The image of Africa most popular in the world is that of a continent riddled by corruption, bad governance, poverty, wars and diseases. And to a large extent, that is true. So there is a tendency for many Africans to also point to cases of corruption and misdemeanour among politicians in developed countries of the world to claim that corruption is not exclusive to Africa. For instance, many Nigerians have pointed to the recently ended impeachment saga of Donald Trump for corruption and abuse of power and the disgraceful conduct of members of congress as a case in point, wondering how different politicians of the West are from theirs.
The truth, like I have always argued, is that politicians all over act in similar ways. The motivation for going into politics remains the same: to capture political power and share the spoils of power. All other motivations are secondary. The only difference between politicians in Africa and the so-called righteous countries is the presence of strong institutions of restraints (in the West and now in parts of Asia) to check the excesses of politicians and to ensure that their excesses do not impede the growth and progress of their societies.
But make no mistake about it, all politicians have shown desperation and acted dirty not only to capture and retain power, but also to enrich themselves, their family members and cronies through their access to power. Whereas African politicians are renowned for corruption because of their tendencies to crudely embezzle public funds and stash them in foreign banks with little or no repercussions, politicians in Western countries are unable to steal public funds directly because of the restraints imposed on them, but engage in several corrupt practices that will benefit them directly, sustain their political careers and ensure that after public service, they retire to a life of comfort and opulence. The entire business of lobbying in the West is every inch as corrupt and devastating as public officials directly stealing money from the public till in Africa. Lobbying in the US, for instance, is why regulations are weak or even non-existent and businesses are allowed to exploit Americans in terms of pricing. It is the reason why, despite the great advancements made, healthcare in the US remains the most expensive in the world and the leading cause of bankruptcies and deaths in the US with or without insurance. It is the reason why diabetic patients are dying from their inability to access insulin and many people even with health insurance coverage, in the words of Todd Boudreaux, Managing Editor of Type 1, are forced to make “difficult decisions, cutting back on or “rationing” their insulin, taking extra jobs, crowdfunding, or forgoing paying bills in order to afford life-saving medication.”
Readers may also recall the 2010 cash for influence scandal in the United Kingdom in which a journalistic sting operation recorded and revealed Members of Parliament and the Lords offering to work for a fictitious political lobbying firm for fees of £3,000 to £5,000 per day.
In the US Congress and British Parliament, it is all about which lobbying firm or corporate is paying which bill or sponsoring which elections. That is the only meaningful way to successfully get any legislation passed or blocked.
Although corruption indices always indicate that African countries are the most corrupt in the world, the reality, like Ola Orekunrin argued in a Huffington post opinion editorial in 2013, is that corruption indices are developed by the West and applied to Africa. As she argued, “If Africa had a hand in designing global benchmarks for good economic management, the sub-prime mortgage scandal that not only destabilised Western financial markets but financial markets worldwide, would earn America the lowest possible grades.”
But I digress. Given that politicians tend to act in similar ways, the only plausible explanation for the different outcomes is in the institutions of restraints. Whereas in the West and in some Asian countries, strong institutions of restraints have been put in place to check the excesses of politicians and limit the damage they can do, in Africa, or to be precise, in most part of Africa, it is one of three things: there are no institutions in place, the institutions are weak and unable to check the excesses of politicians, or there is what is called isomorphic mimicry – the creation of institutions that act in ways to make themselves “look like institutions in other places that are perceived as legitimate,” but which in reality are not. That is why, for instance, Donald Trump would spend three years of his presidency fighting to clear himself from an investigation ordered by his own justice department that he sought or received help from Russia during the elections and later be impeached for attempting to use a congress-approved aid to Ukraine for his political benefits whereas a Mugabe can order the Zimbabwean Central Bank to print trillions of Zimbabwean dollars to repay IMF loan and nobody can challenge him or point out to him the repercussion on the economy. It is also the reason why a Clinton can be impeached for lying under oath about a relationship he had and MPs in the UK would be forced to resign for inappropriately claiming benefits from the public till whereas an Abacha in Nigeria would confidently send trucks to the Central Bank to cart away billions of dollars and nobody would do or say anything until he is safely out of the way.
Furthermore, no matter how power-hungry Donald Trump is or becomes, he cannot stay in office beyond the constitutionally allowable two terms of eight years. But, in most part of Africa, regardless of the provisions of the constitution, so-called democratically elected leaders could remain in power indefinitely until they die or someone more determined to capture power violently dethrone them. Donald Trump may resent Hilary Clinton, think her corrupt and shout: “lock her up” all he likes, but he can’t do her anything or hurt her business interest(s) in anyway. But in most part of Africa, it is suicidal to criticise the government or leader in power. Just about anyone could be jailed or locked up with phony accusations. We also know that in most of Africa, the government is the ‘gate-keeper’ of all economic activities and could enable or crush just any business with a single policy.
As James Comey, former FBI Director argued recently, “since the beginning, the United States has built a system with bad and incompetent leaders in mind,” and as Frederick Douglass opined, “Our government may be in the hands of a bad man…We ought to have our government so shaped that even when in the hands of a bad man we shall be safe.” But in Africa, our systems are built for only good men; and we know there are hardly good men in politics, especially in Africa where there are little checks on the powers of leaders and where politics is like war.
The major task therefore facing Africa is the urgent need to begin to build and strengthen strong institutions of restraints to rein in the worst instincts of its politicians and leaders. For too long, Africa has relied upon strongmen and personalities and in all cases, they have failed to build a capable state, which, in the words of Ricardo Hausmann, “can protect the country and its people, keep the peace, enforce rules and contracts, provide infrastructure and social services, regulate economic activity, credibly enter into inter-temporal obligations, and tax society to pay for it all”.