Africa’s presidents are struggling to meet their own ambitious anti-corruption targets

President Uhuru Kenyatta: frustrated.
President Uhuru Kenyatta: frustrated.
Image: Reuters/Stephane Mahe
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Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta was last week roundly criticized by his country men and women after admitting, in startlingly frank terms, his helplessness in fighting against endemic corruption. Kenyatta said he had tried everything in his power including sacking cabinet ministers and others implicated in corruption to no avail.

“Show me any one administration since independence that has taken action on corruption like I have done, the president said. “I have removed everybody. I have done my part, at great expense also, political, by asking these guys to step aside.”

His frustration is a classic tale of failed attempts by different African governments in their relentless struggle to fight the vice that has plagued the continent for decades. His comments came as no surprise, though, as a survey by market research firm, Infotrack, in August this year, ranked his office and that of his deputy the most corrupt state departments in the country.

Like his Kenyan counterpart, Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari has spoken of frustrations in fighting the corruption in Africa’s largest economy, despite the zeal to do so. That frustration and a lack of meaningful tangible results, probably led to government agencies sidestepping legal due process  and raiding homes of judges this month in a corruption purge that has been criticized by civil society watchers. Buhari won last year’s election with a campaign focused on rooting out corruption but his ineffectiveness so far has used up his goodwill and is now accused of using the anti-corruption drive to go after political rivals.

The sheer scale of the scandals reported in Nigeria and Kenya have been mind-boggling at times. The former head of Kenya’s anti-corruption commission Philip Kinisu told Reuters in Mar. 2016 that Kenya loses about a third of its annual budget (equivalent to $6 billion) to corruption yearly.

“This is an unfortunate but not an unanticipated state of affairs considering the theatre of the absurd that has been the war against corruption since 2013,” anti-corruption crusader John Githongo, tells Quartz.

Critics like Samuel Kimeu the executive director Transparency International-Kenya, say leaders such as president Kenyatta appear to have lost the political will to fight the vice once and for all.

“We haven’t seen any attempts from the president to enforce compliance with basic public accounting principles and no administrative sanctions meted out against those implicated.”

After years of paying lip-service to dealing with corruption many African presidents are working to at least appear to be working hard to fight graft. Many of their citizens instinctively believe corruption has been one of the key factors contributing to low levels of development and persistent poverty despite being rich in natural resources.

In day to day life, citizens often report paying bribes to access services in government offices, avoid arrest, get employment or get away with crime. In Liberia, for instance, seven out of 10 people reported paying bribes to access basic public services such as schooling and healthcare. But, president  Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who has been fighting off corruption allegations has in equal measure mounted a crackdown on officials implicated in theft of public funds.  President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda who has bragged of instituting many anti-corruption measures, has often protected graft suspects mostly cronies and cabinet ministers.

South Africa’s Jacob Zuma is another whose anti-corruption crusades have failed both in practice and in spirit. He has been fighting attempts to face nearly 800 charges related to corruption and money laundering for several years as well as the use of government funds to expand his personal home.

However, unlike many of his counterparts, Tanzanian president John Magufuli has earned himself praise in his commitment to fight corruption. In the first two months in office, he fired many senior officials at Tanzania Revenue Authority. The head of the country’s anti-corruption bureau was not spared in the graft purge. But in recent months there is a creeping feeling Magufuli’s ‘bulldozer’ approach has taken autocratic turn.