Brad Cibane
Brad Cibane

Are Africans corrupt?

In a World Economic Forum Davos session titled “De-Risking Africa” — on which presidents Jacob Zuma and Goodluck Jonathan, Sunil Bharti Mittal (Bharti Enterprises), Graham Mackay (SABMiller), and Louise Arbour (International Crisis Group) sat as panellists — President Jacob Zuma took exception to the session’s basic assumption that Africa has a “special case” of corruption.

President Zuma contended that there was an unfair perception that Africans are corrupt, that Africa is more corrupt than all other continents. This, the president argued, is incorrect. Corruption is a global phenomenon and Africa struggles, particularly, with remnants of corrupt colonial rule. The president appreciated that “fellow panellists and the audience agreed that viewing Africa as a risk was an erroneous exaggeration. Doing business can be a risk in any part of the world as recent developments in the developed north have indicated.”

According to the president: “The reality is that Africa is becoming a remarkable success story. In 2010, six of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies were in Africa, and seven African countries are expected to be in the top 10 over the next five years.”

The president’s views caused heated public discourse. Those on his corner argued that western hypocrites singled out Africa unfairly; that the west easily turns a blind eye to its own corrupt practices.

As an example, they pointed to the institutionalisation of corruption in the so-called “Washington-style lobbying”, where wealthy individuals and large corporations use money to influence government processes. Imagine if you could simply pay parliamentarians to pass or remove a bill.

On the contrary, other Africans disagreed with President Zuma. They felt that the president was in the sort of denial common to alcoholics. They argued that the president should have acknowledged the challenge of corruption and thus opened a different discussion about solutions.

It is unnecessary for me to take a side, mostly because I do not have enough statistical information to support either position. I will, however, argue — based solely on observation — that the president was correct but his argument is incomplete.

Is Africa corrupt? The answer is two-pronged.

Firstly, no, Africans do not have an inherent inclination towards corruption. If anything, history supports the converse. Even the most socially “backward” African tribes had strong institutions of governance. Kings did not enjoy divine right; they derived power from the will of the people. Africa thus had participatory democracy in the true sense (at least for men).

Democratic institutions — in the customary sense — had power to instruct or veto a king. Institutions included the king’s counsel, various advisers and an ad hoc public court (known in isiZulu as imbizo or lekgotla in Setswana). There appears to be some truth to the argument that Shaka Zulu was Africa’s first imperialist, acting with force rather than consensus.

Secondly, it might well be true that corruption is more severe in Africa than in any other continent (that Africa has “out-corrupted” the Americas and Asia). South Africa alone — supposedly Africa’s most advanced democracy — bleeds an estimated R30 billion per year to corruption. This figure does not include corporate corruption, which is outside the scope of this post. However, in my view, the prevalence of corruption in Africa is due to three cumulative factors.

The first factor is the legacy of colonial rule. It is well-documented that colonialists laboured tirelessly to erode African institutions of governance. Colonialists sought not to build an Africa that is a beacon of good governance, accountability or transparency; instead, it was much easier to corrupt the continent. Corruption circumvented “traditional” redtape. Institutional corruption promulgated by the colonialist facilitated the plundering of Africa’s resources and the enslavement of Africans. This legacy persists.

The second factor is the failure of post-colonial governments. The decolonisation movement produced a new strand of power largely unknown to Africans. The new strand was constituted by “big men” or liberation heroes with unimaginable political clout (the so-called big man syndrome). These “big men” were unilateral governments of their respective countries. Africa’s big men were (and are) unrestrained by principles of good governance. A perpetual presidency guarantees consolidation of power. This is worsened by blind faith in liberation movements and their heroes. Africa’s big men are therefore opaque and unaccountable to the electorate.

The last factor relates to commercial practices of international (or foreign) investors. During my postgraduate business studies I discovered that African corruption has been normalised as cost of business rather than a risk. Foreign investors devise strategies to make corruption work to their advantage. Instead of exposing corruption, investors empower corrupt politicians and officials.

This is a difficult topic to conclude. It is insufficient, if not utterly lazy, to merely defend Africa from perception without addressing the causes. Where there is smoke there is, more often than not, a fire. If anything, Africans must initiate a frank discussion about the cost of corruption. Africans should lead the discussion on solutions and write their own story, rather than wait for others to do in their stead.

I therefore conclude by saying, as President Zuma did, that corruption needs a holistic approach. We, as Africans, need to think deeper about causes and solutions. While it is tempting to think that the problem could be solved by simply replacing corrupt officials with saintly ones, this will not work unless the root causal factors are also removed.

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    • Momma Cyndi

      Corruption is a human failing. The packaging those humans come in is irrelevant. If anything, the fact that the people of Africa don’t have enough corruption in them to recognise it in their leaders, tends to suggest more of an innocent naivety rather than an ingrained propensity.

      Comparing what humans were like 600 years ago is pointless. The world was a very different place back then. Governance was over small family/tribal communities and corruption was as difficult to hide as any other local skinner. You don’t keep secrets easily in small communities. The larger the community, the more secrets can be kept and the less connection to others.

    • Mr. Direct

      Sorry Brad, sounds to me you are just passing the buck. If you can stand up and fight against oppressors, surely you don’t become one the first chance you get.

      Perhaps Zuma does not think there is more corruption in Africa because he is doing most of it himself, and does not think there is room for many others.

    • bernpm

      Q1. “Are Africans corrupt?”
      A1. “Firstly, no, Africans do not have an inherent inclination towards corruption.
      If anything, history supports the converse. ”

      Q2 “Are people corrupt?”
      A2. “Firstly, no, Peoples do not have an inherent inclination towards corruption.
      If anything, history supports the converse. ”

      If both questions are valid and both answers are correct, why then should there be so much corruption in the world??

      ad Q1 Change the word “corrupt” in both questions to “corruptible” and ask the question again.
      The majority answer would probably be “Yes”, depending on “..?..” (everything has its price)

      ad Q2 Change the word “corrupt” in both questions to “honest” and ask the question again.
      The majority answer would probably be “Yes”, depending on “..?..” (everything has its price)

      The Q2 approach could have avoided the inherent blame of colonialism, international businesses and some other “not us Africans” excuses.For every successful corrupter the world has a corrupt counterpart.
      A discussion on these premises, could be more open and productive if the participants would be prepared to be honest.

    • Enough Said

      Excellent article Brad. I just don’t know how we can get the ‘big men’ out of denial to address the issue when they are raking in millions/billions of dollars personally. Money and power are an addiction like alcohol addiction.

    • michael

      Brad, Africa is never going to move forward if it keeps on externalizing its problems. A lot of introspection is needed. Your argument was tainted the moment you used zuma to defend Africa against corruption. Africa”s leaders and civil servants are mostly corrupt which leads to weak institutions and the rule of law not getting traction. The examples of fast growing economies must be viewed carefully, it is from a very low base and is usually not broad based. The GDP of Spain in its depressed state is greater than the whole continent of Africa.Africa is in denial concerning the main obstacles it is facing and therefore growth and development will only be sporadic.

    • Dave Harris

      Nice article but your use of “big men” also has racial connotations propagated by mainstream media to stereotype and undermine African leaders who are not compliant to ex-colonial powers.

    • Lesego

      If you ask me if Africans are corrupt, I’m gonna ask you if you’re racist. I mean what kind of a question is that? I was also gonna inform you about this so called “Lobbying” thats happening in the States after I heard about it on RT news channel. But in actual facts lobbying is happening all over the world. Jackie Selebi was dealing with a lobbyist for instance but in Africa such fancy terms are not used but rather use simpler ones like “corruption”

    • Shaka

      Depends on what sort of corruption we are talking about. Government corruption is massive in Africa, Latin America, Middle East and South East Asia. Yet at the same time many of the bribe-givers are from first world European and North American countries. It’s a two-way street. Look at the arms deal. British and German arms companies paying massive amounts in bribes to an African government and yet somehow we tend to pay more attention to the receiver of the money than the just-as-corrupt criminal that is giving him the money.

    • No

      Its not about the 30 Billion, its about all the side-affects brought about by politicians who act in self-interest, and not in the peoples interest.

      That has led, to amongst others, an education crisis, and an electricity crisis, all of which have knock on effects that will run into trillions wasted or lost opportunities.

      Also unlike the US, Africa cannot afford to be corrupt.

    • TumiM

      Possibly one of the most balanced posts I have read yet! Spot on.

    • Lesego

      No #

      “Also unlike the US, Africa cannot afford to be corrupt.”

      What kind of a comment is that? Are you justifying the Western corruption? How do you measure the unaffordability of African corruption? Are you aware that Africa is a continent and not a Country or a household?

    • Lesego

      michael #

      “Brad, Africa is never going to move forward if it keeps on externalizing its problems”

      I see Africa moving forward at a very fast pace.

    • Enough Said

      @Dave Harris

      The ‘big men’ are the worst hand in glove sell out with the ex-colonial powers of the past in the form of arms deals, diamonds, nuclear power and coal energy and whatever other loot they can get their hands on. Why is our government pushing for E-tolls, where do the offshore profits go to, and which ‘big man’ is in charge right now?

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Shaka, that is not true, there was a company in the US that was caught bribing some government officials in Nigeria. The people in this company were sent to prison and the company was fined a large sum of money, but the people in Nigeria weren’t touched. As a matter of fact, two of them were planning to come the US and they were tipped off that they would be arrested when they landed on US soil. So, these corrupted Nigerians cancelled their trip and they are walking around in Nigeria smelling like a rose.

    • manquat

      Who suffers at the end of the day? It’s the common people of Africa. Under a good leader. Under honest people, the nation prospers.
      Honesty, trust. It sounds so easy. Just do the right thing!

      The conclustion to your article is so right!
      Focus on the cause.
      What’s the cause of this problem?
      Dealing with the cause will solve the epidemic of corruption.

      What kind of a country is this? Where you ask your friends to get you a job.
      Can you get me in there?
      Positions and tenders are given based on connections.
      The hard working, educated, competent guy is not used; the opportunity passes him by, incompetence wins, and the country bleeds!!

    • Mark

      There is corruption worldwide, but it is most evident in the regions of the world that are financially unstable coupled with high levels of unemployment/poverty. If you take the USA for example, nobody cares if there is corruption/graft/bribery because unemployment levels sit just below 8%. When 92% of the population have comfortable lifestyles or are provided for by the state, the general consensus is “who cares!!”.

      Maladministration and corruption only become an issue when you have a very poor population who cannot be covered by social grants (small taxpayer base) and are looking for upliftment and improved service delivery. So South Africa could well be less corrupt than the USA, but it is more visible here.

    • Steve

      Zuma has to defend the corruption suggestion. He himself is as guilty as sin on this allegation.
      Lets not forget European and american goverments who many argue were a primary cause of the recent recession, The difference is the Europeans manipulated it very wisely. The banks of the world are probrably the biggest thieves but as with all corruption or deceit nobody was responsible (SURPRISING) tHE RICH GET RICHER AND THE POOR GET POORER.

    • Everyone

      Everyone is corruptible but there are different views on what comprises corruption , epecially in various cultures. I work only with Africans’ and over the years I have come to believe that What Europeans for example, regard as jobs for pals and patronage is very opaque in Africa. Most of my friends and colleagues see it almost as a responsibility to take care of their families and friends by getting them jobs or bringing them in on the action when they are able to do so, and irrespective of merit. Political affiliation also plays quite a big role. To be honest, I don’t know what to think either Brad, because it won’t stop. I suppose the same scenario plays out in every country in the world, but just in a different way, and perhaps less openly.

    • Zuka

      I think the president should be less concerned about how Africa is viewed when compared to other continents (wrt: corruption). What he should be more concerned about is fighting corruption in his own country – with a bit of self-introspection.

    • http://[email protected] Musa Khumalo

      On the face of it Brad,yes it comes across that we are corrupt and amenable to corruption. The fortunate or unfortunate thing depends which side you look at things, we are looking for quick enrichment solutions. Nigerians in South Africa are sickening of this behaviour. ANC members and leadership in general are the worst, Gwede Mantashe blamed apartheid for this weakness or sickness. Must I mention number 1 really with his cronies? Must I mention Nkandla, Thulas Nxesi, Nathi Mthethwa, Jeff Radebe, Dipuo Peters, travelgate scandal, the list goes on and on Brad. So, your debate does hit the nerve, but those that does it do they have the conscience to say no, I doubt and I don’t think so

    • Mark

      @everyone, that scenario has been used to explain the jobs for pals in african contexts many times before. But by that token, in order for all south africans to be uplifted they would need a friend in government. Which either means that the current leadership are not their friends or there needs to be way more people in government with positions of poiwer.

      We know that you cant swell the ranks of government to such an extreme, and that is more of a sarcastic remark, but I still stand by the position that our government is not the everyday man in the streets friend.

    • Tofolux

      @Brad, this is such an interesting subject and unfortunately we have to continuously suffer the amnesia of some who will fail to recognise and acknowledge how progressive Africa is becoming. I am stoked that you touched on a myriad of issues some of which points to the complexities but clearly cannot (in this space) allude to ALL the complications. However, colonialism as evidenced in the case studies of Nigeria and Rwanda are good examples of their terrible past and the ”recovery” they experince today. Yes, corruption has an adverse effect on social and economic development and in building a nation and yes, corruption leads to poverty. But I am extremely proud of SA who with their influence on the AU will bring much needed focus, integrity, progressiveness and synergy which to my mind we should watch becos I strongly believe that we(SA) will make huge inroads on behalf of our continent. Secondly, the demise of the West and the second phase of decolonisation brings with it a new sense of responsible leaders and participatory democracies. We must push for a system of mixed economy on our continent becos liberalism together with capitalism breeds corruption. This is evidenced by the mirage of poverty brought about by this terrible combination and with participatory democracy and a mixed economy, we will do better. The new breed of leaders must be lauded for their principled stance and clearly citizenry must play their role as responsible citizens.

    • Ophthal

      The ability to address the problem collapses immediately one asks, “Are Africans corrupt?”, because the next question must be,”All Africans, some Africans, the majority, a few, the greater or lthe esser percentage of Africans?”

      The next false lead is to seek ‘root causes’, and to then flounder about in a multipicity of factors designed specifically to obscure the issue. Corruption is not only a conspiracy between two people. It comprises any number of dishonest practises, and can be as simple an issue as helping yourself to the petty cash.

      The single, and most ignored, cause of corruption is recognition of one’s own inferiority, i.e. your inability to achieve your aims through honest effort when compared to the ease with which smarter people achieve their aims honestly. This self-recognition of inferiority gives rise to feelings of justification concerning participation in the multiplicity of actions that comprise dishonest short-cuts to wealth.

      So anyone can be corrupt, particulaly if they see themselves as inferior as this gives them an excuse.

      Ask any psychologist.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Lesego, lobbying in the US doesn’t necessarily spell corruption, if a congress person is given money for their campaign this isn’t illegal. However, if this person take this money and try to use this money for personal reason this is illegal. A good example of what I am talking about, Jessie Jackson’s son that represented the area that Obama was living in has just been sent to prison for diverting his campaign money for his personal use. However, Obama didn’t get on the telephone to tell the justice system to not prosecute Jessie Jackson’s son. The Justice system in SA has to be made independent of the politic so, these people can fight corruption.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Mark, when one is caught in the US for committing corruption and found guilty the penalty is very sever. This person has to pay their legal fees, their asset can be seized and this person can be given time in prison. If Obama had used the state money to make improvement on his home, he would have been impeached and the home taken from. The system in SA has to be reformed if the people of SA want to win the war on corruption.

    • Zeph

      As born not – but once the environment of their upbringing manifests itself then perhaps. And that is the hard part; admitting that there appears to be a framework that allows corruption to occur in Africa and then identifying it and being brave enough to stop it.

    • J.J.

      If you spend an extended period of time living in Europe you will realize that “African corruption” is like a Sunday school picnic compared to “European corruption”, it’s just that it’s packaged, presented, spinned(spun) and covered up in a much more sophisticated way in Europe.

      Corruption is required by the economic system and in the nature of it (whether that may be a controversial statement or not – everyone knows or come to know it and eventually everyone is “at it” in order to get ahead – if not only to “stay ahead”.)

      See “Game Theory” which supports this notion.

      It’s still wrong though, but in a world of no morality, no-one really cares, while acting as if they do – faux outrage all the way!

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @JJ#, the judicial systems in Europe and N America are independent of politic and when people are caught committing corruption the penalty can be very sever. In Brazil, when the officials are caught in the government committing corruption, these people have to be tried by the Supreme Court of Brazil. This is why thirty five members in Lula’s administration were just sent to prison. In most places in Africa the judicial systems are weak or don’t exist at all so, there is no fear of punishment when one is caught committing corruption.

    • Michael

      Corruption requires opportunity and then making a personal choice when afforded the opportunity – nothing more and nothing less. All this pompous pontification about – apartheid, colonialism, West, East and ‘ lets throw the Devil in ‘ excuses is pure verbal diarrhea carried out by the willingly ignorant and ‘ bottom kisses ‘ of our society.
      African leaders have a moral duty to rise above the masses and behave in an appropriate manner that befits their status and recognizes the dire state of many common African people.
      Alas, all we seem to have are leaders who may have mastered the English language but throw away any pretense at the presence of a decent moral code – African or Western – once they are faced with the opportunity to choose.

    • Miss O

      @ Tofolux: You say “However, colonialism as evidenced in the case studies of Nigeria and Rwanda are good examples of their terrible past and the ”recovery” they experince today.” The ‘recovery’ is often stifled by endemic corruption in countries like Nigeria and South Africa. In both countries, politicians openly abuse public resources for the benefit of their friends and families. Nigeria is sitting on some of the world’s biggest oil reserves, has some of the richest people in the world and yet 70% of its population lives below the poverty line. The amount of money embezzled by corrupt politicians could easily half the number of people living in poverty. In SA, as you know, we are the most unequal society in the world and we have some of the most corrupt politicians in the world. Africa is a mineral-rich continent and yet most of its citizens live more poorly than some countries which do not have that kind of mineral wealth to speak of. Reason for that? CORRUPTION. So, to answer your question. Yes, Africans are corrupt and we can no longer deny that.

    • Tofolux

      @Miss O, I would appreciate it if and when you counter my arguments, you will take the time to use facts and not emotive generalisations as a premise. Also, I usually do not engage with those who believe in the politics of the colour of skin. However, can I ask you a question, who is the corruptor?

    • DeeGee

      @ Tofolux. Wow. You really do enjoy contradicting yourself. I think that’s what I like most about reading your posts. Do as I say, not as I do…. Classic!

    • Mbonisi

      Virtually everyone is corrupt in my view, but in varying degrees. This tendency of pointing fingers is driven by holier than thou attitudes.

      If I may ask, if you were a traffic officer, how many of you out there would write out a speeding fine ticket, should you find that the vehicle you just stopped is being driven by your daughter; and its just the two of you – you the traffic officer and your daughter? Jsut be honest.

      The truth is that we human beings love judging others – especially the western countries, with their attitudes of superiority against the developing countries, especially those in Africa.

      As far as I am concerned, corrruption is one and the same thing as dishonesty in the way a country or an individual conducts its relationships with other countries or other people.

      You cannot say as a nation you have a right to nuclear weapons, but other countries should not have them. That is dishonesty. You cannot say a leader is a dictator or is undemocratic hence he needs to be overthown because he doesnt dance to your ctune, yet you have no problem with another leader who is just as undemocratic, simply because he dances to your foreign policy tune. That is dishonesty and to me its corruption.


    • Sydney

      A good article Brad, but I think yours and President Zuma’s mistake is the unwritten supposition that because everyone else is doing it, then nobody should point fingers, especially not the west. The point you are both missing is the world is not sitting on a ticking poverty time bomb. Whislt Americans can afford to pump cash into supporting a particular candidate for political office, we cannot afford public officials wasting R30billion a year when the Eastern cape has a collapsed health and education system.

      The reason Africa stands out is because our problems stand out. Yes, colonialism left a legacy of corruption but we’ve seen enough of the sort of damage that corruption does in the rest of Africa and the world. We should be able to stand up at Davos and say “we are glad you singling us out because this will only serve to heighten our anti-corruption stance”, not point fingers back at them and say “we are all the same”. Our problems are bigger and we suffered more to get where we are.