Curbing corruption in Africa

| June 23, 2015 | 0 Comments
A sign from an anti-corruption campaign in Rwanda, headed by President Paul Kagame. (Photo: © Antonella865 |

A sign from an anti-corruption campaign in Rwanda, headed by President Paul Kagame. (Photo: © Antonella865 |

Corruption is everywhere —  in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Russia and Brazil. It persists in much of the rest of Asia beyond China, and is rampant in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Of the lowest 50 performers on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) and the World Bank’s Control of Corruption Indicator (WBCC), a full 22 are African countries. The list includes Angola, Chad, the Democratic Republic of  the Congo, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria, South Sudan, the Sudan and Zimbabwe, among others.
Nearly everyone from Montreal to San Paulo, and on to Kinshasa, Lagos and Johannesburg knows what corruption is, and many, especially in Africa, experience the toils of corruption daily. Police officers  take small payments to make automobile infractions and fines go away. Nurses provide treatment in battered hospitals only to those who can pay. Border guards along the Kenya-Somali frontier look the other way, for a consideration, when traders and, indeed, insurgents, want to cross. Passports, driver’s licences, birth and death permits and many more of the inevitable necessities of life are obtained relatively quickly if the right palms are crossed. These are among the lubricating forms of corruption, sometimes labelled petty corruption.
But then there is venal corruption — the big ticket items. Chinese President Xi Jinping today is imprisoning many of his rivals for amassing $6-billion and $10-billion returns from wholesale kickback and bribe schemes. Entrepreneurs who wanted to acquire land on which to build factories and who wanted, and received, contracts to construct roads, rails and dams were compelled to pay to play. Brazil’s massive and still unfolding Petrobras scandal revolves around cash for preferential access to tenders, bids and the right to receive large-scale infrastructure contracts.

Rwanda has shown improvement in anti-corruption performance  since President Paul Kagame decided to transform post-genocidal Rwanda into “the Singapore of Africa.” (Photo: © Antonella865 |

Rwanda has shown improvement in anti-corruption performance since President Paul Kagame decided to transform post-genocidal Rwanda into “the Singapore of Africa.” (Photo: © Antonella865 |

In South Africa, President Jacob Zuma and his cronies received cash for favouring the state purchase of frigates and fighter aircraft from France and Sweden. Nigeria is the home of countless nefarious and clever schemes to bilk taxpayers; that country is a major producer of petroleum, but must import refined oil products because doing so proved a good way to enrich politically connected middlemen. Army officers also stole equipment and rations, thus crippling their country’s efforts against Boko Haram.
It is easy to list outrage after outrage, in Africa as elsewhere. Fortunately, Africa has a few countries like Botswana, Cape Verde, Mauritius and Rwanda where corruption has been checked by leadership action and strong institutions. In 2014, the Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Botswana 31st in the world and the best in Africa; Cape Verde, 42nd; Mauritius and Rwanda were tied at 55th. Ghana, in 61st place, is doing better all the time.
From 2004 to 2014, a number of countries, such as Georgia, Macedonia and Dominica, were shown to be the states that had done the most over that decade to reduce corruption in their countries. That is, their scores, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index and the World Bank’s Control of Corruption Indicator improved dramatically. Liberia, Rwanda and Zambia were also on that list of the seven best performers over the 10-year period. How did they curb corruption so dramatically?

When Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became president of Liberia, one of her first moves was to sack almost all holdover civil servants at the ministry of finance. (Photo: UN photo)

When Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became president of Liberia, one of her first moves was to sack almost all holdover civil servants at the ministry of finance. (Photo: UN photo)

The Rwandan Case
Ten years after the Rwandan genocide, Rwanda was regarded by casual observers as being as corrupt as its neighbours, but its CPI score in 2004 placed it higher than Ghana, Senegal, Macedonia, Montenegro, Zambia, Indonesia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya, in that order. In that year in Africa, only Botswana, the Seychelles, Cape Verde, Mauritius, Namibia and South Africa had higher scores. Starting from a relatively high base, therefore, according to the CPI, Rwanda gained 10 points by 2014. But the WBCC ranks Rwanda as the second most-improved country from 2004 to 2013, with an upward change of 33 points, only five points behind Georgia. (The big jump in Rwanda’s scores took place between 2005 and 2006, when it gained 26 points.) According to WBCC, Rwanda improved much more than Liberia (20 points) and Zambia (17 points). No other African country came close, although Niger and Swaziland gained 16 points over the period, Sao Tome and Principe, 14, Lesotho, 13, Gabon and Ethiopia, 12, and Cape Verde, 11.
Whatever the different index methods employed, Rwanda has shown remarkable improvement in governance and in anti-corruption performance since 2004 or so — when President Paul Kagame decided to transform post-genocidal Rwanda into “the Singapore of Africa.” (Kagame only officially became head of state in 2000; he was considered de facto leader from 1994, however, when he was vice-president and defence minister.) For the first 10 years of his forceful reign in Rwanda (1994-2004), Kagame focused on consolidating his hold on power, rebuilding the state, winning a major inter-ethnic war against Hutu anti-Rwandan genocidaire forces based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and on installing new Congolese governments in Kinshasa.
Once Kagame had accomplished those important missions and had established himself within the African Union and with donors as a person capable of bringing about major governmental changes and producing stability in eastern Africa, he turned his attention to increasing national productivity and prosperity. Just as Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore from a ramshackle British-run harbour into one of the great entrepots and financial centres of the developing world, so Kagame began to envision capital flowing into his isolated, land-locked mini-country with the highest population densities anywhere on the African continent. Given that Rwanda mostly produced little more than coffee, a crop dependent on a fluctuating world market, to create a Singapore-like result, and to attract foreign investors, meant radical shifts in Rwanda’s prevailing political social culture. In 2014, Rwanda’s population was 12 million and its annual per-capita GDP only US $698.
Kagame, following Lee, became determined in 2004 and 2005 to rid Rwanda of corruption. “Corruption,” he said, “…is clearly, very largely, behind the problems [that] African countries face. It is very bad in African or Third World countries…” Moreover, eliminating corruption is hard because “it has become a way of life in some places.” But Kagame does the hard things. He exhorted his people to reject corrupt practices and report corrupt individuals to the police, who were given expanded powers. He erected big billboards all over Kigali, the capital, warning against corruption: “He Who Practices Corruption Destroys His Country.” He sacked a few cabinet ministers and associates for theft and graft. He also used the imprimatur of his office to enforce existing legislation against corruption.
New legislation and constitutional changes were put in place to criminalize corrupt acts, outlaw extortion, forbid bribery, both active and passive, and prohibit money laundering. Kagame promulgated a strict code of conduct for his officials and, as in Liberia, made mandatory the annual disclosure by all officials — in this case more than 4,000 individuals — of their assets. Kagame further introduced an office of the auditor general and appointed an ombudsman. That last office was responsible for checking the net worth filings of officials; in so many African and Asian countries (such as Tanzania), those statements would pile up in an obscure office. Not in Rwanda, where the ombudsman carefully examines them for signs of ill-gotten profits and the misuse of public office.
The office of the ombudsman operates as if it were an anti-corruption agency, if shorn of prosecutorial powers. A public procurement agency makes sure that tenders and all contract bids are proper, and that no officials are receiving kickbacks. The police were professionalized after 2004. Crime rates fell and, following Singapore again, the police even began nabbing citizens for littering. Rwanda, reported the Economist, has become “the cleanest country in Africa.”
Of equal significance, Rwanda downsized its civil service cadre (as in Georgia), dismissing two-thirds of the entire bureaucratic establishment. Ghost workers, as many as 6,500 in one sweep, were also removed from the payrolls. Competitive tests were introduced to accentuate the need for competency in the civil service. From 2005, government salaries have been raised regularly.
Like Georgia, Rwanda under Kagame also reduced bureaucratic controls and permits, made striking improvements in the speed by which businesses could be opened, streamlined a broad range of administrative procedures, reduced the regulatory burden, cut red tape and by about 2010, produced one of the better-motivated, better-rewarded and most effective African public services. In the process, naturally, discretion became more limited than before and opportunities for chicanery, bribery and all kinds of graft were reduced.
But these important legal and procedural improvements were less salutary in altering the political culture of Rwanda than was the emphasis from 2004 on zero tolerance for infractions. It became obvious to all that Kagame, and therefore the government, were serious about ending corruption. In 2004, all 503 members of the Rwandan judiciary, from top to bottom, were dismissed because of allegations of corruption. The president of a state-owned bank was prosecuted for giving friends unsecured loans. Three years later, 62 police officers were sacked for soliciting bribes. According to the chair of the Ombudsman’s Office, Rwanda became less corrupt as “we…removed corrupt leaders [and] added additional training and supervision.” In 2013, Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer reported that only 13 percent of Rwandans polled had paid a bribe within the previous two years (compared to 57 percent in South Africa, 62 percent in Zimbabwe, and 7 percent in Switzerland and the United States.)
Most of all, Kagame exerted political will, made examples of corrupt politicians and began relentlessly to curtail corruption throughout the entire public service. Being “on the take” became dangerous for those both high and low. Positions and privileges could be forfeited, and were. Given the largely authoritarian nature of the Kagame regime, altering the prevailing political culture was comparatively easy, especially over time. Even in a society three times the size of Singapore, determined leadership against corruption could make a difference in comparatively short order.
As in Singapore, Kagame could, and did, explain that all Rwandans would be better off without corrupt behaviour. A poor country, Rwanda would, without corruption, become more hospitable and attractive to foreign investment. There would be no drag on GDP per capita. Better health care, educational opportunities  and improved infrastructure would be possible for all Rwandans if corrupt acts did not skew priorities.
Kagame understood that “you can’t fight corruption from the bottom. You have to fight it from the top.” He therefore even banned his own relatives and relatives of ministers from governmental employment. He showed no favour to long-time associates who appeared to be acting dishonestly and abusing his trust. As in our other cases, but more easily and clearly demonstrated in Rwanda and Singapore, visionary leaders are capable of reducing corrupt practices if they enunciate such a program (always popular with citizens) and carry it out with determination and integrity, sparing no one.

Liberia’s transition
In terms of anti-corruption perceptions, from 2004, Liberia had nowhere to go but up. In 2003, at the conclusion of 14 years of brutal civil war, Liberia’s main focus, at  first under an interim transitional government, was to restore order and try to begin reviving itself economically, politically and morally. For the preceding decade, mayhem, theft and destruction had been Liberia’s lot. Everybody who had a gun, or other ways of extorting revenue, was corrupt. Charles Taylor, who had come to power by force and then by a coerced election, acted autocratically. Integrity was hardly expected; being wildly corrupt and zero-sum was normal and expected. Under dire conditions, survival was the goal of most citizens. Elites close to Taylor and his enforcers grabbed what they could, and shared only with Taylor and “the system.”
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, an American-educated former Liberian treasury and UNDP (United Nations Development Program) official, was elected president of Liberia in 2006. Her inaugural address spelled out a clear commitment to tolerating no corruption under her administration. Among her first acts was the sacking of virtually all holdover civil servants in the ministry of finance; she promised a thorough investigation of allegations of embezzlement and graft within the ministry. Across the entire government, she dismissed 17,000 other holdover civil servants.
Early on, she articulated an anti-corruption strategy. She declared her own assets and required her new appointees and all cabinet ministers to follow suit and publish lists of their financial holdings and assets in the local press. She issued a tough code of conduct for all public servants and strengthened the independence of the General Auditing Commission while establishing a Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission. She reformed the national public financial management system and promulgated a Public Finance Management Act. She formulated a new, transparent national budget process and agreed to comply with the tough provisions of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and strictures contained in the regulation of diamond mining and transport according to the Kimberley Process, a government- and industry-driven certification program arising out of illicit “conflict diamonds” and applied to diamonds traded globally. She bolstered the Public Procurement Commission to make bidding processes transparent and to erect new barriers against kickbacks. She paid Liberia’s civil servants, something that had not happened for months or years.
In order to gain credibility and build confidence nationally, she strove to bring electric power back, first to Monrovia, and later to other cities and towns and she turned to external advisers and donors for assistance in building the capacity of the Liberian government to manage assets, scrutinize expenditures, minimize waste and curtail fraud.
Johnson-Sirleaf’s first presidency featured an innovative special oversight system that shared authority for financial management among local officials and external advisers. Within each ministry and state-owned enterprise, there were local officials and foreign overseers, both of whom jointly had to sign expenditure permits and contract approvals. Because that unusual derogation of national sovereignty succeeded in limiting peculation and mismanagement, it was no longer needed in 2010, and the system was dismantled.
When it was in existence, this dual-control system included:
1. Centralizing of revenue collection and expenditure disbursement within the ministry of finance and the Liberian Central Bank. The IMF selected the head of the Central Bank, ensuring transparency and fiscal accountability standards were maintained. The bank was further staffed with outside technocrats recruited by the IMF;
2. Revamping and strengthening all national budgeting and expenditure management practices and making them public;
3. Overhauling and upgrading competitive bidding practices;
4. Charging the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) with preventing corruption in private and official public arenas, and with devising new control mechanisms;
5. Giving outside assistance to the General Auditing Office and the reformed Contracts and Monopolies Commission;
6. Beginning an overall effort to build capacity within the public service for more effective and knowledgeable administration, including an ethics component.
All of these initiatives markedly increased positive perceptions, locally and externally, of Johnson-Sirleaf’s gradual victory on behalf of all Liberians against the scourge of corruption. As Liberia slowly became less corrupt, outside investors, including China, began to exploit Liberia’s mineral resources, import its timber and help to revive what had been a moribund economy. National revenues increased enormously, from a very low base. National debts were paid or reduced. As prosperity increased, Johnson-Sirleaf’s anti-corruption efforts became more widely appreciated.
Donor-funded efforts made a major difference in strengthening Liberia’s anti-corruption performance from 2004 to 2014. According to the CPI, Liberia’s score grew from a very low eight to a respectable 37, a 29-point improvement. But in 2014, that still left Liberia only 94th (along with Egypt, Gabon, Colombia, Armenia and Panama), behind Benin, Burkina Faso, and Zambia, and ahead of Algeria, China and Mexico. According to the World Bank Control of Corruption measurement scheme, Liberia also started with a score of eight, but grew to 34 in 2012 and then slipped to 28 in 2013, putting it well behind African performers such as Botswana (a raw score of 80), Cape Verde, 75; Mauritius, 66; Namibia, 65; Lesotho, 64; and Zambia; 44) but ahead of many others and similar in score to a number of the middle-ranking African cases.
Manifest political will and uncompromising leadership were major factors in “improving” Liberia’s anti-corruption performance over the 2004-2014 period. Even though Johnson-Sirleaf’s personal integrity has been questioned and issues have arisen over possible nepotism involving her sons, Liberia (pre-Ebola) was perceived as a less-and-less corrupt African country because of strong and committed leadership, an abundance of political will and Johnson-Sirleaf’s willingness to ride herd on those in her government who would have preferred to act corruptly. The actions of the Anti-Corruption Commission also helped demonstrably, but it could not have proceeded very far without supportive backing from the top.
Johnson-Sirleaf’s presidency, in the aftermath of Ebola, has not produced a perfect Liberia or one without corruption. But absent her determined leadership and the restored pride and sense of renewed political culture she gave post-Taylor Liberia, corruption would have continued more to be the norm, less the exception.

Lessons Learned
The cases of Rwanda and Liberia (and Zambia and others) demonstrate that forceful leadership (as in Singapore and China) is essential if a nation-state in the developing world wants to reduce the deleterious grip of corrupt practices on its prosperity, growth and priorities. More developed countries can count on established institutions to beat back corrupt behaviour whenever and wherever it appears. But in much of the world, where institutions and legal systems are still imperfectly formed, the attitudes and initiatives of leaders are critical. Corruption is a top-down pursuit, so, as these two cases show, energetic action by rulers and ruling classes is capable of bringing about major positive improvements.

Robert I. Rotberg is fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center; senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation; fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation and founding director of Harvard’s Kennedy School program on intrastate conflict.

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Robert I. Rotberg is Fulbright Research Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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