Corruption is not just an African thing

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the Gambia’s deposed dictator, Yahya Jammeh, was fabulously corrupt. A new investigation by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project reveals, for the first time, the scale of that corruption, and the mechanisms that Jammeh employed to steal nearly $1-billion from state coffers — as we report in this week’s edition of the Mail & Guardian.

But this story is not just about the Gambia. It’s much, much bigger than that.

It may surprise some — although it really shouldn’t — that a Western financial institution played a crucial role in facilitating this looting.
A key player in Jammeh’s intricate web of holding companies and dodgy tenders was a Belgian bank called KBC. This bank once financed the apartheid regime; then it turned a blind eye to illicit financial flows from the Gambia, allowing Jammeh and his cronies to loot with impunity.

It is easy to forget that corruption is a two-way street. Forget the lazy stereotypes: corruption has never been just an African thing. All too often, when evidence of corruption in African countries is uncovered, foreign financial institutions are at the heart of the scandal.

In fact, it was African leaders who led the most concerted effort to overhaul the current international financial system that makes it so easy for crooks to hide their ill-gotten gains, and fails to punish the institutions that facilitate these transactions.

In 2015, former president Thabo Mbeki led an African Union panel that sought to determine how much the African continent was losing every year through illicit financial flows, and what could be done to fix the problem. He estimated that illicit financial flows cost the continent nearly R1-trillion every year, and that the easiest solution would be to shut down the tax havens and tax loopholes that make illicit financial flows nearly impossible to trace.

South Africa, as that year’s chair of the G77, presented Mbeki’s proposals at the United Nations’ Financing for Development conference, which aimed to establish new funding mechanisms to meet the sustainable development goals. But views of the developing countries represented in the G77 were shut down by developed nations, led by the United Kingdom and the United States, which refused to countenance any substantive changes to the international taxation system — ensuring that the pipelines of corruption remain open.

That Jammeh stole nearly a billion dollars from one of the poorest countries on Earth is profoundly wrong. He will go down in history as a monster, and rightly so. But he is not the only villain in this story. The Belgian bankers who helped him to get away with it should be named and shamed. So too should the Western governments that have created an international financial system that allows corruption to flourish, and then refuse to countenance any substantive reform. Until the system changes, what is to prevent the next Jammeh from doing it all over again?

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