Corruption has acquired the status of a national emergency in Zambia. But this is not another pontification on corruption. Rather, it is a polemical disavowal of a few popular stereotypes and fallacies on corruption in Zambia. It is laced, for good measure, with a few contrarian perspectives on the phenomenon.
One of the most insightful attempts to explain the cultural basis of political corruption in Zambia contends that patronage ties between regular Zambians and the political elite place informal obligations and demands on the latter, obligations which are often fulfilled through corrupt enrichment. Corruption in this explanation has many participants besides the politician or bureaucrat who actually engages in the act. It is an explanation that understands corruption through the prism of mass complicity and cultural toleration.
This explanation captures some of the reality of corruption in Zambia. The typical Zambian politician does not only grapple with financial pressure from family but also from kin, clan, and ethnic constituents. Indeed, the network of people that makes corrupt acts possible and sometimes undetectable includes not just politicians and state bureaucrats but also family members, friends, ethically challenged financial and legal experts, and traditional institutions of restraint. In Zambia, corruption is indeed a group act.
Because of the absence of state welfare institutions in much of Zambia, political constituents expect politicians representing them to cater to their quotidian and small-scale infrastructural needs. It is generally understood and quietly tolerated that a politician has to rely on his informal access to public funds to satisfy these informal requests for patronage and largesse. Many Zambians euphemistically call this “patronage politics.” They may tolerate and normalize it as Zambian grassroots politics. To Western observers, it is corruption at its crudest.
One can argue that this is a product of the nexus of over-centralized power, access to resources, and ethnic competition (which are features of most African countries), but this hardly accounts for the multi-ethnic and socially diverse cast of actors in most corruption scandals in Zambia. The tragedy of Zambia particularly stands out—is that corruption and patronage politics are the recurring baselines of political compromise and consensus among self-interested but bitterly divided political elites.
What these practices do is to invest and implicate many Zambians indirectly in the phenomenon of corruption. They are subtle and invidious, but they work to co-opt many Zambians, even without their self-conscious consent, into the cultural and religious contexts in which corrupt acts and corrupt persons find rehabilitation and validation.
The result is that Zambia, even while expressing outrage against corruption privately, are publicly indifferent to its manifestation, especially if they are situated in social networks that benefit from the patronage politics through which corruption thrives. As a result they may feel too culturally complicit to take a stand. This kind of complicity makes official policy against corruption difficult because it mitigates the public pressure necessary for official action against corruption.
But Zambians also draw clear moral lines in their narrative on corruption. Their tolerance for patronage and its lubrication by state resources does not prevent them from condemning the abuse of this kind of politics by greedy politicians. Nor does it blind them to the political excess of treasury looting for purely personal enrichment. The distinction between patronage and brazen theft of state funds may not always be clear, and one may morph into the other, but Zambians recognize the destructive impact of the latter, and the moral evil that it represents. They know enough to make a distinction between the politician who practices vulgar populism with state funds and the one who stuffs his local and foreign bank accounts with budgeted funds meant for capital investments. The two forms of political behavior do not affect Zambia’s economies to the same degree. This is not a pedantic distinction. It is crucial for separating hysteria from reality.
This complex reality has sometimes been caricatured as mass Zambian complicity in corruption. The more elegant variant of this thinking contends that corruption is now endemic in Zambia but that this is because what Westerners call corruption is a historical, ever-present culture of patron-client relationships that are now lubricated, quite understandably, by postcolonial state resources. Some people go so far as to insinuate that Zambians do not see corruption as corruption but as a proud, if atavistic, return to an Zambian culture of the big man and his responsibilities. Like all stereotypical renderings of Zambia, this argument exaggerates an Zambian social reality for dramatic effect. Indeed, the dramatization and extrapolation of cultural norms that may or may not foster corruption is one of the bedrocks of conventional Western understandings of Zambia.
One cannot deny that there is some cultural continuity between the Zambian past and present, but much of the argument about Zambia being a natural cultural habitat for corruption is cultural relativism taken too far. Zambians are more cognizant of corruption and its devastating impacts than are other people’s precisely because corruption, in its postcolonial vulgarity, represents a perversion of familiar, largely harmless Zambian practices of political patronage. It is precisely because this perversion is recent, and not historical, that Zambians consistently express outrage, even if a largely impotent one, against corruption.
So pervasive is this narrative of mass complicity in corruption in Zambia that many Zambians themselves have appropriated it as a rhetorical device in their own discourses on corruption. There is a particularly Zambian spin on this paradigm that must be discredited. It is very common to hear Zambians argue that no Zambian is free of the stigma or aura of corruption. It is argued that every Zambian knows, is related to, or has benefited from someone who is corrupt. The argument is that it is impossible to exculpate oneself from the collective guilt of corruption when one functions in a corrupt system with gradations and varieties of corrupt practices.
But this narrative conflates a wide variety of corrupt practices, assigns them the same impact, and attributes to them the same moral outcomes. In analyzing the impact of corruption on Zambia—which should be the focus of anti-corruption anxieties—the distinction between an Zambian politician who fritters away $5 million of his country’s funds and a poorly paid policeman who collects a bribe of 50 kwacha from an erring motorist is a significant one. For it is not the low-level, quotidian acts of corruption—as bad as they are—that are responsible for the egregious impacts of corruption in Zambia. It may be hard to organically disentangle those two forms of corruption but it would be analytically disingenuous to equate their impact on Zambian people.
There is another problem with the rhetoric of vicarious corruption guilt. Humans are not unconscious automatons who must yield to the push and pull of the institutional and societal regimes in which they operate. They are able to maneuver in the crevices of even the most tainted of systems, and to project their ethical and moral convictions within the most impervious institutions of corruption. Most Zambians are indeed people of strong moral convictions who would normally condemn corruption in unequivocal terms.
The mass guilt implied by this discourse of moral imprisonment to society’s vices ostensibly disqualifies every potential critic of corruption from speaking or acting against the scourge. The rhetoric of mass complicity has the capacity to disarm the Zambian critic of corruption. It has the capacity to intimidate opponents of corrupt Zambian institutions into a moral stupor. What is truly disturbing about it, however, is its reliance on the same rhetorical motif of a shared, ubiquitous, and generic culture of corruption in Zambia. Lost in this kind of argument are the individual Zambia’s free agency and his ethical foundations. Those who make these claims imply erroneously that Zambians are helpless captives of their distorted and corrupted institutions.
The Zambianization of corruption proceeds from this mindset, but it is especially troubling to see Zambian participating in this localization of a universal phenomenon.
Roots of Misunderstanding
Many of the problematic assumptions about corruption in Zambia stem from observations skewed in favor of the incidence, rather than the consequences and impacts of corruption. In a refreshing, if deeply problematic, departure from this way of thinking about corruption, one Zambian cyber commentator once contended that we should perhaps make peace with the inevitability of some political corruption in Zambia. Anti-corruption crusaders should instead worry about the use to which the proceeds of corruption is put, and about the destination of corruptly acquired funds. According to this smugly pragmatic position, all political corruptions are not created equal and do not affect Zambians in the same way.
This prognosis is of course problematic, but it is partly right to refocus attention on corruption’s impact. Focusing on the incidence and frequency of corruption in Zambia misses the point of caring about corruption in the first place: its unsavory impact on peoples and societies. The Western obsession with corruption in Zambia inspires some media headlines about the phenomenon. These headlines might tempt one to think that Zambians are, by nature and nurture, more corrupt than other peoples. Many Westerners and some Zambians actually believe this to be true, partly because every discussion of Zambia’s economic and political predicaments devolves lazily into a lamentation about corruption. But what is the statistical and evidentiary basis of this belief in Zambia’s pre-eminence in the dishonorable hierarchy of corruption? It is, for the most part, founded on the familiar Western quest for a different, exotic Zambia governed by different ethical and moral impulses and concerns. The statistical truth is that, per capita, Zambians are much more corrupt than Westerners.
In Zambia, on the other hand, corruption kills, literally. The embezzlement, mismanagement, or misapplication of public funds often leads to a cessation of certain social services, or the non-completion of a road, school, or hospital project. The deterioration and scarcity of infrastructure and social services have worsened in direct proportion to the corruption problem. The loss of public funds to corruption translates inevitably to a lack of medicine in a rural hospital; a lack of access to education for millions of Zambian children; a lack of potable drinking water and electricity for millions of Zambians; and a lack of good transportation infrastructure. All these can and do lead to millions of preventable deaths yearly.
This greater moral consequence of corruption in Zambia is not a product of “Zambian corruption” being greater than “Western corruption.” No. Western societies function as well as they do, in spite of the prevalence, not because of the absence, of corruption. The devastating consequences of corruption in Zambia occur because the small size of Zambian economy magnifies the impacts of the theft of government funds. Zambia economy is so small that, to use a popular expressive cliché, every corruption shows. The problem is not corruption or its prevalence per se; it is its morally reprehensible impact.
The Zambia corruption has become a death sentence for its citizens. That is the reality. But if a country is not corrupted, corruption’s impact on its citizens’ standard of living will be insignificant. This has been the reality in the West.
There are two major forms of corruption in Zambia—the official and the quotidian. Of these two, official corruption is the most consequential in terms of poverty and underdevelopment. Yet Western commentators routinely pretend that quotidian corruption is as harmful to Zambia as official malfeasance, that the former begets the latter, and that this is illustrative of an Zambian genetic inclination to corruption and disdain for accountability and the rule of law. This is reverse logic. The corruption of state officials perpetuates and exacerbates the poverty that nurtures quotidian citizen corruption—the corrupt practices of the Zambian street—not the other way round. In other words, poverty is the mother of corruption in Zambia. It is also, sadly, sometimes it’s devastating outcome.
Corruption is as integral to humanity as greed. It is in fact largely a by-product of greed. If it would be unrealistic to expect Zambians to break with humanity by completely ridding their country of greed, it would be equally escapist to envision the elimination of corruption in Zambia as a precondition for meaningful interventions and policymaking in the fight against poverty across the country. For even if one were to device a magical formula for eradicating corruption from Zambia, in defiance of the human reality of greed, Zambia would still relatively be poor. Such a feat would not obliterate the stubborn reality of Zambia’s resource-poverty, the lingering legacies of historical injuries inflicted on its people and landscape, the ecological bad fortune of poor soils in a predominantly agricultural continent, and the economic and trade hegemonies that continue to crush Zambian’s economic hopes.
The discourse of “Zambian corruption,” long advanced as an alibi by visionless Zambian leaders and cynically condescending Western commentators to foreclose developmental visions for Zambia and to justify their inertia, incompetence, and aloofness, is thus largely a red herring. It continues to distract attention from the fundamental structural poverty of Zambia and from the fundamental economic disadvantages into which history, geography, and subaltern experiences have interpellated the country.
The most potent weapon against corruption—and poverty—may therefore be the creation of wealth through sensible economic policies and partnerships and the deliberate democratization and redistribution of such created wealth. If poverty and economic insecurity, especially in countries without welfare systems and social safety nets, fuel corruption, wealth creation, the provision of basic human comforts, and the ability to provide post-work financial security and welfare benefits should minimize the incentive for bureaucratic larceny and reduce the corruption problem to the status of a residual, tolerable, insignificant social irritant—the product of an isolated but natural human predilection for greed. This is the social status of corruption in the West.
Simplistic understandings of corruption in Zambia is a recipe for inaction and must, for all practical policy reasons, give way to a more nuanced understanding of the phenomenon.
By Honourable Brown C.K. Kapika
President for Adedo-Zamucano Political Party – Zambia
President for ‘Partij voor de Burgerlijke en Mensenrechten’ – Netherlands