By Chola Mukanga
The election of the Patriotic Front has thrust the fight against corruption firmly back on the national agenda. An agenda built around the commitment to “zero tolerance” on corruption in all areas of national life. President Michael Sata set out this direction in his inaugural speech to Parliament[i]:
I am sounding a timely warning that my Government has taken a zero tolerance against corruption in both the public and private sectors. Those who allow themselves to engage in corruption must know that they are taking a serious risk and that once caught they will be prosecuted irrespective of their status or position.
This new direction presents both an opportunity and challenge. It is an opportunity because we now have a clean start that appears to be winning accolades, as illustrated by the timely decision by the European Investment Bank (EIB) to resume funding to Zambia. The EIB observed, “We are pleased to note the public statements by President Sata and his Government, declaring the fight against corruption a key priority…. [and] the numerous institutional changes aimed at strengthening corporate governance; including the changes in leadership at both ZESCO and the Anti-Corruption Commission….In view of these developments, I am pleased to inform you that the European Investment Bank has decided to lift restrictions on EIB’s activities in the public sector in Zambia.”.
It is a challenge because we are still in the embryonic stage of this renewed quest. Zambia is awakening from an MMD era of unprecedented scandals in our young history. The inevitable question on every Zambian’s mind is: will this renewed fight succeed where others have failed so miserably?
The answer to that question naturally depends on what is meant by “success”. What are we aiming for? The new Government defines it as “zero tolerance”, meaning no corruption taking place in every sphere of Zambian life. But it should immediately be obvious that though the slogan is necessary in galvanising our attitude (and gaining international confidence) it tells us nothing about what realistically we are working to. Indeed, there’s a danger that without a proper defined criteria of success the slogan may be hostage to fortune.
This is particularly the case because the multifaceted nature of corruption[ii] means it will always be here. It is part of the total depravity of man. More importantly even if we are able to heroically reduce it to zero, it may not be financially or economically sound to do so. By all means let us fight for zero corruption, but at what cost? Therefore there’s a pressing need in this early and enthusiastic stage the new struggle against plunder to develop deliberate and specific targets that the new Government should be aiming for to allow citizens to properly hold it to account on the level of progress being made.
As a starting point we should be clear that measures of success must be specific and not the vague promises we were accustomed to under the failed and corrupt regime of the past. Statements such “corruption is reducing” or “that institution is back on track” won’t do. Let us be clear about what sort of corruption we have in mind and where our efforts to should focus on. Zambia has very little financial resources. We need to be intelligent in our fight against corruption.
Economic intuition suggests that it is more efficient that the fight against corruption focuses initially on areas of corruption which may be more harmful in terms of growth and equity. Corruption is likely to be more detrimental where it is likely to disproportionately affect the poor compared to the rich, leading to larger income inequalities over time. Corruption is likely to be most harmful where it “hits people twice” e.g. in hospitals, schools and police. Corruption is likely to be more damaging to society where it affects those institutions that are there to prevent it. Defining these areas as specific targets to reduce corruption would refocus our struggle and deliver tangible results that can be verified by all Zambians.
The indicators of success must be measurable. The problem with the MMD fight against corruption is that it had no real agreed measurable indicators. How do we know corruption has reduced in Mwansabombwe? How do we assess whether the civil service has increased in corruption? Key parameters must be agreed that are routinely measured and tracked by a specific publicly accountable body. These benchmarks on national performance against corruption would include local and sector based perception indicators, financial leakage, number of arrests, timeliness of corrupt cases in court, etc. Such data should be kept in public and routinely updated document. In short, underpinning the struggle against corruption must be a clear public service agreement supported by hard and routinely collected data.
Of course it is not good measuring things that we are unlikely to do anything about. So it is vital that such targets are based on policy goals that are achievable and realistic. Realistic indicators of success give impetus to Government to strive to bring them about and allow the public to be justified in their disgust when such targets are not being met. People will not care about any outcome that they know full well will not be delivered. We must move from hollow promises of a better tomorrow to more timely and realistic commitments e.g. “traffic police bribery reduced by 10% by July 2012”. These are the sort of milestones that we desperately need.
Prerequisites for success
Of course measuring success is only the beginning. Ultimately success in fighting corruption will depend on Government developing the necessary conditions to breed success. This is particularly crucial in the embryonic stage. There are three key indispensible conditions.
First, there’s need for sustained policy credibility. The fight against corruption must be a truly people driven agenda. A “Zambian Project”, not just the vision of the person in State House. One of the tragedies of the Mwanawasa administration is that the fight against corruption was personalised through Presidential Executive Orders which rightly conveyed the impression that it was a personal creation designed to fulfil whatever Mr Mwanawasa had in mind. Creating private presidential armies to fight corruption is not good governance, no matter how successful those armies might be.
Similarly, reliance on foreign donors for such an important struggle undermines Zambia’s sovereignty. Let us fight corruption, but let us not sell our country in the process. The new PF government deserves applaud, for now, for not reinstating the Task Force and shunning foreign funding in this area. Zambia must always bear 100% the burden of delivering justice because it is the foundation of our society. If the foundation is on borrowed capital, will the house stand? The Government must now go beyond that by creating an adequate legislative and political framework that will truly put Zambia on a credible and sustained path towards a low corruption and high growth equilibrium.
The second condition is financial sustainability. The fight against corruption must provide value for money over the medium to long term. It is true that there's no price that can be put on rule of law and justice in general, but we have to remember that the fight against corruption wont by itself deliver these things. It is only a part, albeit an important one. That means that any fight against corruption must, like all forms of policy, be undertaken within the context of an efficient and cost cutting government, with an eye on spending money where it is most needed.
Over the last two decades Zambians have seen initiative after initiative undertaken without being sufficiently underpinned by effective cost benefit analysis. This has led to grossly inefficient arrangements whose costs, if ever quantified, would outweigh benefits. Zambia is a country that relies on donor funding and external borrowing to feed its people. Each K1 being spent must rightly be evaluated against competing alternatives. More importantly, if the fight against corruption is to succeed the supply of funding must be sustainable. It’s the irony of life that we need money to stop money being lost. A new strategy for corruption must therefore be underpinned by the need for delivering solutions that that are economically efficient.
The third condition is that the fight against corruption should be forged as part of a holistic and broad struggle for development. Corruption is best addressed as part of a wider debate on what we think are key constraints to Zambia’s development. The days of long running editorials on one person are a distraction to real debate, which should focus on how we can make our institutions better and indifferent to the personalities of the day. Zambia's number one problem is that we have a "poor institutional framework” that exists only to serve the rich and corrupt elite. A credible institutional framework goes beyond simply tackling corruption. It is about introducing stronger governance and accountability structures. Participatory democracy and effective decentralisation are among those things that have been empirically verified to work. We simply cannot expect to win the fight against corruption if power is unnecessarily centralised.
When the conditions are right, it becomes easier to take forward policies that deliver results. A top priority is that we need new policies that encourage greater detection of corrupt activities. High levels of detection act as a deterrence to would be perpetrators. In short, information is vital in the struggle for corruption.
The prime source of such information is whistle blowers. The existing legislation on legal protection for whistle blowers unfortunately contains significant deficiencies[iii] that urgently need to be corrected by the new Government. Although the current legislation claims to provide for "a framework within which public interest disclosure shall be independently and rigorously dealt with", it is quite clear that the framework is particularly inadequate in so far as it relates to investigating agencies. The legislation requires investigating authorities to investigate themselves which clearly does not encourage whistle blowing. Similarly, the current legislation contains no monetary incentive or financial reward for whistle-blowing, further diminishing of any prospect of whistle blowing.
The media has an important role in disseminating information. The media such as newspapers, television or radio are useful and often necessary methods of publicising corruption to the electorate, to empower the community to punish corrupt officials. A key proposal therefore is that new Government should formally privatise Government controlled papers. Empirical evidence[iv] demonstrates that a government dominated press is positively associated with corruption. A free press provides greater information than a government controlled press to the public on government and public sector misbehaviour including corruption. The best way to encourage corruption therefore is to ensure Government owns the television and owns the main newspapers. World over, it is accepted: if you want to know how serious a Government is in fighting corruption, just look at how much media it controls.
Further media reforms must include having an established and trusted media outlet in the community and using media that can best reach the community based on its education level. Our local radio stations should be supported as avenues for greater and more localised detectors and publishers of malpractices. Though Zambia continues to see a significant rise in local radio stations many continue to face serious administrative and operational problems. Local advertising revenue is not sufficient to make such radio stations sustainable. Hence there’s need for Government to do more to supplement funding in these areas. A viable community radio station fund is needed.
Of course the citizens can only do so much and that is why Watchdog institutions exist (Auditor General, ACC, DEC and Police Service) to help detect such vices. Unfortunately, these institutions are some of the most corrupt institutions in the country. Evidence increasingly shows that where auditors and policing authorities are corrupt, initiatives to tackle corruption, indeed monitoring in general, becomes toothless. It is for this reason that high priority should be placed on improving their capacity. This will include not just monitoring the monitors better but creating incentives within these organisations to avoid corruption e.g. through greater competition for jobs and improved pay packages. It cannot be denied that these Watchdog institutions have generally been the most underfunded in the country. As Director General, Rosewine Wandi recently noted, "the ACC faces several challenges such as lack of adequate funding from the Government to enable us execute our operations effectively...” Simply put the institutions are broke.
Improved detection must be accompanied by rapid improvement in prosecution. The current approach to prosecution is costly to the tax payer because cases take a long time. We need a new judicial process for convicting corrupt criminals that is swift and definite. No point of having long prison sentences and good detection, if you cannot actually convict people efficiently and at minimal cost to the tax payer. A corruption fight without an efficient court system has little deterrent effect on corruption and is therefore a pure social cost.
The Government should seriously consider setting up Special Corruption Courts, if necessary on a pilot basis. These would constitute specially selected judges and dedicated courts to exclusively handle corruption and economic crimes related cases. The experiences of establishing special corruption courts can be seen in Pakistan, Philippines and Kenya. There’s no reason why Zambia cannot be learn from such countries on pitfalls to avoid. Many international organisations support such initiatives and indeed recently Nigeria has initiated[v] a similar pilot for two years. The approach is to use a unified general system with judges who have already acquired expertise in handling corruption cases. These could be restricted to look at cases involving more than K100m.
The final jigsaw is increased punishment. There is need for introduction of stiffer penalties for corruption. Firing people is not enough to dissuade them from corruption because often such individuals are fairly mobile and would be able to find another job. Stiffer penalties in form of longer sentencing periods are needed. The problem at present is that not only do cases take long to resolve, but when these cases are concluded people serve short sentences. For justice to work, it is critical that people are not just punished but are seen to be punished. This policy prescription is in line with the stated intention of the President in his inaugural speech to Parliament[vi]: “To restore public confidence in [the fight against corruption], the PF Government shall amend the Anti Corruption Commission Act to introduce much stiffer penalties for corruption offences, re-instate the abuse of office clause … ”.
Crucially, the three policy elements – detection, prosecution and punishment – must be treated as a unbroken trinity. Policy initiatives that utilise a combination of these three can prevent corruption by drastically increasing the expected cost for being corrupt (increasing the probability of being caught engaging in corrupt activities, and increasing the punishment for being corrupt). Detection on its own is ineffective, because the individual must face a punishment for being corrupt. Similarly, increasing the incentive to stay honest has no effect when the probability of getting caught is too small.
Zambia has a remarkable new political opportunity to wage a successful fight against corruption. This vision requires translating the President’s stated intentions into practical ideas to deliver a less corrupt Zambia. We won’t achieve this unless we are clear about what success looks like; the environment that will help create that success; and the practical initiatives needed to bring it about.
Chola Mukanga is an economist and founder of the Zambian Economist which provides independent economic perspectives on Zambia's progress towards meaningful development for her people
Copyright: Zambian Economist, 2013