John Githongo, re-engaging Kenya’s digital generation

By Laura Angela Bagnetto

Posted on Friday, 24 February 2023 14:26
Kenyan former anti-corruption head John Githongo has been named chairman of Transparency International’s International Council

John Githongo is a man on the move—we speak early in the morning as he admits that he’s sidelined coffee for his beloved masala tea.

He’s just been named the chairman at Transparency International’s International Council (TI), an organisation he knows well—he founded the TI office in Nairobi in 1999, right before he ascended to the top post as anti-corruption czar for president Mwai Kibaki’s administration. That was before he fled the country in 2005 in fear for his life.

The whole story is captured in journalist Michaela Wrong’s book on the subject, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower (Harper Perennial, 2009), and his chronicles do not end there. He continues to make waves on the anti-corruption scene, with projects in grassroots organising and journalism.

Six months after an eventful election season, there’s a lot of work to do. Kenya’s political leaders had realigned themselves ahead of the polls changing entrenched alliances. However, analysts lauded the lack of ethnic narrative while campaigning and it remains to be seen whether this could become a major factor again, says Githongo.

“What is certain is that we’re going to see a realignment within the elite – it’s the elite that mobilises along ethnic lines,” he says, adding that historically, the Kenyan tradition is to honour those ties. But for Githongo, Kenya’s 21st-century youth culture goes its own way.


“One has to be conscious of the fact that the majority of our population in Kenya is very young, they’re increasingly urbanised; they are a generation that is on social media,” he says.

The aspirations and expectations for the post-independence babies, like Githongo, and even the peer group after him, contrast with what youth want today.

“This generation is much less inclined to succumb to the ethnic mobilisation that was possible before,” he says, hoping this indicates that Kenya has turned a corner.

One of the troubling aspects of the August 2022 elections was that the youth were not engaged; they were not seen in lines to vote, and they did not participate, he says.

“They do not feel that any of the political actors [or] any of the political formations have presented their interests or are interested in their future – it’s a very cynical attitude towards the whole process,” says Githongo.

“That’s an urgent problem, especially in countries like ours, where the majority of the population is young, the median age is low, in countries like Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania – they are teenagers, really.”

Corruption, full circle

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Kenya signing and ratifying the UN Convention Against Corruption. Kenya was the first country in the world to fulfil all the conventions against corruption, says the former anti-corruption head.

“We’ve come full circle now in 2023. And a lot has been learned in the fight against corruption. One slightly troubling thing is that Kenya remains in the bottom 30% of the corruption perception index of Transparency International,” he says.

A recent and disturbing development includes the large number of corruption cases that have been taken to court and thrown out.

“We can argue that it forms a pattern of cases that have been embarked upon at tremendous expense and effort by different agencies, being discontinued in a manner that suggests there’s a political pattern to them,” he says.

The numerous graft cases dropped against politicians and businesspeople have been a cause for concern. Some of the more prominent legal challenges include those against Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, Public Service Cabinet Secretary Aisha Jumwa, and former Nairobi governor Mike Sonko.

Indications from the Ruto camp show that this was not a priority.

“The Ruto machine never had anti-corruption as part of their agenda, even as they campaigned,” he says. “And this has been demonstrated by the way that they have handled these cases.”

This elephant is helping the grass

As Githongo takes another sip from his masala tea we return to Kenyan youth, a topic close to his heart. He believes transforming the apathetic youth into engaged Kenyan citizens is a matter of applying savvy ways of getting the information to them, says Githongo, who started his career as a journalist.

He re-entered the media space in 2016 as a co-founder and publisher of The Elephant, an online, curated news and political analysis website with the tagline, “Explaining Society to the People.”

“We have an entire generation who have access to more information than any other generation in history, just in terms of what you have available on your phone.”

The excess of information does not mean that it is intelligent, or reliable, especially in this digital age where anonymity reigns and people comment and present themselves as experts in the digital realm, he says.

“Just put it out there and let something go ‘viral’ and the distinction between the narrative and the facts can become blurred even when it’s huge,” he says, discussing stories that blow up online but have a little factual basis. He refers to companies that have emerged just to dominate the narrative, to push a point of view to as many people as possible.

The misinformation that came out of the Covid-19 pandemic is a prime example, he says.

Fight for truth

“For me, it was a testament to how powerful social media has become, and the fight that still remains to be waged to remain focused on the truth, rather than just obsessed with the narrative.”

“Re-entering this media ecosystem became important and critical, because narratives dominate our lives, in the sense the tail wags the dog, even amongst politicians and other public figures,” he says. Githongo describes how they can better cater to the youth by making news snappy and easy for people to consume in bitesize pieces designed to be more direct.

This formula has proved successful for his outlet— The Elephant journalist Naipanoi Lepapa took the Media Council of Kenya’s Journalist of the Year 2022 for her story on Kenyan women who act as surrogates for childless couples.

Traditional media as we know it has changed forever, but Githongo hopes that online platforms like his can be used to turn around and encourage young Kenyans to become committed, engaged citizens who care about the fight against corruption.

“This is a space that is very critical to our civic hygiene, our civic life in this globalised digital age. You can’t run away from it. It’s the reality we have to live with.”

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