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Are African countries preventing corruption and prosecuting related crimes?

Many governments are falling behind on their commitments under the African Union’s anti-corruption convention

Image: GovernmentZA / Flickr

When the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combatting Corruption (AUCPCC) was adopted by the African Union Assembly in 2003, it was a huge step towards resolving the continent’s serious corruption challenges. Designed as a shared roadmap for member states to implement governance and anti-corruption measures, the convention aims to eradicate corruption in government and business.

Today, 44 of the 55 member states have ratified the convention, yet there is little information on how well it is implemented in practice. A new report by Transparency International explores this, looking at three important areas: money laundering, illicit enrichment and political party funding, as well as the role civil society and media play in fighting corruption.

Money laundering

Money laundering facilitates heinous crimes that damage the lives of millions of Africans across the continent. When criminals make money through arms sales, poaching or corruption, they need to make the cash appear clean before they can use it.

Under the AUCPCC, countries are meant to make money laundering illegal. Most countries have done so, but the convention does not give them a framework for how to prevent it, nor does it equip authorities with the tools they need to investigate and prosecute money launderers. Another problem is a lack of data on how effective the tools in place actually are. Based on what data there is, it seems that most countries could be doing a lot more.

To effectively track and prosecute money laundering, African governments need to dedicate more resources to specialist skills, such as financial analysts and tax inspectors, and improve cooperation between these experts and prosecutors. Just as important is ensuring complete independence of authorities and courts to prevent well-connected money launderers from escaping prosecutions and convictions.

The Mozambican courts stood up against high-level corruption in 2020: a former transport minister was put on trial for money laundering in connection with the national airline’s purchase of two Embraer planes. Embraer admitted to paying bribes to Mozambican officials to secure the deal. The courts also prosecuted a middleman for laundering the bribe payments through a shell company.

In order to increase transparency and monitoring, disaggregated data on cases like this should be published annually, specifying the charges and outcomes.

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Illicit enrichment

When government officials channel public funds into their own pockets, they hinder the development of local communities and entire countries. Illicit enrichment is a crime under the AUCPCC, though few member states do enough to enforce the laws. The offence is notoriously difficult to prosecute, not least because many suspected offenders are high-profile and well-connected figures, who often enjoy political immunity.

This often involves unduly influencing judges: in Nigeria, a serving judge of the Federal High Court had received US$260,000 – paid into his personal bank account over a two-year period – and was unable to show a legitimate source of the deposits. Still, the appeals court dismissed all charges on procedural grounds.

The lack of necessary expertise and tools coupled with the limited autonomy of justice authorities are key challenges in fighting corruption across the continent. As a result, most countries have only prosecuted a few officials - in some countries, none at all.

African governments need more robust systems in place to make it illegal and very difficult for public officials to enrich themselves through corrupt acts. The burden should lie with the accused to explain and prove the legitimate sources of their assets and – if they fail to – conviction and forfeiture should follow. This would require authorities to have full independence to investigate and prosecute, and more specialist skills to do so.

As with money laundering, reliable data on the effectiveness of enforcement is scarce, making monitoring challenging. Data on prosecuted cases and outcomes should be made publicly available on an annual basis.

Political party funding

When money from opaque and unregulated sources is allowed to infiltrate politics, it becomes difficult to hold politicians and their parties accountable. Lack of transparency in political party funding also allows hidden actors to finance and buy politicians for their own interests – states get captured by the corrupt.

Compared to some other anti-corruption treaties, the AUCPCC is unique in placing a clear obligation on state parties to legislate for and effectively enforce transparency requirements for political party funding. However, most countries fail to expressly ban the use of illegally acquired funds in political financing. Even where strong legislation is in place, it is rarely enforced, and when enforcement does occur, sanctions are either too lenient or too severe: some overly light sentences fail to discourage offenders while in other cases political parties get broken up, which harms democracy.

In the last decade, Tunisia has policed money in politics unevenly. During the 2011 elections, authorities actively fulfilled their oversight responsibilities, imposing sanctions for party funding violations and even annulling certain election results.

Since the rules were relaxed in 2014, reports of unsanctioned overspending have emerged and very few parties have submitted their financial records as required and on time: only 5 of the 221 political parties regularly submitted their financial reports between 2014 and 2019. However, parties only received warnings, which haven’t led to widespread change in behaviour.

African governments should adopt measures to prohibit dirty money funding their political parties, and close loopholes such as third-party donations or sponsorships that can serve to hide the origins or the actual recipient of the money. Placing limits on how much a single donor can donate over a given period of time could help prevent a party from owing favours to wealthy individuals. Parties should be required to make all financial reports publicly available every year, with additional reporting before and after major elections. Additionally, sanctions should be reviewed to ensure they are proportionate and, as such, more effective.

Civil society and media

When it comes to investigating and drawing attention to abuses of power and corrupt practices, civil society and media play a critical role. The impact they can have is seen in South Africa, which has a vibrant and diverse civil society and media landscape, in particular through specialist investigative journalist groups. In 2017, for example, South African journalists exposed the corruption connected to a campaign of provoking of racial tensions that was led by the Gupta family and a British public relations firm.

But civil society and media can only hold governments and elected officials accountable when citizens have freedom of expression and access to information. The AUCPCC introduces a requirement for extensive rights to information, in particular for the media, but its scope is non-specific and governments are managing to limit what they reveal.

All member states should review their legislative framework on freedom of expression, association and information to ensure their media and civil society can operate free of interference and intimidation. When allegations of harassment, violence or indiscriminate arrests of journalists and activists occur, these should be vigorously investigated. State interference in media reports should be avoided, and refusals of requests for information should be subject to appeal or review.

Our report aims to support policy makers and civil society members to identify key challenges to address in order to improve both the legal framework and the enforcement of selected anti-corruption provisions contained in the AUCPCC. Read Implementing and Enforcing the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption: a Comparative Review.

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