Corruption is a crime against humanity, will measures change anything?

Pedestrians shop at a market in Lagos, Nigeria. Corruption is damaging the economy of African states. Nigeria and South Africa are key protagonists on the continent. Picture: AP

Pedestrians shop at a market in Lagos, Nigeria. Corruption is damaging the economy of African states. Nigeria and South Africa are key protagonists on the continent. Picture: AP

Published Feb 6, 2018


“At times it is quite exaggerated,” said President Jacob Zuma on the level of corruption in Africa; hinting, even if indirectly, at the notion that corruption is a victimless crime.

Yet Transparency International estimates argue otherwise. According to the global watchdog, some 75 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are estimated to have paid a bribe in the past year alone.

The cause of concern is not the figure per se, but the motives for the bribes as some pay them to escape punishment by the police or courts, but the vast majority are forced to pay these to get access to the basic services that they desperately need. This displays the depths to which corruption is entrenched in the societies.

This year’s AU summit was held under the theme "Winning the Fight against Corruption: A Sustainable Path to Africa’s Transformation".

Under the leadership of the African Union Advisory Board on Corruption, the African Union, its organs, member states, regional

economic communities (RECs), civil society organisations, together with citizens, have vowed to embark on a journey to address the urgent need to curb corruption.

“Corruption continues to hamper efforts aimed at promoting democratic governance, socio-economic transformation, peace and security and the enjoyment of human rights in the AU member states,” the AU has said. This of course is nothing new.

In the year 2003, AU member states, together with the RECs and the African Union, have adopted various regulatory instruments and established different institutions to combat corruption in Africa, most notably the AU Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption (AUCPCC).

With the benefit of experience, the AU pointed out that “the challenge remains commitment to institutional approaches to combating corruption and other governance challenges on one hand and bridging the gap between norm-setting and norm-implementation through appropriate measures at local, national, regional and continental levels on the other hand".

Thus the question remains: why will this time be any different? Previous commitments have failed and many greet this recent announcement with a mixture of cynicism, and a riot of indifference.

Indeed, it would appear as if it is nothing more than mere rhetoric. Many of the leaders pronouncing this crackdown on corruption are themselves implicated and mired in allegations of corruption and state capture.

Making matters worse is that this rings true of the continent’s two leading states, Nigeria and South Africa.

Thus, if the range of options for implementation range from self-monitoring to peer review, the pronouncement would appear dead on arrival. And yet corruption can be defeated, or in the very least steps can be taken to mitigate it.

The experience of its rooting out have been seen, for example, in previous years in Nigeria under Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s fiery former minister of finance, who increased government transparency by pioneering the publishing of each of that country’s 36 state’s monthly financial allocation from the Federal Government of Nigeria in the newspapers.

Moreover, there are also a few countries in which citizens see low levels of corruption in their public institutions and see corruption as on the wane in their own country. From Afrobarometer surveys, the views of citizens in Botswana, Burkina Faso, Lesotho and Senegal are particularly positive.

Though under a hail of criticism, China has also been pursuing a ruthless anti-corruption campaign to root out the illicit activity which has siphoned more funds from the public purse than the Asian giant’s entire military budget.

What must make this time unique (and convincing) is the codification of corruption as the crime against humanity that it is, because, if measured by effect, it comes quite close to genocide. The opportunity cost in terms of lack of services and development alone is enough to make this case.

When we reflect on the billions of dollars which have been channelled to the pockets of cronies instead of public goods, we cannot but reach that conclusion. Compounding this is the fact that the funds usually stolen are themselves loans.

Worse still, this odious debt is intergenerational and its brunt must be borne by future generations. For example, between 1970 and 2008, the combined foreign debt of African countries rose from less than $50 billion to more than $200bn in constant dollars.

During the same time, capital flight from the 33 sub-Saharan African countries for which decent data exists totalled $735bn. During the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, Congo (or Zaire, as Mobutu renamed the country) accumulated a public external debt of roughly $14bn.

With imputed interest earnings, the accumulated stock of Zairian flight capital was nearly $18bn. Today’s DRC is mired under such a legacy.

As the AU has also perceptively noted, graft cases continued to erode public confidence in governance systems as political leaders concentrated on short term gains and pay-offs.

This stunts and retards whatever inherent potential a given state may have. This further perpetuates the notion that the continent is a safe place to invest and grow, and thus makes the continent an economic hostage; lacking bargaining leg room, owing to the relative lack of diverse funders.

Those who continue to participate in illicit flows are therefore to be held accountable not only as criminals but as criminals against humanity, undermining both the present and future of the country. Far from being a victimless crime, therefore, corruption must be seen as the choke-hold that it is.

Dr Monyae is a political analyst and co-director at the University of Johannesburg Confucius Institute and Ndzendze is a researcher at the same institute

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