Life can be tough in Africa, so we’ve developed many coping mechanisms, including humor, to lighten the load. Some of these jokes help explain various issues in African development. Two of my favorite jokes come to mind in this regard: one helps explain corruption in Africa, and the other the consequence of corruption and related ills on African development.
So, the story goes: an African Minister in Europe for a conference was invited by his European counterpart for dinner at his house. Upon reaching the house, the African Minister was blown away by its splendor, and remarked to his host: “What a fantastic house you have!” The European Minister acknowledged the compliment and thanked his guest.
The African Minister followed up with a question: “How did you get the money to build such a nice house?” The European then asked his African guest: “Please open that window.” The African opened the window, and promptly remarked, “I only see a road.” The European then said: “You see, I took 10 percent of the cost of that road and built my house!” The African then thanked his host for the information about where he got the money to build his house.
Much later, the European Minister was in Africa and was invited by his African friend to dinner at his house. The European Minister got there to find that his African friend’s house was more opulent than his house in Europe. He couldn’t resist remarking, “My God, your house is even more beautiful than my house in Europe!” The African said “Thank, you; that’s very kind of you to say.”
The European then popped the question: “How did you get the money to build this magnificent house?” The African then told his European guest, “Please open that window.” The European Minister did as his host said, but quickly reported: “I don’t see anything!” His host, the African Minister then said to him: “You see, I took 100 percent of the cost of the road that was supposed to be there, and built my house!”
The story about how the African Minister built his house is played out on a daily basis, and in various guises in Africa. Corruption by African elites is killing Africa, and stifling her development. To be sure, corruption is a huge global problem, but it is even more acute in Africa because the stakes are higher.
Africa is estimated to have lost $88.6 billion per annum in illicit financial flows (IFF)) overseas between 2013 and 2015. Between 2000 and 2015, IFF losses from Africa was 2.6 percent of Gross Domestic Product, or $836 billion, far more than the $770 billion of debt owed by the continent in 2018. Africa would thus have been a creditor to the world if it’s IFF losses were applied to its 2018 debt.
Much of these losses or capital flight is accounted for by corrupt leaders. For example, the late General Sani Abacha stole $5 billion from Nigerian public funds, and $12.3 billion of Libyan funds disappeared in 2018 from a Belgian bank. Other African leaders who are notorious for robbing their countries blind include President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea (worth an estimated $700 million in 2021) and deposed former President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan, who reportedly had as much as $9 billion in UK banks.
Some these illicit funds are laundered by buying real estate and other expensive properties. The former Nigerian Oil Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke, for example, bought a $50 million condo in Manhattan, NY and an $80 million yacht from bribes she received as a minister. Former Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh also had a $3.5 million house in Potomac, Maryland, which he purchased from ill-gotten funds, and is on the way to being forfeited by the US government.
Perhaps the worst form of corruption is so-called state capture, whereby powerful individuals, companies, organizations or groups outside or within a country through corruption, shape national policies, economy, and/or legal environment to benefit their own interests. The practice is by no means unique to Africa, and has been found in the former Soviet Union, the United States, European countries, and South Korea.
Perhaps the most notorious case of state capture in Africa is that South Africa’s former President Jacob Zuma who allegedly helped three Indian brothers milk South Africa of $7 billion. Similarly, state capture has plagued many other African countries ranging from Madagascar to Kenya.
Corruption hinders the development of Africa’s roads, which carry 80 percent of goods, and 90 percent of passengers in Africa. Despite this, Africa lags behind the rest of the world in terms of road infrastructure with only 204km of roads per 1,000 Sq. Km compared to a global average of 944km of road per 1,000 Sq. Km.
It is against this background that someone with a wicked sense of African humor told me the story of someone having a chat with God about African development. The person asked God when South Africa was going to be a developed country, and God said in 2100. The person then asked God when Nigeria will be a developed country, and God said in 2300. Finally, the person asked God when The Gambia (the smallest country on mainland Africa, and one of its poorest) will be a developed country. Upon hearing the question, he said, God cried, and said: “I won’t be around!”