Corruption: Africa's Challenge

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The AU has declared 2018 the African Anti-Corruption Year, and the theme of this month's summit in Addis Ababa. It is refreshing that African leaders will discuss the subject in public. Some leaders are more committed than others to ending the cycle of graft which has dogged Africa since the colonial era.

Africa is not alone in this problem. Theft through corruption occurs in practically every nation – the early days of American industrialization were rife with graft. But in Africa, it has persisted as a potent force to stymie economic development and prosperity. 

From the 1960s to the 1980s, contracting and procurement were the main drivers of African corruption. Many contractors had to pay bribes to obtain work from African governments, while over-invoicing increased the price of materials. Basic development projects became much more expensive, and confidence in the rule of law dimmed among potential investors. In the first two decades of the post-colonial era, the World Bank fought to diminish this type of corruption by pushing for economic reforms.

But there are numerous ways to steal from public coffers. Most African countries nationalized major enterprises at the outset of independence. Liberia's late president Samuel Doe would simply call the heads of government corporations and order them to turn over hundreds of thousands in cash. In other countries, the diversion of government funds to private pockets was more subtle.

The scope of corruption expanded considerably with the rise of major commodity exports and the transmission of royalties. Since the mid-1980s, reliance on commodities in Nigeria, Gabon, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone and Angola have driven enormous economic growth from a national perspective, but they have also created myriad pathways for graft and ensured that ordinary Africans rarely see the benefits of these lucrative industries.

The creation of government commodity corporations was a key development in the facilitation of modern corruption. Nigeria's National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) is the most prominent example, but the issue goes far beyond oil. The DRC's state-owned mining company, Gécamines, was designated to receive all royalties from private minerals producers. Since the DRC government is the only shareholder in Gécamines, revenue should go directly to the government central bank and then into the state budget. Unfortunately, there are no controls over the royalty funds once they enter Gécamines. The head of state and his close political associates have unfettered access to those funds and take advantage of them freely.

This pocketing of public revenue is pure theft. But some things are changing. 

In recent years, some African heads of state have introduced strong controls designed to make sure that government earnings enter legal channels into central banks and official budgets. Since his election in 2014, Nigeria's President Buhari has engaged in a campaign to end corruption that is more than just talk. The NNPC now has very strict rules about open bidding on the sale of petroleum. But changes to the NNPC are a bright spot among African countries continuing old corrupt practices. As of the beginning of 2018, there has not been any sign of improvement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with respect to mineral revenues.

The decision by AU heads of state to discuss corruption openly reflects the demands of younger educated citizens that government revenue be used to support development objectives, through improved infrastructure, education, and healthcare, rather than line the pockets of politicians and their allies. The African middle class is now large enough to make itself felt. The fact that this subject is being discussed openly is very encouraging to those of us who want to see Africa develop more rapidly. But there is much work to be done, and it remains to be seen how much appetite today's African leaders have for fundamental changes to the institutions which have enriched them for decades.

In the final analysis, the introduction of transparency in government accounts, and the transfer of all government revenues into legitimate treasury channels, has become a life and death necessity in a growing number of African countries. Governments have a growing need for funds to meet basic human needs for their growing populations. Situations in which civil servants remain unpaid for months at a time can no longer be tolerated. Social media makes it far easier for ordinary citizens to spread the word about wrongdoing. For a growing number of African leaders, honest government has become necessary for survival.