Wikileaks! Wikileaks! Wikileaks! Love it or hate it, it cannot be denied that the online whistleblower makes for captivating reading. Wikileaks has lifted the lid on the workings of the inner sanctums of power, and tells us that those who wield it are mere mortals like the rest of us, with their petty gossip and attempts to steamroller, bamboozle and bribe others to do their bidding.
It is also interesting to discover that contrary to popular opinion, not all African leaders seek office just to feather their own nests, but do so upon the conviction that they have something to offer their fellow citizens. A case in point is the revelation that some oil companies attempted to bribe Ghana’s President John Atta Mills. In one of the cables released in December, Mills is reported to have told US Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson in a meeting early last year that he was committed to putting Ghana’s oil proceeds to good use and that a number of oil company representatives had attempted to bribe him. He said he had refused the money and was offended by their efforts.
I find this disclosure rather refreshing – an African leader offended by attempts by foreign companies to bribe him! Corruption has become a buzz word in the debate on Africa’s political and economic development. There is hardly a time corruption is not mentioned during debates on African development. There has been much pontificating on endemic corruption being a major root cause of Africa’s problems and what can, and must be done to uproot it.
There are many instances of much-needed western aid to African countries being withheld because the African governments concerned had not, or are not doing enough, to combat corruption. I remember in 2005, during the Make Poverty History Campaign, when the UK’s Sunday Express newspaper warned in an article that ‘as long as endemic corruption exists in so many African countries then all the best western will in the world will not solve the problems facing [Africans].’
What the paper said was reflective of what a large proportion of the British public (and for that matter, the western world) perceives Africa. An opinion poll at that time showed that 83 per cent of the British public were not confident that increases in western aid would be spent wisely. 79 per cent also believed that corruption and incompetence were mostly to blame for Africa’s plight.
Although I have spent more than half of my life in Europe, I am still very passionate about Africa, and abhor any practice that impedes African development. I would like to point out, however, that the practice of corruption is not peculiar to Africa and Africans. It is practised the world over, and it is a vice exported to Africa and condoned by the west. President Mills’ experience with the oil companies is ample evidence of that. I have always seen corruption as a two-way street. Most foreign businesses have been known to bribe government officials in Africa in order to win contracts or have their licences renewed.
Researching this subject a couple of years ago, I stumbled upon a very interesting fact – the UK offshore tax haven of Jersey had still failed to plug a loophole under which bribery payments made in Africa remain legal, despite a promise to the OECD that the loophole would be closed. Last October, a London-based watchdog accused four British banks, including the Royal Bank of Scotland of accepting millions of pounds in deposits from corrupt Nigerian politicians.
Global Witness said huge sums had been taken from two former Nigerian governors by the banks between 1999 and 2005; the banks, however, had failed to investigate either the customers or the source of their funds. It said that RBS, Barclays, NatWest, HSBC and Switzerland’s UBS had not broken the rules in failing to investigate the customers but they had helped fuel corruption in the West African country. According to Global Witness, no British bank has been publicly fined or even named by the regulators for taking corrupt funds, whether willingly or through negligence.
Last December US oilfield contractor Halliburton agreed to pay Nigeria $35 million to settle bribery allegations that led to charges against former Vice President Dick Cheney and other executives. Cheney, who was Halliburton’s CEO in the 1990s, and nine others were charged with conspiracy and ‘distribution of gratification to public officials’ in a long-running case involving the company and its Kellogg, Brown and Root subsidiary. Nigerian officials accused the company of paying bribes to secure $6 billion worth of contracts for a liquefied natural gas project in the Niger Delta.
The above examples show that the issue of corruption in Africa is a complex one, and the west plays a significant role, to say the least, both in contributing to African corruption and in imposing its own corrupt policies. It is also worth acknowledging the massive disparity in financial and political power between Africa and the west, in order to identify who is best placed to solve the problem.