What corruption have you experienced in your life?

[Groan] I have lived with different types of corruption in Africa for many years and have seen it grow steadily worse.

Along with poor governance, poverty and HIV/AIDS it has devastated and continues to devastate Africa.

There are many different types of corruption at play. I won’t go into embezzlement and others that haven’t affected me so much personally and directly. I will look at those that have really been “in my face” and how I have dealt with them.

Let’s look at extortion first.

The mild form is where a government official will want payment for doing his job. They will refuse to do anything until they get money or they will slow the whole process and demand payment to speed it up.

There are also much nastier forms. A number of foreigners in a certain town I used to live in were accused of drug-dealing. The police drug officers would plant drugs in the victim’s vehicle and then come and search the vehicle “after receiving an anonymous tip”. The witless “drug-dealer” is then arrested.

A series shakedowns will then begin. These include prison officers getting food and other necessities to the victim, lawyers and magistrates/judges handling the case, journalists and politicians can also jump on the band wagon by demanding money for taking sides in the case.

Usually there will be an acquittal or large fine after a suitable bribe has been arranged.

Understanding the law, protocols and culture all play a part in preventing and dealing with this and other forms of corruption.

Here is an example. I once returned to my office on a Friday to find a British manager who worked for me sitting at my desk behind which (in my chair!) sat two ladies from immigration. They were new in town and didn’t know me..

I immediately greeted them politely and respectfully. They ignored me.

I smiled to myself as I knew what they were up to and in their arrogance they had made some really silly mistakes. I then asked them what they wanted. I was told to keep quiet as they would be asking questions.

I told them to get out of my chairs, out of my office and off the property extremely fast or they would be physically removed.

Of course they were taken completely by surprise, became very upset and shouted that they were from immigration and would have me arrested. I motioned to get a rope and made a big to do of planning to tie them up and remove them. They ran away.

I then sat down and started making calls. The British manager by this time as freaking out and thought I had lost my mind. Foreigners quite understandably usually kow-tow and try to appease and invariably end up in a cell on trumped up charges. Dealing with this stuff requires knowledge, which I have found usually gives one the confidence needed to make the right decisions.

I called the heads of the police and immigration and the District Commissioner and informed them that I had just chased off two fake immigration officers. Of course I knew that they were real immigration officers and the police and immigration chiefs knew that I knew that.

They asked me how I knew they were fake and I told them how they had not followed any legal protocols/procedures. I explained carefully how they had not reported to and  informed the “appropriate authority” (me) who they were and what the purpose of their visit was, they were not wearing their uniforms and had not informed me they were from immigration when directly asked. Most importantly (culturally), I also mentioned how they had refused to return my greeting.

Not returning a greeting in many parts of Africa is considered shockingly aggressive behaviour and is considered totally unacceptable.

Later I received a polite phone request for the DC to come to immigration for a meeting as a complaint had been made against me by two immigration officers.

I went to the meeting with two truckloads of forestry workers as witnesses (60+ wild looking men who were very loyal to me and the company) .

The chief of immigration met us at the entrance, rolled his eyes of course and suggested I leave my entourage outside. (we both knew a game was being played out). Of course, I graciously obliged. We then went into the meeting.

I was treated like a VIP and offered a choice of refreshments. The only question discussed was whether the women officers had been on duty or not. I agreed that they had probably been on duty (to the great relief of everyone there) as that would mean they wouldn’t be charged with a crime but only reprimanded.

Finally the immigration officer said that he had a problem as the officers were saying I had been rude and that I must apologize or “they would take me to court” and would I kindly do so, so as to avoid any more hassle for everyone.

Of course couldn’t do that as they would then certainly “take me to court” and treat an apology as both weakness and admission of guilt.

After some consideration I refused and demanded an apology from them and a chicken.

A chicken is the traditional means of showing apology for a wrong. Everyone laughed and we all went home.

The status-quo was resumed and no one ever came near the property again to bother my ex-patriot managers.

By the way, Fridays are the favourite day to arrest ex-pat managers for trumped up immigration charges as they can’t get out till Monday at the soonest so will by that stage pay anything not to have to endure another second of an African jail.

The next popular form of corruption is bribery. I don’t mean where the bribe has been demanded by an official but rather is offered by a businessman, for example, in return for favours. This has been very destructive in my part of Africa.

It is just too easy to offer a poor official two years salary or even twenty years salary in return for either turning a blind eye or even actively breaking the law to make sure said “businessman” gets what he wants.

Here is an example of how bad this can get. A few years ago I applied for some prospecting licenses together with an “indigenous” partner.

We put together all the required documentation and then employed twelve men from our chiefdom to “walk it through”.

I don’t mean officials and I don’t mean we bribed anyone. We did everything above board. The twelve individuals were paid to guard our files.

Corruption had become so bad at the ministry of mines that some officials would be paid huge sums to copy every bit of correspondence onto someone else’s letterheads and swap it all for yours in return for a tidy sum from a mining company.

The first you would know that this had happened would be when you discovered that the license was issued to someone else and no record existed of your application and work!

The other common types of corruption are less insidious. One is closely related to cultural practices. This involves “gifts”.

Traditionally, you never visit a chief without taking a gift. In some tribes the chief must always give a gift too although this will always be significantly smaller than what you give him. This has carried over to modern government. When you visit someone important you are expected to give them a gift just for seeing you.

Sometimes the corruption is not really initiated by either party and is more of a dirty partnership. A government official and a business person will often collude to develop something and then to share it between them. The official effectively “moonlights” and partners with the businessman, sharing inside knowledge. This is rarely considered corrupt.

Often an official will help someone, expecting a “gift” at the end, usually the price of a beer or two. When not asked for up front it is rarely considered corruption. It is regarded as a thank you and builds a longer-term bond.

In Central Africa kinship is paramount. The closer you are related to someone the more taboos there are against ripping them off. If you are completely unrelated in terms of family, clan, tribe, nationality, race or personal friendship then you are fair game. It is always important to establish and enhance whatever ties exist in order to avoid being a target for corruption. The closer the kinship the less chance of having a problem.

If closely related then one is expected to treat the other as “a brother” and buy lunch or help in some way. This again is rarely considered corruption even though it may well be so legally.

Very often this means simply befriending everyone and becoming “part of the landscape”. Friendship is highly prized in Africa and will very often be put before money.

My personal way round potential problems is to get to know everyone I can in a government department before approaching the issue at hand. I seldom encounter problems. If I do have a problem I would call sinister then I will usually find something to throw back at the individual concerned. Sound nasty but it is self-defense. A recording device can come in very handy.

I have experienced some really difficult and dangerous situations relating to corruption in parts of Africa and will save most of these for later. However, one that is particularly pertinent comes to mind.

In 1997/98 I was in the DR Congo, on my way to Lubumbashi from the Zambian border.

I was accompanied by a Congolese and an indigenous Zimbabwean. I asked the Congolese what the accepted rate was for roadblocks. He explained that it was three Congolese francs for each  officer and one franc for each soldier.

At the time the Congo was experiencing the bloodiest war in the history of Africa and it was very, very dangerous. There were 23 road blocks to get through in just 90 kilometers. Therefore you had to get it right.

We proceeded well, knowing and agreeing what to pay at each roadblock. That was until someone decided to break the rules.

Having just paid, a young idiot with an AK decided to try and rob us. This is a disastrous situation as once the status-quo has been broken it can all spiral out of control.

He openly stuck his hand into one of the packs to help himself to something. If we didn’t do something ourselves we could end up dead in the bush because the unwritten rules that develop naturally in these situations had gone. We had to re-establish them.

Therefore my Zim colleague and I agreed on a course of action immediately. He grabbed the guy’s arms. I took his weapon.  I kept the AK held up and announced that he had robbed us when we had already paid.

The result was not what someone would expect if they were not used to these places and these systems but definitely to someone who has been there.

The other soldiers and officer left us alone and instead laid into their comrade with rifle butts and boots.

I handed over the weapon to the officer who smiled and told us we could go and that that fellow was a fool.

My point is that sometimes the “corrupt” system becomes the only system and people will usually gravitate to such a system of “parallel law” (for want of a better term). These soldiers knew too that it was either no system or protect the system they had even though it was not “lawful”.

I don’t believe the rest of the world differs much. People everywhere have a notion of fair play and also like to agree on a system whereby it governs their world, even if it is “parallel” to the official system.

This corruption, such as what I experienced in the Congo is not the same as other forms and to me is just a reality of life. It is unavoidable and IS the system. To fix it requires starting at the top and changing everyone’s attitude and thinking all the way down the ranks. That is an almost impossible task.

There are very grey areas and fine lines in such places. However, as the late pragmatic Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa, the only African leader I have seen actually reverse corruption, said, “It mustn’t stink!”

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One thought on “What corruption have you experienced in your life?

  1. so very true…almost everything what you have written happens in India…especially the natural wealth is being looted by businessmen and politicians together…and the sad part is most of the media is owned by big businesses…

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