Still on African Corruption

When I wrote The Myths and Fallacies of African Corruption a few days ago I knew that many of my arguments went against the grain of popular beliefs about, and stereotypes of, corruption in . I also knew that because of its unfamiliar and controversially polemical contentions, it would get a mixed reception and provoke discussion. I was right, for the most part.

I didn't expect people to agree with some of the arguments I presented especially since I merely used some of them as a heuristic device to raise questions about what we've all come to accept as truisms of "African corruption." I didn't set out so much to debunk as to complicate and complete some of popular but flawed understandings of corruption in Africa.

It was to this end that I juxtaposed corruption in Africa with corruption in the West. My discussion of corruption in the West is largely incidental to my argument about corruption and its impact on Africa. Understandably, that aspect of my article has attracted charges of defensiveness.

My aim was to shake us (Africans) out of our participation in what is essentially a racist discourse that ties Africans symbiotically to corruption instead of looking at corruption as a universal human problem that has a bigger impact on Africa because of the peculiar characters of African economies, notably their small size.

One runs the risk of being perceived as clearing a space for corruption when one argues that corruption per se is not the problem but its consequence. It sounds as though one is advocating the toleration and accommodation of corruption. That is far from the truth. I was challenging a very redundant and reductive analysis that reduces all of Africa 's problems to corruption and that suggests that defeating corruption is the be all and end all of development and progress in Africa . This erroneous idea is convenient. It seems to follow logically from what many people already believe about African leaders' much-publicized thievery. It also gels with a certain historical trend of blaming African problems on a supposed congenital degeneration of the African character. This idea is over due for correction.

I am also aware that complicating the issue of corruption in Africa raises questions of possible complicity and exposes one to charges of trying to minimize the problem. It is a risk I am willing to take to spark some intelligent discussion on this important but grossly misunderstood subject.

Nuanced arguments like the one I presented come with the burden of being easily misunderstood and of being vulnerable to charges of denial and obfuscation. But  Africa's economic and developmental predicament is complex. Its analysis therefore has to be complex and nuanced.

I reproduce below a reasoned response that I got from an obviously thoughtful reader. Following the response are my responses to the points and objections he raised.

"I have to say I found your article rather defensive and predicated on very tenuous premises.

There's no denying that corruption does occur in the West, however these countries have strong and well-tried systems of internal control, anti-fraud and probity embedded into their spheres of public governance. The cases you cite to illustrate your argument were perhaps not very well chosen as Enron and Worldcom were both private sector entities. In both case the main losers at the end of the day were shareholders, not taxpayers or the citizens at large.

The bulk of corruption in Africa originates in state institutions involving politicians and state bureaucrats, albeit sometimes in legion with businessmen. Nevertheless the main beneficiaries of corruption are politicians and bureaucrats. All the independent measures of corruption consistently highlight the extremely levels of corruption and weak accountability systems in many African countries, although the situation is gradually beginning to improve in a number of countries

The sheer scale and volume of corruption in African countries is unheard of in the developed world. In how many countries of the world could a ruler loot his country's coffers of over half a billion pounds a la Abacha? I am confident that were he still alive today he would have been enjoying his ill gotten wealth unchallenged and possibly contesting as a presidential candidate. The EFCC's investigations I suspect reveal the tip of the iceberg. Reports of theft of funds running to the multiples of millions are routine. This situation is sadder still when you consider that most of the countries where these industrial levels of theft occur are amongst the poorest in the world with basic or non-existent social and economic infrastructure or safety nets.

The systematic looting on the scale that takes place in African countries would be virtually impossible in a developed country. For one thing the public service ethos in these countries is completely different. Were such cases of corruption to happen in a developed economy these countries possess enlightened electorates, a strong press and democratic traditions which would ensure the responsible political ruling class paid a heavy price politically. In Nigeria there is never an electoral penalty to pay no matter how corrupt a regime is.

Lets not bury our heads in the sand and pretend corruption is not a self-inflicted blight on the continent. It's time we stopped blaming others for the poor image of the continent and learn from countries in Asia and South America who are successfully turning their fortunes around."

Let me state that the article was designed to provoke this kind of conversation. To that extent, it has succeeded.

I am not suggesting that corruption is not a problem in Africa , or minimizing its magnitude. In fact I went into rather graphic detail about the moral consequences of corruption in Africa to show precisely how much of a problem it is and how devastating its impacts are. I also discussed how deep-rooted corruption is in Africa - embedded, it would seem, in many seemingly innocuous cultural institutions and practices. It is only when you juxtapose and compare "African corruption" with "Western corruption" that the former (in dollar or per capita terms) pales in comparison. Considered on its own terms, outside any comparative framework, the incidence and volume of corruption in is indeed staggering. No statistical discourse or manipulation can overturn this reality.

As a percentage of national wealth, of course, Africa loses more money to corruption than do Western countries. But I wasn't using this category of analysis. I preferred the per capita and raw dollar indices because they are universal measures with comparative implications.

Specifically, I wanted to dispel two misconceptions about corruption in Africa:

1. That Africans are, by nature, more corrupt than other peoples. Listening to the Western discussions on "African corruption," one might even think that corruption is encoded in the DNA of Africans. Much of this type of stereotypical rhetoric is plain racist and lacking any factual or statistical basis.

2. That corruption encapsulates all of Africa 's problems and that if you end African corruption, all of the continent's developmental woes would be solved.

Let me say this again: in raw dollar terms, Africa does not lose more money to corruption than do Western countries with all their organs of accountability and institutional safeguards and controls. No one can dispute this. Indeed a single corruption scandal in the West might involve an amount that is equivalent to an African country's budget.

The other truth is that, because of the size of their economies, Western countries can afford to lose money to corruption without suffering infrastructural consequences. In other words, the big economies of the West are able to absorb such leakages without any identifiable impact on social services and public infrastructure. Africa , on the other hand, cannot afford to lose money to corruption as this leads to humanitarian catastrophes. This is precisely why corruption is a bigger problem in Africa than it is in the West. It's not the volume of corruption or scale but the consequence that determines the seriousness or otherwise of a corruption problem. In this respect, there is no denying that Africa has a more serious corruption problem than the West. But saying this does not and should not mean that Africans are more corrupt than Westerners. These are two different claims requiring different genres of evidence and argumentative logic.

And here I am not just talking about corporate corruption, but also public, government corruption. I live in the States, and I know how many news items I read every week about government corruption scandals, sometimes involving billions of dollars - amounts that can cover the budgets of several African states. To see billions of dollars disappear as they often do in the US to government corruption is, to me, quite revealing. But these scandals do not grab as many international headlines as does "African corruption." This is not necessarily because, as some defensive Africans are wont to claim, Western media outlets love to pathologize Africans and their indiscretions. Rather, it is because corruption scandals in the West seldom have any consequences on the everyday lives of Westerners or on their social infrastructures. They therefore do not attract as much media attention as African corruption.

Even if you consider public corruption ALONE, the West loses more money to corruption than does Africa .

My argument is that this being the case, and since Western countries still lose as much money as they do in spite of their much touted organs of transparency and accountability, several conclusions are possible:

1. Corruption cannot completely be eliminated in any society and should therefore not be an excuse/alibi for lack of development or for the failure of government to provide and/or improve social infrastructure. Corruption can reduce but should not eliminate the capacity of African governments to govern and play the traditional roles of government.

2. That it is possible to insulate (to some extent) one's economy from the egregious effects of corruption--the types of effect we see in Africa--through policy initiatives and better economic management principles aimed at increasing legitimate opportunities and access for as many citizens as possible. Social safety nets are also a useful tool here.

3. Developing African countries and ensuring the availability of social infrastructure and services will take more than simply ENDING corruption, which is not possible anyway. If you read what many Westerners say about the African predicament, you might be tempted to think that if you managed to end all corruption in Africa , all of Africa 's problems would be solved. My argument is that a corruption-free Africa (which is largely Utopian) would still be a largely poor Africa , albeit a better Africa .

4. The fight against corruption in Africa is an urgent imperative, but it should not preclude other policies aimed at growing African economies beyond the egregious impact of corruption. In other words, corruption is not  Africa's only problem, and neither Westerners nor incompetent African leaders should be allowed to get away with saying that it is, or to use it as an excuse for not performing. African leaders can fight corruption and perform their basic duties at the same time.

5. When corruption is reduced to its barest minimum, which is the best we can hope for in any human society as its elimination is a mirage, we Africans still have to think ourselves out of our economic predicaments. Victory over corruption will not compensate for a lack of vision or sound policy, or substitute for a self-conscious effort to expand the economy make it capable of absorbing residual and inevitable leakages.

Finally let me respond to one disagreement expressed by another respondent. I had argued that corruption is the reason why patrimonial, illogical, and overly centrist African states endure and not the other way round. That was an overstatement. The truth is that corruption is as much the reason why overly centrist, patrimonial, and illogical states endure as it is the product of such states. If these illogical states and their inability to forge unity or common purpose or command the loyalty and commitment of citizens have produced corruption, corruption and the pragmatic political alliances necessary for its manifestation have helped sustain these states.

As I argued, corruption is the recurring basis for political compromise and consensus among self-interested, bitterly divided political elites. Corruption perversely functions as an instrument of unity in many African states. This corruption-based unity is sometimes tenuous and is constantly renegotiated. Nonetheless it remains a constant possibility as long as there are state resources to be misappropriated and the misappropriation requires the suspension of diverse ethnic, regional, ideological, and religious affinities in the interest of the common goal of cornering state wealth.