Are we victims or accomplices of Africa’s burgeoning corruption?

African economies are bleeding and corruption is endemic. The figures are staggering! More than US$1 trillion lost through corruption over decades, while about 75 million people in sub-Saharan Africa admitted to having paid a bribe in 2015.

Every corrupt act – no matter how insignificant or harmless – counts and contributes to the scourge, but how do we stem the culture?

Read more about recent encounters with Africa’s burgeoning corruption in everyday life.

It started off as an insignificant discussion.

“Your bag is overweight ma’am,’’ the attendant told me.

True, I had observed that it was overweight by 1 kilogram and I was willing to move stuff from that bag to another one that weighed less to reduce the weight. The new rule is that the bags should not exceed 23Kgs each. Mine was 24Kgs and I saw it because I was watching the scale. I asked him where I could rearrange my luggage as I could not see any free space in the crowded airport.

“Your bag is very overweight, it is 25Kg. You’ll have to do something because we’re doing you a favour,” he said. The “something” expected of me was obviously not repacking because my bags were quickly whisked away while he looked at me pointedly.

He didn’t extend his hand to receive anything from me so I figured he hadn’t meant that “something” was a bribe for letting the overweight bag through. “Phew!” I sighed with relief, thinking I had wiggled my way out of a corrupt act. I politely thanked him and happily completed the immigration processes, meanwhile mentally patting myself on the back for successfully evading paying a bribe.

I was still mentally congratulating myself and feeling proud of my minor accomplishment as I settled down in the departure lounge, when one of the employees in a different uniform approached me.

“Sister. I was sent to you by George*. I understand you have something for him,” he said. Unsure of how much he knew and what they could do to me, I hastily handed him the equivalent of US$1.50.

He gladly went his way, while I remained with a sour taste in my mouth. Was I a victim of corruption or an accomplice? The amount was nominal, but for me it was not about the money, rather it was about the principle. I felt violated. What would he have done if I had claimed not to have any money on me? Given that they had an effective internal follow up mechanism, which other airport staff were part of the syndicate.

I finally eased my conscience by telling myself that it was just a tip that he deserved for lifting my heavy luggage. After all, I would have paid someone the same amount for that service. However, the fact remains, the young man extracted money from me, against my will for a service he imposed on me and I felt powerless to do anything about it.

I asked myself many questions. How many people does he do this to on a daily basis and how much does he make? What happens to those who do not cooperate? Has anyone ever reported the matter to higher authorities and if so what action was taken?

I wondered how many of us cooperate against our will because we aren’t willing to put up a fight or make a scene. How many of us pay quietly because the amount required is inconsequential, not realizing that we are feeding a mammoth beast that is bleeding economies on this continent. In the final analysis, the tiny droplet feeds into a huge global picture.

While it is difficult to quantify how much Africa loses annually to corruption, estimated figures – which are probably on the conservative side – are staggering. According to past reports, Africa lost between $1.2 trillion and $1.4 trillion in illicit financial flows between 1980 and 2009—roughly equal to the continent’s current gross domestic product, and surpassing money received from outside over the same period. See more on: http://bit.ly/18D8Efj

Clearly the culture of corruption is deeply entrenched and people try to earn what they can within their sphere of influence. On the other hand, we perpetuate corruption whenever we cooperate, regardless of whether we do so willingly or reluctantly.

I am not sure what I could or would have done differently faced with similar circumstances. So far I have successfully eluded paying bribes, no matter how small, although sometimes I have paid the bigger price for refusing to cooperate.

I was reminded of an incident not so long ago, when I was claiming a tax rebate at another African airport after shopping as if it was my last chance in a lifetime. I was expecting a decent of money back given what I had spent. When I got to the counter where calculations are done, I cheerfully greeted the lady behind the counter. As I waited for the calculations, we joked and engaged in friendly chatter, which her colleagues also joined in. I had taken an instant liking to her as she resembled my sister in law so I must have exuded an air of being comfortable around her since she looked like family. She seemed to take rather long to calculate the sum due to me. In fact, it appeared as though she was playing around with a piece of paper, much to my chagrin as my flight was already checking in.

She placed a note on the counter before me with a scribbled request to allow her to add more receipts to my claim so I could get a bigger cheque and split the cash with her. My total claim was worth a few hundred US dollars, but her deal was worth at least $10,000. A red flag immediately went up in my mind. I shook my head, with a deliberate stern expression on my face to indicate not only my refusal, but my disapproval too.

The atmosphere in the room immediately changed, as though someone had put the air conditioner on at very low temperature. The whole team in the room became very icy, which told me they were all in this together. All friendly banter and chatter ceased immediately.

My sister-in-law’s look alike sullenly handed me my approved receipts and the authorization form with the total amount. In my rush to get to the cheque written and cashed before catching my flight, I did not inspect the form until I was in the queue to collect my money.

Stunned! I realized that to punish me, my sister-in-law’s look alike had removed all the receipts worth huge amounts, and left the insignificant ones so I was queuing for a pittance, less than 10 per cent of what was due to me. I was incensed but looking at the time and the length of the queue, I just cashed what I had and moved on. I figured she would try to entice someone else with that deal, my receipts adding a few more hundreds to the total amount.

Unfortunately, I had combined receipts with a colleague’s as his claim on its own was not worth the process. When I shared my story with him, he sympathized and demanded the full amount of his claim. There were costs attached to the process and a commission charged for changing the currency to US$ but he refused to share any of the costs. His avarice would not let him compromise. So, in the final analysis, I lost to the lady and my colleague, but was glad that I had played my part against corruption no matter how small.

Looking at the two situations, I wondered what had changed. Why had I refused to participate in a huge deal but brushed aside a nominal amount? I guess the circumstances were different. The ladies at the airport didn’t have an accomplice waiting to stalk me on the other side. As a result, the fear factor was eliminated. The ladies were more civil and asked for permission, which the man at the other airport did not. I guess the corrupt elements in our society are becoming more daring and assertive.

Whatever the situation, the truth is we all abhor corruption, from a moral and financial perspective, yet we sometimes find ourselves caught up in situations that force us to be reluctant accomplices. We are all cognizant of its impact and know that every amount, no matter how small, contributes to the larger problem – like drops of water in the ocean.

Another report, estimates that nearly 75 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa paid a bribe in 2015 alone for reasons that varied from escaping punishment by the police or courts, to getting access to desperately needed basic services. Read more: http://bit.ly/1OsXlJG

While we may not always have the upper hand or succeed in resisting corruption, there is something we can do. We can each take a stand against corrupt practices and refuse to participate. We may not always succeed, but our efforts will be recognized – at least by ourselves for trying. As much as possible, we can play our part by refusing to participate – even if it sometimes costs us as in my second incident. We can also express our disapproval so that our moral standpoint is clear. As much as we can, we should report such incidents to the relevant authorities.

I am convinced that our collective efforts will one day pay off. Just as each corrupt act contributes to the trillions lost, the inverse is true – each refusal to participate also contributes towards discouraging perpetrators and serves as a reminder that there is a section of society that prefers to do things the right way. I imagine it also plays a part in preventing the loss of billions of dollars.

So let’s all play our part. Together we can make a difference!

*Name changed to protect his identity – and mine lest a member of his syndicate remembers!

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