75 Million Bribes and Counting: How to Tackle Corruption in Africa

1204_Kenya corruption protest
A civil society member reacts during a protest, dubbed KnockOutCorruption, against what organizers say is corruption in government, in Nairobi, December 1. A report by Transparency International found that, over the past year, some 75 million people in sub-Saharan Africa paid bribes. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

In some parts of the world, you can bribe a police officer to do almost anything. In Zimbabwe, a nine-year old girl was infected with the HIV virus after being raped by an acquaintance. But the man convicted of this terrible crime was secretly released after bribing the police.

At Transparency International, we speak with victims of corruption like this every day.

Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have struggled with deep corruption problems. Recent examples include violent attacks in Kenya and Nigeria that were said to be facilitated by corruption. There are almost daily media reports on major corruption scandals or on political leaders expressing their frustrations about the lack of progress against corruption. In international league tables, most African countries occupy ranks in the lower ranks of these indices, such as our own Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. But what do Africans think about the state of corruption in their own country?

To find out, we partnered with Afrobarometer who asked more than 43,000 Africans in 28 countries in sub-Saharan Africa about their views on, and experiences of, corruption. In our People and Corruption: Africa Survey 2015 report , the answers we got defy an easy story. To start with, we found that an estimated 75 million Africans paid a bribe in the past year, a massive number when you consider that the sub-Saharan region is just shy of 1 billion people.

In fact, 22 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa that have come into contact with a public service in the past 12 months have paid a bribe. In Liberia, nearly seven in ten people had paid a bribe. To make matters worse, across the continent poor people are twice as likely as rich people to have paid a bribe, and in urban areas they are even more likely to pay bribes.

The state of corruption is not seen as bleak everywhere on the continent; nor do most Africans think that corruption is on its way out in their countries. As we know, but as global public opinion often forgets, Africa is extremely diverse and, some would argue, in a process of diverging even further in a number of key areas. Our survey finds that the issue of corruption is not an exception.

Among other things, we asked Africans about their views on the degree of corruption in the public sector and how that's changed change since 2014, their approval of their government's handling of the issue, their own sense of empowerment to do something about corruption, and their own experience in having to pay bribes. Apart from two countries—Sierra Leone and Nigeria, which are given negative ratings by their citizens on all five areas—all other 26 countries have a mixed picture of positive, medium and negative ratings.

Out of six key public services, people who come into contact with the police and the courts are most likely to have paid a bribe. This is consistent with previous Transparency International surveys, highlighting the lack of progress made in addressing bribery in these two institutions, which are crucial for citizen security and the rule of law.

Some interesting examples: while most Malawians and Madagascans perceive corruption to be rocketing and their government to be totally ineffective, they still feel that they can do something to change it. South Africans are also very negative about corruption and particularly its perceived increase over the last year—83 percent see it as on the rise—but they rarely encounter situations when they are being asked for a bribe: only 7 percent did in the last year, while the regional average is 22 percent. The list could go on.

What to make of this picture? Geographically small or states with smaller populations—such as Lesotho, Cape Verde, Namibia and Mauritius—seem to be doing relatively well in their fight against corruption. This is a pattern we have seen elsewhere—consider the positive rankings for Hong Kong, Singapore, Barbados or Estonia in global corruption indices. But geography and population are two factors no policymaker can really influence. The degree of democracy, economic development or internal conflict don't seem to have a clear influence on how people feel about corruption: citizens of the relatively rich, democratic and non-violent countries of South Africa and Ghana provide a rather negative scorecard, while citizens of poorer and less stable places such as Burkina Faso and Lesotho are rather positive about the state of corruption in their country.

What becomes clear is that each country faces its own sets of corruption challenges—from tackling high levels of street-level bribery in Liberia, to ensuring that government makes more progress in the fight against corruption in Madagascar, where 90 percent of people consider the government ineffective, to giving its people a sense of agency against corruption in places like Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe. Most countries, however, also have some positive aspects to build on. While this is certainly good news, the challenge will be to sustain these advances, as corruption has a tendency to fight back.

Africans can report corruption and seek redress at storefront legal advice and advocacy centers run by Transparency International chapters around Africa. The mother of the 9-year old girl with HIV reported the crime to us after the police did nothing. Now, the perpetrator is serving a 21-year prison sentence for his crime, and for trying to bribe the judge who sentenced him.

For high-level corruption, we have launched a campaign focused on grand corruption: the abuse of high-level power that benefits the few and causes serious and widespread harm to society. We want those who commit the worst acts of corruption to see that the public cares and wants to see them punished. On December 9, we will ask the public to go to unmaskthecorrupt.org to vote for the most symbolic, high-profile cases of corruption in the world based on more than 380 nominations from the public. When the voting is over, we will publicise the two most potent symbols of corruption chosen by the public and look into the best and most effective sanctions against them.

Chantal Uwimana is the regional director for Africa at Transparency International.