There are plenty of crises around the sub-Saharan as 2012 comes to a close. The quagmire in Mali, where governance has imploded and a venerable nation-state has been cut into two pieces. In Eastern Congo, strife continues, and the international community remains lost at this crucial borderland between Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. Nigeria seems ever close to either a civil war or the complete collapse of order. When even the mother of the country’s famous finance minister is kidnapped, what is left to surprise Nigerians?
Lost amid the urgent crises around the sub-Saharan is a prosaic problem of enormous consequences: everyday corruption of the civil service. The task of reforming Africa’s government bureaucracies – and halting the large-scale waste and theft of precious resources – is not for the faint-hearted. Past efforts at reform, reviewed above, failed because they were too timid. While there are no quick fixes for African bureaucracies, past experience ought to guide present approaches. A lack of boldness in approaching the failures of African civil servants will be rewarded – by more failures. The last thing that’s needed are more timid, half-way measures of the sort that long have defined “reform” agendas. These reforms are merely shams, perpetrated by either the weak-hearted or the negligent. The words of Barbara Nunberg, an expert on African bureaucracies at The World Bank, written nearly a dozen years ago, bears pondering: “Meaningful change is going to require more forceful reforms.
Just how forceful? Forceful enough to blow up the current system. African bureaucracies cannot be reformed piece-meal means; rather the roots of waste inefficiency and corruption among government workers must be attacked. African civil servants should be fired wholesale, without costly severance packages, on the grounds that government employees have benefited too long from illegal and immoral actions. To pay severance or damages to these dismissed workers would be akin to compensating a burglar for lost income because they can no longer rob your home after the installation tighter security measures. To be sure, the thief no longer has a livelihood at your expense, but then who’s fault is that?
A complete demolition of entire African ministries, and their employees, is the only way to liberate government from the tyranny of its civil servants. And tyranny is not too strong a description here. To understand the destructive self-serving mentality of African bureaucrats, Rene Dumont’s masterful phrase, “the bourgeoisie of civil service,” must be embraced. Whereas Marx predicted a dictatorship of the masses, African nations ended up with a dictatorship of the civil servant.
Dismantling this dictatorship through mass firings would not be as difficult to execute as defenders of the status quo imagine. Civil servants in Africa are deeply unpopular with most ordinary people. Often, bureaucrats come disproportionately from a favored tribe, or they are part of a powerful patronage network of a long-disgraced politician. Bureaucrats are among the wealthiest people in most African countries. Their children go the best schools and are often the most likely to leave their homeland for greener pastures in the U.S. and Europe. Rather than a revolt of the citizenry, massive firings of African civil servants would most likely lead to celebrations.
Effective and honest civil servants would welcome the mass firings because they would be rehired, quickly and at higher wages. But they would not have guaranteed employment ever again but rather their tenure would henceforth be tied to results and responsibility. Going forward, dishonesty would be met with severe actions. Summary dismissal should be the first option for teachers, policeman and nurses who importune the public for bribes.
The public service commissions in Africa countries, which today merely rubber stamp and tolerate fraud by civil servants, would become true arbiters or merit and normative behavior. Currently, these commissions are comprised themselves of civil servants and governed by a board of political appointees. That’s why they are toothless and even abet wrong-doing by public employees. To help support the revolution in public services that’s needed in Africa, these public services commissions would have among their board members experienced international bureaucrats. Foreign technical experts would also work in these public service commissions, turning them into effective agencies for both hiring and monitoring civil servants.
The task of managing the invigorated ranks of African civil servants would be made easier by the widespread privatization of public services. A whole range of government services in most of African countries – from hospitals to water-delivery to electricity to schools – have functioned woefully because they’ve run and managed by government bureaucrats whose only aim is self-enrichment. These services, in an orderly manner, should be turned over to private enterprises who will value skills and deliver services more productively. Ambitious and talented civil servants, who seek much higher compensation, can transition to these private agencies where employee rewards and responsibilities will be well matched.
Finally, the wave of government de-centralization sweeping across Africa must be halted and reversed. De-centralization of government services, while appealing in theory, is hugely costly and creates new opportunities for corruption among civil servants who see their posts as means to achieve an elite position in society. More small governmental units mean more civil-servant “chiefs,” who in turn require the sorts of costly emoluments that erode government budgets and undermine public-spiritedness. Reversing de-centralization could save hundred of millions in government spending in most of African countries. Andrew Mwenda, a perceptive Ugandan journalist, advocates dismantling his country’s new districts and downsizing central government administration. He estimates that Uganda could save $300 million “right now” by these measures.
The savings to governments across Africa — of mass firings of civil servants, of zero-tolerance for corruption among public employees, of a sustained shift into privately-run services — could amount to billions of dollars annually. Even more important, better-performing civil servants will raise the impact of the billions of dollars of foreign aid pouring into Africa.
These are the practical reasons to support a transformation in African public employment. But there are moral reasons as well. To do nothing while civil servants pillage the revenues of African governments and prey relentlessly on impoverished citizens is a travesty. The daily corruption of African bureaucrats merits the kind of outrage produced by international observers for crimes against humanity in Africa. For every day, in most African countries, civil servants committing an institutionalized robbery that goes unpunished by Africans themselves and uncommented on by foreign experts and donors. For too long the corruption of African civil servants has been viewed as a cost of doing business. Now is the time to treat these pillages as a moral travesty and a major barrier to African development. That African governments are hiring new legions of bureaucrats, even before they have purged themselves of the cancer of corruption, suggests strongly that the world will witness even greater levels of waste in the years ahead. The answer is not to decimate African bureaucracies so that effective services cannot be delivered. The answer is to deliver services in a new way and impose on new and remaining bureaucrats a stringent set of expectations for both productivity and personal behavior. Bringing about such a revolution in African government is of course setting a very high bar and is perhaps an impossible quest. But it does more harm than good for African citizens and their foreign supporters to pretend that the corrupt and ill-meaning civil servants of today can ever be “reformed” into an effective, public-spirited cadre through timid measures. At a time when African governments are on a hiring spree, friends of Africa must ask for more than business as usual.
NOTE: excerpted from chapter 17, “Everyday corruption in Uganda,” from Hotel Africa: the politics of escape (2012)