Corruption in Africa South of the Sahara: bureaucratic facilitator or handicap to development?

Author:Uneke, Okori


Corruption may be defined simply as the misuse of entrusted power for private gain (Transparency International 2006). Thus, corruption is the abuse of public office for private benefit. It includes bribery, extortion and other acts of misconduct, including fraud and embezzlement. It can lead to wasteful government spending, and can have a detrimental effect on economic growth and development. In terms of structure, corruption can be organized vertically--linking subordinates and superiors in a system of pay-offs and horizontally--linking several agencies or branches of government in a web of dishonesty and injustice. It entails unilateral and collective abuses by public officials (e.g. embezzlement, nepotism) as it links up private and public sectors through bribery, extortion, and fraud (Shehu 1999). Corruption, therefore, is related to the performance associated with a public office, and deviations from laws and procedures that regulate the conduct of public servants.

For more than four decades, corruption has spread like a hurricane throughout post-independence Africa. No country or region of the continent has remained untainted, to a greater or lesser degree, by the corruption pestilence. Since political independence, the twin evils of gross mismanagement of national economies and looting of national treasuries for deposit in European and offshore bank accounts became the trend in much of Africa (Ayittey 1992). In October 2006, then president of the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz disclosed that Nigerian officials had stolen more than $300 billion of their nation's wealth over the last forty years (The Guardian, October 30, 2006; Ndibe 2006). But the problem is not confined to a few bad apples, though. As Chabal and Daloz (1999: 99) put it:

Corruption is not just endemic but an integral part of the social fabric of life. For those at the bottom end of society, like lowly civil servants, the sale of the limited amount of power they possess is virtually their only means of survival. Higher up, extortion is one of the major avenues of enrichment; it facilitates social advancement and the upholding of one's position ... it enables the political elites to fulfill their duties, to meet the expectations of their clients and, hence, to enhance their status.

By definition, corruption as a secretive transaction is difficult, if not impossible, to measure with certainty. Nonetheless, estimates of the cost of corruption to Africa are a window on the seriousness of the problem. The African Union in September 2002 estimates that corruption costs African economies more than $148 billion a year. The cost of corruption is not limited to sums of money lost but also costs of retarded development and increased inequalities, which are far more difficult to quantify (U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Center 2005). Whichever way you look at corruption, it has grave consequences for Africa. Economically, it contributes adversely to the depletion of national wealth (Transparency International 2006). In addition to the looting of public treasury, bribery, inflation of contracts, and brazen mismanagement, corruption accounts for the channeling of scarce public funds to uneconomic and highly-capital intensive projects, such as pipelines and refineries, dams, and power plants, at the expense of more necessary infrastructure projects, such as water and electricity supply, hospitals, schools, and roads. Furthermore, it distorts competition and fair market structures and, consequently, deters both local and foreign domestic investment. The evidence can be found in Africa's chronic underdevelopment.

Politically, corruption constitutes a handicap to democratic processes and institutions. In effect, corruption thrives where institutional checks and accountability are lacking. More than any other factor, bad leadership, coupled with the absence of a functional reward and punishment system through which a framework of values could have been instituted, have made possible the tragedy of corrupt enrichment and wastage of public resources (The Guardian, October 30, 2006).

Socially, corruption undermines people's trust in the political system, its institutions and leadership. In short, it corrodes and damages the social fabric of society (Transparency International 2006).

Furthermore, the devil-may-care approach to the extraction of natural resources contributes enormously to environmental degradation. What's more, the non-enforcement, or lack thereof, of environmental regulations has led to the dumping of hazardous chemical wastes from the West in Africa. Recently, officials in Cote d'Ivoire reportedly accepted shipments in Abidjan of toxic chemical wastes for undisclosed payment from a Dutch company that led to the death of some Ivoriens and the sickening of more than 80,000 people (Associated Press, September 26, 2006).

Why Has Corruption Persisted in Africa?

As the old saying goes, where there is poverty, there is corruption. As Adam Lerrick (2005:2) puts it, "Corruption is not just one of the causes of intractable poverty in Africa. It is the root cause." A vast portion of the poverty must be blamed on internal political corruption (Mojtabal 2006). While political corruption can be found everywhere, including Western democracies, where politicians sell themselves to corporate interests, what is perhaps unique to Africa is the infiltration of corruption in the civil service, leading to vast continental poverty. As Mojtabal (2006:1) has argued, "such corruption creates a culture of self service and disregard for the situations of others. With the infiltration of corruption to every aspect of society, from education to the economy, corrupted civil servants make it difficult, if not impossible, for the already impoverished African population to escape their undesirable situations.

Although recent reports indicate that Africa South of the Sahara has become a business destination for foreign investment (Time, March 23, 2009), one of the biggest challenges facing Africa is the need for better governance, both in terms of less corruption and better economic policies (Kristof 2006). The last five decades of post-independence Africa has been marked by the prevalence of corruption that has spread like brush fire across the continent. Politics, political process, economic exchange, and public service have become synonymous with corruption in many African countries. Systemic corruption, arising from the wrongful conduct of the political leadership and top-level echelons of government bureaucracy, engenders a collapse of institutions designed to contain the malfeasance.

While corruption in some form or the other is known in every society, in Africa it is apparently exceptional. In the poorest countries, Chairman of Transparency International, Huguette Labelle notes that "corruption levels can mean the difference between life and death when money for hospitals or clean water is at play" (TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2008). Due to under-the-table bribes, hospitals, for example, often leave patients seeking medical attention with no assistance, while school administrators and teachers demand bribes to pass students in examinations (Mojtabal 2006). In short, corruption has permeated almost every fabric of society in many countries in Africa South of the Sahara (BBC News Opinion Survey 2004). Of the 180 countries surveyed in the Transparency International 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index, 26 percent were African. The West African region, for example, had a mixed report card: eight countries ranked in the bottom 20: Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, and Guinea. However, Cape Verde, Ghana, Mali, Benin, Niger, Mauritania, Nigeria, Togo, and Liberia improved their ranks. Currently, Somalia ranks as the number one most corrupt country.

Corruption, because of its pervasiveness in many countries in Africa South of the Sahara, is detrimental to social, political, and economic development in a variety of ways. A program of sustainable development is contingent on several conditions, including principled and purposeful leadership; prudent, rational and far-sighted decision-making; and optimum use of available resources. Corruption tends to undermine all these conditions, in terms of public cynicism and erosion of confidence on corrupt leadership; irrational, shortsighted and ill-motivated decisions; and squandering of resources on ill-advised or unsuitable projects. The result has been developmental stagnation, poverty, cynicism of the political leadership, and disillusionment and hopelessness on the part of the masses and the deprived.

This paper is not intended to suggest that the average African is, by nature, more averse to honesty and integrity than anyone else. The basic difference is that some societies, notably Western democracies, have institutions, laws, and conventions, which not only effectively discourage corrupt activities but also severely punish those who engage in it. Given that effective legal, political, social, and moral sanctions are an essential part of the counter measure against corruption and abuse of public trust, this paper argues that minimizing...

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