Four presidents, one challenge: The fight against corruption in 2016

By George Kunnath, WFD’s Regional Director for Africa and Europe

Many viewed the dismissal of Tanzania’s anti-corruption chief last month as a sign that new president John Magufuli is determined to make progress in tackling the plague of institutionalised corruption. He’s not alone: Mozambique, Nigeria and Ukraine also have new leaders prepared to confront this enormous challenge head-on. But Filipe Nyusi, Muhammadu Buhari, Petro Poroshenko and Magufuli face a tougher battle than they might care to admit – and should look to strengthen their parliaments if they want to accelerate progress.

I’ve travelled to all these countries in recent months and have seen first-hand how much the stakes have been raised. Expectations are high because rising levels of corruption within the state have been matched, in recent years, by a new mood of anticipation that something will change.

These four leaders have arrived at this point of reckoning because of a number of factors. Firstly, their population is far more educated and connected through social media than ever before. While corruption was widespread in the past, it was easier for those in power to hide the extent of the problem. Nowadays freedom of information legislation, freer press, social media, the internet and television have brought the realities of the scale of the problem into the average citizen’s home.

Secondly, their societies have become more integrated into the global community. Their citizens travel abroad and return home wondering why their country’s leaders can’t be held to higher levels of transparency and accountability. People are using terms like ‘global standards’ and ‘European values’. They are also able to do more analytical comparisons. Their citizens and civil society organisations are asking why a neighbouring country can build better roads at half the cost as their government’s latest road projects. They’re less trusting of the answers being provided by their governments.

Societies that once applauded the corrupt as smart and resourceful businessmen are now looking for new leaders and role models with values of integrity and accountability. Civil society continues to demand that people holding public office declare their personal assets. How politicians respond to the declaration process is becoming an indicator of personal integrity.

Thirdly, the mono-economies which flourished under oil, gas or natural resource revenues have come crashing down with the drop in global oil prices. It was easy to overlook the cost of corruption when there was significant wealth to pave over the losses; with the oil price halved, governments have to use every dollar wisely. Nigeria has just introduced zero-based budgeting which will force every department to cost and justify every expenditure. This exercise should save the state millions in wasteful excesses. After hearing that some audit queries have remained unanswered for years, the president ordered all ministries to respond to queries within 24 hours.

Fourthly, presidents whose administrations were seen as highly corrupt have been replaced. In Tanzania the ruling CDM retained power yet again, but their reputation was so badly damaged that the party fought their campaign by promoting their presidential candidate and his name above the party brand. Most people will watch the new president to determine if he has the power to reform the party or whether the party elite will be allowed to continue their old practices. So far the signs are positive and the average Tanzanian is optimistic. Magufuli is seen as someone who is closer to the people and is likely to withstand the influences of the handful of wealth elite that control large portions of the economy.

With all this momentum behind pressures for change, surely there’s a case for optimism?

It’s true there are reasons to be cheerful – but we shouldn’t forget that breaking from the past is going to be hard for all of these leaders.

In many of these countries the laws necessary to fight corruption are either outdated or non-existent. But they are essential to prevent the loopholes by which criminal activity continues. In Ukraine, Poroshenko recently signed a new law on party funding, hoping to break the link between the oligarchs and political parties by introducing state support to parties. This is a significant development to reduce the influence that the oligarchs have over elected officials.

For the last 12 years Nigeria has been trying to pass an Audit Law that would provide the legal framework for the Auditor General to publish his work quickly and effectively. There are expectations that the new parliament will finally pass this law, which has already made it through its first reading in the House of Representatives. The indication is that there is political will to see the bill become an act.

Having the laws on the statute book may not change much, as the bad cultures which need changing are often deeply embedded. Laws are often wilfully ignored with impunity. Unless these new leaders swiftly develop precedents and make clear statements about their expectations, the old culture will resurface preventing any chance for long-term reform.

Often it’s a people problem. In many cases the previous presidents ensured their supporters were placed in positions of influence to protect the interests of the outgoing government. Replacing these figures can be complex, as they are able to undermine the new government.

Having the desire to make the change but lacking a decent alternative will be a challenge, too. In Mozambique low skill levels within the administration remain an obstacle to driving through reforms. Ill-equipped ministerial officials are left to negotiate with experts from global corporations rushing to exploit Mozambique’s resources. The parliament should scrutinise these complex deals, but it too lacks expertise.

Parliamentarians also have a choice to make in these countries. They must decide to consciously reposition themselves on the side of the people and support institutional reforms. Parliaments have to lead from the front, demonstrating a higher level of transparency and openness in their affairs. If the integrity of the leaders who create the laws is in question, how likely is it that the people will respect these laws?

One way that parliaments can lead is by establishing transparency and openness committees like the one established in the Kosovan Parliament. This committee consists of members, parliamentary staff, civil society, media and government officials who are looking at the challenges of making the parliament more open and determining positive steps that can be taken.

It goes without saying that we wish Presidents Nyusi, Buhari, Poroshenko and Magufuli all the best as they forge their presidential legacy. Their decisions – including the extent to which they empower their parliaments to do this work for them – will determine how they are assessed in the history books, however.

These four leaders, elected on a promise to tackle corruption, all realise their legacies will be determined by how they tackle the problem. They have pledged to combat those who divert state resources away from development into the hands of a few elites, and will be judged on their results. Let’s see how they do in 2016.

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