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Most of the people elected into public office in Africa are thieves – Lumumba

In this interview with Professor Patrice Lumumba, a former Director of Anti-Corruption Commission in Kenya and the Director of the Kenya School of Law, he discusses the challenges of fighting corruption. Lumumba, who was on Channels Television, expresses the hope that with a sustenance of the momentum in President Muhammadu Buhari’s fight against corruption, the dividends of a corrupt-free society would be there for all to benefit.


Have you had to deal with the challenge of people giving different interpretations to corruption?

nig-at-56-logoI think people just try to rationalise corruption but we all know what corruption is. If you are driving on the road and you pay a policeman money to avoid prosecution, that is petty corruption. If you are in public office and you use that office for private gain, we know that is corruption. So, it is in an attempt to give a veneer of legality to corruption that we pretend we do not know what corruption is but we do. We know the people who are thieves even in our traditional societies, and we also know that those people who are taking things that dosn’t belong to them are engaging in corruption.

I am of the view that in many African societies we pretend not to know the obvious because we have embraced things that have undermined our very being as Africans.

You’ve severally said there is a difference between fighting corruption for real and just being seen to be fighting corruption. What recently did you mean?

What I was saying is very simple. In many African countries, we create many institutions but we don’t really want those institutions to do anything.

For example, many African countries are signatories to the United Nations’ Charter on Anti-corruption and the African Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Corruption, but what we do is to simply sign those documents but we don’t believe in them.

Therefore, when one is appointed into office, one is supposed to earn one’s salary and one is supposed to fight petty corruption but the moment you begin to close-in where it hurts most, particularly among the political class, then you hear them begin to say that this man is going too far, coming too close to us.

The net effect, therefore, is that we corrupt out entire political space and one of the most important things that we must know is that when the entire political system is corrupt, a country can never be liberated from corruption.

I give an example in the recent past – the Panama Papers. The President of Iceland resigned mainly because of the allegation that he had something to do with it.

Contrast that with South Africa, where there is a finding that the President is engaged in activities which amount to corruption and the President sees nothing wrong with it, his supporters see nothing wrong with it. I give the South African example because it is very prominent but you can talk about this instances in almost all African countries with only few exceptions and that is why African countries are groaning under this weight. This is because you have a bunch of thieves in charge of our national resources.

Corruption undermines the security of a nation and if we don’t deal with it it will deal with us.

How do you relate what is happening in Tanzania, where the President is leading the fight against corruption, to the type of approach you want to see?

Even before the Tanzanian example, we had a leader in Botswana, who has been able to demonstrate, with the support of the people, the benefits that accrue to a nation when its people choose the path of rectitude. There was a President in Namibia too. Recently, everyone has been enamoured by the zeal of President Magufulli of Tanzania. It is early days yet to give a judgment whether he is succeeding or not, but one thing you must admit is that he has telegraphed his message of anti-corruption and we hope he will remain on that course and then recruit others to support him in the fight against corruption.

One of the most dangerous things in Africa today, even if you are the President of a nation, is to declare that you are going to fight corruption. It is such a big enterprise that there would be no shortage of individuals who would want to liquidate you or to eliminate you altogether because corruption is a big industry – people pay school fees, people enjoy the big life on the basis of corruption so that those who have declared themselves to be in the fore-front of the fight against corruption, like President Magufulli and your own President Muhammadu Buhari must know that they are on the line of fire and can be eliminated anytime.

You have said that even those who are corrupt know they are engaging in corruption and those who do not engage in corruption accommodate it. With this, how successful do you think we can fight corruption in Africa?

You know it is not going to be easy.

What I view as the impediment against anti-corruption fight is that there is a sense in which in many African countries we have even ethnicised corruption. So that if an individual who is corrupt is arrested in a multi-ethnic nation like Nigeria or Kenya or the Democratic Republic of Congo, he or she would recruit people from his ethnic group to say ‘yes, he is a thief, but he is our thief’. So, if we are to fight corruption successfully, the political leadership in Africa must, in the nature of things, demonstrate that impunity would not be tolerated.

And I think it is not easy but it can be done. Why do I think that it can be done?

Look at this country Nigeria, during the short period that Nuhu Ribadu was the head of the anti-graft agency and President Obasanjo was on his side, the fight against corruption was moving apace.

For President Buhari, he campaigned on the promise that he would fight corruption, he was embraced by many Nigerians and, though, it is early days, it is hoped that he would continue along this trajectory.

In Tanzania, we can see the unanimity and zeal with which the people have embraced President Magufulli; but it is not going to be easy.

The dividends of a corrupt-free society are so obvious that if we don’t embrace them and understand them, then we are not getting it right.

The bulk of the people in Africa, particularly in political leadership, have their lives based on a corrupt foundation and they do not want to let it go.

How would you suggest leaders handle criticism, especially those fighting corruption when accused of ethnicising or politicising it?

I think what one must do is, in a manner of speaking, to be sensitive to the realities of the moment.

But the truth is that thieves are thieves. It doesn’t matter where you start from – a thief is a thief.

When you start with a political party, that is the beginning and you must start somewhere and this idea of apportioning blames and saying that it is only one side that is being dealt with is not an issue.

The question that we must ask is a basic question: Have you been engaged in a corrupt activity? If we catch you, we deal with you according to the dictates of the law. And in the fight against corruption, it is very incumbent on those who are in political leadership to ensure that nobody is treated like a sacred cow.

One of the things that we must not lose sight of in Africa is that African countries are very fragile – talking about democracy.

But in a country such as Nigeria, which is multi-ethnic – we may deny for all we want but there are Igbos, Yoruba’s, Ibibios, Hausas; and in Kenya, whether we like it or not, there are Kambas, Kikuyus and that is the reality of Africa and it is a reality that cannot be wished away because we are still in the process of trying to strengthen the state and that is why one has to be sensitive.

What type of impression do you get about young people’s approach to the fight against corruption?

You know, there was a time when I believed, naively of course, that the next generation would be a generation that would be slightly better than my generation but, all things being constant, the younger generation, in my view, is even more dangerous to Africa.

This is so because they have learned from the older generation and remember the old saying that when mother cow is chewing cord, the baby cow is watching very keenly. The next generation of Africans are watching very keenly to have the opportunity to steal. A recent survey in Kenya demonstrated that over 40% of young people think that there is nothing wrong with corruption. In fact, the only thing that they think is wrong is to be arrested and the only thing that you must do is to avoid being arrested. And I’m quite certain that if a survey is conducted today among Nigerian youths, many young Nigerians would love to be in a situation where they can steal. So some people condemn corruption some times not because they hate it but because they are yet to have the opportunity to be corrupt.

It is not going to be easy except we go back and ask ourselves as Africans what indeed we must do.What we must do is to create a new African, an African who has integrity, that is honest and that can only be done if we are focused on the fight against corruption.

Some people who could not be jailed in their own countries are being kept in prison in Europe. There are cases of some politicians in Kenya whose properties have been confiscated in the United Kingdom but nothing happened to them in Kenya. In other words, there is a sense in which we in Africa condone and encourage thieves; and in any event, in many African countries, most of those who are elected into public office are thieves. And when you elect thieves into public office, then you can rest assured that nothing would happen when they get to public office.

What must we do to engage this rebirth?

Is something wrong with our education system? Is something wrong with our value system?

I remember a country like Hong Kong which had a major problem with corruption.

A decision was made by the leadership that they had to clean up the system and cleaning up the system meant looking at the electoral process, the education system and all the values of the society and then re-engineer the house whereby a new Nigerian would emerge with integrity. It must be a question of going back to the basics because we still respect people who work hard. If, for instance, somebody was a goat thief in rural Nigeria, he or she would not be respected.

But the thief who is stealing billions from the federal reserves in Abuja is respected.

In other words, if we steal money from the Federal Government, that is not bad; but if we steal somebody’s goat, we condemn that.

We must ensure that things of the 21st century and the things that we relate to our lives are equated so that we see a thief as a thief.

How does the media come in here?

The media is sometimes complicit. Some African media celebrate thieves sometimes deliberately and sometimes unwittingly.My view is that the media has the responsibility to give the oxygen of publicity to men and women who say the right things.

This forum, for instance, gives me the opportunity to highlight some of the things that I think are critical to the fight against corruption.The tragedy in Africa is that in some cases, these thieves own the media and when they own the media, they set the agenda. So, how do we encourage the media not to engage in self-censorship? I am very happy that in the last few days of my being in Nigeria, I have seen that the media is vibrant.

The media must be encouraged to expose the thieves in our society.

The only problem is that the shelf-life of the exposure is so short. We mention the thief today and by tomorrow we are discussing something else. And the next thing is that the thief has received a national honour.

What has been your experience with the law; how easy has it been?

It is not easy at all.

There was a time when I believed that the judiciary would be the last bastion in the fight against corruption but the corrupt have a way of ensuring that they have a way of corrupting the entire system.

I remember when I was in charge of anti-corruption in Kenya, one government minister told me, ‘Take me to court, you are wasting my time; in any event I’m going to corrupt the judges’ (I do not know whether he did), but at the end of the day, he was acquitted. And when you have a judiciary which itself has been compromised, then the fight would not be as easy as it should be. It is, therefore, critical that all arms of government must be reading from the same page.I have said this, even controversially at one time, that in the fight against corruption, there must be a conspiracy of institutions. The judiciary should read from the same page as all the institutions that are involved in the investigation and prosecution and they must look at corruption more critically.

It is not easy to fight corruption but it requires political will and it requires the citizenry to be mobilised fully against it.

Africa has no shortage of good laws. In Africa, we have all the laws that we need except one law: The law that says we should obey the other laws. This can be done.

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