Wrong's book is cast as a biography of John Githongo, the former Kenyan anticorruption czar who blew the whistle on the Anglo Leasing scandal and fled for his life. Using Githongo's story, Wrong is able to weave in a substantial amount of important background information on Kenya, on ethnic politics, on corruption, and on aid delivery. It's a lovely and readable introduction to these issues, if a bit long, and I'm buying another copy as a gift for someone who has no knowledge of Africa, aid or corruption issues. Although at the beginning Wrong's writing style dips into a maddening form of purple prose, she soon rights herself. She's at her best when explaining issues rather than engaging in cinematic story telling; and she has an excellent grasp of the issues, and of the human costs of the issues that comes through clearly.
The book suffers where Wrong makes herself a subject, with self-conscious self importance of her own role in what she sees as a Le Carre novel. What is unusual about the Githongo story is both that Githongo went public and that somebody (namely the donor community) cared. But the financing of politics (as well as personal consumption) through procurement fraud in the security and military sector is absolutely everyday stuff in low income countries (and even some countries that are not low income). People trip over it, talk about it, write about it, sometimes audit it and very occasionally are killed over it -- usually without feeling the need to consult Le Carre for advice. Fortunately there is not too much of this.
An argument of her book is that John Githongo, who is reportedly intelligent, and who was the head of Transparency International in Nairobi before working for Kibaki and whose father did bookkeeping and presumably money laundering for the Moi regime, entered the Kibaki government with an incredible amount of wide-eyed naivete. Without knowing any of the principals personally, however, I always found it difficult to believe that Githongo had managed to reach maturity with absolutely no idea of how politics is financed in his country -- or indeed in any low-income country -- and what that implies for the commitment to the fight against corruption for the head of an incumbent political party and his Minister of Finance. It should be noted that Wrong is a personal friend of Githongo, who apparently gave her substantial material for this book. I wonder if Wrong is a little too close to her story to ask the hard questions.
Both in this book and in her last, Wrong finds fault with any compromise with existing African political machines. Such compromise, she argues, implies that Africans are not worthy of good government or are incapable of it. But patronage politics are not simply the result of bad people in government -- there are social forces that drive it -- which is why it is relatively impervious to a change of administration. More, it is obviously not exclusively African, so it is hard to read an insult to Africans in a recognition of the resilient nature of patronage politics.
The naive "bad people" theory of government too often informs the actions of Western donors, who like Diogenes spend their time looking for honest champions with whom they can entrust their money. It also drives American foreign policy, as Americans spend time lopping off the heads of foreign governments. But political machines are Hydra-headed. As one wag said in Panama about Noriega, "They took Ali Baba and they left us the forty thieves." We would all be better off if we understood that political machines take time to change, and asked instead how reformers can address the social drivers that create them, and how the West can best deal with political machines where we find them. Neither the old Cold War shrug, nor indignant and self-righteous total repudiation are likely to be useful strategies.