At what point can a person afford not to steal? I think about this question often, particularly in regard to public corruption in Africa. The current crop of political leaders and heads of public agencies in Africa are mostly people from my generation who grew up there in the 1960s and 1970s. Those were times when populations across the continent were uniformly poor. The vast majority of us therefore knew, and should know even now, how to survive on modest resources. Why then, do some African public officials steal from state coffers to the tune of millions, sometimes billions of dollars?
In a recent article, The Economist cited data from Chatam House, a British think-tank, showing that since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, an estimated $582 billion has been stolen from the country by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s former dictator, is said to have stashed billions of dollars in his personal accounts overseas. Switzerland returned $500 million out of those billions to Nigeria, only for much of it to disappear into the pockets of those currently in power, according to the article, which also detailed several similarly egregious forms of corruption in other African countries.
Certainly, these sudden and often unexplainable poor-to-ultra-wealthy transformations of public officials occur elsewhere. Examples abound in many post-Soviet states, as well as parts of Latin America and Asia. However, the phenomenon is particularly interesting in the African context because of the hypocrisy often associated with it. The looters there consistently blame their continent’s status as the poorest place on earth on the legacy of colonialism, while never acknowledging their own roles in perpetuating that status.
Even under the best of circumstances, it was never going to be easy to transform any African country into an economically prosperous society after independence. Apart from their pillaging of resources, the colonial powers created many African states as amalgams of disparate tribes with different languages and cultures, resulting in intense tribalism that makes governing them inevitably arduous. That necessarily requires strong, serious leaders; sadly, the majority of countries have had the exact opposite.
While many African leaders of recent decades have been characterized as strongmen, about the only thing they have seemed serious about is finding ways to satisfy their insatiable appetites for wealth. A Nigerian court reportedly ordered the seizure of $40 million worth of jewelry and a gold iPhone from a recent oil minister, items she allegedly acquired with stolen money. Another court is said to have permitted the Nigerian government to seize a $37.5 million apartment block owned by the same minister in a tony neighborhood in Lagos, the country’s commercial capital.
The effects of the looting are compounded by the failure of leaders to do even the bare basics required to put structures in place for sustainable socio-economic development. A favorite excuse nowadays is that heavy meddling in Africa’s internal affairs by external powers is an inhibiting factor. There may be some merit to that argument, but it is largely spurious. Many non-African countries have managed to put their houses in order relatively well while grappling with similar geopolitical headwinds. South Korea and Vietnam are prime examples.
In 2005, the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized nations implemented a debt-forgiveness program for several impoverished African countries. The goal was to free up the enormous resources that those poor countries were using to service their dollar-denominated debts, thereby giving them opportunities to focus on building the basic infrastructures they needed to jumpstart their economies. Things did not go according to plan. Most of those African countries have since returned to the markets to borrow heavily in dollars. The tragedy is that there is little to show for all that subsequent borrowing.
On top of the debt forgiveness, the billions of dollars in aid provided by the developed world haven’t done much good either. Much of it is routinely stolen, which has led some donor countries to freeze or withdraw budgetary support to some African governments. In 2012, the European Union froze aid to Uganda over corruption. Five other European countries had previously taken that action. Aid dollars reportedly funded a quarter of Uganda’s national budget then so the real losers were poor Ugandans whose dire living conditions could have been alleviated somewhat by the social services provided by that aid.
There are those who say the developed world gives aid with one hand and takes it back with the other through award of contracts to companies from donor countries. That argument rings rather hollow as well. In part, it is the lack of trust that motivates donors to hire those external operators who, because of their unfamiliarity with the cultures and actual needs on the ground, often end up making things worse for the people they are supposed to be helping.
In Africa, where millions of people survive on less than $2 a day, one would think that no one needs tens of millions of dollars to live comfortably. Perhaps $2 million should be enough to make it unnecessary for any African public servant to continue stealing?
“You can live quite well on $5 million,” says a correspondent at The Economist, in reference to the Mo Ibrahim prize, established in 2007 to be awarded annually to an African leader who governs honestly and leaves office when his or her term expires. Thus far, there have been few takers. Reportedly, for seven of the 12 years since the award was established, no worthy recipient was identified. The prize is not attractive enough, apparently. Why settle for $5 million when one can easily steal $500 million—or more—without fear of consequences?
There is certainly much that Africans and their governors can complain about, regarding the way the rest of the world has exploited the continent historically. But it is time for the leaders to stand up and credibly demonstrate that they are better than the colonial masters. They are quickly running out of excuses.