Colonialism has etched a profound and often painful mark on Africa, leaving behind a legacy of poverty, inequality, and underdevelopment that the continent grapples with to this day. Yet, amid the abolishing of colonial rule, one insidious legacy stands out, enduring like a stubborn wound on Africa’s path to progress: corruption.
Corruption, defined as the misuse of public office for personal gain, manifests itself in various forms, from bribery to embezzlement.
The corrosive effects of corruption reach far and wide. It erodes the rule of law, stifles economic expansion, and casts a shadow of abject poverty over vulnerable populations. Corruption across Africa transforms the business landscape into a difficult terrain, where companies often find themselves at a crossroads: yield to extortion, face discrimination, or even face expulsion from the market.
In this article, I delve into the intricate relationship between colonialism and the persistent issue of corruption in Africa. I explore how historical legacies have intertwined to shape the current landscape of corruption on the continent, and the enablers that have allowed it to happen.
The Plunder of Africa
Firstly, it’s crucial to understand that Africa is not poor as commonly stereotyped. In an article titled “Africa Is Not Poor, We Are Stealing Its Wealth“, Nick Dearden argues that Africa possesses substantial resources but is being deprived of its riches.
Dearden highlights that Africa boasts some of the world’s largest natural resources, including oil, gas, diamonds, and gold. Unfortunately, these resources often fall victim to exploitation by corrupt officials and multinational corporations seeking personal gains.
Dearden goes on to explain that Africa actually loses more money than it gains from the global economy. While it receives approximately $161 billion each year from sources like loans, remittances from people working abroad, and foreign aid, it loses a staggering $203 billion. Some of this money leaves directly due to large multinational companies avoiding paying taxes in the countries in which they operate.
This “hidden” outflow of money from Africa amounts to about 6.1% of the entire continent’s economy, which is more than three times the amount it receives in foreign aid.
Illicit financial flows and tax evasion by multinational corporations are significant challenges faced by many countries in Africa. These practices involve the illegal transfer of money or capital from one country to another, often through tax havens, and result in substantial revenue losses for African economies.
The impact of undeclared profits made by multinationals in Africa is particularly detrimental to the continent’s economic growth, and its ability to fund public services and social welfare. It perpetuates economic inequality, hampers poverty reduction efforts, and limits investments in critical sectors such as education, healthcare, and infrastructure. Moreover, these practices often exacerbate corruption and weaken governance structures, further hindering development.
Africa is also losing money through illegal logging, fishing, and wildlife trading. According to the World Bank, these activities cost Africa about $29 billion every year.
To top it off, climate change has caused significant damage to Africa’s environment and economy, leading to a debt of $36 billion owed to the continent . This debt is due to the damage caused by climate change, even though Africa did not contribute significantly to the problem. Sadly, this money is not being paid back.
Various factors contribute to illicit flows, including weak governance, lack of transparency, global financial secrecy, trade misinvoicing, and activities in the extractive industries. It’s important to note that these illicit flows not only harm Africa but also have negative consequences for the global economy, as they undermine the rule of law, distort markets, foster inequality, and contribute to instability and conflict.
The Role of Colonialism in Illicit Flows and Corruption
Much of the research suggests that colonialism played a significant role in entrenching corruption and illicit financial flows in Africa. Colonialism, a historical period when European powers exerted control over Africa, had profound and lasting impacts on the continent.
During this era, Africa’s abundant resources were ruthlessly exploited, foreign systems of governance were imposed, and the rich tapestry of African cultures and societies faced severe disruptions. These historical factors laid the groundwork for corruption and illicit financial activities that persisted into the post-colonial era.
Authoritarian governments and elites were often established by the colonial powers. These governments were characterized by corruption and abuse of power. They lacked strong institutions and mechanisms for holding officials accountable, providing fertile ground for corruption to take root.
Colonial powers frequently sowed division among African communities, emphasizing individualism over collective values. This divisive approach created an atmosphere of mistrust and competition, hindering the development of robust institutions and a culture of civic engagement. Colonial powers exploited Africa’s natural resources solely for their own gain, neglecting investments in the continent’s development. This exploitative approach resulted in a cycle of poverty and inequality, impeding Africa’s path to economic growth and prosperity.
Crucially, colonial officials often engaged in corrupt and abusive practices with little or no consequences. This culture of impunity persisted into the post-colonial era, making it challenging to hold corrupt individuals accountable for their actions.
Colonialism left a legacy of corruption in public procurement processes. Contracts were frequently awarded to companies with close ties to colonial officials or those willing to pay bribes. Regrettably, this practice continued in the post-colonial period and remains a prevalent form of corruption in Africa. It is therefore no surprise that multinational corporations often operate in countries with weak institutions and limited accountability mechanisms, far from the oversight of the authorities of their own countries. This environment makes it easier for them to engage in corrupt practices, such as bribing government officials to secure contracts or evade taxes.
The introduction of democracy in Africa, especially during the 1990s and 2000s, didn’t automatically get rid of political corruption. In some cases, it actually made it more acceptable. The democratic process, strengthened by new institutions, led to the creation of new positions where favors could be exchanged.
Instead of democracy curbing clientelism, it often adapted to it. The increased clientelism, thanks to these new institutions, resulted in more opportunities for political power through buying votes with money or gifts. Once these positions were “democratically” approved, they could be exploited further. Many political figures don’t have clear ideologies and focus on their interests and alliances after getting elected. On the other hand, voters, having received compensation for their votes, rarely use the limited information available to check if elected officials keep their campaign promises.
A two way street
The flow of illicit funds paints a complex two-way street, where African entities are not just victims but can also be participants in the corruption game. Whilst most of us in compliance are familiar with instances of corruption committed by multinationals in Africa thanks to public enforcement actions, it’s important to note that some high-ranking politicians from Europe also found themselves embroiled in scandals involving substantial sums of cash from African sources.
For example, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who already had a criminal conviction, is currently facing charges of accepting millions from the late Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
One should add that Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, was sentenced in December 2011 to a suspended jail term (suspended, because the court considered he was too old and frail to serve time) for corruption while he was mayor of Paris. Alain Juppé, who was his colleague in the Paris municipal administration and later became Chirac’s prime minister, also faced corruption convictions in 2004, resulting in a suspended sentence.
Instances of African leaders corrupting French officials are not uncommon. For example, former Gabonese President Omar Bongo Ondimba was accused of embezzling state funds and bribing French politicians. France’s mammoth Elf (now TotalEnergies) corruption case, was probably the biggest political and corporate sleaze scandal to hit a western democracy since the second world war.
French companies have also faced a slew of allegations of corruption in Africa. Bolloré, the multinational conglomerate, saw its chairman, Vincent Bolloré, convicted of corruption for bribing government officials in Guinea and Togo in 2021.
These cases highlight the multi-dimensional nature of corruption and its impact on both ends of the corruption spectrum.
The term “ill-gotten assets” refers to movable and immovable properties acquired by state leaders through illicit means, such as misappropriation of funds, theft, or the embezzlement of public money. These assets often result from corrupt activities like bribery, extortion, and kickbacks. Perpetrators of these crimes frequently employ mechanisms to obscure the origins of their wealth, often involving tax havens and the complicity of developed countries.
A historic trial in the case of Ill-Gotten Assets (Biens Mal Acquis) unfolded in Paris from June 19 to July 5, 2017. Teodorin Obiang, Vice President of Equatorial Guinea, was accused of laundering a substantial fortune in France using public funds diverted from his home country. The verdict, delivered on October 27, 2017, marked a significant milestone. Teodorin Obiang received a three-year suspended prison sentence, a suspended fine of 30 million euros, and the full confiscation of his seized assets in French territory, valued at over 150 million euros.
This case marked the first time that a high-ranking foreign leader in office was convicted in France for money laundering, including embezzlement of public funds and corruption.
This investigation was part of a broader effort initiated by Transparency International France and Sherpa in 2007 to uncover and recover assets allegedly stolen by African leaders from their people, notably Gabon and Congo.
The scrutiny on the Bongo family’s wealth has intensified recently following the military coup in Gabon that ousted former President Ali Bongo from power. With an extensive portfolio including three private mansions and numerous apartments in Paris, as well as seven villas in Nice, the Bongo family, who have held power in Gabon since 1967, accumulated substantial wealth. Investigative authorities have identified nearly 85 million euros in real estate purchases in France linked to the Bongo family.
French bank BNP Paribas faces allegations of failing in its anti-money laundering (AML) obligations by overlooking the questionable origins of the Bongo family’s fortune. The banking giant is under investigation for “money laundering and embezzlement of public funds” related to ill-gotten assets owned by the Bongo family. Despite large sums of money flowing into the accounts of the Bongo family, BNP Paribas allegedly failed to alert authorities.
The late President of Gabon, Omar Bongo, and four of his children—Grace, Betty, Arthur, and Hermine—stand accused of diverting millions of euros from public funds to purchase properties and luxury goods in France. In 2022, these four children were charged with embezzlement and corruption by a French judge. They have maintained that the properties were gifts from their father, denying any wrongdoing.
On March 14, 2023 the French judicial system acknowledged the Gabonese state as a civil party and victim in the investigation concerning the opulent real estate holdings in France linked to the Bongo family. This decision was issued by the Paris Court of Appeal, overturning a previous ruling by an investigating magistrate, as indicated by sources closely associated with the case.
Attorneys representing Transparency International, namely William Bourdon and Apolline Cagnat, found the decision of the investigative chamber “perplexing,” particularly considering the Bongo family’s historical denial of any financial improprieties involving the Gabonese state. Additionally, in the separate case involving Equatorial Guinea, the court of appeal had denied victim status to that country. Granting victim status to Gabon in this context appears “paradoxical,” akin to returning stolen proceeds to a thief, according to the two legal representatives.
In a similar vein, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville and several family members are implicated in acquiring over 150 properties and bank accounts in France using funds allegedly misappropriated from their country’s oil sector. Arrest warrants were issued in 2019 for Wilfrid Nguesso and Edgar Nguesso, who are suspected of money laundering through shell companies and intermediaries.
Opacity of the Real Estate Sector
Real estate investments in France, particularly in Paris and the French Riviera, have gained notoriety for attracting individuals with questionable financial backgrounds and ties to corruption. While it is theoretically possible to trace illicit financial flows into the French real estate sector, recent reports indicate that investigations into money laundering through French real estate often face a brick wall.
Moving the Money Out of Africa
So, what happens to the stolen money? It mainly goes to boost the social status of those in power, helping their close relatives and associates. Displaying your wealth, beyond just vanity, has political advantages. But, it also means they don’t want to invest it in productive activities. Most of the big funds gets laundered, through real estate, luxury items, and one of the few forward-looking investments is in their children’s education, often overseas.
During the Cold War, leaders in resource-rich countries received money from governments and corporations, often engaging in corrupt practices without stringent regulation. More stringent regulations and an increase of prosecution of African leaders and officials meant easy times were over. This shift prompted corrupt leaders to adopt more sophisticated methods for accumulating and concealing illicit wealth and ill-gotten assets.
To evade detection, corrupt officials channel their wealth into the international financial system, frequently directing funds to countries with historical colonial ties or to family members. Legal and financial professionals, notaries as well as public relations firms, facilitate these transactions. However, efforts to enhance transparency and regulation have not deterred these enablers, who continue to use offshore accounts, shell companies, and family offices to evade scrutiny.
Oxfam research suggests that up to 30 percent of Africa’s wealth may have been moved offshore.
A Call to Reflection
Instead of being seen as a bad thing, having wealth in Africa is often seen as a sign of a true leader. Instead of being seen as a vice, wealth in Africa is often celebrated as a virtue, and many leaders are inspired by Western modernism and luxury. They believe that flaunting their wealth is not just about personal vanity; it’s a political statement of power and prestige, a symbol of their strength on the global stage.
So, trying to stop corruption by “shaming” those involved doesn’t necessarily work. People who benefit from corruption don’t usually criticize it unless they think others are benefiting more. This is common in many African societies, where getting rich, even if it’s not completely honest, isn’t necessarily considered wrong. Not sharing that wealth with the people however, is seen as unethical and greedy.
Essentially people might accept a corrupt leader, as long as it is a “benevolent despot”.
The issue of “bad governance” in Africa cannot be reduced to the kleptomania of its leaders. That’s too simplistic.
Truth is efforts to combat corruption in Africa have yielded mixed results. Anti-corruption programs generally revolve around similar themes: controlling public expenditure, overhauling legislation (public tenders, customs, insurance, taxation), tightening management of state-owned enterprises, and revisiting exploitative contracts to improve the business climate.
The fight against corruption in Africa is also a deeper struggle to transform the very systems and mindsets that have perpetuated these issues. While legal measures, international conventions, and anti-corruption programs are crucial components of this fight, they alone cannot bring about lasting change.
To truly address corruption, there must be a fundamental shift in the way society perceives wealth, power, and leadership. It’s not enough to condemn corruption while simultaneously celebrating the accumulation of wealth as a symbol of leadership. The acceptance of corruption as a norm must be challenged, and this begins with “decolonizing” our minds.
Decolonization involves breaking free from the mental chains that have normalized corruption and individualism. This process requires embracing African values, traditions, and wisdom that promote communal harmony and equitable distribution of resources.