Yesterday was anti-corruption day. Elites in media, academia, “civil society” and government were grand standing in self-righteous indignation condemning the government for doing little or nothing about it. We are steeped in simplistic moral posturing that is routine and banal. These arguments contribute little to our understanding of the challenge we face.
Corruption has endured, especially in Africa. Our continent has had many changes of government over the last 60 years: Nigeria 15, Ghana 13 etc. Every government has come to power promising to fight corruption. It has kept or left it being accused of corruption. Critics claim there is little or no political will to fight it. But when these critics have come to power, except for variations in detail, corruption has gotten worse.
President Yoweri Museveni came to power promising to fight graft. He has presided over the most corrupt government in Uganda’s history. This, in large part, explains why he has lasted longest. This is not a moral judgment on his leadership.
I do not think he would (and can) govern Uganda without corruption. It is just a statement of fact. I believe many opposition politicians genuinely believe corruption can be defeated. However, if they came into power, they would be just as corrupt.
I grew up at home reading politics in Africa. Accusations of corruption, tribalism and repression were the main reason behind every military coup, popular insurrection, electoral struggle, civil war and popular anger against every government. I joined journalism to contribute to the fight against these evils.
I have spent the last 27 years my journalism and intellectual career investigating and writing about corruption. I have published many investigative stories, academic papers and even a book on this subject. This humbled me with a degree of moral distance that is depressing but also illuminating.
I began by trying to understand governance strategies in Africa. But I needed to look beyond Africa to gain a broader perspective – and that is what philosophy demands. I delved into the governance strategies of rich and poor countries across time and space.
I studied the history of Western countries when they were still poor, at the same level of per capita spending as our governments today. I learnt I was thinking in a moral and ethical box handed to us by the modern state whose origins lie in the experience of rich Western countries but provide little or no reference to our reality.
There are many sources of legitimacy for governments. However, critical to the legitimacy of the modern state is the ability of the state to provide a large basket of public goods and services to all its citizens. This governance model requires high levels of social organization and lots of money. Poor countries don’t have these two endowments to govern this way. So, they rely on cheaper and affordable strategies of governance – repression and patronage.
Poor countries of today inherited the ethical and moral architecture of their governance from departing colonial powers and/or as copy and paste values based on “best practice” in rich Western countries.
Yet reading the history of the West showed me that these ethical and moral values had not always been the basis of their governance. When still at the same level of per capita spending as us, the state did not provide a large basket of public goods and services to all citizens.
Instead, governments in the West managed their societies using similar cheaper and affordable strategies of governance our leaders employ today – repression and patronage.
In fact, most of the practices we call corruption today were perfectly legal and ethical in all of Europe and North America at the turn of the 20th century.
The current ethical and moral governance code of the West evolved out of the transformation from poor, agrarian societies into rich industrial nations. There were many factors that occasioned this change in governance strategies. But the most critical part was growth in state revenues. This gave the governments enough resources to buy legitimacy through the provision of a large basket of public goods and services.
Poor countries adopted this architecture of governance without the financial and a developed social organization to deliver on it. So, our nations are over developed in functions but under developed in capacity – their reach goes far beyond their grasp.
The consequence of this mismatch between ambitions and resources leads inevitably to corruption. Meagre resources are spread too thinly across a large territory that is sparsely populated. Then they are placed into the hands of myriads of state employees with limited skills and oversight to do the job. Corruption and incompetence are inevitable byproducts of this effort.
Because financial and human resources available cannot deliver the large basket of public goods and services, governments find it cheaper (and affordable) to invest in buying-off elites in the different ethnic or religious communities with patronage. In exchange, these elites create a bridge between the state and their constituents. This forms the basis for the politicization of ethnicity – as ambitious people make moral, cultural and psychological appeals to identity to gain the following of particular constituencies.
They leverage this following to gain positions of power and influence; and they sustain these through the distribution of material benefits to their constituents by indulging in activities that are largely corrupt.
At lower state levels of a teacher, a nurse or police officer, government wages are near or below subsistence. Government pretends to pay its employees and they also pretend to work for it.
The lower cadres of the state keep in their official jobs because of the opportunities to earn extra income by exploiting their power. Without such a practice, public service would not attract many of its cadres and it would just wither away.
At the top corruption is the glue that holds the flabby and heterogenous coalition of powerful religious and ethnic elites together.
Then below, corruption is the grease that turns the wheels of the state because public sector employees work in large part because their official incomes are supplemented by unofficial earnings through corruption.
Therefore, corruption is the way the system works not the way it fails. By adopting the ethics of a modern state at very low levels of public spending, we have criminalized the very governance strategies that allow our states to function.
This conclusion is frustrating but realistic. It means that we need to see corruption not as a problem which we can solve but one we should manage.