Tuesday, July 13, 2010


It’s an old joke. An African minister went to a ministerial conference somewhere in Asia. At the end of the conference the Asian invites his African friend home for lunch. The African is balled over by the opulence of his friend’s house and after lunch, unable to hold it any longer, the African manages, “But how? How are you able to afford such a lifestyle on a government salary?”

The Asian with a twinkle in his eye leads the African to an upper floor balcony points across the valley to a bridge, “You see that bridge?”, he asks his guest. “Ten percent” he says thumbing his chest. “You see that road,” he says pointing at four-lane highway. “Ten percent.” “You see that skyscraper?” this time the African didn’t wait for him to finish “Ten percent” he said pointing at his host. They both laughed, the Asian at his on ingenuity and the African even more so at this Eureka moment.

A year later the Asian minister his African counterpart’s country. The African hosted the Asian to an even more lavish meal, in a more magnificent house.

The Asian did not wait for dinner before he asked, “But how? How are you able to afford all this on a government salary? An African government salary?”

The now oily cheeked, waddling minister ushered him to an upper floor balcony. Pointing out into the distance he asked, “You see that highway?”, the Asian followed his host’s finger into the center of the most squalid slam he had ever laid eyes on.

“Which highway?” he asked, looking back at his now grinning-from-ear-to-ear friend. To which the African answered, while pointing at himself, “100%”.

The joke is funny because it’s what we Africans think about our governments, but sad because it is largely true.

But this week I got a new perspective on “fighting” corruption. A friend was passing through town – a private equity hawker, and we had lunch and inevitably the issue of corruption came up. My friend is from an even more corrupt African nation and has been traveling the continent peddling finance to companies, so nothing I told him could faze him.

As he saw it we – Africans, do not seem to be able to put in place the required deterrents to put the brakes on corruption or halt it altogether. There is greater economic incentive to be corrupt than not to be, but even more worrying he said is that there is little if any social and moral incentives to stay away from corruption too.

In western countries where corruption as a percentage of the economy is much lower than he has seen while criss crossing Africa, moral and social censure for corrupt acts is a big enough deterrent to keep all but the most deviant characters in check.

But in Africa crooks are beatified and even worse previously morally-upright-foreigners – who should be monitoring their government’s monies, have jumped into the cesspool and are participating in the racket with abundant glee.

And that in his opinion, is why official aid has never developed any country beyond the cosmetic advancements registered in the capitals of these poor countries.

The challenge for graft busters around the continent is how do you make it expensive morally and socially to be corrupt, given our socially backward big man mentality, where a man’s social clout is measured by how many people can sponge off him? A process of social engineering that would take at least a generation to right he estimated.

However, he was wary about coming down to hard on corrupt officials because this will only push the practice underground and cause capital flight – money being sent out of the country to other locales.

The best thing that could have happened for the fight against corruption is the war against terror, with the more stringent restrictions of moving money around the globe. But he said this could easily be circumvented by the elite of like minds across borders and besides even in the wealthiest democracies if you have enough money those restrictions can be waived.

Russian oligarchs, a group of super rich mostly men who benefited disproportionately from Russian privatization at the beginning of the 1990s, have been welcomed with open arms in Europe and their residence and citizen status fast tracked for a few million Euros.

So should roll over and let these fat cats with their grubby fingers rape our continent? Not at all, he said, but it will be an uphill challenge as long as the laws and anti-graft initiatives are not anchored in moral and social codes that thieves can not ignore.

“Short of a generation change I do not see it happening in the next 20 years,” he hazarded.

Published April 2010, New Vision

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