In an upcoming book that I am writing—with the title “Inside and Out: A Journalist’s Walk Through the Corridors of Corruption”—I will offer a detailed narrative about my experience in government. In its pages, I will paint a realistic portrait of where Nigeria is headed if the same characters continue to lead us.

Sunday Dare, a 2001 Nieman Fellow, served as senior special assistant to Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Communications. He is the founder and editor of the online news site and publisher of News Digest International magazine.

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