Sweet scent of corruption leads to destruction

One of the greatest threats to good governance is political corruption – the use of power by politicians and government officials for illegitimate purposes. Politicians and state agents use their authority to sustain their power and to accumulate wealth. In some cases, they exempt themselves from enforcing the laws that they themselves have made. In other cases, they tailor the constitution to protect their own interests.

A common form of political corruption is financial contributions for electioneering by wealthy citizens, multinational companies or ‘friendly’ countries. Here, even if the contributions may be legal and do not constitute a quid pro quo, they tend to destroy the confidence of the people because ordinary citizens see their leaders as unscrupulous people who are prepared to mortgage their country to remain in power.

In some developed countries, for example, wealthy tycoons sponsor particular presidential candidates to protect their business interests. And in some African countries the incumbent ruling party uses state resources, such as money from the treasury, the civil service, police, army, and government vehicles, to run its election campaign. It is also common that former colonial powers or multinational companies assist preferred leaders financially or militarily so that they can get into or remain in power. This is done in the hope that the sponsors will be given preferential treatment to exploit the natural resources of the country.

Class, tribe, gender

Another form of political corruption is ‘patronage’, which refers to favouring supporters over members of the opposition. Where this occurs, the ruling party appoints top officials to its administration from its own supporters. Quite often, the officials are selected not on merit but for their loyalty and as a way of rewarding them for supporting the regime.

Patronage may also come about in different forms, such as appointing people to influential positions from a particular group of people, class, tribe or gender. For example, in many Arab countries it depends on whether you are a Sunni or Shiite and generally women are excluded from holding public office. In Europe and North America, it depends on the class to which you belong, such as the bourgeois, middle or working class. And in many African, Asian and South American countries, patronage takes the form of favouring the tribe, race or caste from which the ruling party draws its support base. The end result of this form of corruption is that the government is blotted with officials who are not necessarily competent but are officials whose trump card is their tribal or social grouping rather than their ability.

Political corruption can also take the form of ‘nepotism’, which is the favouring of relatives for certain positions in government or for awarding big tenders. A more subtle form of political corruption is ‘cronyism’ which involves the appointment of friends to influential positions.

In many countries, a combination of nepotism and cronyism has led to the malfunctioning or collapse of vital organisations such as national railways, airlines, town councils and utilities because they are headed by cronies. And who suffers? It is ordinary citizens who subsidise the inefficient public institutions through paying heavy taxes to keep the state institutions operating.

The more common type of corruption that takes place on a daily basis is ‘palm greasing’ or ‘graft’. This occurs at the implementation level of the law, regulation or policy. Because the bureaucratic system in place is slow, inefficient or cumbersome, some officials solicit a modest sum of money so that a particular service can be provided. In some cases, those seeking the service grease the palm of the official in exchange for a faster service, or they pay a bribe in order to avoid paying a fine for committing an offence.

Petty bribes

In some SADC countries, petty bribes are often paid to get a passport, a driver’s licence, birth or marriage certificate, visa, tax rebate and so on.

In 2012, Transparency International, which measures the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among government officers, suggests that corruption in some West, East African and Asian countries is so endemic that it has become embedded in the social life of the people.

The exception in Africa is Botswana, which is an oasis of hope and remains a shining example of very low levels of corruption. This is commendable because it shows that where there is transparency and good governance, corruption can be minimised.

One of the factors retarding the development of Africa as opposed to Asia is economic corruption. This involves awarding tenders fraudulently to relatives and friends.

As earlier pointed out under nepotism, too often big tenders are unfairly awarded to the children, relatives and friends of those at the upper echelons of government. Such companies swindle the government and either do not complete the job for which they were awarded the tender, or do a shoddy job. As a result of this economic corruption, we now have a post-colonial new class of mega-rich people – the tender-preneurs whose wealth comes from the tenders they win.

Similarly, the secret deals that are entered into for the exploitation of minerals such as oil, gold, diamonds, platinum, nickel, uranium, and other precious minerals directly benefit those who control the levers of power and the investors, but very little trickles down to the common person.

The existence of rampant corruption in Africa has led some people to suggest that Africans are corrupt by nature. This is not true because there is no race or group of people who are inherently corrupt. Corruption is a world phenomenon that thrives in societies where there is a deficit of certain conditions.

One of the most fertile grounds for corruption is ‘information deficit’. In a country where power has been converted into tyranny and where there is no freedom of expression, there is bound to be unmitigated corruption because newspapers, radio, television and other social networks are not allowed to exercise their normal role of being the watchdog of public and private conduct.

Lack of information

Another aspect that brings about corruption is the poor supervision of the functions of government. Big time corruption in our modern era exists because public institutions are too many and difficult to supervise. For instance, a large and poorly-paid civil service is likely to be corrupt. In many African countries, the government is the single largest employer with many departments that duplicate the functions of each other. Civil servants often spend their time doing other things so that they can supplement their meagre salaries. When the opportunity to get money arises, they do not hesitate to take bribes.

The sale of state-owned property and privatisation invites large-scale corruption because top officials in government seize the opportunity to buy state property at very low prices. As the economy grows, large and poorly supervised public investments, such as roads, railways, airports, seaports, power stations, dams, government offices, schools and other public investments open doors for getting kickbacks. Also a windfall from exporting abundant mineral resources, often called the ‘resource curse’, encourages corruption.

Probably the single most important factor that brings about corruption is the social conditions in a country. War and other forms of social conflict bring about a breakdown of public security, which in turn catalyses the conditions for corruption.

And end to corruption?

But is there a solution to corruption? One must admit that the fight against corruption is not easy. This is because corruption takes place secretly and involves two parties who mutually agree to commit the crime.

However, we can adopt certain measures to curb it. Perhaps the starting point is the individual and the family. As individuals, we need to uphold values of honesty, trustworthiness, integrity and fair play and discourage greediness and avarice. As a family and society, we need to pass on to our children the virtues of integrity, hard work and trust, and to impress upon them that no matter how strong the sweet scent of corruption can be, it always leads to self-destruction.

In practical terms, we need to insist on the rule of law by maintaining civic rights based on good governance that is transparent, and a government that carries out the will of the people. In particular, we need to remain vigilant and to insist on the supremacy of the social contract between the people and the government. Those who do not abide by the social contract have no right to be in power.

Similarly, we need to resist tyranny because we know from past experience that it thrives on corruption. We should also develop a culture of tenacity, the one that makes us stand up to injustice. If we keep quiet, we will be equally guilty of being accomplices to corruption. Therefore, we need to speak against it through the newspapers, the radio, television, social media, and non-governmental and civic organisations. In doing so, we may deal corruption the fatal blow.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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