Africans inherited corruption

By William Gumede Time of article published Mar 19, 2012

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Most well-intentioned corruption-busting remedies in Africa fail because the root causes are often poorly understood. Post-independence African countries inherited deeply corrupt institutions, laws and values from colonial and apartheid governments.

Instead of changing these for the better, African ruling parties and leaders entrenched these deeply compromised governance systems.

In most African colonies, the colonial elite centralised political, economic and civic power, reserving top jobs in the public and private sector, and education only to fellow colonials. In the colony, the institutions that should traditionally serve as watchdogs against corruption – the judiciary, police, security services and laws – selectively served only the elite. These institutions were more often subservient to the all-powerful colonial administrator or governor.

The colonial private sector, producing in most cases for export to the imperial market, was usually deeply dependent on the colonial government for licences, contracts and subsidies and rarely held the colonial government accountable.

With few exceptions, the colonial media were equally bridled.

At independence the African colonial elite were now often replaced by another narrow elite, this time the independence movement aristocracy – the dominant independence leader and dominant “struggle” families, or the dominant ethnic group or political faction.

African independence movements are often highly centralised or strongly dominated by one leader and his political, ethnic or regional faction. The dominant structural make-up of these movements means that they can seamlessly fit into a similar centralised political culture of the colonial government.

At independence, the indigenous communities of most African countries were relatively poor, unskilled and without any significant holdings in the private sector.

Very few grassroots cadres of independence movements had professional careers outside the struggle. They have to be given jobs after the struggle. This situation is fertile for corruption.

The newly acquired state bureaucracy, military, judiciary, nationalised private sector were often seen as the “spoils” of victory of the independence struggle. The whole process often becomes corrupted with struggle aristocracies dishing out patronage – jobs, government tenders and newly nationalised private companies – to their political allies, ethnic group or region.

Giving jobs to members of the same faction, ethnic group or region means the idea of merit-based appointments is thrown out of the window. This means that even if the newly empowered independence movement launched economic development programmes to transform the colonial economy, such reforms are hardly ever going to have any impact given that unqualified cronies are managing key public institutions.

Jobless cadres are also forced to seek out the patronage of leaders who have control over the distribution of the “spoils”.

In most cases, cadres critical of the dominant leaders or policies are likely to be excluded from work in the public and private sectors.

Very few African countries at independence had a significant private sector. Those that had a large private sector more often than not saw it nationalised.

Partly for these reasons, the private sector in post-independence African countries is usually docile is unlikely to demand accountability from the government.

In some instances the liberation movement government embarks on a policy of creating a “capitalist class” or new “indigenous” business owners, black economic empowerment (BEE) or indigenisation programmes.

In many such instances political capital forms the basis of these attempts at creating indigenous capitalists: political leaders either get stakes in newly privatised public companies, or get state tenders to supply services for the government, or get slices of private companies owned by former colonials, minority groups or foreign companies.

Those who benefit from BEE, indigenisation or privatisation programmes will not hold African governments accountable.

Before independence, the small colonial elite often lived lives of conspicuous consumption – expensive mansions, exclusive shopping trips in the mother country capital, lavish parties. A culture of hard work was often absent.

Sadly, many of the post-independence African elite – both the political and economic empowerment class – took the colonial elite’s conspicuous consumption standard as the standard of “success”.

Not surprisingly, some of the poor also want to emulate this “bling” lifestyle – and may not see any problem with leaders living like this, if they themselves remain poor.

During struggles for liberation, progressive civil groups usually join the liberation as part of an anti-colonial alliance. At independence most liberation movements argued that civil society had now played its historic role and should be “demobilised”, or some are often incorporated as “desks” or “leagues” of the now governing party.

During the struggle, independence movements were by their nature secretive. They often had to act in secrecy and subterfuge to foil the secret or security police of the colonial or white-minority governments. Sadly, in power, most govern with obsessive secrecy, which encourages corruption.

Liberation and independence leaders were often put on a pedestal by supporters. This often continues after independence – and allows the leader to get away with corruption.

The colonial system of legal unfairness necessarily forced many among the oppressed to find ways to escape the (unjust) laws and rules. Unless independence in the post-colonial period set clear examples of following the rule of law, the masses will continue such practices

In some African countries, the main opposition parties are either associated with the colonial or the minority governments, or had opposed independence.

But opposition parties that eventually come to power in Africa have often offered few alternatives to the corrupt regimes of independence movements.

Most African ruling parties and leaders lack the political will to genuinely tackle corruption. This will have to change.

Sadly, enforcement and compliance in African public sectors has often been very low – opening up the system for corruption. The corruption-fighting capacity of existing institutions dealing with corruption must also be strengthened.

African ruling parties must punish bad behaviour of their leaders and members, legally, socially and politically, and reward good behaviour. Only if that is done publicly will the government restore the moral authority to deal credibly with transgressions from ordinary citizens. This will help to compel ordinary citizens to follow the rules.

African ruling parties must bring in a new calibre of leadership at all levels – competent, honest and decent. A system of merit must be brought into the internal party elections.

Africans need to actively encourage new kinds of leaders, with a new value system – not solely based on struggle credentials.

The solution is more exposure of corruption by the media. Right now, the perception across Africa is that whistle-blowers are more likely to be prosecuted than the corrupt individuals.

African public officials often dismissed international organisations’ corruption reports on Africa, saying these reports are infused by Western bias, which overlook corruption in Western countries and focus only developing countries.

Of course this is true to some extent. However, that should be a separate debate and should not downplay the real serious issue of corruption at home.

Blaming the legacy of colonialism and apartheid – although certainly with us – has become an easy answer for not acting against corruption. This will have to change.

n Gumede is honorary associate professor at Wits, author and co-editor of The Poverty of Ideas

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