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Corruption and how to deal with it

When trust is finally devoured by corruption, the world will look like Zaire (the Democratic Republic of the Congo) under Mobutu in the 1980s: No need for trust to get citizens to comply. Just guns, Professor *ROMAN GRYNBERG warns
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Mmegi Online :: Corruption and how to deal with it








Outside of Botswana, one of the most common questions asked of anyone who works on economic issues is how does one explain that Botswana is an almost unique and shining example of a country in Africa where one can see that the nation's wealth, and it has despite its faults, has been largely used for the benefit of its citizens and not that of a small elite or group of oligarchs, as is so common in many of our neighbouring countries.

The first part of the answer is simple enough. First Botswana's wealth, as compared to that of other countries, was so great and so exceptional that no other country could compare. The diamond mines at Jwaneng and Orapa remain amongst the richest mines in the world.  It is said that in the 1990s,  the operating cost of producing P1 worth of diamonds at Jwaneng was 10 thebe.  There  is no such thing as a mine like this anywhere in the world.

Jwaneng, far more so than Orapa, is the richest piece of real estate on earth.  And this explains where the wealth came from, but other countries have had massive resource wealth and still the people live in dreadful poverty. There is dreadful poverty in parts of Botswana, but by and large, Batswana have prospered as a result of the diamond mines.

The second part of the answer regarding the uniqueness of Botswana is much more difficult because it leads to a series of hard questions with no obvious answer.  The inescapable fact is that Botswana's elite, unlike elites in other resource-rich countries like the DRC, have not pillaged the people's wealth.  Regrettably, even closer to home, we have neighbours with political elites that have taken the resource wealth of their nation and enriched themselves. Many people, hoping there is some magic or God-given formula,  ask why this has not happened here in Botswana? There is no doubt that Seretse Khama was one of the truly great leaders of Africa who did not pillage his people and did not allow others to do so.  It would be nice and very easy if good leadership were alone the simple answer to Botswana's uniqueness in Africa.  But some other African countries also had great and good leaders who did not plunder their people and yet their countries were still plundered by those in positions of power.

As a young man, I came to the African continent to teach at the University of Dar-Es-Salaam during the time when white  minority regimes controlled everything south of the Zambezi, except the small states of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. There I came across  a truly great leader of Africa,  Julius Nyerere - 'Mwalimu' (teacher),  as he was affectionately known by the people of Tanzania. He was President as well as Chancellor of the University, and a humbler, more intelligent and dedicated leader  is hard to find.  When the history of 20th Century Africa is written, he, along with Madiba and Seretse Khama, will go down in the pantheon of the truly great men of the continent.

But Mwalimu, while a totally honest and dedicated leader, did not surround himself with people who were either as honest or as dedicated to building his vision of an egalitarian Tanzania. Even in the 1970s, corruption was rife, in part because of the economic policies that gave individuals in government enormous economic power. If you wanted rice or flour or even milk for your children in those days, you could not just buy it. Everything was in short supply, and so you had to either know the right person or pay the black market prices for it. Tanzania at that time became what locals called a 'hunter-gatherer' economy: You had to spend a large part of your day not working or teaching students, but hunting and gathering food and assuring that you had the very basics of life. While the socialist economy that Nyerere tried to create has long since disappeared, the corruption from that time has not.

It has arguably become worse in Tanzania. Good leadership is good, but it is not good enough. Good policies are also needed.  So how do you address corruption, once it has set in? There are two main types of corruption. One stems from those wishing simply to implement existing laws and rules faster while the other type of corruption tries to circumvent the law. Dealing with the former is a lot easier than trying to stop people trying to pay backhanders to obtain tenders.

Corruption stems from the abuse of the monopoly that one individual has of power granted to them by the state.In some cases, there is nothing that can be done about

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that monopoly. You can only have one tender board and one police force, but this is certainly not true of all or even most public services where corruption exists.  If, for example,  a customs officer must stamp your import forms and he or she is corrupt, then if you want your goods you must pay a bribe. The moment that corrupt official has a queue in front of them they can also pick and choose who is served first and it is invariably those with more money who are able to get ahead in the queue.

Moreover, the corrupt official has a vested interest in making the queue as long as possible - the longer the queue the bigger the bribe. So corruption makes service delivery even worse. This type of corruption can be dealt with through commercialisation and privatisation, if you think outside the box. You can create a whole host of government services and farm them out to private suppliers.  There is no reason that a government customs officer has to have a monopoly in providing the stamp - it could be done by a bonded private customs agent who is an agent of government but paid a private fee. This would not only eliminate corruption but would create jobs as well. But this raises the obvious question of how do you then stop these private sector service suppliers from becoming corrupt? It is the size of the bond that they would have to put up and the size of the penalty if they are caught. You also need a credible and aggressive agency that deals with corruption.  

The really big corruption issue is the government service you cannot farm out to the private sector like the police or a tender board. How do you respond when you start seeing policemen driving  Mercedes Benzes and procurement officers living in big houses in rich suburbs? Here the response is not pretty but it can be really effective if governments are serious about tackling corruption. When Hong Kong was faced with serious and endemic corruption in the public service, it created in the 1970s what is still considered today a state-of-the-art approach to dealing with these corrupt officials.

Hiding a corrupt transaction is easy and as a result few people ever sit in prison because the bribe is so easy to hide and so difficult to prosecute. In order to deal with this, Hong Kong passed the 1970 Prevention of Bribery Ordinance. Under this remarkable ordinance, which was passed during the colonial era, the burden of proof of corruption was in effect reversed. The prosecutor did not have to prove you were corrupt or that you took a bribe and as a matter of fact the ordinance did not even use the word bribery  or corruption. If you were a public official and were found to have assets that you could not explain from your past or current earnings, then you were immediately guilty of corruption and you went straight to jail. You were in effect guilty until you proved yourself innocent by explaining the Mercdez Benz or the house in a posh suburb.  In Hong Kong, the government also created the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), a fiercely independent, well-funded and powerful agency which could arrest and where files would not disappear. But the Hong Kong government was serious about tackling corruption and willing to be awfully tough.

Corruption is a cancer that eats away at the most vulnerable and vital organs of any society - the organ called 'trust' between those who govern,  those who elect them and those who administer the laws.  It is because of trust that we comply voluntarily with the law. We  pay our taxes grudgingly but voluntarily and instinctively obey the police. We trust that those in power are doing things generally in the public good. In Botswana, our problems of corruption in comparison to many of our neighbours are still pretty small, but it does exist, and cancer, left untreated, normally grows and devours its host. The voluntary codes of conduct advocated by the private sector and the pretty UN-funded anti-corruption posters are nice, but treating cancer is just not nice. The longer  one waits to deal with the cancer, the worse it will normally become, and then when trust is finally devoured by corruption, the world will look like Zaire (the Democratic Republic of the Congo) under President Mobutu in the 1980s - no need for trust to get citizens to comply. Just guns.  

*These are the views of Professor Roman Grynberg and not necessarily those of the Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis where he is employed.

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