By Hannah Ogwapiti

The tendency in the West is to see Africa as being congenitally corrupt, and being afflicted by a pathology of corruption, a pathology that is responsible for Africa’s familiar problems. To pathologize the problem of corruption in Africa is to supply fodder for racists and those who see nothing good in Africa, those who say Africans are by their nature prone to self-destruction and point to “endemic” corruption as an example.

To get away from this pathologized understanding and come to a better delineated, more specific, and thus more insightful understanding of corruption and its moral consequences in Africa, it is not helpful to cite all instances of everyday corruption (police checkpoint bribe-taking, petting extortion in a government office, airport shenanigans, and other petty, quotidian acts of corruption) in the same frame as big figure political corruption, or to lump all of them together. It is helpful to explain them as belonging to a single tapestry of corruption in Africa or as equally destructive to Africa’s development prospects.

The approach I favor and argue for is one that:

1. Recognizes that quotidian corruption and political corruption feed off of each other and coexist symbiotically. No need to belabor this.

2. Political corruption, by sheer volume and amounts involved, exacts a greater moral damage in Africa than quotidian corruption.

3. Political corruption (big ticket graft perpetrated by politicians and high level bureaucrats) is directly responsible for scuttling social and infrastructure projects like schools, hospitals, roads, electricity. It is therefore directly responsible for the death, poverty, and suffering of Africans. Quotidian corruption has at best an indirect culpability in these moral consequences.

4. Political corruption is responsible for the huge capital flight out of the country, the illicit export of money out of African economies. For the most part, the result of quotidian corruption is the transfer and re-transfer of money between individuals and nodes within the domestic economy.

Besides, I think that, when it comes to Africa, one should clear some space for how African conceptions of politics and the political economy of citizen expectation, client-patron relations, and normative obligations of African big manhood/womanhood allows and permits some use of state resources for informally meeting the needs of constituents. Because this kind of political expenditure is often unbudgeted and unaccounted, it is technically corruption. But if the amount is small (as opposed to frittering away or diverting for personal use an entire budget or parts thereof) and it is deployed to what Nigerians euphemistically call “empowerment” people do not mind and do not see it as corruption even though in the lexicon of modern governmentality it is graft. Even if they see it as graft, they may not see it as negative or destruction corruption in the same vein as other acts of corruption that benefit the corrupt individual and his/her family and friends.

I think, for many Africans, political corruption occurs when a politician or high level bureaucrat inflates contracts, takes kickbacks, or diverts public funds to personal use. It is also a question of volume. A politician who uses the discretionary budgetary or extra budgetary powers of his office to allocate $50,000 to provide scholarships to youths in his constituency is technically corrupt since this falls outside his official remit, lacks oversight, and may not even have followed proper budgetary or bureaucratic procedure. But citizens in many African countries may not see this as corruption or at least may not see it as belonging in the same category of vice and graft as the case of a politician who embezzles $1 million from the schools or hospital budget and transfers it to a Swiss or Dubai bank.

In other words, Africans have a nuanced, complex understanding of and vocabulary for designating corruption. It is only fair that as scholars our language for talking about corruption in Africa displays some fidelity to this nuanced distinctions in Africans’ relationship with and understanding of corruption. We cannot use a Western frame to analyze corruption in Africa.


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