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Why is it so difficult to deal with elite corruption?

By Chipo Dendere

Zimbabwean President Mnangagwa and South African President Ramphosa Embrace / Source: Government of South Africa

Zimbabwe’s ruling party, ZANU PF, has promised to crack down on corruption. In recent weeks the Mnangagwa regime has gone after top ministers and other government officials.


Corruption is a big problem because it impedes both democratic consolidation and economic growth in developing countries. Investors are less willing to expand resources in highly corrupt countries. Corruption also widens the gap between the rich and the poor and has a long-lasting negative impact on democratic consolidation. The global community loses almost $3.6 trillion to corruption annually. African economies lose nearly $50 billion through the illicit flow of money.


The fight against corruption is certainly welcome in Zimbabwe, which loses over $1 billion annually to corruption.


Across the developing world, saying that you’re going to fight corruption is popular and an easy way to guarantee votes. Voters love parties that are committed to arresting thieves. Ruling parties like Zimbabwe’s ZANU PF and South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) are aware that voters are deeply concerned about corruption. According to the most recent Afrobarometer surveys, 71% of Africans believe that some or most of the people working in government offices, parliament, police, and the judiciary are corrupt.


And yet, African countries are struggling to curb corruption—as we see in Zimbabwe.


To show that he is committed to fighting corruption, President Emmerson Mnangagwa rebranded the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC), stacking it with allies including the wife of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Subisiso Moyo—the general who announced the 2017 coup bringing Mnangagwa to power.


However, Mnangagwa’s fight appears to be following a typical pattern in African politics, where ruling parties go after political enemies of the president and their associates. Mr. Phekezela Mphoko, ZANU PF’s former deputy who served as co-vice president with Mnangagwa under Mugabe, is now on the run after being accused of corruption. Mphoko claims that he is not corrupt and that he is a victim of political bullying. Mr. Mphoko has also said that if caught, he will be poisoned by political foes.


The commission's first arrest this past July was of Former Minister of Tourism Prisca Mupfumira. Mupfumira is accused of looting over $94 million from the office dealing with pensions.


While Zimbabweans welcome this arrest, they are not convinced. Citizens express concern that Mupfumira is just a scapegoat used to distract the masses during the big fish get away. People question the commission's ability to arrest critical figures after it was leaked that Minister Moyo—the husband of the chair of the anti-corruption commission—may be tied to scandals. Justice Moyo has said that if her husband is implicated, she will not spare him, but that is still to be seen.


Zimbabwe's ruling party has a long history of what critics call the “catch and release” strategy. In the months after his coup, Mnangagwa made a great show of publishing a highly anticipated list of individuals accused of siphoning over US$800 million. However, the list did not include any of the ZANU PF affiliated bigwigs. Since 2017, several high-profile individuals have been publicly linked to corruption. Some of the accused have gone to court and served jail time, but most were ultimately released, and their cases dismissed.


In a high profile case, a wealthy private citizen accused of swindling the national power company of over US $5 million was arrested and released. However, the ZANU PF ministers implicated in the case were never brought to trial. In another case, officials from the Reserve Bank were suspended after allegations of their involvement in foreign currency dealings were made public. However, after a few days, the issue went away, and the reserve bank reversed its initial ruling.


Catch and release is not a uniquely Zimbabwean problem. It is a continent-wide issue. Although the African Union launched a 2018 campaign to fight corruption, the majority of countries have not been able to make charges of corruption stick against top officials. In Nigeria, Buhari came in as the anti-corruption president, but nearly five years after his first election, nothing has happened. In South Africa, elite corruption, commonly known as state capture, has drained the country of billions, while powerful families avoid prosecution. Many of the individuals involved have links to the ruling party, the ANC. Since his resignation, former President Jacob Zuma has been brought to the courts over corruption allegations, but the charges have not resulted in his prosecution or the prosecution of his allies.


Why is it so difficult to deal with elite corruption?


First, the stakeholders, including the government, opposition, and in some cases, civil society are corrupt and lack the political will to fight corruption meaningfully. Incoming leaders typically prosecute associates and family members of the outgoing leader, but rarely those in their own inner circles. Doing so would likely reveal their complicity in illicit activities. It is difficult to imagine that both Mnangangwa and South Africa’s President Ramphosa were unaware of presidential corruption during their respective tenures as Vice President.


Second, the webs of corruption are difficult to disentangle. Most corruption in Africa occurs via legal channels, such as bids and contracts for multimillion-dollar infrastructure projects, where bureaucratic red tape makes it hard to link particular individuals to looted funds. Further complicating the matter is that the individuals assigned to deal with corruption have very little power over the elites that they are charged with investigating and arresting.


Finally, in the absence of real economic development, the livelihood of most elites is tied to being part of the feeding trough. Dismantling corruption would put at risk the entire political ecosystem on which parties depend.


To effectively stop corruption, the anti-corruption commissions and the judiciary must have guarantees that they will not face backlash for doing their work. Citizens have also been effective at publicly shaming corrupt officials on social media. In rare cases, citizen outcry has forced leaders to hold their own cronies to account.


In Zimbabwe, Mnangagwa still has an opportunity to bring about real change in the fight against corruption. To do so, his government will have to show that they are willing to go after top officials in the ruling party.



Chipo Dendere is an Assistant Professor of Political Science in the Africana Studies Department at Wellesley College. Follow her on Twitter at @drDendere.

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