As Corrupt as They Come: Is Africa Sinking or Swimming in Corruption?

By Bright B. Simons,

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Bright Simons

Outside his native Kenya, John Githongo was virtually unknown until an inquiry he had been leading into $1 billion graft case since 2004 descended into the pits and gutters of political nastiness and he felt himself "unable to continue his work with the Government."

His resignation from the loftily titled post of "secretary of ethics and governance" in February 2005 sparked off a string of crises ranging from the political to the diplomatic. Motions were tabled in the British House of Commons, his former colleagues in Transparency International voiced passionate protests and civil society groups across Southern Africa and beyond went berserk, calling for an immediate "inquiry" into what was fast assuming the character of that oft-heard but consistently titillating refrain of public life — a "scandal."

Since then the matter has escalated from being merely a crisis of some "concern" into a full-scale pandemonium of geopolitical proportions with Western donors, primarily Britain, withholding aid and the resignation of at least three high ranking cabinet ministers. And from the news coming out of Kenya — not least what appears to be a step-up in Government intimidation of the independent press- recently, it is easy to suppose that all this is just the beginning.

Events of this nature inevitably shifts into focus the much lamented issue of "African corruption" and provide the perfect setting for drawing wide-ranging portraits of a continent choking on its own moral filth. Commentators line up to offer well-polished gems of wisdom in exchange for their 30 precious seconds on the Networks, who then proceeds to string enough of these profound snippets of "truth" into a metaphorical necklace to adorn their mantelshelf image of the continent.

Far be it from me to downplay the significance of the Githongo affair. Since his exile to Britain, I have had the opportunity to hear John Githongo speak about the chain of events that forced someone of his intelligence and fortitude to give up a campaign to which he has dedicated most of his adult life and desert a country he so manifestly loves and cherishes.

Githongo, now a Fellow at Oxford’s St. Anthony’s College, struck me as a wholly balanced and steady-minded sort of chap — definitely not the type who will exaggerate simply to make a point. I am prepared thus to accept that his testimony is unqualifiedly true; that there are persons in high places in Kenya who have conspired to defraud the country of tens of millions of dollars, while millions of their own countrymen languish in execrable misery — some of these in the slums of Kibera, but a few hundreds of meters from their palatial ministerial residences; and that, indeed, whole projects — such as the now notorious scheme to revamp passport security — for which millions of hard-earned pounds had been committed, were designed to exist permanently in the imagination of certain politicians.

These are heartbreaking facts. To that I readily concur. But they are not the only elements in the narrative. They do not account for the whole picture.

I would like to begin by drawing attention to a way of looking at the economic lives of societies first popularized as far back as the 1920s by a University of Wisconsin economist called J.R. Commons. Commons had by route of typical academic detour arrived at the insight that the "exchanges" we observe to lie at the root of social intercourse must be seen as fundamental units called "transactions" which proceed through various sorts of "markets" of which the common "commercial" market is but one instance.

Therefore systems of taxation, judicial processes, indeed government, when seen through its manifestations of bureaucracy, as a whole can be deemed as a "social market" in which transactions take place between, among and via any number of parties all of whom may have different stakes involved. My intention is not to accurately paraphrase Commons — that will require volumes. What I am striving to express is that the basic processes that drive what we typically refer to as "economic systems" are the same which drive society as a whole. But before I am accused of faux-Marxism, let me explain myself further.

It is often taken for granted that markets differ from other institutions because the principal agents are involved solely to maximize "profits." But is this what we actually see when we go out to look? I will venture that agents — individuals, firms, vested interests, whatever- in actual fact only seek to maintain "perpetuity." Everyone wishes to sustain a certain level of existence that is commensurate to their expectations. If one can actually manage to do so in the absence of profits so be it! If a business could maintain itself without the need to constantly satisfy the whims of shareholders at every turn, it would do so. It is not "profits", critically speaking, that drives and motivates the essence of markets. It is the desire to "perpetuate," whether by self-defense, self-preservation or downright aggression.

Profits are convenient devices because, as "rational forces" behind myriads of actions or as less confused proxies for "utility," they have become conventional labels to which much is credited at minimal expense.

Considering then, by means of the above argument, that the driving force of economics is self-perpetuation, which is thus the basic unit of analysis of markets of varying types, we can then move on to make the case that Government institutions, by dint of that same desire for self-perpetuation, are indeed, as suspected, social markets.

But what is the connection to "corruption"? It is as follows. As communities evolve along different paths towards various moments of identity, there is communication within markets as well as between them. If we choose to describe periods of heightened tension among markets as "transitions," we approach an elegant clarity that can describe some of the most fascinating national phenomena in contemporary international politics.

Take China for instance. Its ranking of 77 (out of 158 countries) on the 2005 Corruption Perception Index (compiled by Transparency International) goes to show why notwithstanding the disclaimer that the index reflects "perception," which may not always entirely accord with reality, it is often necessary to use the information on it with some caution. For inside China itself (the CPI relies predominantly on the views of external observers — prospective investors for instance) social agitation against corruption ranks number one on the priorities of both ordinary citizens and government figures.

And yet China is tipped to become the World’s leading economic power by the middle of this century. If the fashionable conflation of poverty with corruption, retrogressive development with graft, and economic stagnation with institutional unaccountability, was anywhere near the truth, neither China nor India, nor indeed Vietnam, will have attained the statuses they currently enjoy as pre-eminent members of the rapidly industrializing club of nations. Seeing that from widespread evidence they share the same lamentable features of rampant public corruption as many African nations.

What they also share with sub-Saharan African nations is "transitionism" in their economic lives. In all these three fast developing economies is to be observed a high state of antagonism between the social markets of state — citizen intercourse and the civil-societal markets of (legal equal) citizen — citizen exchange.

So why then has the perception, not wholly inaccurate, developed that African corruption is of a particularly pernicious sort? Especially that it is grafted onto underdevelopment? I reckon it is due to the specific nature of the "transition states" of sub-Saharan economies. Granted, my point is to argue that corruption is an integral and highly visible feature of ALL "transition economies", but what I have omitted till now is that "transitionism" takes on peculiar features as it endures.

The transition state of the Sub-African continent was engendered by a precise political history and social geography and has been nurtured in ways that threaten to harden it into one of "permanent transitionism."

Thus we are observing the ascent of an actual "culture of corruption" that can transcend the role of graft in transition economies as corrective mechanisms to offset fallouts from inter-market rivalry, and develop into an all-pervasive, self-legitimating, structural deficiency. What I mean is that there is the risk that corruption can on its own become another market — an alternative economy as it were — that will hinder the equilibrium which economies at a certain stage of maturity acquire amongst their different markets. Fortunately, that is precisely what has not happened in Asia.

All across the emerging economies of Asia, transitions between different configurations of inter-market communication are providing a massive boost to creativity and ingenuity mitigating, almost completely, the real and present effects of considerable corruption. Many of these trends may well be attributable to entrepreneurship, a process much aided by the liberalization of internal trade, commerce and industry, and the de-regularisation of the price and wage mechanisms. Long words that simply mean: less red tape.

Will the same happen in Africa? Will the continent break out of the prolonged wavering between systems of economic self-reliance defined almost entirely by a post-colonial experience seeped in a perpetual quest for economic identity? Or will the identity quest become chronic?

That is another story, but only time will tell.

Bright Simons, is IMANI’s Director of Development. His email is This syndicated article by first appeared in OMNI on 2006/03/05