Global Policy Forum

Bribery Begins At Home


If Africa is to overcome corruption the west will have to clean up its own act

By Susan Hawley and Andrew Phillips

October 6, 2004

Next year, Britain is planning to make Africa the centre-piece of its presidencies of the European Union and the G8 industrialised nations. Tony Blair's Commission for Africa, which opens its second meeting in Ethiopia tomorrow to discuss how the international community can help build a "strong and prosperous Africa", will be central to that effort. However, the UK government is potentially facing a serious credibility problem on Africa that could undermine its efforts to heal what Blair calls "the scar on the conscience of the world".

A significant element of any new deal for Africa will be that African governments must clean up corruption and improve their governance. Without a real grappling with corruption, such a deal is likely to be ineffective. Of course, African governments need to show through consistent, effective internal action that they are determined to heal their own ills. But corruption and bribery is a serious problem throughout the world, and much of it originates in, or is facilitated by, western financial centres.

African leaders have long said that they need western governments to stop their companies bribing officials and politicians, and their banks helping officials hide looted funds abroad. Britain claims that it is leading the international anti-corruption efforts in these areas, but its practical record does not yet bear that out.

In 1997 Britain signed up to the OECD's anti-bribery convention and then passed the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 to enable prosecutions to be brought against people here for corruption abroad. But Britain has yet to prosecute a single company or individual for overseas bribery. Only two of the over 20 allegations of overseas bribery involving UK citizens or companies are under formal investigation.

Britain's response to allegations of wrong doing and bribery involving its companies in Africa has been characterised by foot-dragging and inaction. Take the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In October 2002, the UN released a report detailing how 85 foreign companies illegally exploited Congo's resources. So far none of the British companies it named appears to have been properly investigated. Congo's population of 70 million lives in abject poverty. Despite fabulous mineral deposits, the country's GDP is only a quarter of what it was in 1990. Little or no part of the wealth extracted by western mining companies reaches the state coffers, with revenues from tax and customs sources standing at less than £1bn a year. Ensuring that companies play by the book in Congo would make a real difference to that country.

Meanwhile, where African countries have tried to stamp down on corruption, the effort has not always been reciprocated here. For example, in May 2002 a Lesotho official was convicted of receiving nearly £3m in bribes. Lesotho, a tiny, poverty-ridden country in the midst of an HIV epidemic, then took the almost unprecedented move of prosecuting the foreign construction companies that gave the bribes. Three have so far been convicted. Though several British companies have been named in connection with the prosecutions, the UK authorities appear to have taken no steps to investigate their involvement, and financial assistance apparently offered by Britain to help with those prosecutions has not been forthcoming.

Of course, such matters could not be more difficult to process, especially in gathering evidence sufficient to satisfy an English jury. But the government has yet to will the extra specialist resources that will give the anti-corruption legislation teeth. The failure to do so is hardly likely to add urgency to the recent efforts of some African administrations, such as the Lesothan government and the Congolese transitional government, to end corruption.

Britain's record on repatriating looted assets is little better. In December 2003 the UK signed up to the UN convention against corruption - a central plank of which is the requirement that countries will freeze, confiscate and repatriate such assets. So far the government has no timetable for ratifying that convention.

Ironically, last October the Nigerian government finally abandoned its three-year effort to get UK government assistance in recovering $1.3bn in state funds, known to have passed through some 23 British banks, stolen by former president Abacha. Britain failed to provide the Nigerians with any of the key documents they requested.

The Commission for Africa and the UK's Africa-focused presidencies of the G8 and EU have real potential to help African countries escape from poverty and corruption. Making sure that the UK's leadership on Africa has credibility in the eyes of Africans, however, will require the government to be much more rigorous in delivering its side of the corruption bargain. Nothing could be more important. UK and western anti-corruption efforts will be undermined without determined action against our own corrupt nationals.

About the Author: Dr Susan Hawley works with The Corner House, the anti-corruption campaign group; Lord Phillips of Sudbury is a solicitor and Lib Dem life peer.

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