In many African countries, petty corruption provides daily payoffs to policemen, nurses,
border guards, and bureaucrats. Then there is venal corruption: the big-ticket items. In South
Africa, President Jacob Zuma and his cronies received cash for favoring the state purchase
of frigates and fighter aircraft from France and Sweden. Nigeria is the home of almost too
many sordid schemes; for example, although it is a major producer of petroleum, it imports
refined oil products to enrich politically connected middlemen. The theft of equipment and
rations by Nigerian army officers has crippled the battle against Boko Haram.
Although Botswana ranked 31st of 174 countries on the latest version of
Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), and Cape
Verde (42th), Seychelles (43rd), Mauritius (47th), and Lesotho, Namibia,
and Rwanda (all 55th) followed with comparatively high scores, 22 African
countries are among the 50 lowest performing in the world on both the CPI
and the comparable World Bank Control of Corruption (WBCC) indicator.
Rwanda and Liberia (94th on the CPI) are among countries that have
dramatically reduced corruption, and their examples demonstrate how
committed leadership can reduce corrupt practices and enhance prosperity,
economic growth, and positive priorities.
Fortunately, Africa also has countries where leadership action and strong institutions have
reduced corruption. Botswana is the continent’s least corrupt state. From 2004 to 2014,
Liberia, Rwanda, and Zambia were among the world’s seven states that most reduced
corruption, as scored by both the CPI and the WBCC.
Rwanda, the Singapore of Africa
The WBCC ranked Rwanda as the second most improved country from 2004 to 2013.
In 2004, having consolidated his regime, President Paul Kagame decided to transform
postgenocidal Rwanda into the Singapore of Africa.
Rwanda is a small, isolated, landlocked country, with the highest population density
in mainland Africa. It produces little beside coffee, the price of which depends on
fluctuating world markets. In 2004, Kagame envisioned capital flowing in, just as it had
into Singapore, which Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had transformed from a ramshackle
British-run harbor into one of the great entrepots and financial centers of the developing
world. Such a transformation would require radical shifts in political and social culture.
Kagame urged Rwanda’s people to reject
corrupt practices and report corrupt
individuals to the police, who were given
expanded powers. He erected billboards
throughout the capital city of Kigali,
warning that “He Who Practices Corruption
Destroys His Country.” He sacked cabinet
ministers and associates for theft and
graft and enforced existing anticorruption
legislation. In 2004, all 503 members of the
Rwandan judiciary were dismissed because of allegations of corruption. The president of
a state-owned bank was prosecuted for giving friends unsecured loans. In 2007, 62 police
officers were sacked for soliciting bribes.
New legislation and constitutional changes criminalized corrupt acts, outlawed extortion,
forbade bribery, and prohibited money laundering. Kagame promulgated a strict code
of conduct for officials and required all of them (more than 4,000) to make annual
disclosures of their assets, to be examined by a newly appointed ombudsman. Equally
important, Rwanda downsized its civil service, removed ghost workers (as many as
6,500 in one sweep), and introduced competitive civil service examinations. From 2005,
too, government salaries were raised regularly.
In 2013, Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer reported that only
13 percent of Rwandese polled had paid a bribe within the previous two years (compared
to 57 percent in South Africa and 7 percent in the United States).1 Crime rates fell and,
following Singapore’s lead again, the police even began nabbing citizens for littering. In
2008, the Economist called Rwanda “the cleanest country in Africa.”
The Case of Liberia
In 2003, Liberia ended a brutal 14-year civil war. Everybody who had a gun or some other
way of extorting revenue was corrupt; mere survival was the goal of most citizens. Elites
close to President Charles Taylor and his enforcers had grabbed what they could and
shared only with Taylor and “the system.”
In 2006, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, an American educated
former Liberian treasury and UN
Development Program official, was elected
president. Her inaugural address repudiated
corruption. Among her first acts was the
sacking of virtually all holdover civil servants in
the finance ministry. She promised a thorough
investigation of allegations of embezzlement
and graft. Across the government, she
dismissed 17,000 civil servants.
Johnson-Sirleaf declared her own assets, required new appointees and all cabinet
ministers to publish their financial holdings in the local press, and issued a tough code of
conduct for public servants. She strengthened key anticorruption institutions, reformed
public finance, and created a transparent national budget and an open bidding process for
public works. She adopted international standards for accountability in extracting natural
resources and for stemming the illicit flow of diamonds. She also paid civil servants,
which had not happened for months or years.
A special dual control system shared authority for financial management between
local officials and foreign advisors. Both sets of officials within each ministry and state-owned
enterprise had to sign expenditure permits and contract approvals.
slowly became less corrupt, outside investors, including China, began to extract Liberia’s
mineral resources, export its timber, and revive its moribund economy. National revenues
increased enormously from a very low base, and national debts were paid or reduced.
Liberia’s problems have not been fully resolved. There are questions of possible nepotism
involving Johnson-Sirleaf’s sons, and the Ebola crisis slowed progress. Nonetheless,
according to the CPI scores, Liberia is the “most improved” country in Africa.
Three lessons can be drawn from the Liberian and Rwandan experiences:
• Strong political leadership is essential to curbing corruption, and energetic action
by rulers and ruling classes are crucial to making major improvements.
• Donor countries should bolster national political will and back leaders in their
battles against corruption.
• Strengthened prosecution of multinational enterprises that bribe overseas officials
for mining concessions and other privileges is essential in helping fragile countries
like Liberia and Rwanda combat corruption.
footnotes:1. Transparency International, Global Corruption Barometer 2013, http://www.transparency.org/gcb2013.
2. “A Pioneer with a Mountain to Climb,” Economist, September 27, 2008.
This post first appeared as a Woodrow Wilson International Center Policy Brief, under the same title, Sept. 2015