Corruption Zim’s man-made tragedy

Every week, there is at least one significant story on the topic of corruption in Zimbabwe.

Dr Eldred Kahiya

In January alone, there were countless storylines ranging from the chief magistrate imploring judicial staff to rise above corruption, the Auditor-General detailing how large sums of government funds continue to be unaccounted for, to Chinese investors withholding disbursements due to concerns over accountability and transparency in Zimbabwe’s parastatals.

Although the formation of the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (Zacc), had created some hope in the fight against corruption, the excitement has since fizzled out.

As a matter of fact, in a rather bizarre turn of events, allegations of corruption surfaced within Zacc, last year, when it was reported that some Zacc executives were continuing to hire vehicles as well as draw salaries after their employment contracts had lapsed.

For the sake of clarity, it is useful to address what constitutes corruption. The Merriam-Webster dictionary (online) defines corruption as “dishonest or illegal behaviour especially (but not exclusively) by those in positions of power and authority”.

According to Transparency International (TI), “corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It hurts everyone who depends on the integrity of people in a position of authority”.

Synonyms of corruption comprise bribery, embezzlement, fraud, sleaze, dishonesty, among others. In this regard, it is imperative to note the subtle yet distinct difference that exists between ritualistic gift-giving and hardcore underhand corrupt practices.

Perception of corruption

One of the most trusted resources in the measurement of corruption is TI’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI). The CPI has been published since 1995 when it consisted of 41 countries. At inception, the index measured corruption on a scale of 1 to 10 with “1” denoting highly corrupt and “10” representing highly clean.

In recent years, TI has adopted a “1” to “100” scale allowing the interpretation of scores in a manner analogous to percentages. New Zealand debuted in the number one spot in 1995 and together with Denmark, Norway and Singapore, has been among the least corrupt countries in the world ever since. As a Zimbabwean citizen living in New Zealand, I have the best seats in the building regarding the undercurrents of corruption.

Zimbabwe first appeared on the index in 1998, tied for the 43rd spot with South Korea. At that time, the CPI had expanded to 85 countries and with a score point of 4,2 on a 10-point scale, Zimbabwe was deemed to have moderate levels of corruption. For the record, in 1998, Zimbabwe was perceived to be less corrupt than all the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) with the exception of South Africa.

In 1999, Zimbabwe maintained nearly the same perceived level of corruption (4,1) and stayed virtually in the same spot (45th) in terms of ranking. Don’t look now! Starting in 2001, Zimbabwe began its freefall from 65th to 71st (2002), to 106th and 114th in 2003 and 2004, respectively. The rate of decline accelerated rapidly between 2006 and 2008, and since 2006, Zimbabwe has been ranked 130th or worse.

One may query the slide in ranking as spurious considering the inclusion of more countries to this index over the years. Regardless, there is a noticeable difference between a ranking of 45 out of 99 in 1999, and the 156th ranking (out of 176) in 2014. For example, translating these rankings to percentiles shows that in 1999 Zimbabwe was at the 48th percentile as opposed to the two percentile in Zimbabwe. In other words, roughly half of the countries in the world (52%) had more manageable levels of corruption than Zimbabwe.

Fast forward to 2014, and 98% of the countries in the world are less corrupt than Zimbabwe. Further, the perceived level of corruption also increased with the score shifting from the moderate area above four (or 40) to highly corrupt scores at or below two (or 20).

Aside from the numbers, there is irrefutable evidence that Zimbabwe is a society being dragged down into an abyss by corruption. For instance, pertaining to the 18 different categories on which the CPI is based, Zimbabwe is among the worst offenders when it comes to corruption in politics and government, defence and security, health, education, humanitarian assistance and sport.

Zimbabwe has done it all, including the payment of six-figure monthly salaries to business executives, casting of votes by non-existent individuals and the sale of “future” exam papers.

About a month ago, the Al Jazeera news channel ran a documentary on how medicine donated by NGOs was being siphoned away from hospitals to be used to make a lethal street drug. Doctors, speaking on condition of anonymity, stated that this clandestine operation was being facilitated by senior hospital and government officials.

At one point, the Zimbabwe Football Association put together a “fake national team” to participate in a bogus soccer tournament in South East Asia with administrators and players lining their pockets for letting in goals. The Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) estimates that corruption drains US$2 billion from government coffers annually while the African Development Bank suggests the impact of corruption on the Zimbabwean economy is in the neighbourhood of US$10 billion. These estimates are based on direct economic costs.

The picture is far more gruesome when you take into account the indirect and social costs of corruption on the economy. For example, there are substantial indirect costs that emanate from unlicenced drivers or unroadworthy vehicles that are on the roads as a result of corruption in the police force, or smugglers and poachers plying their trade in Zimbabwe as a result of corruption at the border posts.

Addressing corruption in Zim
To a casual observer, there are two plausible explanations for the astronomical levels of corruption in Zimbabwe: First, the socio economic meltdown and second, the death of the rule of law. The precipitous decline of Zimbabwe from a blue-chip emerging market to a basket case pariah state is probably one of the major reasons why corruption is now endemic.

So mind-boggling is the economic decline that according to the Cato Institute, Zimbabwe needs to grow at 5% per annum over the next three years in order to reach its (real) GDP level of 1998. Economic and social strife induces individuals and organisations to engage in questionable behaviours as they seek to put food on the table or to stay afloat.

However, economic and social strife alone does not explain the corruption in top business leaders and government officials. Remember all those horrific stories about Zimbabwean executives who were earning salaries that Wall Street executives can only dream of, while failing to pay meagre wages to their employees? This form of corruption appears to arise from greed, arrogance and an insatiable appetite for personal enrichment and aggrandisement.

A second logical explanation for the rise in corruption is the lack of rule of law. Zimbabwe is in an unenviable position. Like most emerging nations, Zimbabwe lacks the requisite robust legal framework and this creates institutional voids, loopholes or unregulated open spaces that can be exploited for personal gain.

To exacerbate the situation, the actual laws in effect are neither enforced nor respected. In other words you can pay your way out of legal bind simply by “playing the game”. There are dozens of outrageous cases on ipaidabribe.org.zw.

True to the old saying, Zimbabwean law is like an axle — you can turn it whichever way you want as long as you provide plenty of grease. Unfortunately, it is this very grease that is locking the axle of economic growth.

The mere reason of fact that Zimbabweans are generally an educated and hardworking lot, perhaps makes them more innovative and industrious in conceiving corrupt schemes.

There is some rationale to this given the ever-increasing numbers of smart and highly qualified individuals who are either underemployed or unemployed altogether. Perhaps, Theodore Roosevelt was right when he claimed: “A man who has never gone to school may steal a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.”

The point is, education does not cause corruption, rather, educated individuals in a repressive system in which few opportunities exist, may be predisposed to concoct elaborate corruption schemes.

Managing corruption in Zimbabwe will require a concerted effort from leaders willing to rise above self-interest and civil society drawing a line in the sand to say enough is enough. A return to the rule of law has to be the first step.

I refer to a time when laws where generally respected and the judiciary system had enough vertebrae to enforce such laws. Yes, there was corruption in 1980s and 1990s, but there was, for example, Justice Wilson Sandura who left no stone unturned pursuing culprits in the Willowgate scandal. Because the judiciary, the security and the legislative bodies stand idle as the pungent stench of the rot grows, corruption in Zimbabwe is a state-driven enterprise.

Former US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan once said: “Corruption, embezzlement and fraud — these are all characteristics which exist everywhere. It is regrettably the way human nature functions, whether we like it or not. What successful economies do is keep it to a minimum. No one has ever eliminated any of that stuff.”

Beyond the rule of law, the psyche of civil society has to change to a point where corruption is not considered the norm or acceptable. This can only happen if the leadership in Zimbabwe displays the will to fight corruption starting from the highest levels. An improvement in socio-economic circumstances across the board will go some way in encouraging ordinary citizens to take the “high road”, where one is available.

I don’t know what the “flavour of the month” is concerning socio-economic transformation in Zimbabwe, but I would like to draw your attention to the once wildly popular Vision 2020. The very first core value of this endeavour is good governance, followed by tenets such as access to social services by all, equal opportunities to all, vibrant and diversified economy with high growth rate, among other elements. Do you see any of this happening in Zimbabwe?

Dr Kahiya is a New Zealand-based academic whose research interests cover a variety of issues in marketing and international business. — EldredeK@aol.com