Mobile Search

Corruption in Africa more widespread than acknowledged
Charles Onyango Obbo
Posted: 2 years 12 months

"Eating” is becoming too complicated. In the latest sign of this, the Daily Nation told us that American tyre company Goodyear has been fined $16 million by US regulators over allegations that its subsidiaries paid bribes to secure business in Kenya and Angola.

A few weeks ago, directors of British firm Smith & Ouzman were convicted, and the company fined, for doling out bribes — or “chicken”, as they euphemistically called it — to top officials of Kenya's Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC).

Again, recently, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) put out a report based on leaked documents from British bank HSBC. It revealed the big fish in the world that had stashed away money in secret accounts.

While some Africans on the list are bona fide business people, there were also several crooks on the list that, obviously, stole their money.

While it is always good to see thieves being caught, these cases are bringing unexpected headaches.

To begin with, it is getting embarrassing that Americans and Europeans are beginning to expose and punish their companies that undertake corrupt deals with Africa, but we ourselves are doing nothing.

In fact, the same corrupt people are often protected, and even promoted by our presidents. And, invariably, their ethnic communities rally around them, denouncing their exposure abroad as an “imperialist conspiracy”.

In the past, we used to argue that corruption at home could not be tackled, until the corrupters in the West and Asia were dealt with, too. I wonder what we shall say now that our bluff has been called.

Troop strength

However, the possibly bigger value of these developments, is that they are offering us much better understanding of how bribery networks function, and why it can be very difficult to defeat them.

There is this enduring image that the people who “eat” fat bribes are the big men and women at the top; presidents, prime ministers, their relatives, generals, ministers, senior state bureaucrats, top managers, and so on.

These African corruption cases breaking bad abroad are indicating that the thieving is more democratic than we had thought. A lot of the smaller people who merely move paper are also getting a cut, meaning that the number of folks who are vested in corruption are more than we ordinarily imagine.

Because the good people have always undermined the troop strength of the bad folks, they have constantly been surprised in the battlefield and defeated.

The other thing is we now clearly need to have a more nuanced understanding of what the vantage position is.

In Uganda they talk of the “wet” ministries where there is a lot of money (Defence, Health and Finance) and “dry” ones where the taps don’t flow (Labour, Gender and Community Development, Information, and so on).

Digital economy

However, it is emerging now that it is not important where you sit; i.e. a desk at the Treasury, but where you stand — like in the corridor where the critical paperwork moves.

It seems that the most important thing if you want to eat a chicken wing is to be a doorman — in the very broadest sense of the word.

The man (or woman) who opens doors for people who want to do business with government and companies to walk in and out; the chap who opens doors to contracts; the guy who opens the room where the cheques are kept; the woman who has access to the strongman — or computer — where the details of the tenders are kept; the chap who opens the door to the chairman’s hotel room when he visits abroad and is receiving bribe-giving delegations.

Finally — and this one really depressed me — we are beginning to better understand how the so-called “elite consensus”, that minimum agreement among the political, bureaucratic, and business groups that enables our countries to hold together, works.

We owe it, to borrow a concept from the digital economy, to the “long tail” of corruption. Because corruption distributes the spoils far beyond the chiefs, as we have just seen, even people who are not in the government of the day or don’t support it, are able to get a piece because its tail is very long.

So, faced with burning down the country and ending up with absolutely nothing, or keeping it together and getting their 0.1 per cent of the loot, many in the elite usually choose to have the 0.1 per cent.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa ( Twitter: @cobbo3