Some time ago I was a keynote speaker at an international conference jointly hosted by two leading policy think tanks on the African continent: ECA and CODESRIA. The former was set up by the UN for Africa while the latter was set up by Africans for Africans. The ECA remains a global institution focused on Africa but its control by Africans or its policy prescriptions being sympathetic to Africa’s interests cannot always be taken for granted. It is dependent on the quality of the people who are controlling it, their ideological and political preferences and the hegemonic battles and politicking in UN/global institutions. There were times when the ECA was hostage to World Bank/IMF neo-liberalism, but it was also the place where Africa’s alternative to SAP was given global clout both intellectually and policy wise. As for CODESRIA, its radical credentials in spite of some obscurantic years of experimenting with post modernism, deconstruction and other made-in-the-USA academic discourse, has been generally consistent. It has been revolutionised, re-legitimised and regained its eminent voice as a centre of African intellectuals of relevance (reminiscent of its founding leadership) under Professor Adebayo Olukoshi’s meritorious leadership that has now come to an end.
The conference was on Corruption in Africa and it was organised as part of the 50th anniversary of the ECA. Addressing such contemporary and controversial issues may be proof that the ECA is regaining its voice too, not shying away from topics because of the sensitivity of governments; the famous ‘member states’ that make many UN institutions and UN officials impotent.
As to be expected there were all kinds of experts there from academia, UN agencies, governments, civil society, etc. There were many theories and prescriptions on offer and the proceedings may be useful for future references and maybe even more for policy initiatives.
However, I am more than ever convinced that the battle against corruption cannot be won in conference halls or through the creation of more anti-corruption bodies and even more laws. There are enough laws in the statutes of many countries that if implemented, would send many leaders, politicians, their families and cronies, business people, members of other professions, legislators, councillors, CSO/ NGO/ INGO leaders, police bosses, security officers, nurses, judges, imams, priests, bishops, student leaders, college principals, civil servants, journalists and many more to jail.
My recent trip across Nigeria may have unduly influenced this piece. However while Nigeria may present the extremes of many absurdities about corruption, the truth is that in every country I visit, I see and hear about similar things involving all classes. It may just be a question of volume, but corruption permeates our private and public life. While attention is often rightly focused on the public sector, not enough is placed on the private, personal or even communal level of the problem. Wherever you look corruption stares one in the face without blinking and the tolerance level for it is so high that wittingly or unwittingly we have all become either active promoters and beneficiaries or complacent/cooperative victims.
Of course there is nothing particularly cultural or African about corruption. But we should not take cover under such blandishments. Corruption is destroying Africa more than any other region and it has a greater impact on our lives than it does in most other places. From drinking water to the dangerous ‘licensed’ aircrafts defying gravity that fly across our airspace, through hospitals and death traps on our roads, corruption is more omnipresent than God. Even in our temples, churches and mosques corruption reigns. We reserve high tables at religious, cultural, social, political and other public events for thieves and rogues who continue to rob us and wipe our noses in them. We elect them and complain afterwards.
It is not possible to root out corruption without everyone of us willing to do our part. You may not be able to do something about it but you can decide not to be part of it by refusing to give or take, by refusing to respect or honour those who do, by showing your zero tolerance of it no matter how ‘small’, whether it is what the police call ‘chai’ in East Africa or ‘handshake’ in West Africa, or the big ones in government contracts and other public procurements. As long as we are willing to partake in it or not mind being its beneficiaries through our kiths and kin, then corruption will remain endemic.
It is about time we borrow from other parts of the world like China, Thailand, Singapore or Malaysia where corruption is treated with the highest contempt and sternest sanctions including capital punishment. It does not mean that these countries are inhabited by angels but the fact that the severe sanctions are often applied has proven to be a deterrent in many ways. Not all thieves would be caught but those caught must not be allowed to go with impunity. It is the regime of impunity in many African countries that has created institutionalised corruption.
It is not enough to continue to blame the system without looking at the human agency. Gone are the days when we glibly dismiss corruption as ‘primitive accumulation of capital’. We have to accept that after several decades of primitivity, this class of exploiters are not capable of growing out of it or transforming their loot into anything but more looting.
Indeed we should regard public officials and their private sector collaborators as mass murderers, killing millions of our peoples through inadequate public services compromised by corruption. Monies meant for drugs, roads, hospitals, schools, public security, etc. are siphoned away making all of us vulnerable to premature death and our societies more unsafe and insecure for the masses.
“Forward ever, backward never”…..Kwame Nkrumah (1909 – 1972)