Earlier this month, the African Union (AU) observed the 4th annual African Anti-Corruption Day. The day was established in commemoration of the AU’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption, which was adopted on July 11, 2003. This year’s theme was ‘Fighting Corruption through Effective and Efficient Judicial Systems’. What does this look like in the era of COVID-19 when large amounts of aid and assistance are being distributed to countries across the continent?
Africa, like the rest of the world, is fighting the pandemic and its systems and infrastructure have been put to the test. With pre-existing and long-standing underlying issues, African countries are fighting to ensure that COVID-19 does not further weaken these systems. In addition, corruption is a pandemic of its own and during this critical time, we must be vigilant and act with the same vigor with which we are addressing COVID-19 itself. With the onset of the health crisis, the consequences of corruption are more severe and can potentially hinder Africa’s ability to cope and recuperate in its aftermath. However, this challenge also presents the opportunity for Africa to create new anti-corruption policies and accountability measures.
The first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge that it exists. African countries as a collective have done relatively well keeping COVID-19 cases and death tolls low, compared to their global counterparts. One of the reasons for this is that most leaders in Africa acknowledged the virus and its potential impact early, with no illusions that it would be an easy problem to solve, and governments acted very swiftly to put preventative measures in place. The way Africa has handled COVID-19 gives us a potential case study that could be applicable to corruption. We need to use the same tactics and apply them to our anti-corruption strategies.
We cannot afford to turn a blind eye on courruption and allow it to go unaddressed. If we do, we are risking the same outcomes as countries that denied the existence of COVID-19. Africa is all too familiar with the ills caused by corruption and the trickle-down effect that leads to the most vulnerable communities suffering the greatest harm leaving the hungry to go without food, the sick to lack adequate care, and our children to forgo the benefits of a basic education. This is simply not acceptable and it is preventable.
We must also act swiftly to take preventative measures. One hundred civil societies have written the International Monetary Fund (IMF) urging them to include anti-corruption measures for emergency funding given to governments. We must continue to collectively make these demands and develop systems for accountability and oversight that track how money is being used and put measures in place that require transparency.
Furthermore, we cannot allow corruption to spread from system to system. The same way countries have launched public health campaigns explaining how we must all wash our hands properly and wear masks, there is a need for large scale campaigns against corruption. Similar to how we all have a role to play in preventing the spread of COVID-19, we all have a role to play in preventing the spread of corruption. We have already seen public outcries bringing the attention to the questionable use of funds and in some cases, investigations and orders that individuals return money.
In South Africa, investigations have been launched into possible corruption cases linked to $26.3 billion allocated to the government for relief. In Zimbabwe, the health minister was arrested in related to corruption charges for $20 million and in Kenya, we have seen people take to social media using the hashtag #MoneyHeist to demand an explanation about the use of funds to procure medical supplies. In Uganda, a high court ordered members of parliament pay back $2.6 million they had awarded to themselves individually. This is all very encouraging and must continue at scale.
Procurement laws and processes must be respected even in emergencies. Publishing of awarded contracts on government procurement portals for access to the public must be seen as crucial to gain citizens’ trust in the efforts of government. In countries where this has happened, citizens are asking the right questions as we see in Nigeria where citizens are questioning the award of contracts to companies that were not verified by the Bureau of Public Procurement in compliance with the Public Procurement guidelines.
As important as all these measures, we must also put protocols in place for when corruption has occurred. African countries must commit to fighting corruption and improving the coordination of government bodies. Corruption during the Ebola outbreak in Guinea and Sierra Leone accounted for more than $6 million being lost between 2014 and 2016. The amount of aid coming into Africa and the number of countries affected by COVID-19 present potential for an exponentially greater loss. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), approximately 10 – 25 percent of all money spent on procurement globally is lost to corruption.
The issue is not whether corruption will occur. We should assume that it will. The questions we need to answer are- How will we prevent it and how will we respond when it does occur? Our systems, in both the public and private sector, were already vulnerable before COVID-19. We must strengthen them, even amidst the health and economic crises African countries are facing. We have a critical opportunity to make progress in the fight against corruption and to mitigate its corrosive impacts on prosperity, growth, security and the fight against extreme poverty if we stand together.