When President Mwai Kibaki first came to power in Kenya in 2003 he put out an arrest warrant for the chief justice, among many other public officials, in a bid to stamp out a cancer that had taken hold of the country.
One of his first legislative acts was to publish three anti-corruption bills.
Just two years later, the media reported that corruption under Kibaki’s rule had cost the country about $1bn, nearly a fifth of the state budget. His anti corruption chief John Githonga left Kenya after receiving death threats.
In Nigeria, the fight against corruption has been patchy and dogged by political interference and entrenched patterns of behaviour. Former crime-fighting boss Nuhu RIbadu was drummed out of his job after taking on many high-ranking people including the former minister of police. He lived a life characterised by death threats.
Nigeria’s former minister of finance Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala tried to shine some light on public accounts by pushing for greater transparency in government expenditure. For example, she established a database that compared prices internationally with what had been earmarked in her own country for the same goods and services. The disparities were huge.
The government began publishing revenues paid to the states from oil revenues and the newspapers flew off the shelves. But the fight took its toll. The minister, too received death threats and eventually resigned from the government. ”When you fight corruption, corruption fights you back,” she once said.
Zimbabwe, always a law abiding country, has seen corruption and crime mushroom as the fabric of the society has been worn down by poor governance. These countries are high profile but not unusual in Africa, or indeed in the world. And they did not become that way overnight. The process is slow – a moving line. It is driven by scarcity, as in the case of Zimbabwe, or plenty as in Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and other resource rich countries.
But mostly it is driven by poor governance. Kenya is not a resource rich country but it has a surfeit of skilled professionals, well-educated people and a sophisticated private sector. It should be a thriving state but it has been hollowed out by official graft.
When politicians turn a blind eye to corruption among their own, or give in to people asking for bribes, it lets the rest of the population know that it is OK to behave the same way. This is what the next generation are taking on board.
When corruption reaches the levers of law and order – the police and judiciary – the dye is really cast.
Promises by new administrations to tackle corruption are now commonplace. However, the window of opportunity to do so opens and closes, often at great speed. In most countries, politics is an expensive business and on assuming power, new elites have to pay back the favours and funding that got them there in the first place. Patronage quickly rears its ugly head and old patterns reassert themselves.
And then there are the bribe payers – businesses wanting access to politicians, companies looking for short cuts, illegal enrichment through contract fraud and so on. In some places, society is so badly eroded that bribes are the only way to get simple things done. The public service procurement scandal in SA rings alarm bells. Although small in terms of some of the corruption this continent has seen, it is the thin end of the wedge.
Making an exception because of party or personal loyalty over principle is where it starts. It does not take long for this to become a precedent in the broader society. Reining in corruption is a slippery business and, as many have found, it can be life threatening. Far better to stop it taking hold in the first instance.
Already the ruling party has saved its own from justice in the “travelgate” scandal. The small matter of the commissioner of police was never satisfactorily resolved. And there is much more. The cancer of corruption has spread quickly in this country. It seems we have learned nothing from the experience of other countries on the continent. We seem doomed to repeat their mistakes.
It is not too late for SA to stop the rot but the window of opportunity is rapidly closing.