An African Perspective on Corruption

An African Perspective On Corruption

Sebolu is the Sotho word for a ‘spoilt thing’. It is a derogatory word used in Lesotho’s national language and vernacular to mean, among other things, corruption. Someone who is corrupt is described as being bobolu and people have deep disdain for such a person. In most of Africa though, there are few similar words of such powerful home-grown cultural resonance. Indeed, the word ‘corruption’ doesn’t exist in many indigenous African languages. It never has – it wasn’t needed. The idea of stealing communal goods was literally taboo. The concept of shuffling papers in a government office in a far-off capital, ‘making good’ and then coming home rich and wearing the ‘corrupt’ tag is, however, more obscure. Indeed, the local son or daughter ‘made good’ who demonstrates generosity back in the village is often lionised. Generosity of heart, even to strangers, but especially to relatives (no matter how distant), is a quality much admired by Africans generally.

East Africa’s lingua franca, Kiswahili, gives us ufisadi (meaning corruption) or mfisadi (corrupt one); terms cleverly engineered post-independence. Ufisadi brings to mind ‘hyena-like’, derived from the reputation of the hyena, “fisi”, for being unscrupulous, greedy and ruthless. However, it does not have the same resonance for citizens of the region as sebolu does in Lesotho, which is one of the least corrupt African countries, according to Transparency International’s (TI’s) annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) (Transparency International 2015).

That said, ‘perceptions of corruption’, or better put ‘perceptions of leaders involved in theft’, is one of the most resented attributes of officialdom to Africans at large. Recent research on the experiences and perceptions of Africans in 28 countries regarding corruption indicates that a majority – 58 percent – felt that corruption had increased over the last 12 months. And in 18 of the 28 countries, citizens felt their governments were doing badly in the fight against corruption. The report said that, despite these disappointing findings, the bright spots across the continent were in Botswana, Burkina Faso, Lesotho and Senegal. Citizens in these countries were some of the most positive in the region when discussing corruption (Transparency International and Afrobarometer 2015). In environments where corruption is systemic but lacks cultural resonance, creating a climate where social sanction can be applied against corrupt practices has been challenging. People understand the terms ‘theft’ and ‘thief’, but corruption is a modern and ambiguous concept to many Africans. As a Nuer elder once told me, “My daughter cannot be married into a family of thieves.”

The task therefore is two-fold: to embed a clear legal framework to deter and punish corruption, and to actually change the culture, so that the concept of corruption is both understood and recognised as anathema. The war against graft has reached the point where the shame and social sanctions directed against this kind of theft and thief need to be given greater prominence in the measures used to fight corruption. This applies especially in developing countries where its consequences can be – and often are – deadly. In its most compelling cultural form, the social sanction is about ensuring, for example, that the thief is too embarrassed to go to church on Sunday because of the looks they’ll get.

As such, the whole approach to corruption needs to be re-examined: from local cultural assumptions and preconceptions to the legal conventions, constitutions, statutes and, especially, the prosecution-related instruments brought to bear on it at the national and global levels. Integral to this are the principles of legal authority and equality before the law. The equality component is essential: the rule of law must be seen to apply equally to all citizens without fear or favour, regardless of race, creed or class.

The following complementary but separate factors in a society are critical: culture, ethos, ethics and traditions, and legal processes and practices. Each derives its legitimacy from history and the traditional ways in which meaning is made. By their very nature, they are far more negotiable – existing as they do in a constant state of flux in a dynamic world. Our success depends on how effectively we bring and use them together in the fight against corruption. We do this cognisant of the fact that grand corruption, when compared to the drug trade, human trafficking, terrorism, finance and other global evils, is the most easily rationalisable major felonious activity on the planet.


The Global Anti-corruption Agenda

During the years 1993 to 2003, corruption was at the centre of the global development agenda. In 1993, Transparency International was founded. In the mid-to-late 1990s, corruption was adopted as a key development issue by multilateral and bilateral development institutions. This culminated, in 2003, in the drafting and ratification by a host of countries of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) (UNODC 2015).

The following decade saw the rise of the BRIC nations and rapid economic growth across much of the developing world, as well as globalisation and its associated technologies assisting the expansion of trade and commerce. At the same time, the struggle against Islamic extremism captured the attention of policy makers in the international community. Alongside it, unfortunately, has also come a rapid growth in the scale and complexity of corruption.

So much so that anti-corruption work needs to be returned urgently to the heart of the global development agenda. It needs to be part of the DNA of modern nation-states, multinational corporations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and even religious organisations and how they interact on the global stage.

This urgency comes from the fact that graft has served to hollow out key governance institutions in some countries. This includes the defence and security sector and areas of social policy such as health and education, with dire consequences for the public services they are supposed to offer the poor, in particular.

The crippling impact of corruption on the delivery of these essential services has deepened economic inequalities, undermining faith in political processes, parties and politicians. In turn, this increases political volatility as politicians retreat to identity and personality politics with its complex web of non-negotiable irrationalities. It also feeds fundamentalism of all kinds – for example, ethnic, religious and sectarian.

To conclude, a successful international anti-corruption campaign requires co-operation on a global scale and specific legal measures that help transform attitudes towards corruption and the ability to prosecute the corrupt.

Although it may take longer, embedding a culture of social sanction and censure for anyone found guilty of engaging in, facilitating or condoning corrupt activity, even to the extent that those holding office lose public trust, would support these measures.

They need to be seen as bobolu. They need to feel the social stigma when they attend family gatherings, visit the golf club or step into the supermarket – as much to set an example to others as to punish the individual, impressing on the whole community that corruption will not be tolerated.

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John Githongo is the CEO of Inuka Kenya Ni Sisi Ltd, a non-governmental organisation focused on promoting good governance. Previously he served as Vice-President of Policy and Advocacy at World Vision International. John has been involved in anti-corruption research, advisory work and activism in Kenya, Africa and the wider international community for 19 years. This includes work in civil society, media, government and the private sector.

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