Corruption and Poverty in Africa: A Deconstruction

Corruption and Poverty in Africa: A Deconstruction

Moses Ochonu analyses the dominant discourse on corruption in Africa. By challenging conventional explanations and assignations of corruption to the cultural realm, he makes it clear that whereas the phenomenon is by no means endemic to the continent, the effects clearly more devastating in Africa. He advocates for a shift away from deterministic explanations of corruption in Africa, and a move towards a better understanding of the fundamental structural poverty of Africa and the economic disadvantages into which history, geography, and subaltern experiences if corruption is to be addressed in a meaningful way.

Corruption has acquired the status of a continental emergency in Africa. But this is not another pontification on corruption. Rather, it is a polemical disavowal of a few popular stereotypes and fallacies on corruption in Africa. It is laced, for good measure, with a few contrarian perspectives on the phenomenon.

One of the most insightful attempts to explain the cultural basis of political corruption in Africa contends that patronage ties between regular Africans and the political elite place informal obligations and demands on the latter, obligations which are often fulfilled through corrupt enrichment. Corruption in this explanation has many participants besides the politician or bureaucrat who actually engages in the act. It is an explanation that understands corruption through the prism of mass complicity and cultural toleration.

This explanation captures some of the reality of corruption in Africa. The typical African politician does not only grapple with financial pressure from family but also from kin, clan, hometown, and ethnic constituents. Indeed, the network of people that makes corrupt acts possible and sometimes undetectable includes not just politicians and state bureaucrats but also family members, friends, ethically challenged financial and legal experts, and traditional institutions of restraint. In Africa, corruption is indeed a group act.

Because of the absence of state welfare institutions in much of Africa, political constituents expect politicians representing them to cater to their quotidian and small-scale infrastructural needs. It is generally understood and quietly tolerated that a politician has to rely on his informal access to public funds to satisfy these informal requests for patronage and largesse. Many Africans euphemistically call this “patronage politics.” They may tolerate and normalize it as African grassroots politics. To Western observers, it is corruption at its crudest.

One can argue that this is a product of the nexus of over-centralized power, access to resources, and ethnic competition (which are features of most African countries), but this hardly accounts for the multi-ethnic and socially diverse cast of actors in most corruption scandals in Africa. Or for the fact that in much of continent, corruption is often the reason why overly centrist, patrimonial, and illogical states endure and not vice versa. The tragedy of many African countries—Nigeria particularly stands out—is that corruption and patronage politics are the recurring baselines of political compromise and consensus among self-interested but bitterly divided political elites.

True as it may be, it is very easy to overrate the argument about how the nature of the states inherited from colonial times sustains corruption in Africa. Such an overstatement often elides more socially embedded, low-level, and less obvious platforms that support and legitimize corrupt acts—or at least make them seem normal. This pseudo-cultural normalization of corruption is one of the biggest obstacles in the way entrenching transparency in government bureaucracies in Africa.

Nothing encapsulates this reality more than the pervasive Nigerian fad of traditional chieftaincy institutions dolling out titles to citizens whose source of wealth is questionable at best. What does one make of African universities that routinely give out honorary degrees to patently corrupt donors? Or churches and mosques that project demonstrably corrupt members as models of piety, accomplishment, and Godly favour?

What these practices do is to invest and implicate many Africans indirectly in the phenomenon of corruption. They are subtle and invidious, but they work to co-opt many Africans, even without their self-conscious consent, into the cultural and religious contexts in which corrupt acts and corrupt persons find rehabilitation and validation.

The result is that many Africans, even while expressing outrage against corruption privately, are publicly indifferent to its manifestation, especially if they are situated in social networks that benefit from the patronage politics through which corruption thrives. As a result they may feel too culturally complicit to take a stand. This kind of complicity makes official policy against corruption difficult because it mitigates the public pressure necessary for official action against corruption.

But Africans also draw clear moral lines in their narrative on corruption. Their tolerance for patronage and its lubrication by state resources does not prevent them from condemning the abuse of this kind of politics by greedy politicians. Nor does it blind them to the political excess of treasury looting for purely personal enrichment. The distinction between patronage and brazen theft of state funds may not always be clear, and one may morph into the other, but Africans recognize the destructive impact of the latter, and the moral evil that it represents. They know enough to make a distinction between the politician who practices vulgar populism with state funds and the one who stuffs his local and foreign bank accounts with budgeted funds meant for capital investments. The two forms of political behaviour do not affect Africa’s economies to the same degree. This is not a pedantic distinction. It is crucial for separating hysteria from reality.

This complex reality has sometimes been caricatured as mass African complicity in corruption, a kind of racial indictment on Africans, who are allegedly genetically and culturally predisposed to corruption. The more elegant variant of this thinking contends that corruption may be endemic in Africa but that this is because what Westerners call corruption is a historical, ever-present culture of patron-client relationships that are now lubricated, quite understandably, by postcolonial state resources. Some people go so far as to insinuate that Africans do not see corruption as corruption but as a proud, if atavistic, return to an African culture of the big man and his responsibilities. Like all stereotypical renderings of Africa, this argument exaggerates an African social reality for dramatic effect. Indeed, the dramatization and extrapolation of cultural norms that may or may not foster corruption is one of the bedrocks of conventional Western understandings of Africa.

One cannot deny that there is some cultural continuity between the African past and present, but much of the argument about Africa being a natural cultural habitat for corruption is cultural relativism taken too far. Some of it borders dangerously on intellectualized racism. Africans are more cognizant of corruption and its devastating impacts than are other peoples precisely because corruption, in its postcolonial vulgarity, represents a perversion of familiar, largely harmless African practices of political patronage. It is precisely because this perversion is recent, and not historical, that Africans consistently express outrage, even if a largely impotent one, against corruption.

So pervasive is this narrative of mass complicity in corruption in Africa that many Africans themselves have appropriated it as a rhetorical device in their own discourses on corruption. There is a particularly Nigerian spin on this paradigm that must be discredited. It is very common to hear Nigerians argue that no Nigerian is free of the stigma or aura of corruption. It is argued that every Nigerian knows, is related to, or has benefited from someone who is corrupt. The argument is that it is impossible to exculpate oneself from the collective guilt of corruption when one functions in a corrupt system with gradations and varieties of corrupt practices.

But this narrative conflates a wide variety of corrupt practices, assigns them the same impact, and attributes to them the same moral outcomes. In analyzing the impact of corruption on Africa—which should be the focus of anti-corruption anxieties—the distinction between an African politician who fritters away $5 million of his country’s funds and a poorly paid policeman who collects a bribe of 50 cents from an erring motorist is a significant one. For it is not the low-level, quotidian acts of corruption—as bad as they are—that are responsible for the egregious impacts of corruption in Africa. It may be hard to organically disentangle those two forms of corruption but it would be analytically disingenuous to equate their impact on African people.

There is another problem with the rhetoric of vicarious corruption guilt. Humans are not unconscious automatons who must yield to the push and pull of the institutional and societal regimes in which they operate. They are able to manoeuvre in the crevices of even the most tainted of systems, and to project their ethical and moral convictions within the most impervious institutions of corruption. Most Africans are indeed people of strong moral convictions who would normally condemn corruption in unequivocal terms.

The mass guilt implied by this discourse of moral imprisonment to society’s vices ostensibly disqualifies every potential critic of corruption from speaking or acting against the scourge. The rhetoric of mass complicity has the capacity to disarm the African critic of corruption. It has the capacity to intimidate opponents of corrupt African institutions into a moral stupor. What is truly disturbing about it, however, is its reliance on the same rhetorical motif of a shared, ubiquitous, and generic culture of corruption in Africa. Lost in this kind of argument are the individual African’s free agency and his ethical foundations. Those who make these claims imply erroneously that Africans are helpless captives of their distorted and corrupted institutions.

The Africanization of corruption proceeds from this mindset, but it is especially troubling to see Africans participating in this localization of a universal phenomenon.

Roots of Misunderstanding

Many of the problematic assumptions about corruption in Africa stem from observations skewed in favour of the incidence, rather than the consequences and impacts of corruption. In a refreshing, if deeply problematic, departure from this way of thinking about corruption, one Nigerian cyber commentator once contended that we should perhaps make peace with the inevitability of some political corruption in Africa. Anti-corruption crusaders should instead worry about the use to which the proceeds of corruption is put, and about the destination of corruptly acquired funds. According to this smugly pragmatic position, all political corruptions are not created equal and do not affect Africans in the same way.

This prognosis is of course problematic, but it is partly right to refocus attention on corruption’s impact. Focusing on the incidence and frequency of corruption in Africa misses the point of caring about corruption in the first place: its unsavoury impact on peoples and societies. The Western obsession with corruption in Africa inspires many media headlines about the phenomenon. These headlines might tempt one to think that Africans are, by nature and nurture, more corrupt than other peoples. Many Westerners and some Africans actually believe this to be true, partly because every discussion of Africa’s economic and political predicaments devolves lazily into a lamentation about corruption. But what is the statistical and evidentiary basis of this belief in Africa’s pre-eminence in the dishonourable hierarchy of corruption? It is, for the most part, founded on the familiar Western quest for a different, exotic Africa governed by different ethical and moral impulses and concerns. The statistical truth is that, per capita, Africans are much less corrupt than Westerners.

The real problem of corruption in Africa is not “African corruption” per se; Africans are not more stealing from their government treasuries or corporate entities than other peoples. In terms of figures and volume, Africa’s corruption scandals pale in significance when compared to Western ones. After all, Africa did not produce Enron, WorldCom, and other corporate corruption scandals that destroyed investments and threatened financial markets. Also, the raw sum of Africa’s yearly capital loss to corruption does not come close to that of Western countries.

In the light of this, and contrary to what many in the West believe, the justifiable outrage against corruption in Africa cannot be founded on the prevalence of corruption on the continent, which is lower than in the Western World, but on the moral consequences of corruption, which are much greater in Africa than they are in the West. The emphasis should be on the impacts and not on the prevalence or volume of corruption in Africa. This emphasis is the most politically neutral, least stereotypical, and most powerful way to inspire the necessary social angst against corruption in Africa.

This point deserves some elaboration. In the West, the impact of government and corporate corruption is absorbed by the sheer size of Western economies. The shock of corruption is therefore hardly felt beyond the media frenzy that characterizes the prosecution of culprits and the lamentations of individuals who lose savings and investments to corporate scandals. Such corruption hardly ever translates to infrastructural problems for society as a whole, much less cause the breakdown of political institutions. Despite widespread incidents of corporate and public corruption in Western countries, public utilities like electricity, water, and telecommunications, and social infrastructures such as roads, hospitals, and schools are hardly ever disrupted.

In Africa, on the other hand, corruption kills, literally. The embezzlement, mismanagement, or misapplication of public funds often leads to a cessation of certain social services, or the non-completion of a road, school, or hospital project. The deterioration and scarcity of infrastructure and social services have worsened in direct proportion to the corruption problem. The loss of public funds to corruption translates inevitably to a lack of medicine in a rural hospital; a lack of access to education for millions of African children; a lack of potable drinking water and electricity for millions of Africans; and a lack of good transportation infrastructure. All these can and do lead to millions of preventable deaths yearly.

This greater moral consequence of corruption in Africa is not a product of “African corruption” being greater than “Western corruption.” No. Western societies function as well as they do, in spite of the prevalence, not because of the absence, of corruption. The devastating consequences of corruption in Africa occur because the small size of African economies magnifies the impacts of the theft of government funds. African economies are so small that, to use a popular expressive cliché, every corruption shows. The problem is not corruption or its prevalence per se; it is its morally reprehensible impact.

This perspective should mitigate some of the hysterical pontifications on “African corruption” by Westerners. Columbia University economist, Jeffery Sachs, is one Westerner who refuses to participate in this feel-good hysteria and shuns the advancement of corruption as an alibi for doing nothing about poverty in Africa. He rejects the growing Western consensus that unless corruption is eradicated from Africa, no development can occur and no anti-poverty intervention would work. His belief, which I share, is that corruption is largely a symptom of poverty in Africa, not its original cause. The continent’s poverty, he argues, stems, among other things, from the environmental misfortune of poor soil, resource-poverty, and uneven resource distribution. One does not have to believe that geography determines economic destiny (as does Jared Diamond, the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel) to recognize that these conditions produce poverty. And that corruption—or, more appropriately, its impact and social toleration—are the outgrowth of poverty. Conversely, corruption, contrary to popular belief, is not the fundamental causative agent of poverty in Africa, although it has served to perpetuate and worsen it.

If a country is already poor, corruption can become a death sentence for its citizens. That is the reality of most African countries. But if a country is not poor, corruption’s impact on its citizens’ standard of living will be insignificant. This has been the reality in the West.

There are two major forms of corruption in Africa—the official and the quotidian. Of these two, official corruption is the most consequential in terms of poverty and underdevelopment. Yet Western commentators routinely pretend that quotidian corruption is as harmful to Africa as official malfeasance, that the former begets the latter, and that this is illustrative of an African genetic inclination to corruption and disdain for accountability and the rule of law. This is reverse logic. The corruption of state officials perpetuates and exacerbates the poverty that nurtures quotidian citizen corruption—the corrupt practices of the African street—not the other way round. In other words, poverty is the mother of corruption. It is also, sadly, sometimes its devastating outcome.

Corruption is as integral to humanity as greed. It is in fact largely a by-product of greed. If it would be unrealistic to expect Africans to break with humanity by completely ridding their continent of greed, it would be equally escapist to envision the elimination of corruption in Africa as a precondition for meaningful interventions and policymaking in the fight against poverty on the continent. For even if one were to device a magical formula for eradicating corruption from Africa, in defiance of the human reality of greed, Africa would still relatively be poor. Such a feat would not obliterate the stubborn reality of Africa’s resource-poverty, the lingering legacies of historical injuries inflicted on its people and landscape, the ecological bad fortune of poor soils in a predominantly agricultural continent, and the economic and trade hegemonies that continue to crush Africans’ economic hopes.

The discourse of “African corruption,” long advanced as an alibi by visionless African leaders and cynically condescending Western commentators to foreclose developmental visions for the continent and to justify their inertia, incompetence, and aloofness, is thus largely a red herring. It continues to distract attention from the fundamental structural poverty of Africa and from the fundamental economic disadvantages into which history, geography, and subaltern experiences have interpellated the continent.

The most potent weapon against corruption—and poverty—may therefore be the creation of wealth through sensible economic policies and partnerships and the deliberate democratization and redistribution of such created wealth. If poverty and economic insecurity, especially in countries without welfare systems and social safety nets, fuel corruption, wealth creation, the provision of basic human comforts, and the ability to provide post-work financial security and welfare benefits should minimize the incentive for bureaucratic larceny and reduce the corruption problem to the status of a residual, tolerable, insignificant social irritant—the product of an isolated but natural human predilection for greed. This is the social status of corruption in the West.

Simplistic understandings of corruption in Africa is a recipe for inaction and must, for all practical policy reasons, give way to a more nuanced understanding of the phenomenon.


By, Moses Ochonu; Nigerian assistant professor of history at Vanderbilt University

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