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The Corrupted Continent

Authors: Oh Ee Ting, Toh Jo Lyn Megan

Editor: Ho Chia Chun Daniel

30 years ago, he was hailed as a hero for fighting against racism. Today, Jacob Zuma, the former President of South Africa, is facing over 15 charges of corruption, money laundering, tax evasion, and fraud (Chotia, 2021). Across Africa, numerous political leaders have been arrested and accused of engaging in fraud or bribery. The scourge of corruption in Africa appears to be spreading despite most member states having ratified the African Union Convention in Preventing and Combating Corruption (AUCPCC) (Duri, 2020).

Is corruption getting worse in Africa?

Transparency International defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain” (2021). Corruption is systemic in Africa and exists in many forms. It can be classified into two types - petty corruption such as bribes paid to low-level officials, and grand corruption that includes money laundering, crony capitalism and patronage.

On average, corruption has gotten worse in Africa. According to the Global Corruption Barometer, 55% of Africans believed that corruption had risen in their country in the past 12 months (Pring & Vrushi, 2019). In fact, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DPC) and Sudan saw more than 80% of citizens agree that corruption had risen. However, a small number of countries such as Gambia saw a perceived fall in corruption.

Fig 1: Data extracted from the 2019 Global Corruption Barometer (Africa)

Corruption has crippled various institutions in Africa. Among them, nearly half of African citizens perceived the police to be the most corrupt. This is worrying as the police play a vital role in maintaining order and the rule of law in society. A corrupt police force erodes public trust and undermines the very people they are supposed to protect.

Furthermore, corruption is extremely costly to society. Notoriously, in Equatorial Guinea, the state administration has purportedly stolen billions of dollars from its population since 1979 (Transparency International, 2019). This siphons money away from productive uses such as improving infrastructure. It also entrenches poverty and inequality as money set aside for social development and aid programs are redirected into the pockets of corrupt officials (UNODC, 2019).

Fig 2: Data extracted from the 2019 Global Corruption Barometer (Africa)

Corruption denies the population access to essential public services, especially the impoverished who do not have the means to afford bribes. From Figure 2, we can see that bribery is a widespread phenomenon in Africa, with varying degrees of severity among countries. When opportunities are not equally available, it can frustrate citizens and lead to political unrest and instability (Dawson, 2015).

Additionally, corruption begets corruption. When corruption has been internalised in society, it fuels mistrust and becomes regarded as the most effective means to access essential public services. An AfroBarometer paper showed that people of “less influential” ethnicities in sub-Saharan Africa are more inclined to pay a bribe as they feel that they need to “level the playing field” (Cho & Kirwin, 2007). This vicious cycle of corruption continues as people think that they will lose out if they do not act the same in the current climate of dishonesty. Essentially, corruption becomes the benchmark in society.

What is currently being done to tackle corruption

Within the region, there are varying levels of efforts taken to combat corruption in different countries.

On one end of the spectrum, Rwanda is one of the least corrupt countries in Africa due to the government’s political will in rooting out corruption (Xinhua, 2019). There have been focused efforts in promoting a culture of transparency and accountability. However, petty corruption in Rwanda is common which is mainly due to the lack of control by informal government practices (Nicaise, 2021).

Another example would be South Africa, who has “one of the best” regulatory frameworks in the world to protect whistle-blowers who call out instances of corruption (Botha, 2021). On top of the Protected Disclosures Act 26 of 2000 (an act to encourage whistle-blowing in the workplace), South Africa also has the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act to strengthen and complement its other anti-corruption laws.

However, with the murder of Babita Deokaran, who exposed corruption in the Gauteng province’s police department (Botha, 2021), there has been increased attention paid to the gaps in South Africa’s approach to anti-corruption. In response, the government has launched a new unit, the Public Administration Ethics, Integrity and Disciplinary Technical Assistance Unit to take action against corruption in the public sector (Khumalo, 2021) yet its effectiveness in combating corruption is not clear as it was recently launched.

Why should Africa’s leaders care about corruption?

On the surface, it appears that African leaders do not have any incentive to curb corruption in their countries as they get to live opulent lifestyles from lining their pockets with illicit funds. However, rampant corruption is testament to weak institutions and the poor quality of governance across Africa. These factors contribute to a climate of uncertainty which is detrimental to foreign investment and capital (Kimenyi & Mbaku, 2011). This casts serious doubts on Africa’s future and whether it can achieve sustainable growth in the next few decades. Sooner or later, the oil riches that African leaders are enjoying now will run out. By then, if corruption is not rooted out, they will be left with an empty continent that has been deserted by investors and talent alike.

Recommendations: What’s Next?

In one article outlining an approach to combat corruption, Heywood (2018) states that “[r]ather than sticking to unrealistic aspirations to “defeat” corruption, we should pay more attention to the positive promotion of integrity”.

One of the steps he outlined is to determine the type of corruption that exists in that particular place. For example, in Rwanda, petty corruption seems to be the most rampant form of corruption there which drives dishonest practices such as bribing police officers.

Besides determining the type of corruption, another important step is to acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to corruption. Every country has their own unique circumstances and differing resources. For example, it would not be feasible for a country like Congo to implement the same measures Rwanda has in place due to their differences in the severity of corruption and their political will.

Fighting corruption may seem like a Sispyhean task but progress can be made one step at a time. Overall, there is no one path to success and countries should tackle corruption with the goal of reducing it rather than eradicating it.

African countries can follow three principles to guide their anti-corruption approach, tapping on the state, the people and global entities. Firstly, the state should enact and enforce strict laws with a zero-tolerance policy for corrupt activities to create a paradigm shift in the way business and services have been obtained in society.

Secondly, the state should recognise the role that its citizens can play in fighting corruption. Despite a perceived rise in corruption, more than half of African citizens remained hopeful and believed that they could make a difference in combating corruption (Transparency International, 2019). Hence, the state can legislate certain measures that protect whistleblowers and simplify reporting processes.

Thirdly, there should be a push towards increasing transparency which can be aided by developed nations or international corporations like the World Bank. DRC, for example, has made a crucial step in forming a partnership with America to build “transparent and accountable public institutions” (Kinshasa, 2021).

All in all, tackling corruption in Africa is definitely a Herculean task but not a Sisyphean one. It will take a lot of time, effort and strength to dislodge corruption from Africa but it is certainly possible to do so.


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15. Xuxin. (2019, December 10). What makes Rwanda one of the least corrupted countries in Africa? Xinhua.

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