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In whose interest? Political integrity and corruption in Africa

More than one in three Africans believe there is endemic corruption in politics in their country, according to our latest survey conducted with over 47,000 respondents in 35 countries across Africa.

The most concerned citizens are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where 79 per cent think that all or most parliamentarians are corrupt, followed by Gabon with 71 per cent. However, there are countries where citizens rate the integrity of their parliamentarians much higher. For example, in Cabo Verde and the Gambia, only 15 per cent and 16 per cent of respondents respectively think that all or most parliamentarians are involved in corruption.

The survey results are based on nationally representative face-to-face interviews between September 2016 and September 2018, conducted in partnership with Afrobarometer. The survey in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was conducted by Omega Research.

What accounts for such a wide disparity in peoples’ perceptions of the integrity of elected representatives in different countries? In this piece, we will to look at various forms of political corruption, how they manifest in African countries and what can be done to promote political integrity.

What is political integrity and political corruption?

One of the foundations of our democratic institutions is the social contract between voters and elected representatives. Politicians are entrusted with power in order to represent the interests of the general public. Political integrity means that politicians act in the public interest, rather than serving private interests. The separation of the public and private spheres is paramount in the exercise of political integrity. Politicians won’t always make decisions which align with the short-term preferences of everyone, but it does mean they act in a way which is consistent with a set of moral or ethical principles and standards.

Political corruption is the manipulation of policies, institutions and rules of procedure by political decision-makers who abuse their position for private gain. This takes the form of gross conflicts of interest, where elected politicians and their families or cronies hold substantial business interests. It takes the form of abuse of state resources, such as investing in unnecessary projects right before election campaigns. It takes the form of businesses bankrolling political candidates to turn them into their clients. What all these factors have in common is the spilling over of private interests into the public sphere and decision-making.

State capture by private interests

State capture occurs when corruption is so systemic within the institutions of the state that private interests substitute their own interests for the common good as the main drivers of policy and regulation. When the state is captured, companies and individuals shape and affect the formulation of laws and regulations through illicit payments, such as bribes to parliamentarians and public officials. Illicit contributions during electoral campaigns, and influencing key public sector appointments are other methods that ultimately lead to an erosion of public trust in public institutions. 

In South Africa, where our survey finds that 38 per cent of citizens think that all or most in the office of former President Zuma were corrupt, and 44 per cent believe that all or most parliamentarians are corrupt, the issue of money in politics and undue influence of private interest on public policies has been a very hot topic lately. A recent inquiry on state capture found that a private company was bribing politically connected individuals and the ruling African National Congress. According to official testimonies, the company paid monthly bribes of US$250,000 – US$400,000 to senior government officials.

As Corruption Watch, our national chapter in South Africa put it, “under the direction of the company’s CEO bribes were paid to the President and his close associates, to leading cabinet ministers and to senior officials in the National Prosecuting Authority in order to obtain multi-million Rand public contracts and to ensure their impunity. In the process, they not only subverted the objectives of the public procurement system thus elevating costs and undermining the quality of public services, but they also contributed to the near-destruction of the key law enforcement agencies responsible for investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of corruption.”

In whose interest?

Conflicts of interest occur when a person is in a position to derive personal benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity. Such situations risk placing the private interest of the political decision-makers above the public interest.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the family of former President Kabila has partial or full ownership of over 80 companies active in sectors such as farming, mining, banking, real estate, airlines and telecoms. Most of these sectors require businesses to acquire permits and contracts from the government. Indeed, the Kabila family benefits from large permits as well as joint ventures and subcontracts that exceed the limits set in the DRC’s legal code. During Kabila’s tenure, an estimated US$4 billion went missing every year, in part due to dubious public procurement practices.

Who funds political candidates?

A common avenue for money to enter politics, besides direct bribes paid to senior officials, is through the financing of political parties. When elected, politicians can give preferential treatment to companies or groups who bankrolled their campaigns. At the same time, when political contestants do not have to declare the sources of funding and campaign expenditure, the costs of election campaigns increase and the risk of illegal expenditure increase, such as vote buying.*

The African Union Convention on Preventing and Combatting Corruption, ratified by 40 countries, specifically requires state parties to incorporate the principle of transparency into political party funding, and to proscribe the use of funds acquired through corruption.

Despite some African countries recently initiating public debates on political finance reform (here and here), change is very slow to happen in most countries. Even when laws exist, implementation and enforcement are very poor. A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Lagos, Nigeria, argues that the financing of political parties in Nigeria “has served the purposes of consolidating elite rule as well as the political exclusion of the non-elite.” Our GCB survey finds that over 60 per cent of Nigerians believe that most or all of their MPs are involved in corruption.

The Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, our national chapter in Nigeria, argue that laundered money is often used for political campaign financing and vote-buying during elections. Election management bodies and other relevant oversight and law enforcement agencies often lack the appropriate mandate, independence and resources to ensure that laws are enforced. Civil society organisations and the media do not have the space or resources to monitor who is funding political candidates, and whether these same donors are more likely to enjoy preferential treatment once those they have funded come to power.

* The 5th edition of an Afrobarometer survey found that 15% of Africans had been offered financial incentives to vote one way or another at an election.

Abuse of state resources

The abuse of state resources, defined as undue advantages obtained by certain parties or candidates through use of their official positions or connections to governmental institutions, to influence the outcome of elections, is a grave breach of political integrity as it gives incumbents an unfair electoral advantage (see here and here). A 2013 study on abuse of state resources in Uganda found a textbook catalogue of such abuses, including using government facilities for political purposes, money from state revenues being used for partisan purposes, a supplementary budget passed six weeks before the election included US$4.2 million for youth unemployment.

In this year’s edition of the GCB, 78 per cent of Ugandans said that the government is doing badly in the fight against corruption and 69 per cent said that corruption is increasing. Almost two in five citizens in Uganda believe that most or all of their top politicians are corrupt.

Building democracy is a complex process. Elections are only a starting point but if their integrity is compromised, so is the legitimacy of democracy.

Electoral integrity as a key anti-corruption measure

In 2012 Kofi Annan wrote: “Building democracy is a complex process. Elections are only a starting point but if their integrity is compromised, so is the legitimacy of democracy. We find that citizens tend to perceive their top politicians to be less corrupt in countries which perform well on electoral integrity, as measured for example by the Clean Elections Index.**

Electoral integrity refers to the appropriate conduct of all parties involved in elections, including candidates, voters and election management authorities. In fact, expert assessments of corruption, as reflected in the Corruption Perceptions Index scores are even more closely associated with the Clean Elections Index than people’s perceptions, as seen in the GCB. This may be due to public opinion data being more volatile and sensitive to high-profile cases that receive considerable attention in the media.

** The Clean Elections index is comprised of the following dimensions: Election Oversight Body autonomy and capacity, Election voter registry, Election vote buying, Election other voting irregularities, Election government intimidation, Election other electoral violence, Election free and fair. For more, please consult the V-Dem codebook.

One of the best performers in this edition of the GCB is the small West African state of Gambia. The majority of Gambians (54 per cent) said that the government is doing a good job in the fight against corruption. Sixty-seven per cent of them said that they trust the president “somewhat” or “a lot”. Members of the Parliament also enjoy a high integrity rating, with only 15 per cent of Gambians thinking that they are involved in corruption (less than half the average for Africa, 36 per cent).

Since the ousting of autocratic ruler Yahya Jammeh, Gambia has improved markedly across different governance indicators, including an upgrade from “Not Free” to “Partly Free” in the Freedom House ratings as well as an improvement from “repressed” to “obstructed” in the CIVICUS assessment of civic space and notably a 40 per cent improvement on the Clean Elections Index score. All these changes followed the 2016 elections, deemed peaceful and credible by international observers.

After 22 years of patrimonial rule, where the misuse of state resources was normal, Gambians seem to have placed their trust on their new democratically elected representatives, who have vowed to uphold political integrity and deliver results for ordinary citizens. Gambians have taken a great leap towards democratic consolidation, however much more work is needed to ensure that transparency and accountability follow the political opening. Despite recent improvements and an apparent commitment to transparency and accountability by the current president Adama Burrow, political integrity remains a key challenge in Gambia.

Although ministers in the new government were supposed to disclose their assets by July 2017, as of yet many of them have failed to do so. Worryingly, the reform-minded president’s family where involved in a controversy when his wife’s foundation was found to have accepted a donation of US$752,594.42 by a company competing for a government tender on electricity distribution. The matter is being investigated, and the way it is handled will show whether Gambia is truly committed to political integrity, or whether vested private interest will continue to dominate politics.

Satisfaction with democracy and polarization of rich and poor

Crucially, political corruption excludes and disenfranchises large swathes of the population, particularly those who are less well connected and powerful. Across Africa, only 41 per cent of citizens are satisfied with how democracy works in their country. Worryingly, those living in high poverty are more than 15 percentage points more likely to say that most or all politicians are involved in corruption, as compared to the richest respondents.

Corruption erodes citizen trust in democratic institutions and leads to political apathy, which in turn further fuels corruption. Open, fair and accountable access to decision-making is essential to regain citizen’s trust in democracy, and to ensure policies meet people’s needs.

What’s to be done?

  • High ranking politicians and public servants should regularly and publicly disclose their financial assets as well as business interests.
  • Political parties and contestants should disclose sources of funding as well as the destination of expenditure.
  • Private companies donating to political candidates should disclose their true owners.
  • Election oversight bodies and other agencies tasked with monitoring undue influence of money in politics should be given the independence, mandate and resources to meaningfully conduct their activities.
  • Civil society and media need to be empowered to monitor campaign expenditure, lobbying activities and the abuse of state resources around election campaigns.

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