Corruption in Africa: Holding leaders accountable

South African President Jacob Zuma at the World Economic Forum on Africa in 2009. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On 29 June, former President Jacob Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court by South Africa’s highest court. Zuma is the first South African leader to receive a prison sentence, and still faces more charges — 16 total, including fraud, graft and racketeering — related to a 1999 arms deal. Zuma’s legal challenges are nothing new — his first criminal charge was in 2005 for rape, while he was serving as vice president (he was ultimately aquitted). But last week’s ruling was arguably the first instance of accountability for a man whose corruption and misrule during his eight-year presidency cost South Africa an estimated $83 billion.

As South Africa faces the fallout of the “state capture” — the co-optation of the state by private interests — orchestrated by Zuma and his associates (like the Gupta brothers), other African nations are grappling with their own corruption affairs. In Namibia’s “mother of all trials,” two ministers will face charges of accepting bribes from an Icelandic company in exchange for valuable fishing rights between 2011 and 2019. A recent report estimated that the Democratic Republic of Congo lost $4 billion as a result of questionable contracts granted to Israeli businessman Dan Gertler. Allegations of corruption related to COVID-19 relief resources have also arisen in Nigeria, Kenya, Somalia, and Zimbabwe, among other countries.

Corruption on the rise

Africa has long ranked among the world’s most corrupt regions. According to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, corruption costs Africa more than $148 billion each year — equal to 50% of African governments’ tax revenue and 25% of the continent’s GDP — and COVID-19 may be worsening the problem. In an Afrobarometer poll from February, nearly 6 in 10 Africans said corruption increased in their country over the past year, with 41% saying it “increased a lot.” As of 2020, Africa remains the lowest-performing region on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. The Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance reported in November that good governance in Africa declined in 2019 for the first time in 10 years even before COVID.

Are anti-corruption policies working?

The African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption (AUCPCC), adopted in 2003, was a significant first step towards resolving Africa’s corruption woes. The AUCPCC, which provides a shared strategy for member states’ anti-corruption efforts, has now been signed by 44 African countries. However, information about the AUCPCC’s effectiveness, and the extent to which it has been implemented, is limited.

Evidence does suggest that the fight against corruption in Africa has seen uneven results. A number of African nations have established governmental anti-corruption bodies, with mixed success. Rwanda and Tanzania, for example, have met success in substantially reducing corruption, while other countries, including Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Sudan, have made only meager progress. The effectiveness of national anti-corruption agencies is often hampered by political interference, a lack of independence and a lack of political will.

These concerns extend to anti-corruption efforts targeting those at the very top. For every positive outcome like the conviction of former Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir, there are corruption trials like those of Côte d’Ivoire’s Guillaume Soro and Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, which were tainted by accusations of political motivation.

What does the future hold?

Weak and politicized judiciaries, uneven implementation of anti-corruption strategies and political stasis are just a few of the factors behind the persistence of corruption in Africa. Crooked leaders foster corrupt political cultures that can be hard to change or uproot, as evidenced by the President Cyril Ramaphosa’s arduous efforts to root out corrupt officials within the government and ANC after eight years of impunity under Zuma.

While the current scope of corruption in Africa may look bleak, there is cause for some hope. For one, in recent years African judiciaries have increasingly asserted their independence. In 2017, Kenya’s Supreme Court annulled the results of presidential elections and ordered a new vote due to irregularities, marking the first successful challenge in Africa by an opposition party against an official election result. Last year, Malawi’s Supreme Court similarly invalidated the country’s 2019 presidential election, citing irregularities, and set a new election date. And in May, Zimbabwe’s High Court overruled a decision by President Emmerson Mnangagwa to extend Chief Justice Luke Malaba’s term beyond the constitutional retirement age of 70.

Not all of these rulings had a lasting, positive impact. Malawi’s do-over election resulted in a new president, while Kenya’s rerun saw incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta reelected with 98% of votes in a poll boycotted by the main opposition candidate. Zimbabwe’s High Court later affirmed Chief Justice Malaba’s right to stay in his role as Chief Justice, despite previously ruling it was unconstitutional. Even Jacob Zuma’s 15-month prison sentence is not set in stone, with the Constitutional Court agreeing Saturday to hear an appeal to his contempt of court conviction.

Nonetheless, each display of independence by a high court serves as an example to its counterparts across the African continent. And the backing of an independent judiciary makes the uphill battle faced by every anti-graft agency or anti-corruption president just a little bit easier. As Africa looks to recover from the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19, the costs of corruption will be especially acute. Now and in the future, strong leaders and institutions with the will and ability to take on corruption will be crucial.

John Dashe
Communications Intern,
Africa Program



Center for International Policy, Africa Program

The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement