The AU’s powerless corruption-buster

Begoto Miarom leads the continental fight against corruption. But he is under-resourced and not especially well-informed

Copenhagen — If you’re talking desk work, it’s possible that Begoto Miarom has the most trying job on Earth. He is the African Union’s most senior anti-corruption fighter and he must do his work with very limited resources, and with the knowledge that the rot runs rife even in his own institution.

Miarom is the chairperson of the AU advisory board on corruption. He heads a team of seven (including himself) tasked with monitoring graft and fraud in the 40 countries that have ratified the AU Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption, the only continental body responsible for such a task.

This week, Miarom went to Copenhagen to attend Transparency International’s International Anti-Corruption Conference, a three-day event held every two years, with

1 500 attendees. The Mail & Guardian asked him about his role, current continental events, including the AU’s self-declared Year of Anti-corruption, and Africa’s international reputation.

From Chad, Miarom is the deputy secretary general of the Court of Auditors in his country and was sworn into his AU board position in July last year. His mandate ends in 2020.

There has already been controversy on his watch — just a year into his tenure, another board member, Ghana’s Daniel Batidam, resigned. Batidam, who is attending the same conference, cited corruption in the anti-corruption board itself.

Miarom does not dispute Batidam’s claims. “There are many issues at each level,” he said, acknowledging that corruption runs deep within the AU. At the behest of member states, he is conducting a comprehensive internal study on performance and recruitment, and the next step will be to form an independent body to do the work. Without collecting evidence of corruption, it would be difficult to establish what must be done.

In addition to looking at the AU’s operations, Miarom’s role is making sure that each signatory to the convention is adhering to its principles. Initiated in 2003, the convention has gained 40 signatories in the past 15 years. In theory, each of these nations should be sending Miarom’s board a general corruption report annually, but many do not. In fact, some signatories have never submitted one. The Gambia recently sent in a summary of the past 12 years.

There is no penalty for those countries that do not submit assessments. “All states don’t respect the conventions, the same way [as] the United States does not respect human rights conventions in Geneva,” he said.

Miarom’s other duty is to travel to each signatory country to conduct his own examination. Last year, the secretariat allocated a budget for him to travel to four countries. His office sent out seven requests, and he visited the only one that accepted a request — Uganda. This year has been a bit better — he went to Namibia in September, and has plans to go to Rwanda in November and Angola in December. He hopes to get to Ghana, Niger and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in early 2019.

Recent events starkly illustrate the limits of his office. Asked about the election in Cameroon, for example, he laughed and declined to answer, saying his purview was corruption, not politics.

When pressed on the point (election rigging could be considered a form of corruption), he said Cameroon had not ratified the treaty and, as such, even if election fraud could be construed as corruption, his hands were tied.

Fourteen countries have not signed the convention and Miarom cannot approach them.

Earlier this month, Kenyan journalist John Allan Namu released the damning documentary The Profiteers, which looked at how Kenya provides a safe haven for South Sudan’s war criminals, many of whom have plush houses and loaded bank accounts in Nairobi.

South Sudanese living in Kenya demonstrate in Nairobi, on October 11, asking the Kenyan government to freeze assets of South Sudan leaders involved in the conflict in their country. (Simon Maina/AFP)

Miarom hadn’t heard of the movie, or of one of the main alleged criminals, General Paul Malong, who has been accused of embezzling millions of dollars from his home country and keeping it in Kenya.

Miarom said he knew of “this practice”, although he didn’t specifically know about Malong. Money laundering was indeed a problem but, like Cameroon, South Sudan had not signed the convention so he could not pursue it. (Kenya, on the other hand, has ratified it.)

Tanzania is a signatory and has just pushed through legislation that would punish anyone who questions official government statistics, a move the World Bank describes as “deeply concerning”. Miarom said that issue would fall under the heading of human rights, even though the government could be releasing incorrect or skewed information.

In September, $4.3-million intended for a social cash transfer programme for the poor went missing from Zambia’s coffers, and the United Kingdom suspended aid. Zambia is also a signatory to the convention.

When asked about this, Miarom looked frustrated. There was only so much he could do, he said. His budget and capacity were limited.

Miarom’s government nominated him for the board seat, and it is unclear whether he was able to refuse the nomination or the position. He wrote about his feelings about the role in a follow-up email, making it clear he was aware of the weight of the task.

“Anyone who is committed to development, justice and equity can only care about seeing the resources of his country used wisely,” he said. “Fighting corruption must therefore be the concern of everyone and it is with awareness of this heavy mission and its difficulties that we agreed to fill it on behalf of our continent with pride.”

Transparency International releases the Corruption Perceptions Index every year and Africa rarely does well. Some of this is a numbers game: there are many African countries. The continent, treated as an entity, is a focus of the three-day event.

Some speakers talked about whether Africa is being treated unfairly; others argued that it is impossible to hold the entire world to a single standard, given that the nature and definition of corruption can change so dramatically between countries, continents and cultures. For example, a representative from Kenya said it was acceptable to give a village chief a goat or a chicken but unacceptable to give a politician cash. Miarom was on a panel, the theme of which was “What will it take to win the fight against corruption in Africa?”

But unlike many others at the conference, Miarom does not think the continent is unfairly targeted, commenting pragmatically that some African countries on the list are ranked higher than Western ones. He seems uncomfortable with the idea that the continent should be treated as an exception. Africa is not uniquely corrupt and, as he mentioned earlier, it’s not uncommon for countries in other parts of the world to violate their own conventions.

Nonetheless, it is his job to fight corruption in Africa. Given the resources and political will at his disposal, this is a fight that the AU won’t be winning any time soon.

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Amanda Sperber
Amanda Sperber
Correspondent (mostly) covering Somalia + South Sudan @IWMF

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