An increasing number of African politicians, officials and even intellectuals are advocating tolerating corruption for the sake of political stability and economic advancement, giving several reasons. We have an auditor general here, and a cabinet minister there providing a justification for tolerating corruption: that prosecuting corrupt politicians would scare them into taking the stolen wealth offshore where it doesn’t benefit the taxpayers from which it was stolen. Another reason advanced is that corruption preserves national unity, as members from different ethnic and religious groups are allowed to partake of the stolen resources, so that no particular community feels left out. As such, they argue that corruption is the way the system works, not the way it fails. Whether or not these arguments are advanced in desperation over the apparent inability of the state to apprehend and prosecute the corrupt, they are breeding grounds for disaster.
For one thing, the proponents of this spirited, yet flawed, advocacy overlook certain fundamentals of an organized society. Had they taken into account those fundamentals, these arguments would never have been put forward in the first place. One, countries are clearly governed by laws, and all forms of corruption, including theft, embezzlement of public funds, and bribery, are criminal offences in normal circumstances. Two, this advocacy by prominent personalities and leaders for the tolerance of corruption could incite people to commit crimes, itself a criminal offence, as people would perceive it as an express permission to engage in corruption. Three, the removal of both the moral compass and the punishment that keep people’s worst inclinations in check amounts to normalising corruption, which is a slippery slope to lawlessness and chaos.
For another, those who seek to demonstrate the benefits of investments stemming from corruption have failed to proffer convincing arguments. They do not offer a comparison between the purported benefits of such investments (let alone their existence and extent) and the benefits that would accrue to society in the absence of corruption. This allows them to convey an upside-down worldview in which shielding the corrupt from criminal prosecution actually favours the aggrieved party – the taxpayers – who supposedly stand to benefit from hypothetical investments. This is nonsensical. In fact, if such investments existed, the opposite would be true. Investments of stolen money would distort the market. Indeed, it wouldn’t matter how cheap they make their products or services since they got their capital free of charge. In fact, by providing cheap products/services, they would undercut genuine investors (the real taxpayers) and drive them out of business.
It should be obvious to those entertaining the myth of economic advancement driven by corruption-funded investments that unchecked corruption and development cannot co-exist peacefully, especially in infant economies. In such countries, investible resources are so limited that stealing them automatically leads to economic stagnation. Clearly, there are more reliable and time-tested means of allocating development resources. These are either provided by the government, especially in areas where the private sector cannot afford and where making a profit is unlikely, or by private investors in response to demand, leading to profit.
Moreover, it is delusional to seek state stability through the corruption of a few tribal leaders rather than the distribution of services to the general public. Corruption negates a key purpose of taxation, which is to provide for those who cannot afford certain essential services. The embezzlement of taxpayers’ money means that there is no money to provide such services. Such a morally deficient state invariably finds itself entangled in conflicts or overwhelmed by agitations around cessation (see DRC, Nigeria) led by neglected and disenfranchised citizens, and sometimes the leaders’ heads are mounted on a spike (see the French revolution).
Furthermore, one of the reasons that corruption increases the potential for instability is that it escalates the national debt by reducing national revenue. In some countries, up to a quarter of the national budget can be stolen. This invites political interference as national leaders get dictated to by external actors who provide the loans (such as financial institutions and bilateral partners) to act against the interests of their own people. This cannot lead to anything good.
Most importantly, when a state fails to check corruption, it spreads to all sections of society. After messing up institutions of law and justice that are meant to fight it, and contaminating the conscience of the nation – the traditional and religious institutions, and even some civil society organisations – the nation loses the battle and can only hope for a revolution, which unfortunately may not be led by competent or honest people.
Africa thus needs to consider these basic truths before choosing between corruption and development. The two cannot co-exist, and, if left unchecked, corruption would ultimately lead to the collapse of societies, whether in developing or advanced economies.