NAIROBI, July 1: From the bribe-extracting traffic cop to the state coffer-raiding president, Africa is still blighted by corruption, but the tide is changing thanks to pressure from both within and without the world's poorest continent.
While far from an exclusively African problem, the effects of corruption tend to be starker in Africa, where the majority of people scrape together a living on just a dollar a day.
For example, the late Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) between 1965 to 1997, pocketed an estimated five billion dollars while in office. To put this into perspective, the country's per capita GNP in 2001 was 99 cents.
Since Mobutu was a solid cold war ally of a West fearful of Soviet expansionism, there weren't too many complaints from abroad about this grandest of larcenies. According to Transparency International (TI), a corruption watchdog, the only heads of state to steal more money that Mobutu were Indonesia's Suharto and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines.
Mobutu was closely followed in this list of shame by Sani Abacha of Nigeria, who took only five years - he died in office - to make off with between two and five billion dollars, according to TI.
Courts in both DRC and Nigeria are now busy trying, mostly in vain, to recover the loot from foreign bank accounts. Efforts to prosecute African leaders have met with varying degrees of success. Malian former president Moussa Traore, who ruled between 1968 and 1991 was convicted of corruption.
Charges have been filed in the Central African Republic against ousted president Ange-Felix Patasse. In Zambia, former president Frederick Chiluba, accused of pocketing 41 million dollars in state funds, has been told charges against him would be dropped if he returned 75 per cent of what he stole.
For the ordinary citizen of many African countries, encounters with officialdom, be it police, customs, the local town hall or the phone company, are often only fruitful when lubricated. But since the end of the Cold War things have begun to change.
As Africa lost its strategic importance, major donors and lenders no longer turn such a blind eye to high-profile embezzlement and have sometimes cut off cashflows to governments deemed less than serious about fighting corruption.
Meanwhile, realizing that private-sector investors and other development partners are becoming more insistent on probity, individual African states and multinational groupings are taking the fight against corruption more seriously.
This spirit is a cornerstone of a continental initiative called the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). "Good governance" is one of the favourite catch phrases of NEPAD, which includes a peer review mechanism, whereby African leaders keep a close eye on their counterparts.
Radio stations in the Central African Republic now broadcast public service announcements explaining how "corruption is an evil that destroys the country" and urging officials not to wait for a bribe before doing their jobs.
In Gabon, the government has adopted, as its national theme for 2004, putting an end to administrative and political corruption. Since one-party state systems began to give way to democracy in the early 1990s, civil society has got in on the act as well, while the press has used its newfound freedom to play an important whistle-blowing and moralizing role.
And the general public is enthusiastic about these changes. In Kenya, verbatim transcripts of an enquiry into a massive financial scandal that helped cripple the economy in the early 1990s are published in newspapers every day.
Each time former president Daniel arap Moi is named in connection with the scam, the news is splashed on front pages, as were the photographs and names of much of the judiciary when they were sacked for graft earlier this year. -AFP