This piece was originally posted in March 2012, following the conviction and imprisonment of former governor of Delta State in Nigeria, James Ibori, in London for graft. Now a secretly recorded conversation of a controversial former junior communications minister in Ghana, leaked to the media, has prompted me to revisit the issue of corruption in Africa.
The former minister, the very gorgeous, curvy (by African standards) Victoria Hammah, is reported to have said on the tape to an as yet unidentified listener that she would not quit politics until she had amassed $1 million. She is alleged to have added that with money, one could control others. She was fired a day after the tape was made public.
This episode gives credence to what a friend of mine said in an email to me last year. I found the contents hilarious but, sadly a true reflection of a common practice in most African countries. The email was about a minister on a monthly salary of the equivalent of $600 who buys three houses for $200,000 each, sends his child to a $10,000 per year university in the US, pays $20,000 to be allowed to contest for the presidential nomination of his party, and still manages to maintain a positive bank balance. My friend describes the minister as an ‘economic genius’.
The email adds that we drive 2011-2012 model cars on our 1930s-1960s roads to our modern mansions with 1960s power supply feeding our 2000-2012 television sets broadcasting 1930s ideas from our politicians elected in 2000s. The email was brilliant piece of satire. Again, very hilarious and, again, sadly true!
Ironically Miss Hammah who, incidentally is one of my friends on Facebook, posted on the social media site earlier this year that since her ministerial appointment, she had been inundated with requests for financial assistance from many quarters, and wondered how she could meet all those demands on her junior minister’s salary. Expressing her displeasure at those requests, she said demands like that drove government officials to commit corrupt acts.
I’ve always maintained that Africa is the only place where a political appointment is a dream ticket to the kingdom of wealth and affluence. For most African politicians the immediate priority, on attaining power, is to enrich yourself, your family and cronies, and that leaves you open and ready to be corrupted. As if that were not enough, the ill-gotten gains are stashed away in foreign bank accounts that create wealth for the host country. A respected sociologist once told me that corruption is practised in most, if not, all of the advanced countries, but their proceeds are invested within those countries, thereby creating wealth for their respective economies.
At least the banks in which those funds are stashed will have enough to lend their private sectors to create jobs and by so doing provide tax revenue to the government, who in turn, get more funds to build infrastructure that aids economic activity and growth, and provide social services like schools, healthcare etc. Corruption has a become a pervasive problem in Africa, leading to stunted development, weak institutions, lack of investment and a general attitude of mistrust towards governance and its institutions.
In its 2012 report on corruption, the African Union (AU) revealed that more than $148 billion is lost to corruption in Africa every year. The amount, which are funds meant for projects such as hospitals and schools in communities, are diverted into private pockets of corrupt public officials while the poor and the needy continue to suffer and the continent as whole fails to make progress.
Currently Malawi, one of the continent’s most impoverished countries, is suffering a severe backlash from a corruption scandal. Dubbed Cashgate, the scandal broke in September following a failed assassination attempt on the government’s budget director, Paul Mphwiyo, who it is believed was about to reveal a corruption syndicate in government. Police raids following the shooting found several high-level officials with wads of cash hidden in their homes and cars.
According to media reports, a number of government figures were arrested and accused of exploiting a loophole in the government’s payment system – which was adopted in 2005 and known as the Integrated Financial Managing Information System (IFMIS) – to divert millions into their own pockets. According to some estimates, $250 million or more may have been stolen from government coffers in the scandal.
The scandal has dealt a heavy blow to President Banda’s efforts to win back donor confidence since taking office last year. Malawi, which relies heavily on budgetary support from donors, faces tough economic times with the EU saying it would be withholding a transfer of $40 million due in December. The UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) has followed suit, saying it was delaying the majority of its aid payments, while Norway has also cited its ‘zero-tolerance policy on corruption’ as it suspended funding to the country. The IMF meanwhile is deliberating on whether it will continue to disburse a $20 million fund as part of Malawi’s Extended Credit Facility.
Corrupt officials are a product of political systems and national cultures and mind-sets that do not question the sources of great wealth. Cultures that glorify wealth but do not question their source or means of acquisition. I remember the case of a Ghanaian parliamentarian who was arrested and jailed for cocaine trafficking in the US a few years ago. During his trial, his party, which was then in power, hailed him during a parliamentary session as a great philanthropist who had done a lot of good for his constituents.
Research suggests that improvement in current levels of corruption requires strengthening of anti-corruption institutions and oversight agencies. Strong regional support for strengthening oversight institutions like anti-corruption agencies and auditor-general offices is also needed. It appears, however, that many of our leaders just pay mere lip service to the war on corruption. No amount of aid, investment or sky-high prices for our export commodities will lift our economic well-being unless we sacrifice our individual greed for the common good. Nobody can legislate for our mind-set unless we undergo some kind of Damascene conversion and put the welfare of our nation’s first.