Half-Italian, half-British journalist, Michela Wrong, has spent several years in Africa working for news organisations including Reuters, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Financial Times. In 2000, she published her first book, ‘In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz’, the story of Mobutu Sese Seko’s ‘s rise and fall; her second book, ‘I didn’t do it for you’ on Eritrea, came out in 2005 while her third book, ‘It’s Our Turn to Eat’, about Kenyan corruption whistleblower, John Githongo, was published in 2009. The award winning writer was in Lagos for the recently concluded Ake Arts & Book Festival where she spoke with AKINTAYO ABODUNRIN about Africa, governance and development, among other issues. Excerpts:
You have been in Africa for several years and worked for a number of news organisations, how do you see Africa? What do you see in Africa?
I see a continent changing very fast and there are very many interesting and exciting developments. For example, technology has changed so many things. Cyber cafes, the internet and mobile phones have made many things possible that weren’t possible before. And then, I also see a lot of infrastructure investment; infrastructure changes, a lot of it because of the Chinese. There are very big projects that are linking up parts of Africa that were not linked before; repairing infrastructure that were put in by the colonials that haven’t been upgraded since. So, it’s a very interesting time and there’s a lot of hope. But I think that governance has not kept up to date with infrastructure and technological progress, so you are still seeing some very old patterns in the people.
When did you first come to Africa?
For the first time, I worked in Africa in 1992 and I was working for Reuters in Cote d’Ivoire. After that, I went back to the UK, then I went Congo Kinshasa, which is Zaire at the time and then I ended up living in Nairobi and being a correspondent for the Financial Times. Now, I live in London but I come to Africa whenever I can. I was in Nigeria, I think, it was two years ago during President Jonathan’s independence celebration. I was very impressed that he allowed me to give a speech about corruption. That was very nice and I was in Kenya covering the election. So I come and I go.
There is this trend I noticed while reading you up. It appears you write about the countries where you have worked. In 2001, you wrote ‘In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz’ about Congo; Eritrea in 2004 and Kenya in 2009, do you always write about the countries where you’ve worked?
Well, you are right. I never lived permanently in Eritrea, I just visited. You go to these places, you become very interested in the stories, and you become engaged. You make friends, you make contacts and you begin to know a bit more about these places and then, you look around, you try to see what you can read about it. Sometimes, when I was writing about Zaire for example, there wasn’t very much that had been written. There had been a lot of academic writings but not writing that was more accessible to readers so you think there is no book on this subject I would like to read so I will write one. You want to write about things you know about so I’ve always wanted to write about Africa where I’ve spent a lot of time. And also, you write about places where you think you have new things to say that haven’t been said before.
Tell me about writing It’s Our Turn to Eat?
That was triggered by a friend, John Githongo, who had been appointed by President Mwai Kibaki as the anti-corruption chief. He was a friend of mine and had been a very prominent guy in the fight against corruption. He had worked for Transparency International. He was appointed by the government to fight corruption and he found that there were a lot of discrepancies in military contracts. He discovered that and went to the President to tell him those who were involved; that they needed to be stopped.
Ministers, very high up people in government, we have to find out who is taking money, the contracts were not real contracts and in the end, he realised that the president was not interested and he was also in danger himself. He was being threatened, so he fled to my house because he wanted to disappear for a little while. That was how I found out about the story. . It was an interesting story because it tells about the country’s problems; when a new government tries to fight corruption, what happens and how easy it is to return to the old ways. That was how I wrote the story because I had this interesting insight, thanks to my friend John.
Were you in any danger when you were writing the book?
I felt quite nervous because he was frightened. He thought he was in danger and he fled to London and I was quite nervous when I was researching it because I was going through Kenya. I think probably the Kenyan authorities knew that I was working on that book. You know, now we know that they were listening to your conversations. So it did make me a bit nervous but I continued to research, and then published it.
Was there any reaction from the Kenyan government when the book was published?
I was advised by friends not to come back for a couple of years. They said just disappear for a while then come back because it was causing a big stink. People were very angry and it was a government dominated by Kikuyus, so a lot of Kikuyus felt it was a slur on them which it wasn’t. So, I did stay away for a while. A lot of people said we are going to sue her but they didn’t sue me because well in the end, it was true. There is one minister now who had launched a civil suit against John Githongo, the former minister of internal security.
Actually, that’s coming up in the court now; it has taken several years because the minister kept saying he wanted to go to court and then he wasn’t ready. It will be interesting to see what happens but it’s not against me, it’s against John Githongo. The trouble is that when you write about corruption, there are consequences. You still can’t openly buy the book in Kenya but you can anywhere else in the world. If you go into a bookshop, you can’t see that book anywhere in Kenya. They will have it secretly behind the store and when you tell them you want that book, they will sell it quietly to you. And I think that shows you that Kenya is still a society where people are afraid of what the authorities will do. It’s not a free society because if the government had a problem with that book, they could have sued. But they didn’t and there is just one civil case by a minister, but you still can’t buy it openly.
Have you returned to Kenya since the book was published?
Yes, I go quite often and there are a lot of people who really dislike me not only for that book, but for the  election. I was more vocal than other journalists that there was something very fishy about the result and it wasn’t just incompetence and bungling. So I have made a lot of enemies in Kenya but I also know there are people who appreciate what I write..
Looking at your works, you appear to be a crusader against corruption, someone fighting for a just society. Is that perception right?
I didn’t mean to be a crusader when I started writing books. In fact, I was a journalist like you and when I wrote stories, I got both sides of the argument and wrote very balanced stories. But I think because I’m older now and I’ve been writing about Africa for a long time, the longer you spend in Africa, the more you notice certain trends that are wrong and you want to say so. So, you become a bit more angry and opinionated and I think my books have got angrier as they have gone on and they have been on certain themes.
There is a tendency for some people from the West to judge Africa by Western parameters, is it right to do this?
There is a tendency, sometimes, to do that but you can also argue that it’s very patronising and racist when westerners say, “well the election in this country obviously they were rigged but you know it’s early days and this is a young democracy and we must not have very high expectations. We really can’t expect them to be like Britain and this is quite annoying if you are an African.” You had a rigged election but a westerner then tells you, “you are not ready. Eventually you are going to get there.” I would be angry if someone said that to me as an African, so I think one has to acquire the same standards. It’s patronising.
What do you think is your role in Africa?
Sometimes I can write things that are difficult for African writers to write because it’s dangerous. My second book was about Eritrea. If I were an Eritrean, I wouldn’t have been able to write that book living in the country. My book about corruption, I don’t see Kenyan writers writing that book and I think they don’t write that book because they would have a very difficult life. Even if they were not beaten up or jailed, suddenly they would find it very hard to get a job, maybe their wives will also find it very difficult holding on to a job. It would have an effect on their life. I sometimes think I live in the West, I’m safe because I live in the West so I can say things sometimes that if I was living in the country, I might want to say and I would feel if I say that I would pay a price. So it can be helpful to have people like me writing about Africa. Most writing about Africa is being done by Africans and that’s the way it should be but I think people like me can be like catalysts; they can be useful.
Are you thinking of trying your hand on fiction?
I am. I am writing a novel at the moment and it’s a new departure for me because I’ve never written a novel before. And so I find it very difficult but very nice in some ways, very exciting but it’s a completely different way of writing, so I’ve had to learn a lot.
Why journalism in the first instance?
I had languages. I speak French, Italian and Spanish because my mother is Italian and I had done French and Spanish at school and I liked writing and there were jobs at Reuters, I applied and got one of the jobs. I didn’t have too many choices, so when I was offered something, I took it.
You were posted to Africa immediately?
No, I spent a lot of time in London and then I was posted to Italy and to Paris. I spent four years in France, you travel around in those organisations.
Where do you see Africa going forward?
There are really deep governance issues in Nigeria, West Africa and in East Africa and they really have to be dealt with. And unless they are dealt with, a lot of people will make a lot of money out of the resources of these very rich countries and it won’t end up helping people and raising the general level of education and healthcare. So I do worry about that; I don’t see institutions being built up in the right way. One of my concerns in East Africa is that you are seeing a lot of ageing African leaders who either do not want to leave power or leave power to members of their families. In Kenya, we had Uhuru Kenyatta, from a sort of royal dynasty almost. There seems to be retrogression when there should be progress. So, I think there is a real governance problem and it remains massive.
How do we resolve this issue?
By holding people to account, holding government to account and building up institutions.