Revelations that former president of Zambia Edgar Lungu, his family members, and associates were involved in massive corruption confirms a dangerous trend in Africa. His predecessor, the first democratically-elected president of the southern African country, Frederick Chiluba, was also alleged to have stolen millions while in office.
When Omar al-Bashir of Sudan was overthrown, he was found with boxes of cash in his house. Before fleeing The Gambia after his electoral defeat in 2017, Yahya Jammeh fled with millions of his country’s money. Even presidents who preached socialism like Robert Mugabe were not above amassing great wealth. This list is not exhaustive, because almost every African president since independence has ended up with fabulous wealth. As a percentage of GDP of their impoverished countries, the wealth of African presidents must be the greatest in the world.
It seems that thieving is a central principle in African governance. Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo in a recent talk with Nation TV likened this tendency in African political culture to an “ideology of corruption”.
Listening to Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid on her recent visit to Kenya, one begins to understand the vast difference in governing philosophy between countries like Estonia and those in Africa. Ms Kaljulaid explained in detail her vision of where Estonia needed to be and what strategies, values and mentality were needed to get there. She said that one of the things Estonia did in order to double their GDP between 1987 and 2020 was relentlessly fight against thievery. To do that, Estonia strengthened the institution of the police to be able to investigate and prosecute anyone. When asked about what she intended to do after her term was over, she said she would work for the UN in order to advance some international agenda important to her. When did you last hear of an African president saying that he would work for an international body after retirement?
In Germany, Angela Merkel is retiring. During her tenure, she provided steady leadership in a volatile period in Europe and the world. Due to her leadership, Germany remained a thriving economy and an influential voice in the European Union and the world. Yet as she retires, her pension will be modest. She will not retire to a fabulous mansion with dozens of bodyguards and a motorcade. And, of course, you will not find boxes of cash in her house.
Why then this vast difference in governing philosophies in Africa and these countries? This is a question we must resolve or face a future not dissimilar to that of Haiti. We can begin to resolve this problem by following the Estonian example. The police must be able to prosecute thieves no matter their position.
We the public must unlearn bad habits like begging for handouts from money stolen from us. The link between thievery and national poverty must become deeply ingrained in our psyche, so that thieves become pariahs and convicts, not heroes or presidents.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator