“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.