The Myth and Reality of African Corruption


Moses Ochonu 

Corruption has acquired the status of a continental emergency. But this is not another write-up on corruption. It is a polemical disavowal and complication of a few popular stereotypes and fallacies on corruption in Africa.

One of the most insightful attempts to explain the cultural basis of political corruption in Africa contends that patronage ties between regular Africans and the political elite place informal obligations and demands on the latter, obligations which often can only be fulfilled through corrupt enrichment. Corruption in this explanation has many participants besides the politician or bureaucrat who actually engages in the act.

This explanation captures some of the reality of corruption in Africa. The typical African politician does not only grapple with financial pressure from family but also from kin, clan, hometown, and ethnic entities. Indeed, the network of people that makes corrupt acts possible and sometimes undetectable includes not just ethically barren legal and financial professionals but also family members, friends, and traditional institutions of restraint. In Africa, corruption is indeed a group thing.

One can argue all one wants on how this is a product of the nexus of centrist power, access to resources, and ethnic competition (all features of most African countries), but this hardly accounts for the often multi-ethnic cast of actors in most corruption scandals in African countries. Or for the fact that in much of Africa, corruption is the reason why overly centrist, patrimonial, and illogical states endure and not the other way round. The tragedy of many African countries— Nigeria stands out here—is that corruption is the recurring basis for political compromise and consensus among self-interested, bitterly divided political elites.

It is very easy to over-make the argument about how the nature of the states inherited from colonial times sustains corruption in Africa. Such an overstatement often elides more socially-embedded, low-level, and less obvious platforms that support and legitimize corrupt acts—or at least make them seem normative. The normalization of corruption is one of the biggest obstacles in the way entrenching transparency in government bureaucracies in Africa . 

Nothing encapsulates this reality more than the pervasive Nigerian fad of traditional chieftaincy institutions dolling out titles to sons and daughters whose source of wealth is questionable at best and corrupt at worst. What does one make of universities that routinely give out honorary degrees to corrupt donors? Or churches and mosques that project demonstrably corrupt members as models of accomplishment and Godly favor.

What these practices do is to invest many Africans indirectly in the edifice of corruption. They are subtle and invidious, but they work to co-opt many Africans, even without their self-conscious consent, into the cultural and religious contexts in which corrupt acts and corrupt persons find rehabilitation and validation.

The result is that many Africans, even while expressing outrage against corruption privately, are publicly indifferent to its manifestation. Or they feel too culturally compromised to take a stand. This kind of complicity and culpability makes official policy against corruption difficult because it removes the public pressure necessary for official action against corruption.

This complex reality has sometimes been caricatured as mass African complicity in corruption, a kind of racial indictment on Africans, who are supposedly genetically and culturally predisposed to corruption as a matter of course. The more elegant variant of this thinking argues that corruption may be endemic in Africa but that this is because what Westerners call corruption is a historical, ever-present culture of patron-client relationships that are now lubricated, quite understandably, by postcolonial state resources. Some people go so far as to insinuate that Africans do not see corruption as corruption but a proud, if atavistic, return to an African culture of the big man and his responsibilities.

One cannot deny that there is some cultural continuity between the African past and present, but much of the argument about Africans’ non-recognition of corruption is cultural and racial relativism taken too far. Some of it borders dangerously on intellectualized racism. Africans are more cognizant of corruption and its devastating impacts than other peoples precisely because corruption represents a perversion of familiar African practices of political patronage. It is precisely because this perversion is recent, and not historical, that Africans consistently express outrage, even if largely impotent, about corruption.

What is more, this understanding of corruption in Africa is a recipe for inaction and must, for all practical policy reasons, give way to a more instrumental explanation. There is also a very Nigerian spin on this explanation that must be discarded. It is very common to hear Nigerians argue that no Nigerian is free of the stigma or aura of corruption. It is argued that every Nigeria knows, is related to, or has benefited from someone who is corrupt. The argument is that it is impossible to secure oneself from the guilt of corruption when one functions in a corrupt system with gradations and varieties of corrupt practices.

First, it is not the low-level, quotidian acts of corruption—as bad as they are—that are responsible for the egregious impacts of corruption in Africa.  Second, one is not guilty simply by having the (mis)fortune of being thrust into corrupt institutions by circumstances or the imperatives of survival. If that were the case, all residents of the United States would be vicariously guilty of plantation slavery and the atrocities committed against the Native Americans. Third, humans are not unconscious automatons who must yield to the push and pull of the institutional and societal regimes in which they operate. They are able to maneuver in the crevices of even the most tainted of systems, and to project their ethical and moral convictions through the most impervious institutions of corruption.

The mass guilt implied by this discourse of moral imprisonment to society’s vices ostensibly disqualifies every potential critic of corruption from speaking or acting against the scourge. This rhetoric is more brazen in its attempt to disarm the African critic of corruption. What is truly disturbing about it, however, is its reliance on the same philosophy of a shared, ubiquitous, and generic culture of corruption in Africa. Lost in this kind of argument is the individual African’s agency and moral and ethical leanings.

The Africanization of corruption proceeds from this mindset, but it is especially troubling to see Africans participating in this particularization of a universal phenomenon.

The last two understandings of corruption in Africa that deserve explication have to do with the consequence and impacts of corruption rather than its incidence. In a refreshing departure from the pretentious idealism that tend to inform much of African discussions on corruption and its effects, one Nigerian cyber commentator contended that we should perhaps make peace with the inevitability of some political corruption in Africa. He stated that he has. His argument is that what the proceeds of corruption is used for, and the destination of corruptly acquired funds, should matter more than the elusive quest to stop corruption. His pragmatic position is that all political corruptions are not created equal; accordingly he is willing to tolerate and overlook the corruption of a politician who invests his/her money productively in Africa instead of stashing it away in Western bank vaults.

This thinking is unpretentiously pragmatic in its coming to terms with the magnitude of Africa’s problem of corruption and the difficulty of fighting it. However, it rests on an ethically false dichotomy between productive and destructive corruption. It also surrenders the moral and ethical certainty and consistency necessary for fighting corruption and entrenching transparency. Apart from walking a minefield of meaningless distinctions and moral relativism, this thinking assumes that corrupt African politicians—crafty as they are—would not simply buy immunity and impunity with token investments of their loot in Africa if an anti-corruption policy were to be constructed around such a pragmatic approach to the problem.

Finally, with the number of headlines that the corruption problem in Africa routinely grabs, especially in the West, one might be tempted to think that Africans are corrupt by nature, or that they are more corrupt than other peoples. Many Westerners and some Africans actually believe this to be true, partly because every discussion of Africa’s economic and political predicaments devolves lazily into a discussion of corruption. It is false. Per capita (the volume of corruption vis-à-vis population), Africans are much less corrupt than other peoples.

The problem is not “African corruption” per se, or that Africans are stealing from their government treasuries or corporate entities than other peoples. Africa, after all, did not produce Enron and WorldCom. The problem is that the moral consequences of corruption are greater in Africa than they are in the West. In the West, the impact of government and corporate corruption, of which there is a lot, is absorbed by the sheer size of Western economies. The shock of corruption is therefore hardly felt beyond the media frenzy that characterizes the prosecution of culprits and the lamentations of individuals who lose savings and investments to corporate scandals. Such corruption hardly ever translates to infrastructural problems for society as a whole, much less cause the breakdown of political institutions. Despite widespread incidents of corporate and public corruption in the United States, for instance, public utilities like electricity, water, and telecommunications, and social infrastructures such as roads, hospitals, and schools are hardly ever disrupted.

In Africa, on the other hand, corruption kills, literally. The embezzlement, mismanagement, or misapplication of public funds often leads to a cessation of certain social services, or the non-completion of a road, school, or hospital project. The deterioration and scarcity of infrastructure and social services have worsened in direct proportion to the corruption problem. The loss of public funds to corruption translates inevitably to a lack of medicine in a rural hospital; a lack of access to education for millions of African children; a lack of potable drinking water and electricity for millions of Africans; and a lack of good transportation infrastructure. All these can, and do, lead to millions of preventable deaths yearly.

This greater moral consequence of corruption in Africa is not because “African corruption” is greater than “Western corruption”; after all, Western societies function as well as they do in spite of the prevalence, not because of the absence, of corruption. The devastating consequences of corruption in Africa occur because the small size of African economies magnifies the impacts of such grand larceny. African economies are so small that, to use a popular expressive cliché, every little corruption shows.

This perspective should mitigate some of the hysterical Western pontifications on “African corruption.”  It should also demonstrate two things. One is that corruption is a feature of every society. It can never be completely eliminated. The second point is that, because of the foregoing, African leaders and policy makers should, in addition to fighting corruption through judicial, legislative and law enforcement instruments, do things that would insulate their societies and people from its more egregious consequences and effects. They could start by redistributing wealth more evenly and growing the economy to make it more prosperous and inclusive. This way, corruption would no longer affect the lives and wellbeing of their people or cause the disruption or cessation of social services and infrastructure.