Why corruption in Africa is now a full-blown culture affecting the continent’s DNA

Nana Kwaku M Asamoah June 12, 2019
Money exchanging hands -Pic credit: UNDP

This is the reality of millions of people living on the continent of Africa. Corruption in Africa has been one of the most debated issues over the past three decades not least because it has milked Africa of billions of dollars each year. It will continue to be an issue in the future because of the inconsistency in reforms to governance and government institutions on the continent.

Imagine a continent where six of its countries are among the ten countries considered most corrupt in the world, according to Transparency International. Or one where persons empowered by various states to enforce the law, to protect people and property, and to prevent crime and civil disorder are equally as corrupt as the elected representatives of those states. Or think of living in a place where the cost of corruption is higher than the total combined amount of development aid that is received from foreign donors.

Corruption on the continent is a big tangled web and all countries on the continent are caught up in it. We often hear a great deal about how African political leaders are bent on fighting corruption on the continent but what we are barely made aware of, is how many of these same political leaders are the biggest driving force behind corruption on the African Continent.

Why corruption in Africa is now a full-blown culture affecting the continent's DNA
The vice-president of Equatorial Guinea Teodorin Obiang. Photo credit: Daily Mirror

This is the continent where the Teodorin Nguema Obiang, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, spends millions of dollars of state funds on his lavish lifestyle which includes luxurious homes in California, Buenos Aires, Argentina, London and South Africa; a car collection consisting of Bugatti, Lamborghinis, Bentleys and Aston Martin; a Gulfstream Jet and an art collection that could easily make billionaires envious.  Frittering away millions of dollars all the while when most citizens of Equatorial Guinea lack access to drinking water and about a quarter of newborn babies die before the age of five.  

A similar example is the case of Isabel Dos Santos, the eldest daughter of Angola’s President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, whom as at 2011 rose to become arguably the wealthiest woman in Angola by using the influence of her father to win state contracts and government information for her personal gain after her father took the reins of power.

Another example is the case of recently deposed Sudanese President Omar al–Bashir, a famously corrupt leader whom according to a secret diplomatic WikiLeaks cable, had siphoned as much as 9 billion dollars as at 2010 from the very much impoverished Sudan into his London bank accounts. Idriss Deby Itno, President of Chad, famously embezzled millions of dollars in foreign aid aimed at building an oil pipeline through the country, the proceeds of which were meant to feed the desperately poor people and to buy military equipment to keep his minority government in power.

And of course, the western part of Africa is not spared the cases of corruption either. General Sani Abacha of Nigeria, an intensely famous military ruler who ruled Nigeria for only 5 years from 1993 to 1998, managed to steal between 3-5 billion dollars of state money. A situation now famously characterized as the “Abacha Loot”.

Another very popular West African corruption story is that of former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, who had already been fired by a previous government after embezzling 1 million dollars into his American bank account and arrested in the US, subsequently amassed wealth of over 100 million dollars when he became the warlord President of Liberia. Don’t ask me where the money came from but your guess is as good as mine.

Another former West African leader, Yahya Abdul–Aziz Jammeh of Gambia, has been accused of embezzling 100 million during his 22-year rule. And currently, his assets which include a fleet of vehicles and 3 planes in addition to numerous properties have been put on sale by the current Gambian government. There are numerous other examples of massive corrupt activities perpetuated by African political leaders.

But of course, political leaders bleeding their nations dry will not give us the whole story. If we only focus on the corrupt political leaders as development expects, media reports and international partners do, we will certainly fail to understand the nature of the crisis engulfing our African continent. As we ignored in the past and continue to ignore the low-level bribes paid everywhere and daily on the continent, we’re only going to see more corruption in the years ahead.

The current scale of bribery on the continent is only a pale preview of what we’re going to witness in the coming decades as Africa plans to unify and establish more continental institutions aimed at achieving full economic integration. Petty bribes are rapidly becoming a “norm” in Africa. Payment of petty bribes is becoming more commonplace, more elusive and ingrained.

Ghanaians for instance instinctively offer to pay bribes to the Policeman (or the reverse) when they commit traffic offences, pay bribes to obtain Passports and Birth Certificates, and health workers in many government hospitals solicit unofficial payments before they treat patients. And recently, judges and football administrators in Ghana among others have been exposed for regularly taking bribes. Nigerians pay bribes everywhere – from banks to courtrooms to hospitals, in the form of what locals sometimes call “kickback”.

And in Cameroon, a minute of delaying payment of “kompo” (bribe) could cause you to miss the train, cause your sick relative to die in the hospital, cause your child who is clever to not get a good education or possibly fail an exams, cause your business to delay and even cause you to lose an employment opportunity.

Likewise, in The Gambia, corruption is driven by a deeply ingrained bribery norm called “maslaha”, an expression that when mentioned solicits contemptible favours like perhaps making one’s child gain admission into a good school even if the child’s grades do not merit it or making teachers get to teach in their school of choice or to secure promotions or transfer to a coveted school. And of course, there is Sierra Leone, a country which refutes any claims of bribery and instead views “kola” (bribe) as a sign of respect or a show of appreciation for the good people do for you.

Why corruption in Africa is now a full-blown culture affecting the continent's DNA

If paying or collecting bribes seems an inescapable as well as an appalling activity in Western Africa, then let us delve into Eastern Africa where poor people in countries such as Uganda, Kenya and Burundi pay “kitu kidogo” (bribe) for their basic rights. These pervasive acts of “kitu kidogo” keep these countries at the reprehensible end of Transparency International’s corruption index year after year.

The issue is not particularly bright in Northern Africa either, where after the Arab Uprisings (which in itself was fueled by the anger provoked by corruption in the area), was estimated in 2016 that millions of people paid bribes to access the basic services they needed. South Africa should not be forgotten as well; despite much development in governance, paying and receiving bribes is still ubiquitous.

The issue of bribery remains a very polarizing one, but pretty much everybody on the continent will agree on one thing: Bribery now is fast becoming part of the African culture, it’s becoming our way of life. It is at the present woven deep into the very fabric of our everyday life. Neither do government officials nor private citizens have an interest in staying away from bribery.

This quote from an unknown source perfectly captures the point – “In Zimbabwe, I used to run my own business dealing with mining spares. Most of the larger company purchasing departments would not place an order with us unless a sweetener (bribe) was paid first. Nothing extortionate in terms of sums of money, but it was a reminder that the buyer’s generosity would bring out our generosity!”

The scale of bribery and corruption on the continent in the future will dwarf today’s levels as people continue to pay and feel a sense of entitlement to collect bribes in the forms of “kickback”, ”kompo”, “maslaha”, “kola”, “kitu kidogo” and corruption goes from a mere menace to a complete state of mind where people believe corruption can never be wiped out or purged from the continent.

Even if we could magically halt all corrupt activities, put an end to bribery and end all forms of corruption tomorrow, the consequences of the damage that we’ve done so far will unfold for many years. This shouldn’t discourage us from taking action; on the contrary, this fact only underlines our responsibility to act as urgently and as effectively to mitigate the crisis we face now.

Why corruption in Africa is now a full-blown culture affecting the continent's DNA

And, denying the reality that corruption on the continent is a crisis is only exacerbating the crisis. It is paradoxical that African governments and political leaders who appear to be very much concerned with corruption, are often outright denying corruption’s “crisis-like” nature on the continent with their reluctance to push through sweeping reforms, augment public accountability and strengthen anti-corruption institutions.

Yes, citizens and leaders alike, are free to argue about the effective measures that will curb corruption, but what Africa first needs to do is to recognize the fact that corruption has now become a crisis. Because if we fail to recognize this fact, we are not only going to continue living in an increasingly unstable and violent continent for many more decades to come, we will also be risking the progress and prosperity of Africa.  

It is clear that we need to battle and possibly purge corruption off the African continent. And for this to happen, we have to be united in our efforts to combat both high-level political graft as well as low-level petty bribes. From cashiers working at a bank who receive salaries asking for a “kickback” to leaders bleeding their nations dry, corruption takes a toll on the continent’s prosperity and opportunities. It takes place in every country on the African continent, taking away people’s livelihoods and even their lives. And it is now also being used as a weapon to undermine public institutions and elections and consciously used as an instrument of statecraft on the continent.

So be in doubt, corruption on the continent is endemic, brazen and seemingly unstoppable. An absolute enemy to our fight for progress and a metastasizing threat to the building blocks of prosperity of the African continent; and unquestionably the defining issue and indeed the crisis of our time. And no matter the actions we take in the coming years and decades ahead, we are going to hear more and more about corruption in Africa. But our actions today are going to determine the scale and the duration of this crisis in the future.  

Last Edited by:Victor Ativie Updated: June 24, 2020


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