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Why We Can’t End Corruption in Africa

THE CITIZEN COLUMN 

In the last few days Kenya has been having the monthly annual African ritual – a hissy fit over corruption.

A summit with many grim men in grey suits was held in State House on the vice, and President Uhuru Kenyatta was visibly quite frustrated by the lack of progress on that front.

Now African countries have made a lot of progress in many areas. Some, like Kenya and South Africa, are winning more and more at Olympics. Until recently seven of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies were in Africa.

We elect most of our governments these days. We are able to end long-running conflicts. We slowed the deadly march of HIV/Aids, and Ebola was stopped in West Africa before it finished off everyone.

 The one thing we seem unable to do is end corruption despite the growth of anti-graft agencies and special courts to deal with the thieves.

More politicians like Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari are running on anti-corruption tickets and winning the vote to become presidents, but that has not stopped the pillage.

The few things we have got better at is measuring corruption, and covering it in the media.

The crooks are getting more creative, and more people with criminal backgrounds are getting elected to African parliaments.

We don’t know for sure why this is happening, and until we do, we cannot win this war. Or will do so at a high cost to democracy.

For example, Tanzania’s no-nonsense and anti-corruption president John Magufuli remains popular at home and admired abroad because he works late and is busy chasing the corrupt and incompetent around with a big stick.

Some of the results one reads about in the media are quite impressive. But Magufuli has also cracked a few skulls in the process, and is not a media-freedom loving man. Yet, indicating just how people are fed up with corruption, Magufuli remains very popular.

 It’s not an easy job fighting corruption. In exploring new ways to understand the scourge, we probably need to start with some “good” news. Generally, people don’t steal nothing. If a country has no taxes or budget, there will be less to steal.

Yes, officials and soldiers will grab people’s crops and chicken, as they did in Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo), but what Kenyans call “grand corruption” won’t happen.

So the first thing to note is that because of the economic reforms in most of Africa in the last two decades, and the establishment of reasonably efficient tax revenue bodies, there is a lot more money in national treasuries. That mountain of money has attracted a longer line of thieves because it is the biggest pile of cash around.

When the American politicians were squabbling over passing the budget last year, it was reported at some point that the tech giant Apple had almost as much money in the bank as the federal government.

If we had equally wealthy companies here, they would just buy MPs with fat cheques to pass laws favourable to them, and they would thus not need to play games with allowances to make ends meet. So part of the problem is that our private sectors have remained primitive, leaving the taxpayers’ money the only one sticking out in the night like the lit pyramid of Giza.

 The other thing is that, unless you are a Botswana with a long history of honest government (when Quett Masire was president he would reportedly walk across the street from his office to buy his own newspapers and takeaway coffee), most African countries that democratised post-1990 have failed to halt or reduce corruption.

Part of it has to do with electoral politics. For several reasons, including the fact that the age of the independence parties ended, politics is no longer a marketplace of policies and ideas. It is a vote exchange.

The big men organise and buy the votes from the electorate, and recover their costs through corruption and patronage when they are in power.

It would seem then that leaders like Magufuli are offering a new proposition – which they will not cash in their chips.

I sense therefore that that even if he jaywalked half-naked down the main street in Dar es Salaam, or jailed half the journalists in Tanzania, as long as he keeps fighting corruption and delivering the goods, his position will remain quite secure.

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