via email November 2, 2013 at by Prof Ambrose B. Chimbganda firstname.lastname@example.org
In this article, I would like to look at corruption, particularly the different forms of corruption, its harmful effects and the conditions that give rise to its existence. It is important to examine this immoral behaviour because in our modern era it pervades the political, economic and social life of every nation, and without exception its corrosive effects hamper economic development and good governance. Therefore, our understanding of corruption is the first step in fighting it.
Meaning of Corruption
A common view of corruption is that it is an abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It is wrong doing on the part of an authority through means that are illegitimate, immoral or incompatible with ethical standards; and it hurts everyone who depends on the integrity of people in positions of authority.
Corruption is also synonymous with perversion, depravation, debasement, debauchery and ruin. From its original Latin meaning of corrumpere (to destroy) or rumpere (to break) we can see that corruption leads to the destruction of moral values that hold a society together. In other words, it brings about the decay and decomposition of the virtues and moral principles of a society resulting in the lack of faith and trust in both public and private institutions.
One of the greatest threats to good governance, especially in many dictatorships and nascent democracies, is political corruption which involves the use of power by politicians and government officials for illegitimate purposes. This takes place at the highest level of the political system, when politicians and state agents use their authority to sustain their power and to accumulate wealth.
In some cases the rulers exempt themselves from enforcing the laws which they themselves have made. Quite often the political elite abuse the laws of the country by either side-stepping or ignoring them, and in some cases the rulers tailor the constitution to protect their own interests.
A common form of political corruption is financial contributions for electioneering by wealthy citizens, multi-national companies or “friendly” countries. Here, even if the contributions may be legal and do not constitute a quid pro quo, they tend to destroy the confidence of the people because ordinary citizens see their leaders as unscrupulous people who are prepared to mortgage their country in order to remain in power.
For example, in some developed countries quite often wealthy tycoons sponsor particular presidential candidates in order to protect their business interests. And in some African countries the incumbent ruling party uses state resources, such as money from the treasury, the civil service, police, army, and government vehicles to run its election campaign. It is also common that former colonial powers or multinational companies assist some preferred leaders financially or militarily or both so that they can get into or remain in power. This is done in the hope that the sponsors will be given preferential treatment to exploit the natural resources of the country.
In recent times, political corruption has manifested itself in the form of electoral fraud. It has become so rampant that nearly every election held the world over is tainted with vote-rigging in the form of excluding some eligible voters from voting, manipulating the voter’s register or the counting system. With the availability of computer technology which can be used to manipulate data, it is possible to either increase or decrease the votes for the rival candidates so as to predetermine the outcome of the election results.
Similarly, digital technology has now made it possible for a new type of political corruption -that of information hacking in which computer information, e-mails, telephone or mobile phone conversations are secretly obtained from someone who is perceived to be a political enemy or a friend who cannot be fully trusted. The recent mobile phone tapping of the German Chancellor, the French and Brazilian Presidents by the USA is a typical example of how illegal information gathering occurs on a grand scale.
In countries where there are despotic regimes, the bugging of ordinary citizens’ conversations, political opponents and other people who are considered to be a ‘security risk’ is omnipresent. Ordinary people are always looking over the shoulder to see who is eaves-dropping. The result is that there is unbridled fear of the ‘Big Brother’ who is constantly watching you. This alienates the intelligentsia such as judges, lawyers, teachers, students, trade unionists, journalists, parliamentarians, business people and others who find it difficult to perform their duties freely.
To illustrate what I am saying, I want you to ask yourself these basic questions: “Do I suspect that my mobile calls have been secretly listened to by authorities”? “Do I feel that my computer information may have been pried into”? “Am I sure that no one is surreptitiously monitoring my private affairs”? If you suspect that your activities may have been clandestinely observed, then you probably understand the danger to which many people are exposed as a result of their living in societies where human rights are constantly violated by those in power who fear their own people.
An even more serious form of political corruption is ‘patronage’, which refers to favouring political supporters as opposed to the inclusion of members of the opposition. Where this occurs, the ruling party appoints top officials to its administration, such as permanent and deputy secretaries, mayors, judges, university vice chancellors, directors and so on from its own supporters. Quite often, the officials are selected not on merit but for their loyalty and as a way of rewarding them for supporting the regime.
Patronage may also come about in different forms, such as appointing people to influential positions from a particular group of people, class, tribe or gender. For example, in many Arab countries it depends on whether you are a Sunni or Shiite and generally women are excluded from holding public office. In Europe and North America it depends on the class to which you belong, such as the bourgeois, middle or working class. And in many African, Asian and South American countries where parliamentary democracy is relatively young, patronage takes the form of favouring the tribe, race or caste from which the ruling party draws its support base. The end result of this form of corruption is that the government is blotted with officials who are not necessarily competent but are officials whose trump card is their tribal or social grouping rather than their ability.
Political corruption can also take the form of ‘nepotism’, which is the favouring of relatives for certain positions in government or for awarding big tenders. I want you to do a simple audit of the number of people that you know who occupy senior positions because they are related to someone high up in the government. Also think about the tenders that are awarded to people who are well connected.
Some people maintain that there is nothing wrong in appointing a relative to an influential position because a leader needs to surround oneself with people he/she can trust. But the question is: would the appointees have got the positions without using their blood connections? In some extreme cases, the entire country is inherited like a private farm as is the case in North Korea, Syria and some other countries where a ruling dynasty monopolizes power.
A more subtle form of political corruption is ‘cronyism’ which involves the appointment of friends to influential positions. The officials are selected from a closed and exclusive social network, such as “home boys/girls” or the alumni of particular institutions. Here, the leader, minister, army commander, governor, commissioner or director surrounds him/herself with friends or relatives who are appointed because of their close proximity instead of their competency.
The effect of cronyism is, of course, quite obvious: the appointees are only answerable to their boss. Because they operate as proxies they are neither strategic thinkers, who can make independent decisions nor are they capable of dealing with the day-to-day problems that affect the organization. In many countries, a combination of nepotism and cronyism has led to the mal-functioning or collapse of vital organizations such as national railways, airlines, town councils, inner city transport, ports, oil refineries, state farms, state-controlled mining corporations, state abattoirs and others because they are headed by cronies. And who suffers? It is ordinary citizens who subsidize the inefficient public institutions through paying heavy taxes to keep the state institutions operating.
The more common type of corruption that takes place on a daily basis which you and I are subjected to is ‘palm greasing’ or ‘graft’. This occurs at the implementation level of the law, regulation or policy. Because the bureaucratic system in place is slow, inefficient or cumbersome, some officials solicit a modest sum of money so that a particular service can be provided. In some cases, those seeking the service “voluntarily” grease the palm of the official in exchange for a quick provision of the service outside the normal channels, or they pay a bribe in order to avoid paying a fine for committing an offense.
In some of the SADC countries, petty bribes are often paid in order to get a passport, a driver’s license, birth or marriage certificate, visa, residence permit, work permit, import license, custom’s duty, tax rebate and so on. Also, traffic officers notoriously fleece the public by taking bribes for committing minor traffic offenses. In 2012, Transparency International which measures the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among government officers suggests that corruption in some West, East African and Asian countries is so endemic that it has become systemic and embedded in the social life of the people. The exception in Africa is Botswana which is an oasis of hope and remains a shinning example of very low levels of corruption. This is commendable because it shows that where there is transparency and good governance corruption can be minimized.
Bureaucratic corruption also involves ‘embezzlement’, which is the conversion of public resources for personal use. This may entail huge sums of money, but quite often officials pilfer small amounts which may be hard to trace, such as stealing stationery, software, food aid, petrol, car parts, furniture, medicine, books and other small items. It may also involve, for example, a government official assigning subordinate employees to renovate his/her house, using a government vehicle for private errands or taking a girl or boyfriend for holiday using government funds. These activities are so localized that sometimes people don’t take notice of them; but they have the effect of reducing the effectiveness of the government because ordinary citizens lose trust and confidence in the institutions.
A very common aspect of bureaucratic corruption is a ‘kickback’, which is an official’s share of misappropriated funds. For example, if a junior officer discovers that a senior officer has stolen public funds, the junior officer may be “silenced” by being given a ‘cut’ of the stolen money, which is popularly known in West Africa as ‘chop’. With many economies in Africa growing at a fast pace, kickbacks are common when awarding contracts and tenders. This happens when a company that is not the best bidder is given a contract. In this case the company benefits, but the government official who approves the contract or tender gets a kickback from the company for the extended favour. These corrupt activities cripple development in many African counties because government officials demand kickbacks before a tender is given and they do not care about the quality of work or the efficiency of service delivery.
One of the factors retarding the development of Africa as opposed to Asia is economic corruption. This involves the awarding of tenders fraudulently to relatives and friends by those in power. Sometimes secret deals are entered into with multinational companies and in some cases bilateral agreements are signed which are skewed in favour of the investor in exchange for a kickback. Worse still, the continent continues to lose a lot of money through the illicit movement of financial capital to overseas banks.
As earlier pointed out under nepotism, too often big tenders are unfairly awarded to the children, relatives and friends of those at the upper echelons of government. Such companies swindle the government and usually do not complete the job for which they were awarded the tender or they do a shoddy job. As a result of this economic corruption, we now have a post-colonial new class of mega rich people -the tender-preneurs whose wealth comes from the tenders they win. Similarly, the secret deals that are entered into for the exploitation of minerals such as oil, gold, diamonds, platinum, nickel, uranium, and other precious minerals directly benefit those who control the levers of power and the investors, but very little trickles down to the common person.
Because Africa requires investment, issues of royalties, how much interest can be repatriated by the investors, beneficiation, reinvestment and environmental degradation are downplayed. And where there are policies for “localization”, “indigenization” or “nationalization”, these are mere clichés and high-sounding words which lack clarity and substance in their implementation.
Also because there are weak government institutions in some African countries, illegal mining takes places unabated. And how much is paid by multinational companies in royalties and taxes is unclear. To understand the scale of economic corruption in some African countries, do we know the total value of each of the minerals that has been exported since it was discovered? What is the value of the remaining reserves of oil, diamond, gold, platinum, etc in your country? Is it not obvious that behind the secret activities are big sharks that gobble up the resources of the country?
And even more disturbing is the amount of money that is secretly siphoned out of Africa by some of its leaders. The image of African dictators who have billions of dollars stashed in Swiss banks looms high in our minds. Just to give you the extent of the damage that has been done to Africa by its own people, it is estimated that between 1960 and 1999 $400 billion was stolen from the treasury of one of the West African countries by its leaders. Researchers also estimate that from 1970 to 1996, $187 billion was sent out of 30 sub-Saharan countries, which exceeds their cumulative external debt. These staggering figures suggest that Africa is largely responsible for its own under-development through unmitigated economic corruption.
Why there is corruption
The existence of rampant corruption in Africa has led some people to suggest that Africans are corrupt by nature. This is not true because there is no race or group of people who are inherently corrupt. Corruption is a world phenomenon that thrives in societies where there is a deficit of certain conditions.
One of the most fertile grounds for corruption is ‘information deficit’. In a country where power has been converted into tyranny and where there is no freedom of expression, there is bound to be unmitigated corruption because newspapers, radio, television and other social networks are not allowed to exercise their normal role of being the watchdog of public and private conduct. Even where there is freedom of expression, the lack of investigative journalism allows perpetrators to go scot-free. Also the absence of a vibrant, privately owned press, television and radio allows one voice to be heard –that of the ruling party. This allows corruption to fester into a social cancer that slowly and painfully kills the heart and soul of the society.
Another aspect that brings about corruption is the poor supervision of the functions of government. Where there is a weak civic society and non-governmental organizations to monitor the activities of the government, officials are not afraid of behaving corruptly because they know that nothing will happen to them. Also a weak civil service, a weak rule of law, a partisan judicial system and a weak accounting system leaves room for corruption. Moreover, where there is no strong and independent commission to deal with corruption and to protect whistleblowers, those in power are likely to be corrupt because corruption thrives mostly on monopolized authority minus transparency.
Big time corruption in our modern era exists because public institutions are too many and difficult to supervise. For instance, a large and poorly-paid civil service is likely to be corrupt. In many African countries, the government is the single largest employer with so many departments that duplicate the functions of each other. Civil servants often spend their time doing other things so that they can supplement their meager salaries. When the opportunity to get money arises, they do not hesitate to take bribes so that they can meet their financial woes.
The sale of state-owned property and privatization invites large scale corruption because top officials in government seize the opportunity to buy state property at very low prices. As the economy grows, large and poorly supervised public investments, such as roads, railways, airports, seaports, power stations, dams, government offices, schools and other public investments open doors for getting kickbacks. Also a windfall from exporting abundant mineral resources, often called the ‘resource curse’, encourages corruption. For instance, one Southern African country cannot account for the disappearance of $2 billion raised from its diamond sales.
Probably the single most important factor that brings about corruption is the social conditions in a country. War and other forms of social conflict bring about a breakdown of public security, which in turn catalyzes the conditions for corruption. For instance, the civil war in Somalia, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic has brought untold suffering to the wounded souls of the war-torn people. This is exacerbated by the existence of a clan-based social structure that bullies the other ethnic groups. When this is coupled with a dysfunctional economy and low levels of literacy, then there is fertile ground upon which corruption grows like a weed in an abandoned field.
But is there a solution to corruption? One must admit that the fight against corruption is not easy. It has never been and never will it be. This is because corruption takes place secretly and involves two parties that mutually agree to commit the crime. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of American democracy, once said: “experience has shown that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power will, in time, and by slow operations, get perverted into corruption”.
However, we can adopt certain measures to curb it. Perhaps the starting point is the individual and the family. As individuals we need to uphold values of honesty, trustworthiness, integrity and fair play and to discourage greediness and avarice. As a family and society, we need to pass on to our children the virtues of integrity, hard work and trust; and to impress upon them that no matter how strong the sweet scent of corruption can be, it always leads to self-destruction.
In practical terms we need to insist on the rule of law by maintaining civic rights based on good governance that is transparent, and a government that does the will of the people. In particular, we need to remain vigilant and to insist on the supremacy of the social contract between the people and the government. Those who do not abide by the social contract have no right to be in power.
Similarly, we need to resist tyranny because we know from past experience that it thrives on corruption. We should also develop a culture of tenacity, the one that makes us stand up to injustice. If we keep quiet, we will be equally guilty of being accomplices to the very vice we want to fight –corruption. Therefore, we need to speak against it through the newspapers, the radio, television, social media, non-governmental and civic organizations. In doing so, we may land a fatal blow that is likely to render it moribund.