African investigative journalism, 75 years in the making

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BY TOM ODHIAMBO

When the World Press Freedom Day was marked last month, all over the world, journalists, activists, ordinary citizens and politicians attended seminars, marched in cities and listened to speeches extolling the virtues of journalism as well as decrying the dangers they face whilst working. Memorials were held for recently departed journalists such as those who were recently killed in Afghanistan. Many commentators seem to agree that journalists are an endangered species today.

Journalists face serious challenges at work: Less or no money to fund their work. Editors who kill stories that would ‘harm’ the interests of media shareholders. Repressive governments that either shut down media houses or withdraw work licenses. Poor pay, lack of equipment or little support from the editors also mean that many journalists cannot deliver good stories. These problems are more or less the default cry of journalists today. But they should also bother the general public, which depends on media reporting for news and information.

But if everyday journalism is besieged with such seemingly insurmountable problems, what about investigative journalism, which is riskier and demands even more resources? Investigative journalism is definitely more dangerous than day-to-day reporting, because it is interested in what isn’t ordinary; that which needs snooping, and which may harm the interests or reputations of certain people. In fact, one may argue, investigative journalism is not for the brave but for the foolish in today’s world.

For, how can a journalist seek to investigate who ‘grabbed most of the public land’ in Kenya as the European settlers left the country in the 1960s? What madness would drive a journalist to look further into the story behind the story of the assassinations in Kenya since independence? Why would anyone want to know who ‘really’ killed Tom Mboya, Pio Gama Pinto, J M Kariuki, Alexander Kipsang’ Muge, Robert Ouko, etc? What madness would drive one to examine the looting of public resources since 1963 that has impoverished this country, or why would anyone be interested in who ‘actually’ is the man behind the men and women who distribute narcotics in Kenya?

Yet, there are such ‘foolishly’ courageous and resolute men and women in this country. They have been around for a long time. They have been African, Indian, Arab or European. World over, such men and women are called muckrakers – they open hidden files, disturb dusty archives, trace supposedly ‘disappeared’ witnesses, meet murderers, drug dealers, people smuggles etc, and bring to light stories that weren’t meant to be read by the public. This category of journalists is celebrated in a recently published book, African Muckraking: 75 Years of Investigative Journalism from Africa edited by Anya Schiffrin with George Lugalambi (Jacana, 2017).

This volume draws on past investigative reports from around Africa, covering a range of subjects. Included here are stories on ‘Struggles for Independence’ from South Africa under apartheid regime, to Mozambique under the Portuguese, to Kenya ruled by the British. The Kenyan investigative story highlighted here is John Kamau’s ‘Seeds of Discord’, which outlined how the ruling class apportioned itself prime public land after independence. The question of land in Kenya is an emotive one, as the journalistic cliché goes.

But what Kamau did was to look at the public records and reconstruct a narrative of how the new landed gentry in Kenya was formed. According to him, its roots were nurtured right in the highest office in the land, as another Kenyan journalistic cliché goes.

This is a story, which names names of who was who in the immediate postcolonial government in Kenya who benefitted from the land allocations. Even today, it isn’t widely known and doesn’t appear in any chapter in history schoolbooks in Kenya.

Yet, it clearly captures how those in charge of the state ‘captured’ the Kenyan economy and set in motion forces that bequeathed the country the tragedy of the so-called ‘land clashes.’

In the section called ‘The Struggle for Democracy’, there are stories such as the ‘Hola Massacre’ in Kenya; the tragedy of the Biafra War; or the Death Squads in apartheid South Africa, the journalists whose work is reported in this part covered probably the most dangerous subject in Africa. Writing about politics in Africa is a slippery task. Friends can become enemies in a very short time. Often, the danger with reporting on politics is that it dovetails with economic issues, corruption and human rights.

Corruption is both easy and difficult to report on. Easy because many civic organisations, international bodies or even government officers chronicle cases of embezzlement of public resources, bribery, outright theft of money by public officers, fraud etc. Difficult because the term ‘corruption’ is hazy, often covering such wide ends as theft of petty cash by a state officer to pilfering of millions of dollars in state contracts.

There are highlights of gems of investigative reports on corruption in this book including ‘presidential corruption’ in Cameroon; wheeler-dealers cashing in on privatisation of state corporations in Uganda; the tragic tale of Carlos Cardoso in Mozambique; the Panama Papers, and its reports on the theft of DR Congo’s natural resources etc.

Talking of natural resources in Africa always leads to the cliché, ‘the resource curse’. Academics continue to argue that African countries that are rich in natural resources are less developed compared to those with less or without minerals or oil.

However, as the section on ‘Mining’ in African Muckraking shows, it isn’t the abundance of the resources that is really a curse, but the organised theft of the resources. The mining industry in Africa, which is heavily controlled by global corporations, is a prime example of how local and international networks have systematically pillaged the continent. What is surprising is that there are actually journalists who still bother about what minerals are being mined and carted away from Africa, and who benefits considering that even where serious mining happens, very few locals are ever involved in the process except as unskilled labourers or suppliers of basic needs.

Subjects such as corruption and political repression do lend themselves easily to investigative reporting. Where there are journalists willing to rake such muck, there are often donors or civil societies willing to collaborate with them.

However, not many investigative journalists will spend their time researching such topics like ‘discrimination against women’ or ‘female genital cutting.’ Still fewer journalists are interested in health, the countryside, the environment, life in the slums etc., all topics that the editors of African Muckraking found stories on. Why is this so? Probably because these are stories that still don’t have recognisable soundbites in Africa, or won’t sell much in the West.

So, as newspaper sales decline, fake news thrives, governments become more repressive, readers become apathetic or their interest wanes, what will happen to investigative journalism? Well, it will also decline but it will remain relevant.

As this book shows, curious journalists, often driven by a deep sense of responsibility to their readers or country, or maybe a higher ideal to hold thieves, murderers, or self-serving officials accountable, will always risk their lives to ‘break’ stories that ordinary reporters won’t be bothered or touch.

As Kenyan newspapers compete to sell their supposed ‘scoops’ on where ‘heists’ have happened in government offices and who has skinned the plumpest public ram, one is left wondering if these stories are the work of investigative journalists or tales planted by one group of plunderers or the other.

African Muckraking: 75 Years of Investigative Journalism from Africa was launched in Nairobi last month at the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communication. It is available at Prestige Bookshop, Nairobi. (

— The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi; Tom.odhiambo@uonbi.ac.ke

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