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Shining a light on Africa's kleptocracies

July 13, 2009

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    Flickr, courtesy of omuzinyiomulungi  </span>
    Photo: Flickr, courtesy of omuzinyiomulungi

West Africa has fascinated me since I heard a returned Peace Corps Volunteer speak to my sixth grade class nearly three decades ago. That presentation inspired me to join the Peace Corps as well, and serve for two years as an agroforester in the small West African nation of Togo.

So President Obama's historic visit to Ghana — Togo's neighbor to the west — late last week was of particular interest to me. I closely followed the news and listened to his speech before Ghana's Parliament. There was one particularly powerful passage:

Repression can take many forms, and too many nations, even those that have elections, are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves ... or if police - if police can be bought off by drug traffickers. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top ... or the head of the port authority is corrupt. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, even if occasionally you sprinkle an election in there. And now is the time for that style of governance to end.

The unfortunate tradition of African big men to "exploit the economy to enrich themselves" is all too familiar.

During my service in Togo, the country was ruled by a dictator named Gnassingbe Eyadema. At the time of his death in 2005, he was Africa's longest-serving ruler, having held sway over the country for 38 years.

Over the course of these decades in power, Eyadema turned Togo's phosphate mines and other key industries into his personal savings account. Estimates place his amassed fortune at about $2.8 billion. Togo has only 6.3 million people and is roughly twice the size of Maryland.

If it hadn't been spirited from the continent into Swiss bank accounts, what could that money have done? Assuming an average annual cost per person of $140 for antiretroviral drugs, Eyadema's plunder could have supplied a year's treatment for 20 million people living with HIV.

Unfortunately, this kind of kleptocracy isn't limited to Togo. Here are just a few other examples:

  • In just five years as military dictator, Sani Abacha stole at least $473 million from Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and a burgeoning oil power. That money is enough to build 15,766 middle schools in Africa at a cost of $30,000 each, which would serve 3.15 million students.
  • Equatorial Guinea's dictator Teodoro Obiang has taken at least $1 billion from his country's coffers over the last 30 years. The nation has a population of only 500,000. Those funds would build 20,000 village hospitals at a cost of $50,000 each.
  • Perhaps the biggest kleptocrat in Africa's history is Mobutu Sese Seko, who spent 32 years at the helm of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He looted an estimated $5 billion from the resource-rich nation. According to the World Food Programme, $5 billion would end hunger among African children.

These are sobering statistics regardless, but made especially so when you consider that corruption and embezzlement aren't confined to Africa's presidential palaces. As Obama notes, it also exists among the police force and other civil servants. I've personally been shaken down by dozens of public officials, including postmasters who threatened to throw packages in the incinerator unless I paid them a bribe.

There's certainly a lot of work to be done — and that work lies mostly with the African people, working in close collaboration with organizations like Mercy Corps. The elimination of corruption takes citizen involvement, transparency, accountability and good governance. It takes restraint. It takes bravery.

Hopefully Obama's speech, in front of public officials in an African nation, will shine more light on dark dealings that have deprived millions of Africans for far too long.