African Politics


The Nature of Political Corruption in Africa (Part one)

In the year 2011, somewhere south-south of Nigeria, it was the peak of the political season. A certain politician, Senator ‘Dadman’ was campaigning against the incumbent Governor. On a particular visit to one of the strongholds of the incumbent, he and his entourage were ferociously and violently attacked by the incumbent’s kinsmen. The violence reached the capital city of the state. Lives and property worth millions were destroyed.

A few days after the incidence the authorities decided to hunt down and arrest the instigators of the violence. Unfortunately, a lot of innocent people were arrested randomly and thrown into jail. A friend and neighbour of mine happened to be one of the unlucky victims.

Two weeks after the incident, after all the dust had settled, I decided to visit him where he was being locked up in on of the state prisons. When I got to the prison’s reception and requested to sign up to see him, I was asked to give a bribe of 200 naira before I could be allowed in to see my friend. By-the-way, I wasn't the only person. There were hundreds of people waiting outside the prison premises, paying bribes to see their loved ones inside who were being lock up for a crime they probably didn't commit.

I know there is corruption in all parts of the world but the scenario I have just painted above cannot occur in places like the U.K and most of the Western world, at least not in a prevalent manner. However, in Africa corruption is a crisis. It is endemic and perverse. You can get almost nothing done in the private and public sectors of most African economies without giving or taking a bride. It is the norm, an acceptable way of life, and it not only relevant to those at the top but trickles down to the bottom. In fact, I would argue later that corruption in Africa at this present moment is from the bottom up.

Since this article is focused on the nature of political corruption in the continent, I would like to use Nigeria as a specific case study. As some of us know, Nigeria is the most populous black nation in the world with vast natural resources. In fact if there is any African nation or any nation in the African world that has the greatest potential to lead the continent and the African race out of it predicament, it is no other than Nigeria. However, Nigeria has been a colossal disappointment and the epitome of corruption in Africa.

To help us understand how things work in African politics, let us get down to the grass roots, and the process one has to go through to become a Local Government Chairman, an equivalent of a Mayor in the U.K. We will do this by assuming you are an African politician from Nigeria planning to run for the mentioned office.

- Challenges of Nigerian politics -

Conceptually local governments are supposed to be separate entities from the state governments, and should be getting their funds directly from the federal government accounts. However, the reality is that local governments get their operational funds directly from the state governors through the structure of a joint state and local government account. That is part of the problem of the Nigeria political system.

So to begin with, you must understand how the political system works. You must know that local government elections are not conducted by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) a body which happens to be the regulator of national elections from the presidency and other federal political positions down to the states governors. Local government elections are usually conducted by the respective states’ electoral commission strictly at the pleasure of the state governors.

There is also what is called a ‘Rotational System’ in place which is firmly adhered to in some states. Basically, rotational system means that every town, district, council, village, etc has its turn to produce the next local government Chairman. So you need to find out when it is your area’s turn, and you need to do this at least two years in advance.

Secondly you need to begin to cultivate a relationship with the stakeholders of your Local Government Area. The list will include the clan chiefs, political warlords, and even your state governor. Now, the state governor is a very lonely man. He has a short attention span, even short memory. But a few folks will have his ears example: his wife, his personal aide (PAs), his driver, members of his kitchen cabinet, and a few other individuals like his relatives.

You need to find out when any of these folks or their spouses would be coming into your ‘necks of the woods’. When they do, pick them up, pay for their hotel bills or better still accommodate them in your house. Tell them that your wife’s cooking is better than the hotel. Use the opportunity you have with them well so they go back and give a good report about you.

- The political godfathers -

Thirdly, you need a lot of money. But you are not rich, however you have been courting this political godfather in your state for some years now and you think it is time to tap from his huge financial resources so you meet up with him in secret, and ask for his sponsorship which he agrees to, but with certain condition like you paying back with an interest of 50% or remitting half of your local government budget on monthly basis to his account. You have no choice it’s the only way you can get funding so you agree and he gave you 5 million naira (equivalent of say 20,000 pounds). Then you begin frequent visits to you local government. Stock up on bags of rice and salt, posh cell phones, etc. Stock up expensive alcoholic drinks. Sink a borehole (i.e. a mini water supply system) or two. Start attending funerals, clan ceremonies, church/mosque dedications, etc.

Furthermore, you pay a few students schools, however, only at the primary and high school level. While doing all these never let it come out of your lips that you are interested in running for political office. Find out who in your local government is sweet with your state governor. This is where and when you begin to distribute your mobile phones. Get an agent, someone who will do many of the running about for you. He shouldn’t cost you more than 150,000 naira (600 pounds).

- When the elections come...-

Finally, the elections come and you are in. On assumption of office you discover you local government gets about a 100 million naira (i.e. about 400,000 pounds) monthly. This is collected in Abuja (Nigeria’s capital) by the state’s secretary of finance.

Now your fine supportive governor will usually cut that amount and give you less than half of it. On assuming office you discovered that the local workers have not been paid for 3 months. There are about 14 districts in your local government. Recurrent costs, teachers, department staffs, sanitation workers, technicians, clerks, etc. have to be paid promptly every month.

Also, clan chiefs and political warlords have to be paid even more promptly every month or you are out and the governor will appoint a caretaker local government chairperson (a kind of temporary chairman) in your stead.

When all that is done you barely have 30 million naira (120,000 pounds) left but that is not all. You are frequently called at short notice to host state and federal visitors to your Local Government Area. That means lodging, food, drinks, and gifts.

You can not directly source out for this of course. So you have to contract it out to one of the stakeholders’ wives- possibly the wife/girlfriend of the governor or one of the clan rulers for $10,000. Meanwhile, you have managed to cut out 40 million naira (about 160,000 pounds) from other sources of government revenue for your re-election, and also have some left to settle creditors, and of course your wife must look good, and you must not forget that.

Halfway through your tenure in office, you realize that the financial arithmetic don’t add up so you become a philosopher-politician, and begin to think very deeply. You can’t possibly leave office without having anything to fall back on. How are you going to pay off all those debts you took? Besides you can’t return back to the poverty you came from. People will scorn at you, and meanwhile you need more cash to plan a higher political future perhaps to be one of the secretary of department in the next governor’s cabinet.

So you begin to travel to Abuja to look for potential money bags that can come and promise to build a school or community hall. You have come to rightly understand how the system works; loyalty is bought so you begin to cultivate the very special friendship with the state secretary of finance. With the help of your new friend, you don’t’ pay worker’s salary for the last 3 to 4 months of your chairmanship. You simply keep those for yourself.

At the end you realize you achieved nothing and fall into the give-up mindset. ‘Well, change is the only constant in life. So things will change for the better at some point in Nigeria, but for now that is how it is done’ you say. Then you are out of office and that is the end of that chapter.

Earlier I hinted that political corruption in Africa is from the bottom up not top down. Many who do not understand the present day African situation may be surprise at this but let me elaborate a bit. After independence in the 1960s, most African countries inherited the colonial system of administration and merely continued in the legacy of their ex-colonial masters. In addition many of the new African states were hardly truly independent with most still heavily dependent on their ex-colonial masters.

- Dependency... -

In fact most of the European countries still had a significant hold over their former African colonies some to the extent of determining who was in charge and who wasn’t, and often times they installed poor characters to positions of authority as proxy rulers who would play their biding for them. This was especially true for the ex Franco-phone African colonies, and more so true for the Congo.

Hence, it is imaginable to understand why most African countries became victims of corrupt leaders who did nothing to develop the continent but enrich themselves and their cronies, and worst of all help spread a culture of corruption. As a result, the corruption in today’s Africa is no longer at the top but had trickle down to the bottom, and now is moving from the bottom to the top.

Let me explain further with a little illustration. Imagine a country with a population of a 100 people. Out of these hundred people 90 believe that politics and government is a place to enrich themselves while they remaining 10 are the few who believe and see politics as a place to serve. It should not be a surprise if such a society is prone to bad and corrupt leadership because majority of its people hold a corrupt view of public office. And the leaders don’t drop down from heaven but come out from amongst the people.

This is the present day African situation in a nutshell. In almost all the countries of Africa corruption is a pervasive norm. However, at this present moment the situation in the continent has gotten so bad that majority of the continent’s people are sick and tried of the phenomenon and are deeply yearning for change.

However, to solve Africa’s problem its people must begin to look inward by not placing the blame on the rest of the world. We must recognize that at this present moment Africa has gained enough political independent to chart or begin to chart the cause of its destiny.

It can no longer maintain the ‘blame game’ of pointing its fingers at the West for its woes. In fact the greatest problem of the continent as demonstrated so far is no longer the colonial legacy it’s the corrupt black political elites who have betrayed the continent.

As I write this article, Africa is in desperate need for a new breed of leaders; leaders who are free from the hand overs of the colonial legacy and the current culture of corruption. Those leaders are there but they have been suppressed by the system of corruption. They cannot rise in politics because they lack the financial power to breakthrough. Therefore, we must find a way to spot them out, prepare them, and deploy them into the arena of politics which is the most powerful platform to change the continent forever.