Battle to Stop Corruption Wanes

Stephen DeAngelis

June 23, 2009

In posts about development and the Enterra Solutions® Development-in-a-Box™ framework, I have repeatedly lashed out against corruption. Sustainable development is simply not possible if corrupt leaders are skimming national treasure for their own use. Sustainable development requires countries to meet several pre-conditions — quashing corruption is one of them. Other pre-conditions include a healthy, skilled and educated workforce, adequate infrastructure (roads, electrical power, sanitation systems, etc.), security (both national and domestic), and government policies that foster foreign direct investment and entrepreneurship. Although the battle against corruption has been going on for years, Celia W. Dugger reports that in some countries corruption seems to be winning the battle [“Battle to Halt Graft Scourge in Africa Ebbs,” New York Times, 9 June 2009]. She writes:

“The fight against corruption in Africa’s most pivotal nations is faltering as public agencies investigating wrongdoing by powerful politicians have been undermined or disbanded and officials leading the charge have been dismissed, subjected to death threats and driven into exile. ‘We are witnessing an era of major backtracking on the anticorruption drive,’ said Daniel Kaufmann, an authority on corruption who works at the Brookings Institution. ‘And one of the most poignant illustrations is the fate of the few anticorruption commissions that have had courageous leadership. They’re either embattled or dead.’ Experts, prosecutors and watchdog groups say they fear that major setbacks to anticorruption efforts in South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya are weakening the resolve to root out graft, a stubborn scourge that saps money needed to combat poverty and disease in the world’s poorest region.”

To make her point, Dugger points out the deaths of two anticorruption campaigners in Zambia that are surrounded by suspicious circumstances; the stabbing death of an anti-corruption NGO worker in Burundi; and the death of a journalist in the Congo who “was joining a lawsuit brought by Transparency International to reclaim the ill-gotten wealth of his country’s president.” Corruption is not something that can be treated solely by those from the outside. It’s a cancer that corrodes nations from within and the people of those nations must fight it from within. I realize that is easier said than done. People generally become corrupt because they can. That implies that they have power. Most people in poor countries believe themselves powerless. In some cases they are because they live in fear of their lives under tyrannical regimes. Dugger notes that powerful people don’t give up their power easily.

“The broader anxieties about Africa’s resolve to combat corruption have emerged from troubled efforts in several countries. In oil-rich Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, where watchdog groups say efforts to combat corruption are backsliding, Nuhu Ribadu who built a well-trained staff of investigators at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, said he fled his homeland into self-imposed exile in England in December. Officials had sent Mr. Ribadu away to a training course a year earlier, soon after his agency charged a wealthy, politically connected former governor with trying to bribe officials on his staff with huge sacks stuffed with $15 million in $100 bills. Mr. Ribadu, who was dismissed from the police force last year, said he had received death threats and was fired upon in September by assailants. ‘If you fight corruption, it fights you back,’ he said. In South Africa, home to the region’s biggest economy, a new crime unit with less statutory protection from political interference was stripped of the authority to both investigate and prosecute crimes.”

Dugger comments that the case of South Africa is perhaps the most troubling because it had an effective anti-corruption unit called the Scorpions, that worked for the state’s prosecuting authority. The Scorpions had “built potent corruption cases against Jacob Zuma, who became president of South Africa in April, and Jackie Selebi, the national police commissioner and an ally of former President Thabo Mbeki. The Scorpions were abolished last year and the country’s chief prosecutor, Vusi Pikoli, who had pushed forward with both cases, was fired.” Another troubling case is Kenya, which remains east Africa’s economic anchor.

“In Kenya, … scandals have continued to flourish and anticorruption prosecutions have languished since John Githongo, who was the country’s anticorruption chief, sought safety in self-imposed exile in England in 2005. Aaron Ringera, who apparently advised Mr. Githongo in taped conversations in 2005 not to push for prosecutions of President Mwai Kibaki’s ministers, is the current anticorruption chief. Mr. Ringera said in an e-mail message that Mr. Githongo had twisted advice he offered him ‘in his own best interests.’ In an interview, he said he had recommended prosecuting eight ministers, but had been blocked by either the courts or the attorney general.”

This is all very discouraging for a continent in desperate need of outside assistance. That assistance, especially in the form of foreign direct investment, may be a long time coming if corruption remains unchallenged. In a post entitled Investing in Africa that discussed reasons that U.S. businesses are hesitant to invest in Africa, I wrote: “Companies are not willing to risk the lives of their employees because an environment is unsafe; nor are they willing to waste scarce resources lining the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats.” Dugger’s report offers little hope that things are changing. She continues:

“The search is on for more effective ways to tackle corruption, including intensified legal efforts to prosecute multinational corporations that pay the bribes and reclaim loot that African political elites have stashed abroad. Transparency International’s suit seeks to force the French justice system to investigate how the leaders of Gabon, the Congo Republic and Equatorial Guinea and their families acquired tens of millions of dollars in assets there. Still others say rich countries and international organizations that provide billions of dollars in aid to African countries each year must more vigorously use their leverage to make sure aid does not fuel corruption. Based on his finding that more than $1 trillion a year is paid in bribery globally, Mr. Kaufmann, formerly director of global programs at the World Bank Institute, estimates there are tens of billions of dollars of corrupt transactions each year in sub-Saharan Africa. Mr. Githongo, who failed in trying to fight corruption from the inside, has returned to Nairobi to start a nonprofit group to mobilize rural people to press politicians to clean up a rotten system.”

Africa is continent long on potential and short on hope. A renewed and successful battle against corruption there could help displace frustration with hope. It would also make African nations much more attractive to foreign investors. Difficult economic times provide an ideal opportunity to renew the fight against corruption. In flush times, people are happy and find it easier to turn a blind eye to those who skim from the treasury. When the treasury is bare and people are suffering, blind eyes have a way of regaining sight. The fight must be waged nation by nation and person by person. African corruption is an “African” problem — like politics all corruption is local. Systems may be organized so that corruption can flourish, but, in the end, it is the people within those systems who are the corruptors. The world has a moral obligation to support efforts aimed at eliminating corruption — be it in Africa or in America.