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
When Jim O’Neill coined the term “BRIC” in 2001, many would not have foreseen the word becoming anything beyond a witty-sounding macro economic term destined to be cited in academic papers and make conference speakers sound erudite. However about a decade and a half later, the countries comprised in the acronym – Brazil, Russia, India and China – now referred to as BRICS following the inclusion of South Africa in 2010 have seized the opportunity provided by the coinage of the term to pursue their individual and collective economic and political objectives.
The numbers reveal why the BRICS are important enough to occasion O’Neill’s prediction that they would become the economic powers of the 21st Century. Between them, these countries boast 42 percent of the world’s population, 26 percent of its’s land territory and 27 percent of global GDP. The potential economic benefits of cooperation amongst these countries are enormous, not just for the BRICS, but also for the global economy. In this respect, the agreement by the BRICS to create a New Development Bank following their summit in Brazil in 2014 was of significant note for developing and developed countries alike. There are also political implications of cooperation amongst BRICS. Two out of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia and China – are BRICS countries and the group has engaged in the discussion of issues like the Libyan crisis and issues relating to the Iran nuclear situation at its summits.
But what about Africa? How should countries on the continent act and react to the emergence and policies of the BRICS? Should they even be concerned at all?
Perhaps, the starting point should be considering the position and role of the only African country in the group. Since joining the group in 2010, South Africa has significantly grown the size of its bilateral trade with other BRICS countries, with China leading the way. This is however attributable to South Africa’s membership of the group and not a result of a particular policy on development cooperation with an African country or countries by the BRICS.
Like I noted in my last blog, it would appear that in this case too, countries in Africa are content playing a passive role, rather than taking proactive steps to seize the opportunity provided by the BRIC countries as an emerging alternative to the established global economic order that has failed perennially to genuinely promote growth on the continent.
Two decades after the formation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and about 15 years after the much-celebrated Doha round of negotiations, it is crystal clear that the WTO has failed woefully to achieve the purposes for its formation, at least on the part of developing countries. The unfair imbalance in world trade that prompted anti-globalisation protests that culminated in the formation of the WTO, amongst other measures remain entrenched and continue to perpetuate a global trade system which completely sidelines developing countries in favour of the economic and political interests of global powers.
In the light of this, it would be expected that countries in Africa would embrace, without prompting, any alternative system, like that provided by the BRICS to further their development goals. It is curious to find that African leaders like President Buhari of Nigeria attended the G7 summit in Germany with a sizeable delegation to ‘solicit the sympathy’ of leaders there, whereas there was hardly even negligible media coverage of the BRICS summit which took place in Russia just a few weeks later.
No matter how much aid is given to African countries or what piecemeal trade incentives are included in bilateral trade deals between countries on the continent and globals powers like EU countries and the US, without fundamental changes to the global economic system, no significant development that has the potential to breach the massive gulf between developing and developed countries can be achieved.
Although, the BRICS are not looking at expanding their membership anytime soon, countries in Africa should be willing and ready to participate in such expansion when it does happen. In the meantime, they should look to take advantage of the BRICS New Development Bank when it becomes fully operational.
Also, in addition to the prospects for trade and development cooperation, countries in Africa can learn valuable lessons and gain insights from the fact that some of the BRICS countries, with China being the most outstanding case, have achieved unprecedented levels of growth by adopting alternative models of development, distinct from the predominant liberal economy model promoted and thrust upon African countries by the west with negligible results over the years.
A central theme of Paul Collier’s book, The Bottom Billion discusses how most countries in Africa were left behind by the boat of development that was responsible for the growth of most erstwhile poor countries especially in Asia decades ago. The fact remains that every couple of decades, major economic events around the globe occur which have the potential of tilting the world economy in favour of certain regions or countries with particular attributes. These may ostentatious events like a recession or subtle like the witty naming of a group of countries as BRICS or MINT by a clairvoyant economist.
Taking advantage of these situations require good use of intellect, foresight and proactive action, and in the current state of global relations, countries in Africa must be ready to take advantage of such situations to stand any chance of achieving development that will lifts it population out of poverty.