He actually means it

“Thieves will be arrested”

Not so long ago, when Alassane Ouattara held his first meeting with the new government, he said a few things that stood out. From the Ivorian newspaper Le Patriote (which is an often uncritical mouthpiece of Ouattara’s RDR party, but the same story was taken up in other papers as well)

En effet, pour sa toute première rencontre avec les membres de son gouvernement au grand complet, ADO a adressé une sévère mise en garde à son équipe. Selon des indiscrétions, il a clairement fait savoir aux 36 ministres qu’il ne tolérerait aucun dérapage qui entacherait non seulement sa réputation personnelle, mais celle du groupe. Pour ce faire, il a, sans porter de gants, fait savoir que les détournements de deniers publics qui foisonnaient dans les ministères précédents, doivent prendre fin. Ici et maintenant. Et si d’aventure, un d’entre eux se rendait coupable de vol, ce dernier serait immédiatement mis aux arrêts. Mais tenez-vous bien. Le Président de la République a tenu à faire savoir que cette mise en garde était valable pour tous, y compris pour ‘’des gens qui sont proches de moi’’, aurait-il dit.

Freely translated (with a lot of help from google translate) to:

Indeed, for his first meeting with members of his government in full, ADO [Ouattara] issued a stern warning to his team. According to indiscretions, he made ​​it clear to the 36 ministers he would not tolerate any slippage that would taint not only his personal reputation, but that of the government. To do this, Ouattara, with gloves off, let it be known that the misappropriation of public funds, which was rife in the previous administration, must end. Here and now. And if by chance, a minister would make himself guilty of theft, that minister would be immediately placed under arrest. But brace yourself. The President of the Republic made it clear that this warning was valid for all, including ”people who are close to me” he reportedly said.

Now, with the possible exception of the “people who are close to me” part, Ouattara is far from the first African head of state to say something like this. However, few, if any African heads of state have actually meant it , except maybe for dictators that meant it for their ministers but were perfectly fine with misappropriating public funds for themselves.  The thing with Ouattara is, I actually thinks he means it, including for himself. Looking at his time as prime minister under Houphouet Boigny he was pretty strict with these things – making him unpopular, and it was the same thing at the IMF (although there, the risk of getting unpopular for applying ethical standards is significantly lower than in the Ivorian government of the early 90s), and well, I’d bet that he hasn’t changed.

Now, assuming Ouattara means it, it’s far from certain he will manage to keep it up, as I believe there are many top level politicians in the RHDP alliance who see it as their right to get rich now that they are in power.  But even if Ouattara just gives it a serious try I think it’s pretty darn good, and it will be really interesting to see how it goes.

What if the laws were applied equally?

I think it’s often underestimated how prevalent grand corruption is at higher levels of public  administration in poor countries in Africa and elsewhere, and its effects such as misallocation of resources, weakened rule of law, rise of crony capitalism, reduced meritocracy etc. I mean, many people think it’s bad, but it’s actually often much worse. Some of my datapoints for saying this comes from tagging along a Senegalese minister’s election campaign, reading the great book Our Turn to Eat about corruption in Kenya, and an eye-opening meeting with the Swedish ambassador to Senegal mentioned in the Encounters with Corruption post (but I’ll take it again):

Senegal had since the early to mid 90s been scheduled to receive Volvo buses for its public transport in Dakar as part of Sweden’s development aid efforts.  However, it took over a decade for the buses to actually be delivered.

In 2005, I was at a meeting with the Swedish ambassador to Senegal, and she explained that Senegalese government officials serving both Abdou Diouf’s and Abdoulaye Wade’s governments simply refused to let the deal happen unless it included a kickback for themselves. As Sweden has a pretty strict no-corruption policy, the whole issue stayed in a stalemate lasting for years.  The ambassador said that at the end she had to call a couple of Ministers and literally yell at them over the phone.

My guesstimate is that if you take just the democratic countries on the African mainland, and you apply their own laws honestly and equally to the respective governments, assuming you have full information of financial transactions and dealings of  individual ministers, there would not be very many ministers left that would not have to be arrested. Thinking about it, it would probably be a pretty interesting exercise to apply to developed countries as well – France and Italy spring to mind, as well as heads of municipal owned companies in the city of Göteborg in Sweden (where I grew up).

So anyway, that’s the framework in which Ouattara’s anti-corruption efforts have to be seen. The outcome is not binary (yes, he made it or – no, there is still corruption) but more about how far Ouattara manages, is willing, and politically able to go.

And a final point, I love it that they have started legal processes against Gbagbo regime top dogs for economic crimes. It’s sets a great precedent, although it’s politically a lot easier than doing the same against Ouattara’s own people. Guess this is one of the few good things that came out of Gbagbo’s refusal to leave power. If Gbagbo had accepted defeat, such legal processes would have been seen as harassment of the opposition.

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Taxi and scurvy data

A small taxi experiment

One thing with the taxi business in Africa, unlike say electrical engineering,  is that everybody seems to have an opinion about it – and often contradictory opinions.  Here are examples of two comments I have received:

I would not recommend at all to start TAXI business […] Normally all people I know who ever sent a car to Africa have never seen a cent out of the business. Its very difficult to have a business in Africa and be successful.

Taxi’s are a profitable because everything can or could be be arranged: car papers, insurance, drivers license, repairs, etc.  A friend of mine […] is planning to convert it into a woro-woro. His only problem is the reliable driver. If you have one, he says, owning a taxi is most definitely a profitable business.

My take here, inspired by author Peter Sims, is that the world is a complex and changing place, and you can’t always figure out and plan everything in advance, so a good approach is to make a small, not too costly, experiment, see what happens, draw lessons, and adapt from there.

Here’s Peter Sims outlining this and other ideas in a pretty interesting 45 minute speech:

On board the Salisbury in 1747

Another great example that sometimes you have to make an experiment to get good data and figure out how things work, comes from the book Adapt by Tim Harford:

Naval surgeon James Lind wanted to find a decent treatment for scurvy, a nasty illness that leads first to spots and gum disease but then to open wounds, internal bleeding, and eventually death. The disease, which still afflicts malnourished people around the world, was then especially common among sailors. Various cures had been proposed. The Admiralty, which commanded the Royal Navy, favoured vinegar.

The Royal College of Physicians took a different view: in its expert opinion, sulphuric acid was just the tonic. Other suggestions included sea water, nutmeg, cider and citrus fruit.

In the spring of 1747, after eight weeks at sea on the warship Salisbury, Lind chose a dozen sailors out of the three dozen then suffering from scurvy. To make his test as fair as he could, he tried to pick men whose illness seemed to be at the same stage. Then he divided them into six pairs and gave each pair a different treatment. The pair being given oranges and lemons made a good recover; those taking cider, acid or brine did not fare so well. It was not a perfect randomized clinical trial by today’s standards, but it did the job. Scurvy, we know, is caused by lack of vitamin C, so oranges and lemons are a sensible treatment.  Ships started to carry greater stores of them, and many sailors on subsequent voyages owed their life to Lind’s experiment.

Lind’s trial highlights, however, some of the difficulties with collecting and reviewing evidence. For a start, if Lind had been tempted to rely on data collected by someone  else for some other purpose – which is quicker and cheaper than organising a bespoke trial – he might have come unstuck. Good data are often just not available: we know from Lind’s account that thirty or forty sailors suffered from scurvy and six men died during that voyage, but official records note only two illnesses. Sometimes there is no choice but to perform an experiment yourself.

Out of Abidjan port

Admittedly, figuring out the details of running a taxi business in Abidjan, seems a bit mundane compared to finding a cure for scurvy, but both endeavors face similar problems in obtaining reliable data.

For example, I tried everything to figure out how much it would cost to get a car out of Abidjan port.  Online there were many stories of problems and issues with getting a car out – including warnings of thefts of parts from cars parked in the port – but no hard official data on prices.  And people who had sent cars to Abidjan reported wildly different  costs, including a top mark of  4 million Cfa franc for a relatively new Mercedes brought in by a European guy with little experience of Africa and no knowledge of French.

The price, which includes getting Ivorian number plates, seems to depend on who you are, your negotiating skills, how expensive the car is, how old the car is, if you are using a “transitaire”, how long time the car stays in port, and well, luck.

I have now gotten my car out of the port, but since it’s  old there’s one more check that needs to be done – probably just a bit of “isomorphic mimicry”.  Anyhow, without the last check (which should be maximum 100,000 Cfa francs) and the payment to the “transitaire” it has so far costed 823,000 Cfa francs which breaks down as follows:

400,000 import duty

250,000 fee for the car being old

155,000 “aconnage”

18,000 storage fee for one day

So it means that in my case, getting the car out of Abidjan port will cost about three times the value of the car (450€) which is well, ridiculous, but I had budgeted with it costing twice the value of the car and it was a budget post I was very unsure of.  Even with this get-out-of-Abidjan-port cost, the figures for the investment still hold up fine.  As long as figures for profits, revenues, and repairs aren’t markably worse than budgeted, and the driver isn’t too dishonest, it should work out.  But that’s to be continued in future posts!