Origin of Corruption in Africa and the Way Forward

21 Aug

Presentation made to the Parliament of Rwanda and other participants, during the international conference to mark the nation’s 50th Independence Anniversary in July 2012.

Transparency International has defined corruption as “the abuse of power for private gains.”  Corruption can occur in several forms, but this paper focuses on what Hellman and Jones call ‘administrative corruption’, or the use of “private payments to public officials to distort the prescribed implementation of official rules and policies.”

When specifically viewed with Africa’s history in mind, administrative corruption, though rampant across Africa today is an alien culture. Pre-colonial Africa, for the most part, was founded on strong ethical values sometimes packaged in spiritual terms, but with the end result of ensuring social justice and compliance.

Colonialism introduced systemic corruption on a grand scale across much of sub-Saharan Africa. The repudiation of indigenous values, standards, checks and balances and the pretensions of superimposing western structures destabilized the well-run bureaucratic machinery previously in existence across pre-colonial Africa.  The end result is what is rampant across Africa today; conspicuous consumption, absence of loyalty to the state, oppressive and corrupt state institutions, to mention few.

Corruption in Pre-Colonial Africa

In both centralized and decentralized pre-colonial African communities, governance was conducted with the utmost seriousness. As the laws were mostly unwritten in nature and therefore prone to being easily forgotten, they were often couched in supernatural terms to instill fear and be instilled in the subconscious.

Examples abound of the heavy emphasis on accountability and good governance across several pre-colonial African communities.  In West Africa, the Asante confederation was a kingdom that thrived on strict rules and regulations. Established by seven clans close to the city of Kumasi, the Kingdom was held together by the symbolic Golden Stool of Asante-Hene. With strong cooperation from all groups the leadership of the Asante kingdom was known, according to Emizet Kisangani,  to have “implemented several modernization policies in administration that included promoting advancement by merit and the development of state enterprise through public investment.” The Asante were able to “build roads and promoted agriculture, commerce, industry and education through self-help and self-reliance.”

Among  the Yoruba of south western Nigeria, the institution of Oyo-mesi the king making body, acted as a check against the abuse of power by the Alafin (the Oba) or the King of Oyo. The Alafin was constrained to rule with caution and respect for his subjects. When he is proven to have engaged in acts that undermined the interests of his subjects, such as gross miscarriage of justice for personal gains, the Oyo-mesi would, in the words of Yunusa Salami “present him with an empty calabash or parrot’s eggs as a sign that he must commit suicide” since he could not be deposed, according to tradition.

In the Igbo acephalous society, the absence of any form of overarching authority, by itself, placed leadership in the hands of the people – the very epitome of accountability and good governance. The titled chiefs sat together to address the more difficult issues of governance, and there is a saying among the Igbo that a “titled man does not lie.” If one wanted to hear the truth, to be granted pristine justice according to the prevailing standards, s/he only needed to get the impeccable body of titled men to hear the case in question.

Pre-colonial Rwanda had a highly organized, efficient and centralized system of administration.  Although an autocratic and hierarchical system presided over by the king, there were systems of checks and balances among those who ruled at the clan level. A variant of the land ownership, Ubukonde  permeated pre-colonial Rwanda. It was a custom of mutually beneficial exchange of labour between the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa, set on agreed principles. At the time it existed, Ubukonde was accepted by all parties involved and those who tried to amass land wealth in a corrupt manner outside of the Ubukonde system incurred the wrath of the King.

Numerous examples abound across sub-Saharan Africa, but in all, what held these communities together and brought administrative corruption down to the barest minimum was a set of rules and regulations, agreed principles and moral values that guided human interactions.

Colonial Origins of Corruption in Africa

There are several ways that colonialism contributed to the prevalence of corruption across sub-Saharan Africa. Space will constrain this discussion to only a few salient examples.

Direct and Indirect Rule

Indirect rule turned leadership in Africa into a corrupted enterprise where instead of holding power in trust for the people, the rulers held power in trust for the colonial authorities. Government became an antagonistic platform for forcefully extracting obedience from the people. In several instances, the dregs of the society, the rejects, the ones that hitherto had no say in the community were promoted as warrant chiefs by British authorities.  Individuals without character who demanded money in exchange for manipulating the colonial masters enthroned corruption at the highest echelon of governance. To avoid being punished for the grave crime of being citizens, the people saw bribery as a first and last resort, if at all they were to be granted access to the most basic rights.


With little or no knowledge of the economic earnings of potential tax payers, colonial masters imposed flat-rate taxes known as hut tax on the colonies.  The mode of tax payment was often steeped in violence, whereby district commissioners or warrant chiefs were empowered to arrest any defaulter.

The hut tax was mainly used in paying salaries and emoluments for colonial officers and in running the colonial office. There were very little benefits the people could see in the form of social services, in return for the taxes they paid. The result was the evolution of a latently corrupt system, devoid of accountability, and which pitched citizens against themselves and against the ruling class.

The Police and Military

The history of police and military formations in several parts of the world can be traced to the need to protect citizens and ensure territorial integrity. Conversely, in the case of Africa, the police and military were established primarily to crush civilian opposition to colonial rule. Police engagement with the populace was founded on the need to enforce hateful and debilitating colonial laws, including forced taxation, segregation, and quelling of anti-colonial uprisings.

At the end of colonialism, the newly independent African government inherited institutions that had internalized a culture of citizen oppression and extortion.  The immediate post-colonial police and military were designed to inflict terror on innocent citizens, and citizens had internalized the art of buying their way off unwarranted harassment.

The major challenge for immediate post-colonial African leadership was how to embark on massive reorientation exercises. This challenge was not taken seriously by successive administrations across the continent.  Even in cases where the need was recognized, resources was lacking that could bring about internally generated transition.

Conspicuous Consumption

Pre-colonial Africa as earlier indicated was known for emphasis on strong moral values. Those who were circumstantially rendered unfit as a result of age, ill-health or physical impairment were well taken care of. Colonialism destabilized the prevailing pre- colonial system, uprooted men from the farms to work for the white man as houseboys, miners, clerks and in other menial capacities. The monetization occasioned by this exercise introduced a form of greed, unknown in the culture of most pre-colonial African societies.

Rather than hard working and morally upright members of society acting as role models for the younger generation, colonial masters, who lived in ‘big’ houses,  drove ‘big’ cars and treated Africans with disdain were who most Africans aspired to become like.

The prevailing culture of acquisition of alien tastes, a culture of consumerism rather than production, and the oppression of the less endowed are the natural outcome of idolizing usurpers and people who reaped where they did not sow.

Sixty years later, Africans, for the most part, remain enchanted with the trappings of modernity, without the character to cultivate it. Fast cars, big houses, expensive vacations to the west, Brazilian wigs and others are only some of the manifestations of a generation mentored by pilferers and oppressors in the form of colonial authorities.

The above are some of the means through which the unfortunate incident of colonialism engendered a culture of indifference to nation building, and a penchant for corruption across much of sub-Saharan Africa.

The essence of this summary introduction is not to play the blame game or bring about the wringing of hands in regret, but to understand the past – a luxury which the continued dominance of western thoughts in the academia and media has denied Africa – in order to mend the future.

The Way Forward

A brief introduction is made below of only a few of the several means that African leadership could utilize in calling the minds of Africans back to the values, which most of their communities extolled prior to the destabilization heralded by colonialism

Restoration of indigenous values and institutions: Africa’s indigenous values and systems were for the most part debunked by first, the missionaries, then the colonialists in a much more forceful manner.  Indigenous solutions to corruption must once again be explored followed by the rediscovery of indigenous systems of administration. Rwanda has successfully done the latter through the Gacaca, Abunzi, Umuganda, Umudugudu and other indigenous systems.

The above is by no means a call for African Christians and Muslims to revert to African traditional religion as is often perceived whenever the indigenous is mentioned. Far from it.  The merging of Africa’s social, cultural, and moral values with its religion was the handiwork of some over-zealous missionaries and racist colonialists. Africans have come of age to separate between religion and other causes and to realize that one can be fully functioning in his chosen religion and still abide by several positively rewarding indigenous African values.

—Formal, Informal and non-formal Education: The greatest vehicle for cultural transmission towards a transformation of prevailing social paradigm is education. In its formal form, the curriculum of learning across sub-Saharan African countries must be overhauled to make for real mental and intellectual independence. In its non-formal manifestation, conferences, workshops, camps, and other non-formal learning situations must be widely utilized to re-educate citizens on the fact that real living occurs only when individuals have sound moral values, or at least, consistently and seriously aspire to it. Informally, the media will be mobilized as a crucial element of mass mobilization towards an appreciation of the African’s authentic social, cultural and economic environment.

Religion as a nation building institution: Africans listen to their spiritual leaders, much more than they do politicians and policy makers.  The pulpit ought to be mobilized as a knowledge and faith-based platform for reaching the souls of Africans and in directing them towards nation-building.

Promotion of the “African” nation state: For the past 50 years, Africans have been struggling in vain to assimilate the artificially imposed colonial boundaries. It is time to promote the greater African nation-state and de-emphasize the cosmetic divisions that is filled with antagonistic ethnic groups.

Africans must be encouraged, motivated and facilitated to travel widely across the continent in order to overcome the ethnic animosities that was ignited by colonialism,  established by the post colonial tussle for power among ruling elites, and strengthened by geographic claustrophobia.

Strengthening of anti-graft institutions: Strong anti-graft institutions are a necessity across sub-Saharan Africa as in any other part of the world. Governments across Africa should appoint credible and determined individuals who may even be nationals of other African countries, to take up the fight against corruption in the high and low places. A strengthened judiciary is a necessity in this respect.

Economic growth: Poverty breeds vice. African countries should embark on not just the deceptive increment in Gross Domestic Product, but real development in terms of standard of living. Health, education, food security, and infrastructural growth must be given prominence.


There is no genetic code that predisposes Africans to corruption,  neither does the C shaped sickle cell in the African’s blood stream stand for corruption. The prevalence of corruption in Africa today is a process of socialization, which commenced with the excessively corrupt colonial government.  The present challenge is for African governments to search out ways to restore the values and ethical principles that previously existed among the people. Re-orientation is critical in this instance, other avenues include spirituality, strengthened anti-corruption watch dogs, pan-Africanism and an emphasis on economic development.


Posted by on August 21, 2012 in Essays


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22 responses to “Origin of Corruption in Africa and the Way Forward


    August 22, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    There is nothing unique about Corruption and Africa – India can beat others hand down !
    And they do not even feel bad about it !

    • chikaforafrica

      August 27, 2012 at 8:27 am

      Thanks, Dr. Kumar. Africans must seek to get it right from the foundation – it is extremely important for the continent, and the world at large.

  2. airmanchairman

    August 26, 2012 at 5:40 am

    One totally unexpected, beneficial result of corruption, at least as far as the fledgling, newly-independent nation of Nigeria is concerned (and I suspect this holds true for all former British Colonies and Protectorates) was the creation of a massive and vibrant indigenous private sector where almost nothing existed previously.

    Prior to independence, most British colonies’ economic landscape was massively dominated by two large monolithic sectors – the colonial administration, built largely to serve the needs of Empire and little else, and on the other hand the various British economic powerhouses that effected the exploitation of their resources (Shell-BP, UAC, Barclays, NatWest, GB Ollivant, John Holt, J Allen, Taylor Woodrow, Kingsway, Patterson Zochonis, Lever Brothers, Dunlop, Singer, ICI etc to name but a few).

    By the time the first wave of “wide receivers” had sidled away from government with their looted booty (and there have been several waves) the landscape had changed considerably: foreign partners like Societe General, Chanrai, Chellarams, Leventis, CFAO, Julius Berger, Cappa D’Alberto, Savannah, Datsun, Honda and too many others to mention had linked up with the local new power generation like the Ibru Group, Akwiwu Motors, Henry Fajemirokun Industries, Shonibare Estates, Dantata and several others to seed the humongous local private sector that exists today.

    Compare and contrast with, say, Ivory Coast, whose massive Cocoa wealth has been largely dominated since independence by the two old monoliths of the French colonial legacy and Houphouet-Boigny’s heirs and heiresses, and where the local people are like window-shoppers in their own country, able to look but not touch the fruits of their natural resource. Ditto for Mobutu’s Congo, and Nguema’s Equatorial Guinea, if you catch my drift.

    This is not a ringing endorsement of corruption – just a wry observation that the course of evolution moves in mysterious ways…

    • chikaforafrica

      August 27, 2012 at 8:24 am

      Thanks, Airmanchairman. Very interesting observation from you that demands further scholarly work. You are right on the point about the near abscence of a vibrant private sector in most Francophone African countries. I will keep your comments in mind for future research.

  3. Anonymous

    August 27, 2012 at 6:04 am

    Thanks for this piece. I hope pre-invasion African statecraft best practices, like your Asante and Yoruba examples, will be carefully considered and incorporated as useful if Nigeria moves ahead with constitutional reform.

  4. Tijjani

    August 27, 2012 at 7:41 am

    Quite a piece. Keep it up. surely change start with awareness. As we engage in this we must be mindful of the fact that perpetrators and benefactors are up in arm to keep the status as it is. Whatever way(s) forward must reckon with their undoing capabilities.

    • chikaforafrica

      August 27, 2012 at 8:25 am

      Thanks, Tijjani. You are absolutely right; there are several Africans who are benefitting immensely from the prevailing status quo.

  5. uja omoji

    August 27, 2012 at 10:26 am

    If there wasnt corruption, the world will be a better place

  6. Schrodinger

    August 30, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Another insightful piece from Chika but I must observe that understanding our past is not a luxury as Chika said but a necessity. The root of corruption in Africa comes from the purchase by whatever means [force, inducement etc] of loyalty of subjects and citizens instead of EARNING citizen/subject loyalty! Again, the erosion of our sense of communal living exposes our ranks and each citizen becoming an all-knowing “eze onye agwala m” marks the beginning our dangerous descent into the bottomless pit that is western imposed corruption. African civilization emphasized morality but our colonial master imposed civilization emphasized the law which is merely codified morality. NOW the corruption comes from the “process of codifying” the law. One is eternal while the other is ephemeral but unfortunately forced down our throat. Our education is doing little to stimulate development of our African society in real terms – our education is career driven rather than development based. Don’t even allow anybody intimidate you with that technological advancement buzz of the western world because I know for sure that civilization, technology and science originated here in Africa! Chika, the C-shaped cells running in our hepatic portal veins have nothing to do with “corruption” but everything to do with “civilization”.

    @Airmanchairman: I don’t agree with your opinion that the “totally unexpected, beneficial result of corruption, at least as far as the fledgling, newly-independent nation of Nigeria is concerned was the creation of a massive and vibrant indigenous private sector where almost nothing existed previously”. Did you say almost nothing existed previously? There is no empirical evidence supporting this because we had a functional African society including private trade and commerce sector based on our cherished values of honesty & transparency, before our development was arrested by the unjust invasion of our people and resources by the colonial masters. Again, I leave you to unearth why the occupy movement that pitched the 99% against the 1% became a recurring decimal in the most recent history of western societies. Most of the private sector companies and corporations are vehicles through which the interests of the colonial master and economic hit men are preserved via capitalism which the occupy movement is castigating even in Washington and London!

    Chika you deserve Nkwobi, Isi-Ewu, Ugba ladden with Okporoko and one or two chilled bottle[s] of freshly tapped palm wine, Nkwu Enu, Kunu or Zobo for doing a fantastic job!!!

    • airmanchairman

      September 24, 2012 at 12:25 pm

      @Schrodinger: You are preaching to the choir, sir. As I carefully qualified in my observations, this is not a ringing endorsement of corruption, but an “accidental benefit” that those who were poised to totally dominate the fledgling economies of the new nation-states that they created for imperial and exploitative purposes (namely the UK colonial powers and the corrupt administrations they oversaw) did not anticipate beforehand as the Belgians and French did in Congo, Ivory Coast or Equatorial Guinea for example. It’s as if in our case Pandora’s Box was not completely shut after the emergence of Pestilence, Famine and other catastrophic ills, enabling Hope to emerge as well.

      Remember that by the time of independence, as you say, the “functional African society including private trade and commerce sector based on our cherished values of honesty & transparency” had been virtually if not completely annihilated by invasion (it was perversely termed “pacification”), Slavery and Colonialism (the latter which was perversely termed “creation of protectorates”).

      The glorious foods you have listed have set my mouth salivating; I’m off to the kitchen to try my hand at “Ofe Owerri” using a recipe downloaded from the Web 🙂

    • chikaforafrica

      October 8, 2012 at 9:30 am

      Hahaha, Stanley. All the food you listed na for one person?

      • Schrodinger

        October 8, 2012 at 10:30 am

        For doing a fantastic job, Chika please feel free to indulge yourself in all the above listed African Delicacies -subject to the breath, length and depth of your stomach!! After all the pressure is no longer on our women to maintain a “marble flat” tummy after your treatise on “The Pressure That Killed Stella Obasanjo”. If you doubt me, just try and go round Abuja’s Green Parks & Gardens to see how our women simultaneously download & upload all the above listed delicacies and crown their efforts with big bottles “Odeku or Udeme” special….

  7. Bro. Mxolisi

    October 31, 2012 at 2:43 am

    As I absorb and merge with the spirit and truth of this writing, I think the essential dynamics it embodies apply to Africans all over the world, especially (in my mind) to those in these so-called United States. I see the Nguzo Saba and the Symbols that are part of the Kwanzaa tradition as calls to our hearts and souls to awaken and return to values and practices that have served us (our Acestors and Contemporaries) well, to shake off the corrupt(ing) western-driven individualism and indifference that dictates our economic and social behaviors, and allow these Kwanzaa elements to lead us to vision and development that involve and benefit all of our people.
    Ankh, Udja, Seneb to you, my Sister. (Life, Prosperity & Good Health!)

    • chikaforafrica

      November 15, 2012 at 8:07 am

      Asante bro. Mxolisi. Karibu. Our growth and advancement as a people, as you rightly stated, can only come from deep within our spirit and never from the hand of foreigners. Aku barki.

  8. Mary O

    June 27, 2013 at 7:07 am

    Incisive…thanks Chika! The overhauling of our educational sector has proven rather difficult because the people who are made ministers of education (or science & technology, agriculture, power and steel) have no passion for the growth and development of the african societies but the positions are a mere appreciation of party loyalists who enabled the govt to ‘win’ an election. It all then boils down to leadership where everything else trickles down from. Yes, as individuals we must ensure our space is clean and corruption free and find people of similar values to align with in order to inspire accountable and visionary leadership in the near future. Is it any wonder that the set of leaders in afrika have remained those who were tutored by the colonialists? They distrust the passionate youths and would not want to let go of the position of authority for fear of being made to account for all the ill-gotten wealth with which they lure unsuspecting youths into their folds.

    Afrika is going through the labour pains at the moment….soon we shall hear the cry of the baby and the mother will behold her with joy and gratefulness..

    • chikaforafrica

      November 19, 2013 at 11:42 am

      Much thanks, Mary. I particularly liked, “Yes, as individuals we must ensure our space is clean and corruption free and find people of similar values to align with in order to inspire accountable and visionary leadership in the near future.” That is it. We have to start within our space. What am I thinking? What am I saying? How is my relationship with myself and with others? Is it based on respect and accountability? If we can constantly do a reality check based on those questions, then we can truly say that we are on our way to building character in us and in our society.

  9. coineineagh

    November 16, 2013 at 7:36 am

    I’m living in China, and I’m seeing a lot of the same corruption problems here, though China has a completely different history, of course. I actually found this article when I googled: origins of corruption.
    I think Chinese are highly social, caring a lot about being a part of the group. I wonder if some of the corruption similarities might be the result of strong family culture, and all the resulting nepotism and favouritism. From the little I know of African culture, family seems to be quite important too.
    Would it be correct to say that corruption occurs when people are not confident that they can provide for their own safety and prosperity? When people feel they are only able to care about themselves and their families, I believe that’s when it starts: Apathy towards the rest of society, and the future of the world in general. In the West, the average individual is independent and confident that they can protect themselves. But I have a feeling that the media is trying to chip away at that confidence with tales of impending economic doom and so on.
    The only thing that can temper human greed (and corruption), is consideration. Consideration of the consequences, the impact your actions have on others, and so on. I believe the origins of Chinese corruption lay in the imperial teaching methods that are rigidly implemented here. Learn-by-rote style only teaches people how to repeat, remember and copy others. An awful learning style that dulls creativity and curiosity. Most Chinese have never been taught how to look at larger perspectives, and with this background they aren’t likely to develop it on their own, either. Those who do are in the minority, and no one here copies the minority.
    The key lies in values, of course. But how to change values? The only entities in existence that are powerful enough to influence values, are actively promoting the opposite: Consumerism. What can be done to prevent the world from falling into a pit of mindless petty-bourgeois mediocrity? Maybe better and free education?

    • chikaforafrica

      November 19, 2013 at 11:54 am

      Thanks for writing Coineineagh. China, I think, remains an intriguing phenomenon where much of the rest of the world is concerned. I found your comments quite interesting and instructive. An American friend who spent time in China said exactly the same thing about a culture that encourages copying. It was very difficult to fully accept her statements as I assumed that she might not have adequate knowledge at her disposal, being an outsider. Coming from someone like you who lives in China, then there must be some degree of certainty in her statement. “But how to change values?” you asked. I ask the same questions. And so far I can say that education is a critical platform in its formal, non-formal and informal varieties. Most definitely better and free formal education is critical, as you mentioned. Also attention to informal education (media, entertainment, family conversations, peer interactions) will be highly beneficial. At the non-formal level, conferences, workshops, meetings and short trainings can also act as a veritable platform for the dissemination of sound values.

  10. Roger

    November 15, 2015 at 10:10 pm

    This article was a true revelation. I had no idea of how sophisticated the pre colonial justice systems were across the continent, nor that colonization was so closely allied with the corruption. Like most people in the UK I just assumed it was an African problem caused by Africans. Very humbling to find how ignorant I was, but at least I know better now.

  11. kenhudoy

    April 28, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    thanks for your excellent submission on origin of corruption in Africa…@least people like Roger are beginning to understand unlike the former British Prime minister that sees Nigeria as fantastically corrupt without mention of the Uk’s role in aiding corrupt officials by hiding loots of corrupt persons since Britain and other western nations remains a safe haven for looted funds and investments…we should also look at our socio cultural milieu more especially the prebendal nature of our public officers and inherent character of welcoming with praises those who brandish ill gotten wealth especially during political campaigns without questioning the source of their monies…Nigerians and in extension Africans has not outgrown the colonial character of seeing public service as our collective wealth which belongs to us rather than the white mans job..(Oru Oyibo) as such any person who finds himself in a position in charge of public funds sees it as an opportunity to loot and get his friends and families into the system to also join in the loot and the resultant effect is celebrating the individual with chieftaincy titles as Omereoha…this prebendalistic nature of our people can only be defeated if we truly change our character and look into strengthening institutions to ensure corruption and nepotism is reduced at its barest minimum…
    more so, cognitive melodrama and prebandalism which is inherent in Africans can be defeated with strong moral values, adoption of ict thru egoverment , blocking constitutional loopholes and adoption of the kaizan principle of continuous improvement in area of institutionalism towards reducing corruption as perpetrators of corruption develop new methods daily to avoid being caught in the act, because as they say, if the weaver bird learns how to fly without perching, so also the hunter will learn how to shoot without aiming…


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