As the AU spotlights corruption, leaders must now walk the talk in combating it
igerian President Muhammadu Buhari launched the theme for this year's African Union summit with a fanfare of clichés, such, perhaps, because they reflect truth. “Corruption is indeed one of the greatest evils of our time,” he told leaders of the 55 member states at the opening of the two-day event on 28 January. “Corruption rewards those who do not play by the rules and also creates a system of distortion and diversion, thereby destroying all efforts at constructive, just and fair governance.”
The theme "Winning the Fight Against Corruption: A Sustainable Path to Africa’s Transformation” is an unusually bold one, following on themes like development, agriculture and human rights in previous years.
Jeggan Grey-Johnson from the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (Osisa) said his organisation, which has been leading the drive for adoption of the theme, was somewhat surprised at how quickly it happened.
“When we tried to push for the theme a year and a half ago, we genuinely didn’t think they would adopt it as soon as this. It’s always been difficult to get African leaders to admit corruption is a problem, let alone make it a target. So that was a major coup.”
He said he hoped it would be followed through with political will and action.
Illicit financial flows
The process of convincing the AU to adopt the theme was made easier by the report of former South African president Thabo Mbeki’s high-level panel on illicit financial flows, released in 2015, which gave definite evidence of corruption, he said. Under-invoicing and the “general entrenchment of corruption” meant that African countries were losing money it could have used for development.
The report estimates that about $50 billion - $80 billion a year leaves the continent illegally, based on trade figures from the International Monetary Fund, but less conservative estimates put the figure at almost twice that.
In an interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) from the summit's sidelines, Mbeki said that African leaders understood the need to stop the outflows.
“If we succeed in the task of retaining these resources on the continent, we increase enormously our possibility to address development challenges, whether it is building new factories, building new roads, providing schools and clinics and all that,” he said.
Mbeki’s panel was appointed by the AU to investigate the outflows and later mandated to ensure the recommendations are implemented. A number of countries outside Africa have reacted with steps to strengthen their systems, but officials say the continent’s lack of action has been disappointing.
The AU’s corruption theme now presents an opportunity for the panel to assist African countries where necessary.
Mbeki said member states would be expected to give feedback reports on what they have done so far about the outflows at the AU’s mid-year summit in Mauritania. He said he hoped that these reports “will educate us about capacity” needed by these countries.
This included “the necessary legislation, for instance, against money laundering” and institutional mechanisms. “If you don’t have a strong tax collection which is not corrupt, which therefore must make sure that everybody, including the major private companies pay their taxes, then we fail in these matters," he said in the SABC interview.
The European Central Bank has, for instance, already expressed willingness to help strengthen the African Central Bank to dispense its responsibilities.
Mbeki also said lessons could be drawn from South Africa, where a judicial commission of inquiry into “state capture” is set to investigate allegations of corruption within government and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). At the heart of it is the Gupta family whose influence over the state, the running of SOEs and President Jacob Zuma himself has been widely documented.
Getting it right
Buhari in his speech acknowledged that stronger national institutions were needed to fight graft in Africa. This ranges from insulating anti-corruption agencies from political influence to better law enforcement agencies and independent courts.
The judiciary has already been roped in to help in the form of South Africa’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, who is the current head of the Conference of Constitutional Jurisdictions in Africa (CCJA) which was established three years ago.
In an interview, Mogoeng said he would meet with AU Commission officials to talk about ways of strengthening good governance, which include eradicating corruption. He said a World Bank official told him it would be willing to fund initiatives around strengthening the role of the judiciary in African countries “that have more serious challenges”.
Social initiatives like youth conferences against corruption are also on the cards, as well as the implementation of the AU Convention on Preventing and Combating corruption.
Buhari acknowledged that the adoption of this framework 15 years ago has “not had the desired success” in tackling corruption.
Osisa’s Grey-Johnson said civil society would push for the implementation of this convention rather than focus on getting on board more than the 38 countries that have already ratified it.
“Many countries do not have anti-corruption agencies, and some have more than one. Some are underfunded, and others are just in name. In Kenya, for example, the anti-corruption commission has been disbanded six times”.
Indices like those from Afrobarometer and the Mo Ibrahim Index on the performance of individual countries in governance and corruption were not mentioned in polite conversation at the summit.
In the 36 African countries it surveyed, Afrobarometer found that 72% of citizens perceived that some officials in their country’s presidency were corrupt. Perceptions were even higher when it came to politicians lower down the line.
The Ibrahim Index of African Governance, in turn, shows that while there has been progress in public sector accountability and transparency in the past five years, 22 countries still display worsening scores in this regard.
No measurables have as yet been set out by the AU in its fight against corruption, but this year’s theme might just be a step in the right direction.
(Main image: Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari speaks at the opening of the Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government during the 30th annual African Union summit in Addis Ababa on January 28 2018. – Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)