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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