Africa: the continent where the corrupt roam free?


Financier Worldwide Magazine

March 2016 Issue

March 2016 Issue

Bribery and corruption are words often used in an African context, as if such activities were the sole preserve of that particular continent; a blatantly unfair association for sure given the murky goings-on in other regions of the world.

Even so, the continent – particularly the 28 countries that constitute sub-Saharan Africa – does contribute a significant number of the world’s most corrupt countries, as showcased in ‘People and corruption: Africa survey 2015’ – a thought-provoking examination of the issue by Transparency International and Afrobarometer, a research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, and related issues.

In truth, the term thought-provoking does the survey a disservice, for once one becomes familiar with its contents, indignation is fermented rather than mere thought. For despite the best efforts of companies and governments alike, bribery and corruption is still rife in many sectors and jurisdictions of Africa and remains a major issue.

Just how major can be gleaned by perusing the facts and figures contained in the survey – 50 pages which outline the extent of the chicanery, skulduggery and subterfuge that took place across the continent during 2015; behaviour which, by the year’s end, added up to a staggering 75 million people identified as having paid a bribe (perhaps on multiple occasions) at some point during the previous 12 months.

However unpleasant it may be to read, the Transparency International/Afrobarometer data does much to paint a picture of the extant issues and the context in which they exist. Indeed, the survey kicks off with a most disturbing tale; that of a nine-year old girl in Zimbabwe raped on her way to school by a man who, as it turned out, had infected her with HIV.

And what was the response from the appropriate authorities having nabbed the culprit? Was it incarceration for an extremely long period of time? No, it was not. The shocking reality is that although the police did arrest the girl’s attacker, he was then released in secrecy. And why was this? He had paid a bribe to those who had pledged to uphold the rule of law.

Many more facts and stats in the survey compound how extensive bribery and corruption is across the African continent. The majority of Africans (58 percent) believe that corruption increased in 2015. Eighteen out of 28 governments are considered to be failing to address corruption. More than four-in-five South African citizens (83 percent) say they have seen corruption rise. The police and business executives are seen to have the highest levels of corruption. Twenty-two percent of people that have been in contact with a public service in the past 12 months in Sub-Saharan Africa have paid a bribe (in Liberia nearly seven in 10 did so). Out of six key public services, the police and the courts are the most likely to have seen bribes being paid.

Furthermore, the survey found that people in the region are “divided as to whether ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption”. It also revealed that just over half (53 percent) thought they could make a difference, while 38 percent thought otherwise. In an ideal world, of course, incidents would be reported when they occur, or targets for bribery could be relied upon to say no when asked to pay a bribe; however, the survey states that only around one in 10 people who paid a bribe actually saw fit to report it.

It is widely accepted in African business circles that the extractives sectors are susceptible to corruption on a grand scale.

Several other examinations of the propensity for corruption in the region all tell a similar tale of woe. These include the ‘Combating Corruption, Improving Governance in Africa, Regional Anti-Corruption Programme for Africa (2011–2016)’, compiled by the Economic Commission for Africa and the African Union Advisory Board on Corruption, and a 2015 study by ENSafrica which found that incidents of bribery had increased with the corruption hotspots being Angola‚ the Democratic Republic of Congo‚ Ghana‚ Kenya‚ Mozambique‚ Nigeria‚ South Africa and Uganda (although, by way of balance, a more positive outlook towards the bribery and corruption issue has been displayed by countries such as Botswana, Burkina Faso, Lesotho and Senegal).

When all is said and done, the charge is essentially this: that in Africa, the bribed and the bribe payer by and large roam free and do not necessarily face official sanction if found guilty of a crime – that is, if they can afford the fee levied for looking the other way.

African bribery and corruption hotspots

Within each jurisdiction, there are a number of professions and arenas where bribery and corruption appear to be particularly prevalent. According to Sibusiso Nkomo, Afrobarometer’s communications coordinator for Southern Africa, the areas specifically mentioned by survey respondents were the courts, the Police, household services, documents and permits, public school services, and public clinics and hospitals.

Drilling further down into exact business sectors, Julian Fisher, managing director of Africa Integrity Services Ltd, is of the opinion that it is widely accepted in African business circles that the extractives sectors are susceptible to corruption on a grand scale. “This is partly because the sums involved in investments are so large, they often attract unwelcome attention,” he attests. “Unfortunately, there are cases where parties to corrupt dealings include senior politicians, so governments are part of the problem rather than the solution. This shifts the responsibility onto investors. Nobody can force a company to pay a bribe. In almost every instance of corruption there are two or more parties involved, and if one of those parties adopts a zero tolerance approach, then the situation begins to improve, step by step.”

Ever-increasing corruption and potential remedies

For those at the forefront of the fight against bribery and corruption, the consequences for society are clear and unambiguous. However, Mr Fisher feels that it is important not to generalise when characterising the extent of the problem. “Africa comprises over 50 countries and the prevalence of corruption varies by country,” he vouches. “But in the worst affected, it is primarily petty corruption that blights the lives of citizens. This includes demands by officials for small bribes to perform basic tasks. This chokes up the system, delays the normal conduct of business and sows mistrust throughout society. The problem is that the most scrupulous international investors observe a phenomenon that is first and foremost a problem for ordinary people and steer clear of those countries. This outcome significantly impedes economic potential.”

In terms of the remedies to hand, the findings of the Transparency International/Afrobarometer survey are extensive and include recommendations that African governments must: (i) end impunity in their countries – whether in government, companies or organisations – by effectively investigating and prosecuting cases and eliminating the abuse of political immunity; (ii) strengthen and enforce legislation on politically-exposed persons and anti-money laundering to curb the high volume of illicit flows from the continent; (iii) end the secrecy around who owns and controls companies and other arrangements which enable collusion, self-dealing or deception in government processes, such as procurement; and (iv) show a sustained and deep commitment to acting on police corruption at all levels by promoting reforms that combine punitive measures with structural changes over the short- and medium-term.

For Mr Nkomo, governments have to be seen to be fighting bribery and corruption through campaigns and by instituting stronger laws and performing robust prosecutions. Failure to do so will leave citizens feeling powerless and unwilling to report instances of bribery. Furthermore, Mr Nkomo is of the opinion that “disempowerment may extend to lower levels of service or nothing at all, and those tasked with fighting corruption withdrawing – resulting in the creation of a predatory state and society”.

Further recommendations made in the survey include proposals that governments include anti-corruption measures and metrics as part of their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); that they establish right to information and whistleblower protection legislation to facilitate the role of civil society in making public institutions more transparent, accountable and corruption-free; and that they invest in measures to strengthen access to justice and the rule of law in their countries, such as ensuring an objective and transparent process for appointing judges, protections for judicial salaries and working conditions, and clear criteria for case assignment.

On the international stage, governments must finally deliver on their global anti-corruption commitments under the UN Convention against Corruption, with signatory countries requiring to actively support and make use of the results of the next Convention review cycle, which will analyse policies to prevent corruption and support asset recovery.

Concurrently, there is a desire for companies to transparently report their operations, activities and revenues on a country-by-country basis to build public trust and dispel perceptions of corruption. “The investor community can make a big difference, by refusing to countenance involvement in grand corruption,” suggests Mr Fisher. “They can also support their employees, customers and supply chain when they are affected by lower-level corruption, by providing reporting mechanisms that are likely to be taken seriously by government departments. Collective action, supported by influential investors, is the way forward. The power of the internet should also be harnessed. We need to see more websites which encourage the naming and shaming of corrupt officials. Corruption thrives without transparency,” he adds.

Overcoming ineffective reporting mechanisms

As the Transparency International/Afrobarometer survey, along with many other sources, makes perfectly clear, most bribery and corruption reporting mechanisms in Africa are essentially ineffective. The sad reality is that people are reluctant to report instances of bribery and corruption because they are afraid of retribution. Compounding this, corruption reporting mechanisms are often seen as too dangerous, ineffective or unclear, and more than one in three Africans thinks that a whistleblower faces negative consequences for reporting corruption – the reason why most people don’t report.

“The reporting mechanisms that are in place are implemented by government departments, and those charged with enforcing them often don’t care, feel they are fighting a losing battle or are corrupt themselves,” states Mr Fisher. “Fear of retribution may play a part, but inertia and resignation to the problem are bigger challenges. This is why it is important for bigger companies and international investors to be seen supporting anti-corruption initiatives.”

Conclusion: worse before better?

The general consensus is that in tackling Africa’s substantial bribery and corruption problems, things will get a whole lot worse before they can conceivably get any better. And, given the substantial growth opportunities available in Africa, it is imperative that organisations and legislatures make inroads into tackling bribery and corruption wherever they find it.

Many people are optimistic, citing the emergence of a new breed of politician determined to realise Africa’s enormous economic potential. Without doubt, tackling corruption is central to this ambition and the solutions put forward by the likes of Transparency International, Afrobarometer, the Economic Commission for Africa, the African Union Advisory Board on Corruption, and ENSafrica, have the potential to provide a fair measure of assistance.

For although the continent may be beset by widespread bribery and corruption at present, this corrosive state of affairs should not be considered the established template for Africa’s future.

© Financier Worldwide


Fraser Tennant

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