This article was first published on June 5, 2014 by Transparency International-UK
Anti-Corruption Agencies (ACAs) have been established in increasing numbers of countries in recent years and have complemented the efforts by public prosecutors and the judiciary to curb corruption in their countries. Are they making a difference?
The unanimous view of the heads of 17 ACAs from African countries that are members of the Commonwealth is a resounding yes. Meeting in Accra, Ghana, last week at the invitation of the Commonwealth Secretariat, these leaders argued that they are making significant progress. At the same time, they voiced concern that they are not being given enough credit for their achievements.
In the course of a four-day closed-door conference the leaders of the ACAs spoke candidly about their achievements and their shortcomings. There was no evidence of complacency. Many of the ACAs are acutely aware that they are walking a very fine political line. If they are too bold and go after what were continually referred to as “the big fish” they knew that they risked having their agencies closed down. If the ACAs, on the other hand, only concentrated on rather low-level matters of corruption, then they would be widely viewed as lacking in political independence and they would fail to garner essential public support.
Drilling deeply into the work of individual ACAs it becomes apparent that many of them have been building effective alliances with other law enforcement agencies in their countries and increasingly concentrating their efforts on areas where they believe they can have an impact. Some ACAs are building records of significant asset recovery. Others are engaging in high profile cases, such as corruption in land management that can involve ordinary citizens, major business enterprises and national and municipal authorities. Others are striving to work with judges to ensure that significant anti-corruption cases are fast-tracked to the courts and not left for years to languish.
At the same time, many of the officials attending the conference were concerned about international indexes that portrayed their countries as highly corrupt. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index was a particular target. In sum, some of the officials suggested that they work hard all year to strengthen anti-corruption initiatives in their countries, then along comes the CPI with a score that suggests things may actually be getting worse in their countries. The ACAs want more credit and recognition for their work.
To achieve this, however, will demand an array of actions. The ACAs need to build highly skilled teams of investigators and anti-corruption experts and here the Commonwealth Secretariat has taken an important initiative in establishing a training centre in Botswana. Moreover, conferences like the one in Accra last week help the leaders of ACAs to build informal networks where they can exchange information and ideas throughout the year with colleague in other countries facing similar practical problems.
The ACAs need to work hard to build their public credibility and be seen as politically independent. Ultimately their authority over time will depend on public trust and public support. Some of the officials at the meeting asserted that this is difficult when the media itself is corrupt, or the tool of corrupt business people and politicians. The argument is for the ACAs in part to strengthen their communications skills, being more pro-active, reaching out more to work with civil society in their countries and to be seen as more transparent and accountable.
The work of the ACAs would be greatly strengthened in many countries if the governments of those countries passed effective freedom of information laws, laws that gave meaningful protection to whistleblowers, and laws that demanded comprehensive asset declarations by individuals seeking electoral office.
In informal discussions on the side of the conference I found a number of officials willing to admit that they were deeply concerned about corruption in the military and in the security forces in their countries. They acknowledged that while corruption in this sector is almost certainly significant, the remit of ACAs does not reach as far as areas that are considered “national security.”
Governments of all countries need to confront the reality that no public sector area should enjoy impunity: all need to be subject to effective public oversight. Barring anti-corruption agencies from investigating defence sector contracting and the uses of public funds for security purposes undermines the credibility of governments that claim that they are fighting corruption.
This is an issue likely to come more into the foreground in coming months and years as it becomes more widely recognized that there are close corruption linkages between human insecurity, national security and international security. As we have seen with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and with Boko Haram in Nigeria, insurgent groups win support from the poor whose lives are miserable thanks in part to corruption, whose anger with officials who routinely extort bribes is palpable and who feel powerless to defend themselves against abuse. The poor see their government as their enemy, not as their protector. Radical terrorist groups take advantage of this discontent to win supporters.
In many countries in sub-Saharan Africa the ACAs are striving to counter the widespread corruption in their countries. The Commonwealth deserves credit for working with the ACAs to encourage their efforts, to assist them to learn from diverse country experiences and share knowledge, and to improve staff training.