THE STORY OF HOW John Githongo became a “world-class investigative journalist” makes for some intriguing reading. To begin with, Githongo was “discovered” for the Nation Media Group by the inaugural EastAfrican weekly newspaper Managing Editor Joe Odindo, who had himself just received a second lease of life from NMG at the time he invited Githongo aboard as a star columnist.
Six years earlier, Odindo had been summarily kicked out of the old Nation House following a minor error in a story about the Nation founder and principal shareholder, the Aga Khan. When Aga Khan HQ demanded that a head or two rolls as a warning to other staffers about getting stories concerning “His Highness” right, Daily Nation Chief Sub-editor Odindo got the chop from the then Group Managing Editor, George Mbugguss. When the EastAfrican, the brain child of Gerry Loughran, one of the founding sub-editors of the Nation back in 1960, was founded and Odindo became the successful applicant when the job of Managing Editor was advertised, he beat, among other applicants, Githongo himself.
Before returning to the NMG fold, Odindo had suffered a great deal. Although Philip Ochieng had promptly given him the job of Kenya Times Managing Editor when he was made a sacrificial lamb by Mbugguss and Co., Odindo was soon again jobless when the Ochieng regime was removed from KT ahead of the titanic campaign for the 1992 General Election. Hilary Ng’weno, the first African Editor-in-Chief of the Nation Group back in 1963-66, gave Odindo a job on one of his magazines. Returning to NMG in 1997, Odindo was determined to make a big impression and one of his biggest catches was Githongo.
Odindo, one of Kenya’s best copy editors, and one Ali Zaidi, also a formidable English-language editor, soon made the lacklustre Githongo’s copy look good enough for international standards. At this point in time Githongo’s most impressive credentials were his work at Transparency International and some dabbling in journalism on Executive magazine (a business-oriented publication owned and edited by expatriates) and a number of fringe NGO publications. One of these, the Sereat series’ East African Alternatives, undertaken in conjunction with another political commentator-analyst, one Mutahi Ngunyi, went down in flames, with angry donors demanding millions of shillings. Githongo jumped ship just ahead of the crash landing, leaving Ngunyi holding the baby. The matter drags on in the courts to this day, almost a decade later.
What Githongo brought to the EastAfrican was basically insider intelligence from Transparency monitoring of the Moi regime’s corrupt ways and dealings, at that point information obtained mainly through his father’s good offices as a TI director. Odindo and Zaidi embellished this information into a very readable and popular column, making Githongo shine as a writer in a way that he had never achieved before or since. Keeping the focus squarely on President Moi, Githongo routinely came up with such gems as the fact that he ordered his motorcade to drive around the Nairobi Central Business District aimlessly on the morning that he fired Richard Leakey as Head of the Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet, along with his “Dream Team” of key technocrats, so as to avoid having to run into a fuming Leakey at Harambee House, the Office of the President (OP).
Before being turned into a star “investigative” columnist by Odindo-Zaidi, Githongo’s other star turn as an investigator was in the Kenya Police Reserve (KPR), during its most brutal heyday (the 1980s, under Moi) since the height of the Mau Mau State of Emergency. Recruited by the patriarch of the Hamilton, Harrison and Mathews law firm, who was himself a founder of the KPR in the 1950s, when the formation was one of the most notorious torturers and killers of freedom fighters, Githongo threw himself wholeheartedly into his armed reservist duties.
Writing years later in the Daily Nation and referring to his recruiter/mentor fondly by his first name, Githongo described his time in the KPR in a carefully self-censored piece. What he did not tell his readers was that his beloved mentor had a pathological hatred for nationalistic Kikuyus and the KPR gained its notoriety for brutality and extra-judicial executions when the lawyer was one of its key operatives, long before Independence and the Wild West exploits of the remarkably overweight Patrick Shaw. Indeed, Githongo’s KPR bosom buddy was one of those kaburu diehards who, had he been alive when it happened, would scarcely have believed his ears upon learning that the Kibaki Administration had lifted the more than 50-year-old ban on the Mau Mau.
Among loyalist Kikuyu families and networks — where Githongo has long swum like a fish in water — the expectation was that Mau Mau would not be legalised by a Government of Kenya within living memory of the State of Emergency and the liberation struggle. In fact, few Kenyans are aware of the impact the move by the Narc administration had on kaburu circles both in Kenya and Britain and how deeply it has influenced certain official British attitudes towards Kenya in the Kibaki era. When the then Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Kiraitu Murungi danced a Mau Mau jig the day news of the lifting of the half-century ban was announced, one of the most baleful pairs of eyes focused on him belonged to the then Permanent Secretary in the Office of the President in charge of Ethics and Governance — John Githongo.
Githongo, who does not give a hoot about the fact that Kiraitu spent time as a very young boy with his mother in a British concentration camp for Mau Mau detainees, never forgave him that jig or having pushed, with others, for legalization of the Land Freedom Army. That jig is most probably the exact point in time that Kiraitu became cannon fodder for the prying former KPR sharpshooter as he moved around State House, GK ministries and other premises secretly tape-recording conversations for entrapment purposes in his “anti-corruption” crusade.
It was during his time as a star columnist on the EastAfrican that Githongo began corresponding for the venerable Economist newsmagazine of London, including for its Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), which has long been considered in the state houses and chancelleries of the world to be an adjunct of the British Intelligence service. According to Nation Centre insiders, Githongo took great care never to submit anything to the Economist and, or EIU that had not been thoroughly edited by Odindo or Zaidi.
With the advent of the Kibaki Administration Githongo had to relinquish his column when he was appointed to his OP post, to be replaced by Muthoni Wanyeki, who, like him, hailed from the NGO world but, unlike him, is an accomplished writer whose work requires minimum editorial interventions. He also, to all surface intents and purposes, left TI. However, just under the surface, he inherited his father’s directorship at TI, without full disclosure.
Significantly, Githongo never left the Economist/EIU, even as PS. In fact, Githongo was directly responsible for the Economist’s description of President Kibaki as lazy and incompetent (this was at the time he was still recovering from the lingering effects of the November 2002 car crash). Arriving in London in late 2003 from a State visit to the White House, where President Kibaki had singled out Githongo from his delegation for a most enthusiastic introduction to President Bush and his officials, the Kibaki entourage were shocked to read a story in the Economist, just out that day, rating him as undeserving even of clerical duties. Only one person in the delegation was not at all surprised: the instigator of the allegation himself, who was embedded in the heart of both the entourage and the administration.
He was also the principal informant in Kenya of Patrick Smith, Editor of the London-based Africa Confidential newsletter, a publication whose British Intelligence credentials have not been in doubt for four decades.
Githongo’s two years at State House required all the two-faced skills of the natural-born snoop and snitch. But there apparently came a point, or perhaps it had been calculated all along (only the man and his British handlers know for sure), when he had to jump ship when the going was still good. And so, amid many an allegation, much innuendo and pretend-portent, Githongo jumped from State House and into his British exile.
It was from exile that he wormed his way back into the pages of NMG publications, with the investigative journalism series “Anglo Leasing: The Truth”, based on his snoop-and-snitch tapes and one-way correspondence with President Kibaki. Like the evidence he had amassed at State House, this was a correspondence designed specifically to be leaked. Using the BBC to launch his expose and the Nation to bring the message home, Githongo basked for a while in the limelight of being Kenya’s greatest ever whistleblower.
Both Githongo and NMG threw caution to the winds and actually named names. The BBC ran Githongo’s audiotape of Kiraitu apparently urging him to “go slow” on a number of graft probes for hours on end.
Media professionals wondered at the fact that Githongo had confined his major leaks to the BBC and the Nation and the stench of cheque-book journalism was very strong in the air, both in London and Nairobi. How much did he get for his Anglo Leasing dossier and the entrapment audiotapes? Only the BBC, the Nation and Githongo can tell for sure.
One thing is for sure, though, the Githongo dossier planted on the Internet finally exposed the quality of his work when it no longer had the Odindo-Zaidi touch. For a person born and partially raised in Britain and who at the verbal level has a first-language facility in English, the dossier was remarkable for its misuse of prepositions, punctuation and grammar generally.
Today, Githongo is back as a Sunday Nation columnist, this time edited by Mutuma Mathiu, who has taken over as Managing Editor from Macharia Gaitho, a writer/editor incapable of editing either his own or others’ work. And once again the disparity between the output of the unedited Githongo and the edited is starkly evident.
The Big Question remains: Is Githongo as much of a quack as an “investigator” as he is as a “writer”?