Anatomy of 21st century corruption

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

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

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 multimillion- dollar 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.”

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