There is a happy practice in Africa of countries adopting what is working in other nations on the continent. So one starts free primary education, and soon others follow.
In the reforms of the 1990s and early 2000s, after the old state structures had failed dismally, semi-independent executive agencies became the fashion, so everyone created a new Revenue Authority, a Civil Aviation Authority, an Investment Promotion Board, a Communications Commission.
This approach was particularly notable in East Africa. There is one thing though that has not been copied — cracking down on corruption.
Yes, everyone set up the office of anti-corruption czar, but it was mostly window dressing. Chasing down, hammering and shaming the corrupt is something that does not seem to lend itself well to imitation.
Thus in East Africa, when Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame walks around with a big stick looking for the corrupt, he appears like an alien visitor speaking a incomprehensible language. Sure enough, his country reigns unchallenged as the least corrupt in the Transparency International rankings.
But it seems things are about to change, thanks to events in a corner of Africa that a year ago was the symbol of pillage and plunder — Nigeria.
Ever since Muhammadu Buhari, another tall and wiry ex-soldier like Kagame, was sworn in, he has been swinging the axe, cleaning out the country’s notoriously corrupt oil sector.
Within weeks, four refineries that been dormant for nearly 16 years were fired up and started working. Even the electricity officials, who had been bought by the generator lobby, panicked and quickly brought over 1,000 Megawatts on to the grid.
An East African businessman touring Nigeria for opportunities, wrote to tell me, “For now, the thieves are keeping their hands in their pockets”.
But in addition to how he took on the oil sector, the bigger test for Buhari was how he took on corruption in the military. Here, he changed commanders, and now is going after those who diverted funds.
A report commissioned by Buhari about the rot in the military makes for shocking reading, with nearly half the $5.3 billion allocated to it annually being siphoned off in corrupt deals.
But the really striking thing is not that action is being taken. It is the way Buhari is framing the issue of corruption in the military. The real problem, he has argued, is that corruption denied troops the weapons and equipment to fight Boko Haram, and led to the preventable deaths of thousands of Nigerians.
In other words, the corrupt are guilty of mass murder. Academics and civil society activists like to place corruption in that big picture context, but it is extremely rare to hear a president in Africa, do it.
In other countries like Senegal, President Macky Sall has also shown himself to be serious about corruption. In Benin, President Yayi Boni apologised to the people after officials ate a $4.4 million Dutch grant.
Are parts of Africa finally entering a meaningful anti-corruption era? If Buhari pulls it off, yes, it could happen. If he fails, it will be business as usual.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com). [email protected]