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By Tafi Mhaka
First published on Al Jazeera

On June 21, Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera fired the country’s chief of police, suspended several senior government officials and also took the extraordinary step of stripping his deputy, Saulos Chilima, of all powers after they were accused of receiving kickbacks from UK-based businessman Zuneth Sattar in exchange for government contracts worth more than $150-million.

While Chilima is the highest-ranking official in Malawi to be removed from power over alleged corruption to date, few were shocked by the accusations. After all, it was only in January that Chakwera had to dissolve the country’s cabinet after three prominent ministers – lands minister Kezzie Msukwa, labour minister Ken Kandodo, and energy minister Newton Kambala – faced corruption charges.

Sadly, a corruption pandemic is raging in Malawi – and on the rest of the continent.

Indeed, from Malawi to South Africa and Zimbabwe, from Angola to Mozambique and Namibia, in countries across Africa high-ranking civil servants and their relatives, in cahoots with industry and business leaders, seem to have long been shamelessly stealing from the long-suffering masses.

South Africa, for instance, has recently been rocked by allegations that former president Jacob Zuma and a plethora of former ministers and CEOs of state-owned companies systematically planned and executed state capture to aid the wealthy Gupta family and line their pockets. On June 22, South Africa’s Chief Justice Raymond Zondo released the final instalment of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into State Capture and found that the ruling African National Congress party, under Zuma, “permitted, supported and enabled corruption and state capture”. He also criticised current president Cyril Ramaphosa, who served as vice president under Zuma, for hesitating “to act with more urgency” to resist the emergence and establishment of state capture.

Beyond the Gupta scandal, South Africa is battling to recover millions of dollars it lost through dodgy contracts linked to the nationwide campaign to combat the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

In Zimbabwe, Kudakwashe Tagwirei, a businessman allied to President Emmerson Mnangagwa, stands accused of amassing $90-million through a shady central bank deal.

In Mozambique, ex-president Armando Guebuza’s son, Ndambi, former finance minister Manuel Chang, and several other senior governing party members stand accused of participating in the disappearance of loans – taken out to finance maritime surveillance, fishing, and shipyard projects – worth $2.2-billion.

In Namibia, former fisheries minister Bernhardt Esau and former justice minister Sacky Shanghala stand accused of taking bribes worth millions of dollars from an Icelandic fishing company.

In Angola, Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of Angola’s former president José Eduardo dos Santos, is being accused of making billions of dollars through illicit activities.

The damage high-level and systemic corruption inflicts on already struggling African economies cannot be ignored or written off as normal or negligible. The illicit activities of elected officials, bureaucrats and industry leaders are leaving states unable to deliver the most basic services to their citizens.

Just last year, acting UN Resident Coordinator Rudolf Schwenk said Malawi is unable to provide its citizens with “effective healthcare, quality education, accessible justice and an accountable and responsive democracy” because of high levels of corruption.

South Africa, meanwhile, is experiencing rolling blackouts, largely because corruption and gross mismanagement have debilitated state utility Eskom. To make matters worse, the country is experiencing this lack of reliable energy amid an unemployment crisis – today, a record 7.9-million South Africans are believed to be jobless.

In addition to the localised corruption perpetrated through state-owned entities, the UN Conference on Trade and Development estimates that Africa loses about $88.6-billion, or 3.7% of its gross domestic product, annually in illicit financial flows. This mammoth loss should not surprise anyone. After all, many countries topping Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, such as Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Burundi, Somalia, the Republic of the Congo and South Sudan are all in Africa.

Small wonder then that Africa’s youth are extremely worried about the deplorable and depreciating state of affairs on the continent. According to the Africa Youth Survey 2022 (PDF) published on June 14, Africa’s youths believe that the creation of “new, well-paying jobs” and “reducing government corruption” should be the continent’s two leading priorities. The survey interviewed young adults, many of whom are students, from 16 African countries, including Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Angola, Kenya, Gabon and Malawi.

Young people are clearly aware that corruption is perhaps Africa’s number one problem. But are the institutions tasked with moving the continent forward taking this devastating ailment as seriously as they should?

Well, they say that they do. The Economic Community of West African States, the Southern African Development Community and the African Union (AU) have each established protocols on corruption.

The AU appears to be particularly proud of its anti-corruption efforts. It brags that its fight against corruption “has contributed significantly to the ongoing transformation of economies across the continent and reinforces the determination towards achieving inclusive and sustainable development as envisaged in Africa’s Agenda 2063”.

In reality, however, these institutions’ well-advertised efforts to fight corruption have hardly delivered any tangible gains. As the above examples well demonstrate, corruption is still as rife as ever on the continent.

The only thing that changed in recent years is the fact that, due to a public awakening about the harms of corruption, most African politicians are now feeling the need to announce their determination to fight corruption during their electoral campaigns.

These election promises, however, seldom transfer into action.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, for example, ran for office on an anti-corruption ticket in 2015, but Nigerians believe corruption has, in fact, mushroomed under his watch.

Similarly, Ramaphosa staked his presidential campaign in 2019 on a pledge to set South Africa on a path of renewal, transparency and accountability, but South Africans believe corruption has actually worsened under his management.

Like Buhari and Ramaphosa, Mnangagwa’s anti-corruption campaign in Zimbabwe has yielded meagre returns and he stands accused of “presiding over a dysfunctional government, a corrupt government”.

So while Africa’s leaders are undoubtedly talking the talk, they seem unable to walk the walk.

But after a pandemic that intensified existing economic struggles, and amid a major conflict in Europe threatening Africa’s food security, among many other challenges, the AU cannot continue its fight against corruption with empty platitudes and box-ticking exercises.

The body that is tasked with leading the continent towards better democratic governance and sustainable prosperity should accept before it is too late that there is a corruption pandemic under way in Africa, and the business-as-usual approach to battling it is proving mostly ineffective. Consequently, it must change tack and begin to systemically hold leaders accountable for their failure to stem government corruption.

The AU must establish credible continent-wide standards and independent surveillance mechanisms to advance the anti-corruption agenda, and implement them, vigorously, as a means to promote democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance.

Eradicating corruption is not only essential to establishing firm adherence to the rule of law and political stability, but it is also critical to promoting economic growth and reducing poverty in countries such as Malawi, Nigeria and South Africa. It is time for the AU to assert its independence and demonstrate a strong, renewed and active commitment to mitigate the socioeconomic consequences of bad leadership in Africa.

If it does not take swift action to end corruption, economies across the continent may soon fall victim to this undeclared but devastatingly deadly pandemic.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.