John Githongo is a Kenyan who was given a dream job.
In 2002, a new government came into power in Kenya with a mandate to clean up government and recruited Githongo as its anti-corruption czar. His office was in the State House, the Kenyan equivalent of the White House, and he reported frequently and directly to the president. And then he ended up in exile.
Author Michela Wrong tells Githongo's story in her new book, It's Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower.
Wrong tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that the name of the book comes from the "rotating series of ethnic elites who have the opportunity to run Kenya as an opportunity to benefit themselves, and it's an attitude that has obviously destroyed the economy."
When Githongo started at the State House, he and President Mwai Kibaki got along very well, and he "gave the president 66 separate briefings ... I mean this was constant access," Wrong says.
In 2004, Githongo started hearing reports of corruption, in particular "a series of dodgy contracts being signed off by people in key ministries ... which in the end was nearly a billion dollars," Wrong says.
A worried Githongo turned to his colleagues to figure out what to do about contracts with shadow companies that were little more than addresses. That's when he realized that they were the same colleagues who signed off on the bogus deals.
The particular challenge of Kenya is that whatever government is in charge, its ethnic group has control. So the new leaders abandoned their pledges for reform and clean government, instead embracing the idea that "now it's our turn to eat."
Githongo started taping phone calls and let Wrong listen to those tapes. She heard death threats, other government officials who "very sneakily just suggest to John in an apparently friendly way that if he carries on doing what he's going to do, then he will end up dead."
There's also a lot of laughter.
"I think everyone's very embarrassed by these conversations," Wrong says, and that's why they're laughing. They know they said they'd take on corruption, and now they were enveloped in it.
The longer Githongo investigated his colleagues, the more he was reminded that he was in the same tribe as those in control in the government — and that they needed to stick together. His colleagues justified stealing the money because it would go into the next campaign fund. "Stop messing with your own tribe ... you owe it to us," Wrong says Githongo was told.
President Kibaki would tell the people of Kenya that corruption was a problem, and that his administration was investigating it. But that frustrated Githongo, Wrong says, because he had presented the president with the evidence he'd collected.
Githongo eventually fled his country because he "realized there was a big cobweb, and at the heart of it sat the president," Wrong says.
Today, Githongo has returned to Kenya to do aid work.