By Pregala Pillay and Chris Jones
Source: Stellenbosch University

African Anti-Corruption Day, commemorated annually on 11 July, wants to give prominence to the anti-corruption fight on the continent, marking an important step towards the Africa we want.

It would not be farfetched to assume that we all want a prosperous Africa, based on inclusive growth and sustainable development. In this regard, we think of Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want which is the blueprint and master plan for Africa to transform itself into a global powerhouse of the future.

Unfortunately, as we indicate in our recently published book, A Multidimensional Perspective on Corruption in Africa (2019), the one major challenge that stands in the way of inclusive growth and sustainable development in our continent, is the nature, scale and complexity of corruption.

However, corruption is not a uniquely African phenomenon; it is a global occurrence. No continent, no government, and no society is free from corruption. Wherever there are human beings, there is corruption too. And yet, amid the prevalence of corruption and impunity, many nations in other continents forge ahead and still find ways to thrive economically, politically, scientifically and socially. They are still able to flourish and cultivate their civilisations, technologies, sciences, and economies for the greater good of their citizens.

Sadly, Africa has become somewhat of an exception! Why and how is our continent different? And what needs to be done to make Africa reach its full potential?

Without comparing African countries specifically with other nations, a number of chapters in our book indicate that the scourge of corruption in Africa is endemic, and that it is rooted in the nature, performance and ethos of its leadership.  

Political-moral crisis in Africa

Without a doubt, the maleficent theft of public resources in African states is a symptom of a political-moral crisis. A close examination of the democratic state structure in African countries, leads one to conclude that although the architecture of the African neo-colonial state is imperfect and defective, the real obstacle lies in the self-serving, predatory political and bureaucratic leadership.

Although several African states move towards democratic governance, in many instances, it is merely in form and not in substance. Through the years, it has been observed that successive political leaders are the primary cause of failed governance, and thus ignites the source of widespread, endemic and systemic corruption. The presidents and their cronies, as is evident in so many African countries, have become laws unto themselves.

One important perspective in our book, as specifically argued by Anglican Bishop Zac Niringiye from Uganda, focuses on the link between corruption and colonialism and asserts that the legacy of colonialism has become the modus operandi of democratic power across Africa.

But what does he mean by this? He argues that colonial administrations (originally) designed and established state machinery that would ensure control – securing the obedience of all people, and extraction of resources – in order to pay for the costs of running the state, as well as profit the British Government.

These newly created countries, under the authority of the colonists, became their “property”, and the inhabitants were dominated under a system in which public officials exercised their power not for public good but for private gain, without any rights to the resources of the land for the indigenous citizens.

Niringiye strengthens his argument by referring to academic Paul Gifford who in his book African Christianity: Its Public Role in Uganda and other African countries (1999) summarises it as follows: “Colonial administrations were both centralised and authoritarian. Just as important, the rulers manifested a sense of superiority over those they ruled, and power was experienced as coming from above rather than flowing from below”.

When colonialism lingers, power is abused

In his book Africa in Chaos (1998), Ghanaian economist and author George Ayittey explains Niringiye’s viewpoint very succinctly and profoundly: “After independence, African nationalist leaders did not dismantle the authoritarian colonial state. Rather they strengthened and expanded its scope. Subsequently, they abused and misused the power of the state to achieve their own selfish ends. Gradually, a ‘mafia state’ evolved – a state that has been hijacked by the vampire elites, hustlers and gangsters, who operated with their own notorious ethic of selfish aggrandisement and self-perpetuation in power. The institutions of government were debauched, the country became the personal property of the ruling elites, and the meaning of such terms as ‘development’ was perverted.”

According to Niringiye and Gifford, state power in many African countries is personalized rather than institutionalized, in the sense that there is no distinction made between the office and the person holding that office, or between what is political, economic or social, in the sense that the search for state power and the search for wealth are one and the same. State power has become the only means to acquire wealth. Hence, we have two root problems: a “personalised” state, and leaders who have entrenched the “personal” state in such ways that they have only peripheral or no interest in the common good.

This is why many scholars reason that the problem of corruption is a moral-ethical one. It reflects the manifestation of a fundamental political crisis. Therefore, the political-moral crisis, which is both part and consequence of the character of the neo-patrimonial state, is the death of citizenship. Because ordinary people are not truly citizens anymore, but rather clients of powerful patrons, who themselves are clients to more powerful patrons. This is the culmination of the dual crisis of a predatory state and leadership.

We believe it will require strong introspection, self-reflection and self-criticism from politicians about their role in establishing these neo-patrimonial states and patronage-clientelist politics. It is of utmost importance that they root this self-criticism in deep political-moral reflection, aiming at an ethos of enhancing human dignity and the common good. 

Religion can also play a significant role in achieving this, but sadly many religious leaders have capitulated to corrupt political leadership instead of speaking truth to power, according to Niringiye.

We aptly cite the brilliant quotation adapted from Kwame Nkrumah: “We are Africans, Not because we are born in Africa, But because Africa is born in us”!

Professor Pregala Pillay is vice-dean for social impact and transformation in the faculty of economic and management sciences at Stellenbosch University. Dr Chris Jones heads the unit for moral leadership at the same university. They co-edited A Multidimensional Perspective on Corruption in Africa with Sunday Bobai Agang.