Corruption in Africa is no different to corruption anywhere else on the planet, according to a new book by the former chair of graft watchdog Transparency International.
The image of Africa as a continent beset by corruption has dominated the popular imagination for decades, reinforced by its consistently dismal performance in anti-corruption league tables.
From routine demands for bribes by policemen to grand scale looting of state funds by its rulers, corruption has been blamed for stunting Africa’s growth, keeping millions in poverty and scaring off investors.
But now may be the time for international investors especially to reconsider their perceptions.
In “Global Corruption: Money, Power and Ethics in the Modern World,” Laurence Cockcroft argues that the main drivers of corruption, including the informal economy, political funding, the role of multinationals and organised crime, are common to many countries and graft is not intrinsic to Africa.
“The pattern of corruption which occurs in Africa is remarkably similar to that elsewhere,” Cockcroft told Reuters. “This is an international phenomenon and it’s certainly not a uniquely African issue.”
Cockcroft does not deny that corruption is a huge problem in Africa.
While average GDP growth of around 5 percent over the last decade has led to higher urban living standards, life for poor, rural dwellers in the bulk of sub-Saharan Africa has not improved because governments cannot deliver basic services, he said.
The book has no shortage of examples of African kleptocracy, from Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire — now Democratic Republic of the Congo — to Nigeria, where oil wealth has brought prosperity to only a few.
Still, Cockcroft finds equally egregious examples in other parts of the world, and of the “mega corruption scandals” over the last 25 years, not one has been in Africa.
He cites former Indonesian president Suharto, whose family amassed a fortune of at least $15 billion; the presidency of Alberto Fujimori in Peru in the 1990s, where corruption is believed to have halved the revenue due to the government; and India, where a 2008 telecoms licensing scandal cost the government an estimated $30 billion in lost revenue.
More recently, he points to Russia, where protests since December against President Vladimir Putin’s 12-year rule have focused on corruption, and the downfall of former politician Bo Xilai in China after his wife murdered a British businessman.
“We can safely say that these dramas in relation to corruption which are happening outside Africa are at least the equal and in many cases on a grander scale than what happens in Africa itself,” Cockcroft said.
He reckons Africa has been unfairly singled out when it comes to corruption in part because of the legacy view of the late colonial period.
“People have taken a very gloomy view of what’s happened in Africa since independence, sometimes with justification and sometimes not,” he said. “Some of that is built into this assumption that if you talk about corruption you’re talking about Africa.”
It is true that many African countries languish in the lower half of most anti-corruption indices, although in Transparency’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index, the bottom 10 has only two African states — Somalia and Sudan.
The annual index ranks countries from 0, highly corrupt, to 10, — very clean). Most African nations score below 4.
The most urgent priority for African governments, Cockcroft argues, is to reduce the size of the shadow economy, estimated to be as much as 60 percent of GDP in Tanzania. He describes it as “a huge reservoir for bribes” and payments that are completely untraceable.
“It doesn’t matter what the legislation is,” he said. “As long as you have a huge informal sector, people can still buy off officials in city hall.”
There are no clear cut success stories in the fight against corruption in Africa, he notes, as former opposition leaders who come to power on anti-corruption tickets are often derailed by the desire to remain in power.
But he adds that one leader who could buck the trend is Zambia’s president Michael Sata, whose government has reversed a number of privatisation deals initiated under the previous regime.
Cockcroft says Zambia and Ghana, which also seems serious about tackling graft, will be the countries to watch.