By Takudzwanashe Mundenga
One of the colossal challenges facing the post-colonial Africa is the scourge of political corruption and lack of accountability and transparency in public spending. Resources that are meant for public good like building schools, health centres and improving service delivery are diverted for personal gain by a few oligarchs.
Africa is indeed a theatre of political corruption and that can be attested the ongoing events unfolding in Zimbabwe as the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission is going after high-profile individuals on the country’s political terrain.
Political corruption, otherwise known as government corruption is the use of powers by government officials or their network of contacts for illegitimate private gain. Perhaps, the main reason why we always have a case of few millionaires presiding over millions of people living in extreme poverty in the contemporary African discourse. This then affirms the words of Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States who said, “You cannot get rich in politics unless you are a crook.”
Forms of such corruption include extortion, nepotism, cronyism, bribery, parochialism, embezzlement, graft, influence peddling and patronage. Africa is in the category of the world’s most corrupt place, a major drawback impeding development on the continent. According to Transparency International, out of 10 countries considered most corrupt in the world, 6 are in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The former president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo eloquently said, “Corruption is the greatest single bane of our society today.” The continent loses approximately US$50 billion annually due to massive illicit financial outflows mainly involving the government and multinational corporations as accomplices in tax evasion, hence decelerating development in countries where the crimes are committed.
According to a 2015 report by the African Union (AU) Panel on Illicit Financial Flows and the United Nations Economic Commission on Africa (UNECA), illegal financial flows have tripled since 2001 when US$20 billion was siphoned off and it became a trend since then.
Despite signing various editions of international protocols, African governments are lukewarm in the fight against corruption mainly because they are also culprits and they benefit more from it more than they lose. Public officials seek re-election using resources stolen from the state, and if they win, they gain or continue having access to state coffers as well as immunity from prosecution.
A prolonged stay in office guarantees a longer immunity. Furthermore, the prevalence of corruption has also tilted the political playfield. Politicians would defend power at all costs, through vote-buying and all sorts of electoral fraud. As the economist, Paul Collier observed “There are more reliable and less difficult ways of winning an election than trying to gain voter approval by being a good government.”
Underneath a veneer of a budding democracy, there is indeed inexplicable rot is bedevilling the African states. The Kenyan Anti-Corruption Commission led by John Githongo exposed the evidence surrounding a non-existent company called Anglo Leasing that had been awarded several huge government tenders.
The scandal that cost the country almost US$1 billion came to the cabinet table for discussion, however, the Attorney-General declined to prosecute the case. The United Kingdom offered to investigate Anglo Leasing itself, but the Attorney-General blocked its fraud office from pursuing the case.
In most cases in Africa, there are no institutions in place, barring an aspiring candidate from contesting for public office after having been found to be implicated in a major corruption scandal. A perfect case in point is that of a Zimbabwean politician, Elias Msakwa, who went on to win the Bikita West national assembly seat in 2018 under the ZANU PF ticket despite being “named and shamed” in the 2015 Panama Papers exposé, for having externalised US$9 million to Portugal.
He reportedly made a fortune through demanding kickbacks from South African companies supplying equipment for the Farm Mechanisation Scheme which he coordinated under the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.
However, there is a notable tendency of trivializing political corruption across the African governance landscape. You find a politician constructing a US$50 million private mansion in a cash-strapped economy when their only employer is the government. Yet even when their term of office expires, they are never brought before the court or commission of inquiry to explain how they acquired the funds.
Recently, regional and international media has been running headlines linked to the arrest of the Zimbabwean Tourism Minister, Prisca Mupfumira facing the law on 7 charges of corruption. While the minister has been denied bail and remanded in custody for 21 days as the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC) concludes its case, analysists on the case are skeptical on whether justice or impunity will prevail.
Under President Mnangagwa’s administration, the ZACC initiated arrests of high-profile individuals for criminal abuse of office but none of them was successfully convicted. Political corruption is treated with kid gloves rather than an aggressive stance due to a lot of interference between the executive and judiciary.
Likewise, in South Africa, when a prominent politician is fingered in abuse of office, there is always an excuse of blaming other factors while avoiding the main issue. Quite a number of government officials have gone off the hook by just saying they were being targeted and charges against them are politically motivated.
Worth mentioning is the scandal before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry on State Capture, involving the former president, Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family; raising a litany of corruption allegations against the former president. The details of the case against Zuma range from his lavish spending of state funds to the delegation of contracts to businesses with familial connections or close ties.
It should not be surprising that Jacob Zuma is answering to allegations of enormous corruption today, because he has always been friends with controversy even before he became president. In 2008, he appeared before the courts on charges of corruption, rape, fraud, money laundering, racketeering and tax evasion, but the case was dismissed by the judge on a legal technicality. Even though the National Prosecuting Agency (NPA) vowed to appeal the ruling, the case was never reopened.
As Rita Kufandarerwa wrote, “Corruption can no longer be viewed as the victimless crime” because it is a crime against livelihoods and the dignity of humanity. Naming and shaming or sending the culprit to prison might not be a fair reprimand for political corruption.
There must be more, like repaying the stolen funds. One of the key reasons why corruption is so rampant despise efforts being made is that it is associated with low risk and high gain.
Culprits would not care about being named and shamed or being sent to prison as long as they are not ordered to return the full amount of the loot. No prison term equates to the millions of dollars meant to save lives and service livelihoods but ended up in the wrong hands.
Combating political corruption is a great way of eradicating extreme poverty. Conflict and unrest in some parts of the Africa are a direct outcome of endemic political corruption.
For example, the insurgency in Niger Delta is fueled by claims that government officials are syphoning proceeds from oil extraction in the region to the detriment of the communities supposed to benefit. In that case, conflict can be abated by ensuring tangible benefits for the communities affected.
Accountability and transparency including severe punishment of those found on the wrong side of the law may help address corruption. However, most African governments are committed to fighting the outcome rather than the root cause. Rebels and terrorists least exist where there is zero corruption.
Conclusively, the trine arms of government that are the executive, legislature and judiciary must not be abused to protect corruption and the corrupt, but should stand in separation yet complementing each other in fighting rot. Therefore, judicial independence must be guaranteed without political interference or influence.
Takudzwanashe Mundenga is a Zimbabwean opinion writer interested in the African political economy. He writes in his own capacity. For comments and feedback, please feel free to reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org