New Strategies for Fighting Corruption in Africa

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Corruption violates the dignity of citizens and shatters the social compact between leaders and their populations. Across Africa, corruption is responsible for fueling wars, perpetuating violence, undermining democracies and empowering kleptocrats and dictators. Breaking the cycle of corruption is a long-term struggle that requires sustained political will, substantial political and economic reform, and a significant shift in attitudes. This will not happen quickly or easily. As the Panama Papers demonstrate, however, we are witnessing the emergence of a global grassroots movement focused on transparency and accountability that is constraining the ability of kleptocrats to siphon state assets, solicit large-scale bribes, and stash ill-gotten gains in offshore bank accounts.

I witnessed this firsthand during a trip in April to Burkina Faso. In that country, a movement of young artists, musicians and students fed up with the country’s corrupt autocracy broke the 27-year reign of President Blaise Compaore and forced him and his compatriots into exile. The Burkinabe then held their first democratic elections since 1978 and elected a technocratic government focused on financial transparency, accountability and rule of law. One of its first acts was to pass an anti-corruption law requiring political leaders to publicly declare all of their assets.

Despite progress in places like Burkina Faso and Nigeria, the overall scale of corruption remains staggering. Last month, Transparency International reported that Zimbabwe is losing at least $1 billion a year to corruption, largely through illicit payments to local government officials and the police. After just one year of independence, the Government of South Sudan acknowledged that $4 billion of public funds had been stolen by government officials. Meanwhile in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Global Witness reported earlier this month that the Congolese state mining company had signed over $880 million in royalties from its most lucrative mining project to a close friend of President Kabila’s. These funds could be used to purchase life-saving medicine, prepare for elections, or send kids to school; instead it is lining the pockets of the wealthy few.

Corruption is often endemic in economies dominated by natural resources, where complex extractive industries are often loosely regulated and lack transparency. The extractive industries, such as oil, gas, and mining, dominate many African economies. In 2010 African countries exported $333 billion worth of fuel and minerals, which was seven times greater than the total amount of donor funds that came to the continent. For some countries, the numbers are even more skewed. A staggering 97% of the value of exports from Nigeria – Africa’s largest economy – comes from oil. Many of these countries have struggled to ensure accountability for large-scale extractive projects and institute sufficient transparency measures, providing opportunities for businesses and corrupt officials to skim off the top or engage in wholesale diversion of public resources.

U.S. efforts to combat corrupt practices form a key part of our foreign policy. Under Secretary John Kerry’s leadership, the State Department has elevated fighting corruption as a foreign policy priority and core part of our human rights agenda. In January, Secretary Kerry called for corruption to be treated as a “first order national security priority.” He echoed this message at the Global Anti-corruption Summit hosted by the United Kingdom in May. Our hope is that implementing anti-corruption commitments at the country level and as part of multilateral organizations will continue to be a priority.

Last month, I participated in a panel discussion at SXSW Eco in Austin with Brad Brooks-Rubin from the Enough Project, Varun Vira from C4ADS, and Stephanie Ostfeld from Global Witness to talk about innovative strategies that civil society groups, concerned citizens, the private sector and governments are adopting to fight corruption, enhance transparency, and bring accountability for billions of stolen assets. In the panel, I highlighted three areas that the State Department champions in the fight against corruption.

First is building greater transparency globally, especially within governments, so that spending and procurement decisions, contracting, and public services are easily accessible and can be tracked by citizens. For example, the Open Government Partnership (OGP), launched by President Obama in 2011 with seven other heads of state, is partnering with civil society to help countries advance transparency and accountability through national action plans for reform. Seventy countries, including 10 in Africa – Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Tunisia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and South Africa – currently participate in OGP. Similarly, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which the United States has supported since its creation, has set a global standard designed to increase transparency and accountability in the extractives sector. EITI now includes 51 countries, including 27 in Africa, committed to strengthening disclosures of their oil, gas, and mining sector revenues, improving governance of these sectors, and combating corruption so citizens will obtain greater benefits from their country’s natural resources.

Second is supporting civil society-led investigations and strengthening capacity to expose abuses, track financial information across borders, and shed light on illicit activity. At the Global Anti-corruption Summit in May, U.S. government commitments included the establishment of a new global consortium support the critical work of investigative journalists and civil society networks in driving public demand for political will and action by law enforcement.

Third is supporting effective law enforcement. There is a limit to what non-governmental networks can achieve, in and of themselves. Civil society investigations must be accompanied by governments that are willing to prosecute corruption. Nigeria presents an interesting example, where the State Department is providing assistance to the government’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and deepening our collaboration to investigate and prosecute corruption. We have many other opportunities to engage governments such as Mozambique and Burkina Faso in the months and years ahead. These are just a few of the many efforts being undertaken across the U.S. government to help African governments and citizens combat corruption.

At the same event, I was also grateful to hear about similar and complementary efforts my fellow panelists’ organizations are taking to fight corruption in Africa.

The Enough Project has released a series of reports describing the confluence of corruption, violence and impunity in the Congo and South Sudan. They have also published a revealing report on new financial tools to counter kleptocracy in war zones in Africa.

Global Witness has run corruption investigations for over 20 years. Its recent report uncovering mining sector bribes by UK firm Sable to senior officials in Liberia and Guinea has caught the attention of both the Liberia and Guinean governments and hopefully set the stage for legitimate judicial investigations.

C4ADS is a newer NGO that uses data-driven analysis and evidence-based reporting to tackle conflict financing and illicit finance. It is playing a leading role in The Sentry consortium – which has released hard-hitting reports on illicit finance and corruption in Sudan, South Sudan, the Congo, Somalia, and the Central African Republic.

Corruption supports and reinforces authoritarian regimes. Corruption is a disincentive for economies to diversify and is a drag on productivity and growth. Corruption undermines good governance and is linked to conflict, terrorism and extremism. I am convinced that if citizens continue to demand greater transparency and accountability from their governments, and if the United States and other governments continue to play a leadership role in complementing these efforts, the fight to root out corruption will advance in surprising and unexpected ways.

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