Monday, September 27, 2010

The Truth About Corruption in Africa

The concept of "corrupt Africa" has been a central theme permeating all sectors of the African world from the private sector to government. In fact, it is generally agreed by Africans and Non-Africans that corruption is a problem in Africa that often times seems insurmountable. Most people in the world in Africa and outside of Africa have internalized the legend of the corrupt African leaders. I call it legend here, because like a legend, the concept of the corruption in Africa takes on this form as it is often not objective, nor is it always completely based on the facts.

The majority of Africa's citizens are against corruption. Africa's citizens have been told repeatedly by the Western leaders, the World Bank, UN and other independent non-governmental organizations that corruption is the major reason for their not getting more programs, business, development and/or more loans. They have also been told that their leaders and their officials have an uncanny predilection towards white collar crime. So today, Africa's everyday citizens support anti-corruption candidates in elections and continuously long to get rid of corruption in their society. Almost all elected African leaders now run on a platform of stamping out corruption within their government. They understand that African people are tired of corruption and want to see change in this area. Corruption committees are formed and charges are filed against low profile citizens. On occasion, higher ranking government leaders, particularly from the opposition, are also brought down on corruption charges. Many African countries are making strides towards fighting corruption. According to Nigerian finance minister, Ngozi Ojonjo-Iweala, the data from the World Bank shows that there has been a decrease in African levels of corruption in recent years, but this is not often talked about in popular media. In spite of any efforts made to combat corruption or the levels of corruption, in 'Brand Africa', corruption is a word that has become synonymous with Africa.

Whilst I agree that corruption exists at different levels in Africa, it must first be stated that corruption is not something that is uniquely inherent to Africans and African leaders. Second, that there are different levels of corruption that exists within a country and continent. Third, that corruption doesn’t is not strictly an internal affair. Finally, that my arguments are not meant to absolve the responsibility that African countries should take for their own actions.

A large part of place branding requires follow through - one must certainly clean their own house in order to tell visitors about their clean house and in order to invite them in. I also think we should consider that not everyone else's house is clean but that this doesn’t deter them from trying to shape a 'clean' or positive image. For example, certain levels of corruption exists in US, but the US government doesnt make it its sole objective, nor does it stop them from marketing themselves to the world as a country thats relatively free from corruption. No country is free from corruption. True, rebranding African countries shouldn’t consist of a series of empty promises otherwise it diminishes the brand, but what is key is to draw out the positive and accurate realities of a nation as a basis. In other words, African countries and its citizens should not be blindly accepting and internalizing corruption as an automatic part of their brand, hence culture, without considering the reach and depth of the corruption or rethinking the validity of the label.

Corruption happens every day, all over the world at different levels but African corruption is always mentioned as a factor inherent to Africans. As if somehow, Africans are more morally corrupt than inhabitants of other nations. Other nations or leaders are often citing the example of African corruption as part of the 'Africa Problem'. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, noted in a speech at the TED conference, that it is not often mentioned but one needs to consider that African leaders do not act by themselves when corruption occurs. There is involvement from someone in the host country. Often, when large some of monies are being smuggled out of Africa, there is a law being violated in recipient country. Nigeria’s government has now put together a task force together with the World Bank that is slowly recovering African money that is being held illegally in foreign bank accounts (See: Okonjo-Iweala's TED presentation).

In reading the book, 'African Culture & American Business in Africa: How to Strategically Manage Cultural Differences in African Business' by Emmanuel Nnadozie which is a guide for American businesses doing business in Africa, Nnandozi notes that the oft cited reason of 'corruption' as a valid hindrance for companies and countries not being able to invest in Africa in fact, is not legitimate. He notes here that the BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India, and China are ranked high on corruption indices but still benefit from favorable international business and trade relationships. Yet, in the case for Africa, the same  foreign companies or countries will cite corruption as the reason that businesses hold back investment in for Africa. It is clear through this, that the perception of corruption in Africa is not positive and that double standards may exist here.

In addition, the data I found for the Transparency International's Corruption Index 2009 and Nation Master's 2009 further corroborates this analysis. From this data, it can be noted for example that Russia, Brazil and China rank the same or above countries like Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Burkino Faso, Senegal, and Ghana on the corruption indices, respectivley. Yet, there is a tendency by non-Africans to refer to African countries always being more corrupt than any other region. There is also tendency for Africans to believe the legend of the corrupt Africa without needed scrutiny. In fact, it is interesting that in the Transparency International data, it indicates that although regionally, both the Middle East/North Africa and the Newly Independent countries in East Europe (Russia, Georgia, Belarus etc...) where more corrupt then African countries, Africans actually perceived themselves to be the most corrupt of all regions. In contrast, the aforementioned countries perceived themselves as less corrupt than African countries when in fact they were more. Whilst the variables they use to define corruption by these two organizations may come in to question, the general patterns we see from the surveys show that the popular legend of the corrupt African country is not true for all African countries. It also shows that the perceptions of corruption in Africa are higher than the realities. These poor perceptions mean that some level of brand management is needed by individual nations for internal and external customers to view their brand as less corrupt hence lowering current negative perceptions.

Many countries outside of Africa have problems with corruption. Corruption is not unique to Africa. Although the levels and frequency may vary, if other countries can manage their 'corruption' brands in spite of their own internal corruption issues, so can African countries. They do need to follow through on consistency though so that anti-corruption is not just an empty promise. I think there is a need for Africans in Africa and abroad to reevaluate where countries realistically stand on factors like corruption. There is also a need not to streotype all African countires by taking the measure of corruption in one country and applying them to all the African countries. On certain issues like corruption, we should pull out the positives for each country, and then work from there to project accuracy if we are going to manage our places and products, and this may take a certain level of Afro-optimism. It may also mean debunking the legend of African corruption.