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Africans need to speak up on corruption
Staff reporter
Published: 15-MAY-06

In the ongoing debate over what to do about the epidemic of corruption that “strangles Africa like a python”, as one African participant put it, frustration and futility are the benchmarks. Could it be that dishonesty has become so entrenched a way of life that there is nothing more to be done than accept it as inevitable, perhaps even legitimise it and create a ministry for it?

This is what Che Sunday of Cameroon believes should happen: “Coming from a country that has had the dubious distinction as being the most corrupt country in the world several times, I must say that everyone complains, and everyone is an active participant. Because everyone is so desperate, the desire to get what one wants is so overwhelming that bribery seems the only way out. I think the only way out is to legalise it and have a ministry for it. You go there when you need anything, pay the asking price for that service, then take your receipt to where your business needs are.”

Vic Mass of Sierra Leone can only agree. “Corruption today is not only a vice but is gradually becoming a way of life in every sector of our society,” he says. “From political circles to business boardrooms to educational institutions to the health and judicial sectors, this vice is literally dismembering the African continent.” K. Ondiwani of Togo believes the scourge is continent-wide. “I don’t care who you are or what part of Africa you come from,” he maintains, “the truth is you are either corrupt or have been involved in a number of corrupt practises. Corruption is part of African culture; it’s a way of life. You have to give something if you want things to go your way. It’s a way of saying thank you!”

Contributors like these gave their views to a BBC survey from which many of these comments are taken.

Put together they provide a chilling indictment of corruption’s pandemic in Africa, and the physical, economical and emotional damage being wrought.

“Here in The Gambia,” comments Dawda Alpha Jallow, “corruption is fuelled by a deep-rooted norm we call maslaha, an expression that when mentioned makes every average Gambian cool down and usually forgives or leaves what they are doing. Even the worst corrupt practices are sometimes condoned simply because of our maslaha attitude.”

“The issue of corruption in Nigeria is one of the most shameful,” says Dr Godson Onyekwere of Nigeria. “But the problem is so deep-rooted that we need a total paradigm change in the thinking pattern of people in Africa. I never realised giving someone a “thank you token” was bribing until I came to Europe more than a decade ago. Most people in Africa do not understand what the hassle is all about. This is part of a culture that is so deeply embedded in people that it is difficult to change but it can be changed.”

“After living in Kenya for 12 years, I came to perceive corruption as a normal part of everyday life,” says Alem Berhane Kiflewahid. “The problem was that too many people just accepted its inevitability while others decided they might as well bend the rules every now and then for selfish gain. While it is important for civilians to resist the temptation to bribe officials, I think it is up to public authorities like the police to refuse to abandon their duties no matter how much ‘compensation’ they may receive.”

How and why did it start?

“The main reason that fuels corruption in most parts of Africa is that it has been accepted as the norm,” says Ghanaian Jacob Sax Conteh. “We do not want to wait for our turn, but pay our way to get services that are supposed to be free. Moreover, the belief that one can buy anything with money has fuelled corruption in all levels of life. The only way to stamp out corruption is to do a massive campaign like they are doing in Kenya and that would take some time to bear fruit.”

Ayo of Nigeria believes that the origin of corruption in Africa is the government and big businesses. “It was the ancient African leaders who started selling their children to slavery within the continent to Arab and Europeans,” he says. “The same happens today in sophisticated ways. The big businesses or nations bribe the leaders to exploit their countries’ natural resources and trade, in some cases they overthrow governments by sponsoring coups and also assist rebel leaders. One of the ways ordinary people survive is through corruption itself.”

“Once you get a coin, your appetite increases and you become a prisoner of the one who bribed you,” warns Pacharo Kayira of Malawi.

How graft grinds the economy down

For many, graft is an inescapable stranglehold that is slowly but surely squeezing the life from the continent’s economy.

Cornelius A. Gligui of Ghana asks: “How do you expect somebody with a family that must exist on a meagre salary to survive? Corruption starts with us all.”

The poison spreads from the top

The debate found consensus that corruption starts at the top and inexorably knocks on to the population at large. It becomes a matter of survival for those at the bottom of the chain: join or perish.

“Everyone is corrupt,” insists Majid Oziaminu of Nigeria, “the politicians, public officials and religious leaders. Even those who believe in national unity are being forced to join the race. The politicians and public officials enrich themselves with kickbacks from contractors and loot the nation’s property. The religious leaders divert government attention by organising riots among ordinary people. Unfortunately, the people responsible for fighting corruption in my country, Nigeria, are the same people encouraging it”

His views are confirmed by Ugandan Hellen Kerali. “I think corruption in most African countries takes place within the civil service,” she says. “Civil servants are poorly paid and are forced to subsidise their income through corruption.”

And Mzee Kobe of Kenya: “The Kenya government’s effort in its fight against corruption is comparable to the efforts of one who digs a hole while simultaneously filling it up. Its efforts will never bear fruit unless it rids itself of those corrupt government officials that were recycled back into the new government from the previous one.”

Also, “Africans must stop electing or applauding any unscrupulous and desperate politicians.” Soliu Luqman, Nigeria.

“As we grew up in Kenya,” reports Samuel in Nairobi, “we were told stories praising the rich men who had become so by stealing public funds or money of their employers. Anybody who handles public funds for sometime but goes back home with nothing is considered the greatest of the fools.

And Ali Adamou of N’Djaména Chad: “The African continent will never find a solution to corruption as long as both top officials in the private and public sectors are dishonest. When the head of the fish starts to rot, the rest of the body will later be affected.”

The poor and the corruption trap

Almost without exception, respondents blamed chronic economic conditions that reduced the masses of the people to poverty and was the cause for dragging the poor into corrupt actions.

“Poverty leads to corruption,” maintains ‘Dozzinger’ in the US. “The only way to eliminate corruption is to eliminate poverty in those African countries. Anything short of this is a waste of time.”

Peter Chol, also in America, says, “Poverty is the main root cause of corruption in Africa. If you need to stop corruption, end poverty first.”

“It is against my personal conviction to bribe, but I wonder what I would do if a doctor ‘refuses’ to treat me?” asks Jared of Ethiopia.

Says Lieve Hoogsteyns, Belgium: “It’s easy to claim I would never take a bribe since my children and I have everything we need. How can one blame people for accepting bribes if that’s the only way they can feed their family? Of course it’s wrong, but it would never have been this widespread in Africa if living conditions had not made it nearly impossible for people to survive,” while ‘NW’ of Malawi contributes: “Corruption in Africa is growing at an alarming rate due to poverty which is rampant. Miserable salaries that cannot suffice to cater for a big and extended family and forces many people to opt for bribes to meet the needs.”

Malawian Rene McDonald, believes that corruption has gone from a mere act of accepting bribes to a complete state of mind and way of life. It has progressed from the poor attempting to “make ends meet” to a sense of entitlement from anyone in a position of authority. Change must happen from the top and the bottom. Officials must set the example and all others must follow.” And, adds Mustapha Bobbo, Nigeria, “Sometimes you must be corrupt to live, there is just no way out. The Nigeria government knows that.”

Fellow Nigerian, George Onmonya Daniel, says corruption has been institutionalised in Nigeria. “If you don’t take a bribe you are a fool,” he maintains. “Honest people are called fools. In hospital people die because doctors steal drugs and send them to their private hospitals. It is everywhere. Even those fighting corruption are corrupt.”

Nfor Hadison says things are not much better in Cameroon. “A minute of delaying to give out a bribe or ‘kompo’, could cause your sick relative to die in hospital, cause your child who is clever to fail exams, business to delay and more. Employment is not on merit and those who get admitted in school are not the best. At this level of corruption I wonder what to propose as solution for this epidemic?”

Ted Mapri, another Cameroonian, reports that corruption has become the main branch on which the government is sitting and any attempt to fight it will signal the end of the regime. “Many Cameroonians now consider bribery as the normal way of life,” he says.

Dauda of Nigeria provides an analogy of how corruption pervades everyday life. “The culture of corruption has eaten deep into the very foundation of the society in Africa generally and Nigeria in particular to such an extent that an average passenger in a commercial bus tries to cheat the conductor who collects the money, the conductor in turn tries to cheat the driver and the driver tries to cheat the owner of the bus. Before degenerating to this level however, it was limited to government officials.”

The reality though is that corruption makes people poorer as it unnecessarily increases the costs of doing business and living. It may be true that poverty encourages corruption, but poverty will not be eliminated while corruption remains widespread.

how corruption can be dealt with

“As the second most corrupt country, Nigeria is a classical case of what corruption can do to a nation,” suggests Thomas Ayeni of Lagos. “Nigeria’s corrupt state can be remedied if and only if the political and collective will is there. It is a sad indictment that a country so richly blessed in natural and human resources still has more than 70 percent of its populace surviving on less than a dollar a day. I support strongly the idea of naming and shaming corrupt officials; being a proud people Nigerians would be very wary the moment they know they could not only be caught but also named and shamed publicly for corrupt acts.”

“Corruption and population control are related,” says Chandru Narayan in the US. “If we want to fight corruption we have to reduce the number of children born in a society.”

Liberian Yahaya, E. Jalingo, says corruption in Africa is more than skin deep. “It will take a miracle to purge it from the continent. Today, no facet of African life is untouched by it and I can safely say that any African who portrays himself to be above board is a living lie.”

From Sierra Leone, Prince Kargbo, says: “If you think corruption is going to stop in Africa, think again. A police officer in Sierra Leone would tell his wife to place a pot of water on the cooking stove as he goes down to the traffic stop, and would surely come back with a bag of rice! So tell me, who will enforce the law, when the police are the very leaders in corruption?”

Augustine Foday of Sierra-Leone says new leadership is called for. “All our leaders are birds of the same flock. We pray that God will send a radical leader that has the interest of the ordinary man at heart to wipe it out completely.”

What Africa needs to start doing is to change the mentality of Africans and this can only be tackled through education and training within the home. “We need to focus on the younger generations,” suggests Nana Amoah of Ghana. “I suggest we start implementing courses about corruption and society in schools to educate people on the negative externalities corruption imposes on society and how we harm ourselves only by encouraging it. We need to train law enforcers who easily partake in corruption and most importantly we need to fight poverty.”

This article was first published in Business in Africa Magazine, April 2006. To subscribe click here



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