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Going to war over a tender is 'business'
Malcolm Ray
Published: 28-MAR-06

“That’s business,” a colleague once told me, responding to questionmarks hanging over the death of slain South African mining magnate, Brett Kebble, last year.

"In Africa people go to war over a tender," a prominent Ugandan businessman told me earlier this year.

The popular refrain? "It’s a rotten business" – business, that is. And so we must ask the question: Is the problem the game, the rules of the game or the people who make corruption such an endemic feature of business culture in Africa? Or are corrupt practices and business natural bedfellows of the profit motive?

Answering this vexing question is the subject matter of this month’s special report. It would be remiss of us to attribute corruption to Africa, or developing countries generally for that matter. It’s a global phenomenon, according to the findings of the latest survey by the Berlin-based organisation, Transparency International, which defines corruption as an abuse of public office for private gain.

Of course this is a simple definition that hardly fits the evolution of corrupt practices in modern capitalist society. And where tradition (as is the case of many African countries) and modernisation collide, the definition gets very sticky.

Be that as it may, the reality of Transparency International’s composite corruption index, which draws on 16 surveys from 10 independent researchers who gathered the opinions of businesspeople and country analysts, is that African countries have a particularly poor rating.

The glib conclusion is that the lowest scoring countries on the index are also among the poorest. "Corruption," says Transparency International chairman Peter Eigen, "is a major cause of poverty as well as a barrier to overcoming it. The two form a vicious circle."

Yet lost on this analysis is the cold fact that the corruptors have often been foreign big business which has "fed the demand for corruption with a steady flow of bribe money".

"It’s deep pockets and who you know in African countries," a Polish businessman once intimated in an intriguing conversation with me on the subject.

Which raises the question as to why African public officials and state bureaucrats are so easily seduced into bending the rules that govern state regulations and national development plans?

"If bureaucrats decide that they can earn more income from providing services to groups of people seeking state favours than from their regular public jobs they may pay more attention to the demands of such interest groups than the proper enforcement of state laws," says Cameroonian, John Mukum Mbaku, professor of economics at Weber State University in Utah, US.

Indeed it’s not rocket science that the very thought of corrupt behaviour is driven by money and greed. In fact the rules of the game in most African countries are intact; the temptation to bend the rules of doing business is wobbly.

And far from the perception that poverty, by definition, is the root cause, it is invariably employed public officials, who wield the levers of power, who are corrupt.

Sure, a homeless person in say, South Africa, may be tempted to sell his shirt to bribe a housing official in order to "jump the queue". But that’s not business; that’s nickel and dime stuff. The poison, as writer John Etkind, points out in this month’s special report, "spreads from the top".

"Corruption starts at the top and inexorably knocks on the population at large. It becomes a matter of survival for those at the bottom of the chain: join or perish."

And that’s where the search for a solution must start – the top of the rot.

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

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