By Matthew Ayibakuro
It is almost impossible to go through any material on development in Africa without coming across the word corruption. Hardly any speech on development of countries in Africa would come to an end without the mention of the “C” word. It is the go-to word, the toast of academics, analysts, practitioners, politicians, anyone really. In fact, irrespective of the country or sector you are interested in on the continent, when asked what the major challenge is, you cannot go wrong by starting your answer with the almighty “C” word. Anything else comes after the big “C”.
However in a continent where most countries multi-ethnic and are still grappling with achieving sustainable economic growth in an unfair global trading system, maintaining political stability, confronting terrorism and other security challenges and dealing with social inequities, amongst others, is corruption the only impediment to development in countries in Africa? In fact, is it even the major challenge?
The current state of the discourse on the subject or corruption in Africa is a demonstration of how the narrative of a subject can so easily be refashioned and redirected with reckless abandon. Until the famous speech of the then president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn in 1996 when he referred to the cancer of corruption as a major barrier to development which had to be dealt with urgently, corruption was considered one of the many challenges to development. As far back as 1988, the Africa Leadership Forum identified some of these challenges to include capacity building, food security, efficiency of trade investments, regional and sub-regional economic integration, food security, inequality and poverty.
Post-1996, following Wolfensohn’s speech at the annual general meeting of the World bank, the Bank and other financial institutions have led the way in making corruption the major focus of development efforts. Budgets for good governance-related development assistance has burgeoned at an alarming rate. Everyone else has followed and there are no signs of this narrative and therefore focus dwindling anytime soon.
Elections in most countries in Africa are growingly becoming about corruption and little more else. The most recent presidential elections in Nigeria provides a perfect example with the opposition candidate Gen. Muhammadu Buhari essentially riding to power on the promise of eradicating corruption. Very few appeared to have taken note that the election was held at a time when the economy of Nigeria was in dire straits following the slump in oil prices, the value of its currency was also in free-fall and its economic prospects for the rest of the year, at least, looked uncertain. All these challenges were however overshadowed by the issue of corruption. That Nigerians elected Buhari is yet another indication of the popular belief that the end of corruption would automatically translate to development. The economic woes of the country remain and four months after the election, there are no indications in terms of policy to steer the country to economic safety.
It would be foolhardy to deny the importance of fighting corruption in countries in Africa. However, doing so at the expense of most other pivotal issues challenging development on the continent might prove to be even more costly than corruption itself on the long run. The challenges identified by the Africa Leadership Forum referred to above remain relevant and visible today on the continent as they were decades ago, and whereas fighting corruption is intrinsically linked to solving some of them, most others have little or nothing to do with the corruption. Questions are being raised on whether some African countries have even successfully shaken off their colonial legacies and how this might be impacting on their development. More global issues impeding development of countries on the continent like the unfair imbalance in the multilateral trading system under the WTO also continue to impede meaningful economic growth.
The majority of people who prioritize the fight against corruption appear caught up in the challenge of deciphering the myth and the reality about the prevalence of corruption on the continent. Between the consistent headlines and sleek research findings of organisations like Transparency International, it is hard to criticise their conviction.
But it is time for African countries to recognise the fact that achieving sustainable development and having a chance of catching up with the rest of the world in terms of development goes beyond just fighting corruption. Ignoring the many other equally vital issues would be at the peril of countries on the continent. Those who succeed in eradicating, or at least minimising corruption, might just wake up to the fact that corruption was probably just a little more than a needle in a haystack in this prodigious field of development.
By Matthew Ayibakuro
It would seem that relative stability has returned to Burundi after days of uncertainty on the leadership of the country and weeks of protests and violence over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in office. Majority of the alleged coup leaders are in custody and have already appeared before a prosecutor, whilst the leader of the coup, Godefroid Niyombare, a general and ex-intelligence chief, is said to be still at large.
A couple of days ago, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya asked his counterpart Nkurunziza to postpone the presidential election due next month, to create a conducive environment, but to ensure that the vote be held within the current electoral cycle in the country, which comes to an end in late August. Nkurunziza is back in the country and back in charge; three members of his cabinet were promptly dismissed while soldiers have been deployed to ensure that the protests do not continue. Only time will tell if the fires set alight by the recent events have finally been quenched.
Meanwhile in a rather dramatic twist, Nkurunziza, in his first speech back in the country chose to speak only about the country being under attack from the Somali-based al-Qaeda-linked group al-Shabab. No words are spoken about the over 105,000 Burundians who have reportedly fled the country because of the crisis, or about the many lives lost in the process. Whether or not al-Shabab’s refutal of the claims of any impending attack against Burundi is believed or not, the fact that this was the principal message in his first appearance in the capital after the now-referred-to-as-attempted coup is a clear indication that the President does not grasp the magnitude and implications of the situation and his actions. Perhaps he just does not care.
Third Term-ism and Perpetual Leadership in Africa and Beyond: Reaction of the International Community
Perhaps, he believes he is in good company in the context of political leadership in Africa. After all, just last month, Togo’s Faure Gnassingbe and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir were both re-elected as leaders of their respective countries. Whilst Faure is beginning his third term in office despite widespread protests, Bashir is a ‘veteran’ who has been in power since 1989. In fact, it is no news that there are similar long-serving leaders in Zimbabwe, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Cameroun Eritrea and Uganda.
This list could actually admit a few more countries and it is this profusion that probably emboldens leaders like Nkurunziza to believe they can get away with extending their tenures by any means necessary, including threatening supreme court judges into exile and shooting live ammunition at protesters. Outside Africa, countries like Iran, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Iceland and Syria also boasts similarly long-serving leaders. It is indeed a global phenomenon.
In terms of the reaction of the international community to events like those in Burundi, the United Nations and the African Union, as expected, would usually release press statements condemning the coup attempt, whilst at the same time “urging” members states to respect their constitutions. And so they did. The leaders of the countries in question are often called by the Secretary General of the UN or some other “powerful” leader, and we are informed that they have been told basically the same message contained in the press statements, making you wonder what was the essence of the call in the first place. Beyond this, whether or not anything more is done by the international community falls to the grey realm of conspiracy theories on reasons why countries like the United States of America or organisations like NATO invades one country to topple a government, and not the other. This is a subject for another day.
The Rise of the Masses
In the last decade, and especially since 2011, the masses in various countries are beginning to stand up against leaders who display a propensity to perpetuate themselves in office. The unprecedented events of the Arab Spring provides the most palpable instances. However, as recent as last year, Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso was forced to resign his office as President after 27 years at the helm amid violent protests against his continued stay in power.
Whilst the masses play their role, it is time for the international community, and especially the United Nations and regional organisations to start lay out a clear strategy and approach towards leaders bent on perpetuating themselves in office. It makes no sense to condemn the actions of Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi, while simultaneously asking Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled his country for 29 years, to intervene and help resolve the crisis in Burundi.
It is important for the UN and other regional bodies to establish unequivocally what the approach to this issue should be. There should either be clear condemnation of such leaders and actions to support same, or a straightforward acceptance of the situation on grounds of sovereignty or whatever makes sense. The approach of lukewarmness adopted over the years has borne little or no fruits in Africa and elsewhere.
ECOWAS Taking the Lead
Encouragingly, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has decided to take the lead on this as it pushes to consider a new clause that would prohibit presidents of members states from staying beyond two terms. If successful, this would be a welcome development that should be replicated in other regions of the continent, and indeed the UN, towards creating a lasting solution to the concern of self-perpetuating leaders.
Not oblivious of the challenge inherent in implementing a clause like this in the context of international law, ECOWAS intends to adopt a new legal regime for Community Acts that will make all ECOWAS decisions immediately applicable and binding on member states and eliminate the need for parliamentary ratifications.
Whilst one awaits the outcome of initiatives like that of ECOWAS, there is no doubt that the most significant step towards putting a stop to perpetual leaders remains popular uprising. There is nothing that will prove as successful as the masses themselves rising against such leaders. It proved successful against Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo’s bid for a third term back in 2006/2007. It pushed Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore out of office in 2014, and considering the masses have remained on the streets even after the failed coup in Burundi, it is safe to say that the last has not been heard of that particular situation.
The power-drunk leaders in Africa are slowly but surely coming to the realization that ‘kangaroo’ referendums, manipulated constitutional amendments and intimidation of the judiciary would no longer be enough to secure a life presidency.