John Githongo is a big man. not in the sense that many Africans use that term, to describe autocratic and corrupt leaders. But a big man physically: tall and hefty, his shoulders as solid as the weights he loves lifting. When Githongo was appointed Kenya's anticorruption czar in 2003, Kenyans said that it would take a big guy to tackle the country's massive graft and sleaze problem. His "bulky physique … seems to match his new enormous responsibilities," a local bbc reporter wrote in an online profile. But could one man take on Kenya's Big Men and force change?
The answer, after enough twists and turns to fill a novel, turns out to be yes. Githongo may now live in Oxford, England testament to the danger he says he faces in Kenya and his evidence of widespread corruption may have been ignored for almost two years by the government for which he once worked, but the big man is finally shaking things up. Over the past month Githongo, a fastidious diary keeper, has leaked to the bbc and to Kenyan newspapers a timeline of his investigation into a company, Anglo Leasing and Finance, that in 2003 was awarded a contract worth tens of millions to produce tamper-proof passports for Kenya's immigration department. But it didn't produce passports or, in fact, exist beyond a British address that Britain's Serious Fraud Office says it is now investigating; the company was, Githongo says, nothing more than the fictitious creation of a few senior Kenyan government officials and their associates. The money, alleges Githongo, was actually intended to build an election "war chest" for the ruling coalition. Two Ministers named in the graft report have quit, and parliament has questioned Kenya's Vice President over what he knew. All three men proclaim their innocence, and no high-level official has been convicted. But the tremors continue. "We are seeing political accountability on corruption for the first time in Kenyan history," says Githongo, 40. "It's a painful process, and no one ever said it would be straightforward, but hopefully some of the impunity witnessed will never happen again."
Githongo's crusade started at a time of great hope. In 2002, Mwai Kibaki, head of the National Rainbow Coalition, won the presidency, promising an end to corruption as "a way of life." Kenya was once one of Africa's fastest growing economies, but misrule and graft had helped lead to poverty and made the country unpopular with donors, who froze hundreds of millions of aid dollars. Outgoing President Daniel arap Moi, whose Kenya African National Union party had ruled the country for four decades, was so unpopular at the end of his term that when he rose to speak at Kibaki's inauguration the crowd pelted the dais with mud. Kibaki appointed Githongo, a former journalist who founded the local office of Berlin-based anticorruption group Transparency International, to sort out the graft within officialdom.
But Githongo soon concluded that some in Kibaki's government weren't serious about change. "The thing I had not foreseen was the extent our own Administration quickly and seamlessly became enmeshed in the embedded grand corruption networks of the regime from which we had inherited power," Githongo told Time from Oxford, where he is now a fellow at St. Antony's College. "The resilience of these networks and their capacity to absorb key players amongst us in the new Administration stunned me."