Aminatta Forna: The West must own up to its part in African corruption

The Africa Commission this week will finally acknowledge the West's complicity in corruption

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Here's a story, 35 years old old, which remains as relevant for the Africa Commission reporting later this week as it was then. In 1970, the finance minister of an obscure African nation resigned his post over government corruption. In his resignation letter the minister detailed several instances of that corruption: in particular deals with Western lenders for loans for suspect development projects - in direct contravention of an agreement with the IMF and World Bank.

Here's a story, 35 years old old, which remains as relevant for the Africa Commission reporting later this week as it was then. In 1970, the finance minister of an obscure African nation resigned his post over government corruption. In his resignation letter the minister detailed several instances of that corruption: in particular deals with Western lenders for loans for suspect development projects - in direct contravention of an agreement with the IMF and World Bank.

The country was Sierra Leone, my country. The minister in question was my father. In his letter, which was published in the national press, he urged Western nations to prevent the government's spending spree warning that these debts could never be repaid.

Many years later I came across a memo, written at that time by a junior staff member at the World Bank, questioning - in light of the revelations of the finance minister of Sierra Leone - whether the World Bank should go ahead with a proposed loan to the country.

So what happened? Well, the World Bank went ahead with the loan, anyway. The then prime minister, Siaka Stevens, became a dictator and ruled for nearly two decades. In that time he brought the country to its financial knees, to such an extent that Sierra Leone is now officially world's poorest country. And my father? He set up an opposition party which was outlawed virtually overnight, spent years in detention and was hanged in 1975.

This week the Africa Commission will target corruption as the chief priority in saving Africa's future. And for once, the West's complicity in African corruption - to which my father drew attention 35 years ago - will be acknowledged. The report will contain tough measures to tackle bribery by multinationals and proposals for Western banks to repatriate money pilfered by African leaders.

That is something I welcome. For too long, when it comes to corruption in Africa, the West's position has been "do as I say not as I do". In Sierra Leone and other countries, debts were racked up knowingly by African ministers and Western lenders in the full knowledge that they would not be repaid. This was not mere irresponsible borrowing, but planned larceny. This - not bleeding heart sentiments - is the reason that its debts should be written off.

Africa doesn't have the monopoly on corruption. Power the world over is misused for financial gain. In a working democracy, it is the role of the political opposition, the press and the judiciary to provide a balance of power. Enron, Whitewater, Sinn Fein's connection to the bank heist in Ireland - the press investigate the whiff of financial impropriety with zeal.

The ordinary African is as outraged by corruption as we are in the West, though perhaps no longer greatly surprised by it. Corruption is not, as is often hinted, some sort of cultural weakness - even if it has, sadly, become the norm. Africa's problem is that the structures designed to provide those checks and balances on the leadership are often neither sufficiently strong nor independent. When journalists in those countries do stand up to their leaders they may face threats and intimidation.

Britain has been the primary backer of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah's regime in Sierra Leone, helping to reinstate it after a 1997 military coup. Since then the UK has bankrolled Sierra Leone to the tune of £100m, with a promise of a further £120m.

There has been much grand talk about good governance and the DfID under Clare Short spearheaded an anti-corruption drive in the country. Yet only recently a newspaper editor was imprisoned on charges of "seditious libel" for publishing a series of articles highlighting a Commission of Inquiry report into fraud allegations concerning President Kabbah in 1967. Paul Kamara is currently serving a two-year sentence, a sentence which is a clear violation of UN Security Council resolution 1562, which calls on the Sierra Leone government to "decriminalise press offences, as other African countries have done".

The report says "African governments must crack down on corruption." But this is a misunderstanding of how young democracies mature. The worst of Africa's leaders seek power precisely because they stand to make their fortunes manipulating the weaknesses of the system.

The key to tackling corruption comes from the bottom up. In Sierra Leone, where scores of teachers have gone unpaid for months, university students and schoolchildren last week rioted in the streets. The Commission's report will also urge African civil society to play a larger role in holding their government to account. In perhaps no other country in Africa does Britain enjoy such influence as it does in Sierra Leone, influence that could be put to robust good use before the situation there begins to turn ugly.

Here is Blair's chance. Let's see this government put its mouth where its money is.

The writer's memoir of her father, 'The Devil that Danced on the Water' is published by HarperCollins

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