The burning issue that needs to be addressed: corruption

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I entertain no doubts about Tony Blair's sincere desire to help cut poverty in Africa through his grand Commission for Africa project. But if African countries are to make the great leap forward, one burning issue needs to be addressed: the manner in which bureaucrats and officials across the continent line their pockets on a daily basis.

I entertain no doubts about Tony Blair's sincere desire to help cut poverty in Africa through his grand Commission for Africa project. But if African countries are to make the great leap forward, one burning issue needs to be addressed: the manner in which bureaucrats and officials across the continent line their pockets on a daily basis.

My blood ran cold last week when relatives told me they had to bribe nurses at a state hospital in Zimbabwe so they could administer anti-Aids drugs, provided free by European donors, to my niece.

An earlier bribe had enabled her to get access to the sole ambulance at the hospital.

Yet another bribe was to be paid to hospital staff to ensure the niece was favoured with a hospital bed instead of sleeping on the floor like other patients.

Prior to the ordeal with my niece, they had to pay a bribe to get the body of another dead relative from a state mortuary after being told for several days the body could not be found.

Because corruption in Africa is actively entrenched at the top, it easily filters to the shop floor.

By the African Union's own admission, it is widely accepted that no business ever gets done in Africa without a present changing hands - from a bottle of Vodka slipped under the desk to facilitate a traveller's speedier entry through customs. Then ther are the bigger "cuts" made to state officials by conniving Western multi-nationals in exchange for lucrative state tenders in countries such as Lesotho, South Africa, Tanzania, Namibia, Swaziland, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Kenya and many others.

Not to mention the even bigger "cuts" paid in exchange for lucrative oil contracts in Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Nigeria and Gabon. In all these countries, political elites live well beyond their declared means at the expense of the poor.

In Angola, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) remains at loggerheads with the government over the disappearance of $4bn (£2.2bn) in oil revenues in a country where 90 per cent of the 14 million people live in abject poverty.

To Europeans, fixed telephone lines are perhaps a right, needed for children to research on the internet, pass examinations and prepare for poverty-free lives with better education.

In African countries such as Angola, Congo and Zimbabwe, fixed telephone lines are more of a status symbol. I personally paid bribes worth £200 to finally get a fixed telephone line in my family home in Harare after six years on the state telecommunication monopoly's waiting list.

But I was told that one senior state official had 14 fixed lines installed at his home over the years. The official ran up a huge bill because the lines were used for private business but he never paid a cent to the state company. Discontinuing service to him over non-payment would be "discourteous and disrespectful of a powerful man", I was told.

According to the African Union's own estimates, corruption is costing Africa at least $150bn annually. The poor have to bear all the consequences of malpractices.

It is almost routine for the poor to bribe state officials to gain access to what would be considered basic services in other parts of the world.

In Kenya, some corrupt judges of the High Court first demanded to visit a litigant's home to measure his wealth by assessing his household property before settling for a rate in bribes to rule in the litigant's favour.

The late Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who salted away an estimated $10bn in aid and bankrupted his country, used to openly encourage his colleagues and lower ranking officials to steal from the state. But he had only one word of advice for them: "steal wisely".

Several years after his death, Mobutu's legacy continues.

Self-serving declarations by Africa's post-colonial political elites to fight corruption have not been backed by any action. Kenya's chief anti-corruption official, John Githongo, resigned recently because of lack of political backing in his anti-corruption effort.

While on a visit to South Africa recently, Nuhu Ribadu, the head of Nigeria's anti-corruption watchdog, expressed his determination to stamp out corruption in Africa's most corrupt country. He told reporters he would even bar the former military ruler, Ibrahim Babangida, from his bid to succeed President Olusegun Obasanjo because the former allegedly salted away billions while in power. But, on getting back home, Mr Ribadu was summoned by Mr Obasanjo, a close friend of Mr Babangida, and ordered to apologise for his remarks, which had received wide media publicity. So much for Africa's commitment to "fight corruption".

Africa's people are poorer today than they were 40 years ago, despite a trillion dollars worth of aid made available in the past 50 years, according to development experts.

So much for Mr Blair's hopes to make more resources available to help Africa's poor. So much for making it easier to get my niece a hospital bed.

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