When assessing the reasons for the non-development of countries in sub-Saharan Africa like Nigeria, commentators and scholars cite corruption as being responsible. My response has always been to point out the fact that Africa does not have a monopoly on corruption. The Bible has numerous illustrations of corruption. Jeremiah 17:9 ASV says that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt: who can know it?” And who can forget Judas Iscariot’s utterances when he sought to betray Jesus in Matthew 26: 15-“What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?’ So, they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. ” The fact is that human beings have always been corrupt, and as such, I refuse to accept Africa being labeled as corrupt-not because I condone corruption but because it is important to call out all the different versions of this practice in different settings, albeit with different names. For instance, I would argue that lobbying is actually bribery covered with a more luxurious-looking package because the latter’s objective of buying power is focused on the same outcome as the former’s goal of influencing power by offering contributions. The bottom line is that corruption ranges from the individual level to systemic, as in the case of the ill-reputed biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which we are told were eventually destroyed. Thus, all people are prone to be corrupted!
To be clear, the objective of this article is not to make excuses for corrupt practices; it is meant to provide food for thought for readers to consider the possible origin of the form of corruption found in Africa by highlighting the possible link between slavery/colonialism and corruption. Essentially, I am arguing that slavery and then, subsequently, colonialism were implemented with the use of enticements to compel and persuade African chiefs and leaders to work with the Europeans by selling their people or agreeing to other forms of extractive practices. Enticements are certainly not the same things as gifts—for instance, in the account of the three wise men bearing gifts for the infant Jesus, they were meant as a mark of respect, a celebration of life, and symbolism.
Let’s consider the Europeans’ entanglement with Africa. To start off with, the scramble for Africa’s resources that led to the division of the continent by the Europeans at the Berlin Conference of 1884 was an extremely audacious and corrupt exercise because those gathered there had no business carving out and sharing an entire continent that did not belong to them in the first place! Thereafter, guns were used to subdue the natives as their lands became occupied—again, these acts of violence were definitely forms of corruption. Subsequently, when they had captured these regions, the colonial masters proceeded to impose unfair taxation systems on the indigenes that required payment of taxes in European currencies. This meant that natives could only earn their living by working for low wages in the colonialists’ establishments. The resultant effect was that entire family member ended up being employed in colonialists’ enterprises to make ends meet instead of pursuing their own family businesses and developing their specialized skills. The notion of taxation on its own is not corrupt because it ensures that public goods are funded and provided by the state. However, the manner in which people were enslaved to work for little pay as well as the way in which local chiefs were employed and motivated to collect taxes was dreadful and corrupt. The chiefs enriched themselves from this process because they kept back some of the proceeds, thereby amassing wealth from tax revenues.
There is also the notion of divide and rule, whereby, using conquest, the colonialists aligned with one group to overthrow the ruler of another faction, thereby creating rifts and disunity. This resulted in rivalry as certain groups became perceived as favored by the colonial masters as they ended up enjoying more perks for their loyalty.
Then you have the building of the public sector during the colonial era. Africans in the civil service were employed as junior staff, and they worked alongside their European colleagues, who were employed as senior service staff. This senior service personnel was entitled to car allowances, first-class travel, and European-style quarters with rent set at 10% of their salary, whereas Africans had shorter vacations, bicycle, and motorcycle allowances, and, among other things, voluntary retirement at the age of 45. This disparity in payment and benefits made the junior service staff extremely resentful, and they ended up creating alternative avenues to earn income by demanding payment from citizens to have their files treated. Similarly, in the private sector, foreign companies employed indigenes in the most insignificant roles and paid them very little, whilst their European colleagues earned and lived lavishly. Consequently, the society inherited from the colonial masters mostly lacked trust, thereby leading to disenchantment, discontent, and dissatisfaction post-independence. Essentially, people sought the fastest way to make money by any means necessary.
As human beings, we “learn by doing” and “develop capabilities by routines”—thus, it would appear that the practice of corruption has evolved into part of society’s DNA post-independence in all sectors, not just the public sector. Africans learned by observing the colonial masters offer their chiefs “mirrors” and “shiny objects” for them to sell their souls and their people into slavery. They also observed the colonial masters extract their local resources to export them into their own countries, then turn around to sell them back to Africans in the form of finished goods in shiny packages rather than invest in manufacturing and technology in Africa. Nigeria at independence in 1960 had a total of 389 industrial establishments to produce soap, cement, tobacco, textiles, and brewing.
We mustn’t forget the numerous African artworks “taken” from Africa and kept in museums in Europe and North America today. This colonial looting was another form of corruption. Sadly, despite several attempts by African countries to claim these objects back post-independence, it is estimated that at least 90% of pre-colonial artworks remain outside of Africa. Today, Africans are self-looting and draining the continent’s resources and keeping them safe in investments and assets in other continents, further strengthening other nations’ wealth to the detriment of their future generations.
In Africa today, there are different actors in the public, private, and civil society sectors that facilitate the institution of corruption. It has now become so pervasive in society that even those who preach against it in their shiny suits and collars in places of worship are not excluded as they amass wealth from their poor congregants who are sold false hopes of a better tomorrow. It would appear that some of the temples of worship are also in need of the money changers’ tables being overturned and cleared up.
Our young people have not been spared! Numerous young people are full-time fraudsters, graduating from cybercrime training schools to become big-time fraudsters, appearing on the covers of business magazines or as influencers on social media with millions of followers! From large sums of money misappropriated by government officials to large sums of unexplained funds stolen from estates, farms, and homes by domestic staff who, like junior staff in the colonial days, observe their masters’ movements. So, who has the moral authority to judge the domestic staff thieves or the young cyber criminals? Who should be put away in prison with a longer sentence-the embezzlers or the house? Come to think of it, are there any legitimate institutions available to address corruption, especially as these same institutions are active participants and actors in its ecosystem? The bottom line is that the institution of corruption is actively sustained by the institutions set up to deal with it, thereby creating a vicious cycle.
Sadly, the resultant effect of the growing importance of this deviant institution called corruption is that the African continent is hemorrhaging from resource leakages. If Africans do not change their ways and stop this leakage, their resources, such as valuable artworks, will continue to leak out of the system and be exported elsewhere, making it difficult for them to be reclaimed or returned to the continent. The fact is that we are all social agents that need to hold the system accountable, and as such, it is in our collective interest to ensure that we develop local capabilities to build up institutions to ensure that resources are kept on the continent for development.
We need leaders that will facilitate the reframing of the narrative written for Africa by turning this vicious cycle of corruption into a virtuous cycle so that we can sustainably reclaim the continent for growth and prosperity for future generations!