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Africorruption, Inc.

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Transparency International [TI] (the global coalition against corruption) has just released its 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Once again, Africa has the dubious honor of being Kleptocracy Central, the continental home of the most corrupt governments in the world. Leading the parade of kleptocracies are the regimes in Ethiopia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya and the warlords of Somalia.

The CPI measures “the perceived level of public-sector corruption in 180 countries and territories around the world” based on data and analysis provided by such organizations as the African Development Bank, Economist Intelligence Unit, IHS Global Insight, the Institute for Management Development, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum. A high index score on the 10 point scale means less perceived corruption.

TI defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. By that definition, the foregoing African countries scored an atrocious 3.0 or less. In certain countries, the corruption trend appears to be irreversible. For instance, in 2002, Ethiopia received a dismal score of 3.5 on the corruption index. In 2009, eight years after the ruling regime had established the “Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission” (FEAC) with great fanfare and after periodic reports of “major accomplishments” in combating corruption, Ethiopia’s score dropped to an abysmal 2.7.

Corruption in Africa can no longer be viewed as a simple criminal matter of prosecuting a few dozen petty government officials and others for bribery, extortion, fraud and embezzlement, as FEAC seems to believe in its reports. As Peter Eigen, founder and chairman of TI argues, “[C]orruption leads to a violation of human rights in at least three respects: corruption perpetuates discrimination, corruption prevents the full realisation of economic, social, and cultural rights, and corruption leads to the infringement of numerous civil and political rights.” Beyond that, corruption undermines the very essence of the rule of law and destroys citizens’ trust in political leaders, public officials and political institutions.

The poor and powerless bear the brunt of corruption in Africa. The devastating impact of corruption on the continent’s poor becomes self-evident as political leaders and public officials siphon off resources from critical school, hospital, road and other public works and community projects to line their pockets. For instance, reports of widespread corruption in Ethiopia in the form of outright theft and embezzlement of public funds, misuse and misappropriation of state property, nepotism, bribery, abuse of public authority and position to exact corrupt payments and gain are commonplace. The anecdotal stories of corruption in Ethiopia are shocking to the conscience. Doctors are unable to treat patients at the public hospitals because medicine and supplies are diverted for private gain. Tariffs are imposed on medicine and medical supplies brought into the country for public charity. Businessmen complain that they are unable to get permits and licenses without paying huge bribes or taking officials as silent partners.

Publicly-owned assets are acquired by regime-supporters or officials through illegal transactions and fraud. Banks loan millions of dollars to front enterprises owned by regime officials or their supporters without sufficient or proper collateral. Businessmen must pay huge bribes or kickbacks to participate in public contracting and procurement. Those involved in the import/export business complain of shakedowns by corrupt customs officials. The judiciary is thoroughly corrupted through political interference and manipulation as evidenced in the various high profile political prosecutions. Ethiopians on holiday visits driving about town complain of shakedowns by police thugs on the streets. Two months ago, Ethiopia’s former president Dr. Negasso Gidada offered substantial evidence of systemic political corruption by documenting the misuse and abuse of political power for partisan electoral advantage. Last week, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelley stated that the U.S. is investigating allegations that “$850 million in food and anti-poverty aid from the U.S. is being distributed on the basis of political favoritism by the current prime minister’s party.”

Over the past two years, high profile corruption cases have been reported in the media. According to FEAC, in one case it was established that “USD$16 million dollars” worth of gold bars simply walked out of the bank. FEAC described the heist as a “huge scandal that took place in the Country’s National Bank and took many Ethiopians by surprise [in which] corruptors dared to steal lots of pure gold bars that belonged to the Ethiopian people replacing them with gilded irons… Some employees of the Bank, business people, managers and other government employees were allegedly involved in this disastrous and disgracing scandal.”

In another case involving a telecommunications deal with the Chinese, a high level regime official was secretly tape recorded trying to extort kickbacks for himself and other regime officials. FEAC reported that “there was another big corruption case at the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation that took many Ethiopians by surprise” which involved the “competitive tendering for the supply of telecommunication equipment.” After an investigation, FEAC “found out that nearly 200 million USD has been lost to corruption through the entire fraudulent and corrupt process.”

Many corrupt African regimes have sought to play an anti-corruption shell game to hoodwink their international donors and the multilateral lending institutions. Nowhere is this more evident than in Ethiopia. The regime established FEAC in 2001 with the aim of ferreting out and evangelizing against corruption. As of 2005, FEAC claims to have offered ethics and anti-corruption education to more than 15,000 people and provided advisory services for 267 ethics officers on how they should fight corruption. The Prosecution Department “filed charges against 79 alleged corruption offences and obtained convictions in 28 cases.”

In 2007/08, FEAC trained 325 individuals in corruption prevention strategies and “reviewed the practices and procedures” of 34 public offices and enterprises and 110 procurement, licensing, finance, human resources, health, education, media and other entities. It investigated 296 corruption suspects for claims of “undue advantage obtained/losses caused on government” in the astounding amount of Ethiopian Birr 2,180,311,361. Among the 296 cases, the largest percentage of suspects were investigated for abuse of power (43%) followed by forgery/fraud (30%), mal-administration/ betrayal of trust (13%); embezzlement (8%); bribery (2%) and other (4%). FEAC reported that “the Court ruled on 79 preparatory hearings. Verdicts on 66 cases were passed through trial proper. Some 31 of those verdicts were given in favour of the FEACC. During the budget year, the Court rendered rulings on 48 files, out of which suspects in 43 files were found guilty.” Many of the convicted defendants were sentenced to low prison terms with nominal fines.

It is obvious that the whole “anti-corruption” drama of the ruling regime in Ethiopia is intended as political theatre for the international donors and multilateral lending institutions. It is nothing more than window dressing. No high level official in good standing with the regime has ever been investigated or prosecuted for corruption. No convincing reason has been given to explain the delay in the trial of the alleged “gold scammers” and telecom bandits given the massive, serious and unprecedented nature of the crimes. In sum, by prosecuting low level officials and others for corruption, the regime aims to divert attention from itself.

Interestingly, by doing a little “reverse engineering” on the “anti-corruption” Commission’s reports, one can accurately reconstruct with precise detail the scope and magnitude of the public corruption problem in Ethiopia in each sector, and demonstrate the gross incompetence of the various public agencies. Suffice it to say that the evidence shows that the highest incidence of corruption today occurs in the area of “abuse of power”, which points to the absence of the rule of law and substantial lack of procedures, rules and regulations that ensure individual and institutional accountability. The corrupt use of power always results in the abuse of power.

Corruption persists in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa because the people who cling to power benefit from it enormously. Having FEAC investigate the architects and beneficiaries of corruption in Ethiopia is like having Tweedle Dee investigate Tweedle Dum. It is an exercise in futility and absurdity. FEAC’s claims of saving or thwarting the loss of billions of public birr by vigilant corruption detection and prosecution are laughable cock and bull stories. Most Ethiopians do not find corruption a laughing matter; but they do feel powerless and resigned to it. They view the whole anti-corruption effort with a jaded eye. At best, corruption control in Ethiopia today is a matter of triage: Does one start investigating corruption at the very top of the regime leadership, survey the bureaucratic middle and selectively prosecute, or focus on the petty local official and the street cop for dramatic effect?

One can not reasonably expect to root out corruption by setting up a toothless and feckless anti-corruption commission, or by paying lip-service to the cause of corruption eradication to impress international donors. Corruption in Ethiopia and many parts of Africa is the principal business of the State. Effective anti-corruption efforts require an active democratic culture based on the rule of law and a vigilant citizenry empowered to confront and fight corruption in daily life. In India, for instance, they have successfully organized local “vigilance commissions” against corruption. In Brazil, they counter corruption by engaging citizens in “participatory budgeting.” In Botswana, regarded to be the least corrupt country in Africa, it is said that they have a big welcoming poster adorning the Gaborone Airport with an unusual message to incoming travelers: “Botswana has ZERO tolerance for corruption. It is illegal to offer or ask for a bribe.”

FEAC says the major sources of corruption in Ethiopia are “poor governance, lack of accountability and transparency, low level of democratic culture and tradition, lack of citizen participation, lack of clear regulations and authorization, low level of institutional control, extreme poverty and inequity, harmful cultural practices and centralization of authority.” Not quite. Poor governance, lack of accountability and transparency and the absence of the rule of law are the root causes of extreme poverty, inequity…

(Alemayehu G. Mariam is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on Pambazuka News and New American Media.)

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