Africa

Aminatta Forna: the West must own up to its part in African corruption

The Independent (UK)

March 9, 2005

Writing for the British newspaper The Independent last week, well-known memoirist and reporter Aminatta Forna (the daughter of Mohammed Forna, a Sierra Leone cabinet minister who was executed under the notorious dictatorship of Siaka Stevens) described how Western lenders had encouraged government spending sprees in Africa despite evidence of corruption and mismanagement. Forna said when her father resigned his post as finance minister in the early 1970s, he detailed several instances of deals with Western lenders for loans involving suspect development projects that directly contravened agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Mohammed Forna’s resignation letter, published in Sierra Leone’s national press, urged Western nations to prevent Stevens’ spending spree by cutting funding and warned the loans could never be repaid. The letter went unheeded by creditors, as did a memo Aminatta Forna later turned up written by a junior staff member at the World Bank, which questioned ?in the light of her father’s revelations ?whether the World Bank should go ahead with a proposed loan to Sierra Leone. But the Bank went ahead with the loan and Siaka Stevens continued to subvert foreign funds to his own ends. In response to the release of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa report, Forna said she welcomed the Commission’s focus on Western as well as African accountability for corruption in Africa. “For too long, when it comes to corruption in Africa, the West’s position has been ‘do as I say not as I do,'” she said. “In Sierra Leone and other countries, debts were racked up knowingly by African ministers and Western lenders in the full knowledge that they would not be repaid. This was not mere irresponsible borrowing, but planned larceny.” It is for this reason said Forna, and “not bleeding heart sentiments,” that the debts should be written off.

Here’s a story, 35 years old old, which remains as relevant for the Africa Commission reporting later this week as it was then. In 1970, the finance minister of an obscure African nation resigned his post over government corruption. In his resignation letter the minister detailed several instances of that corruption: in particular deals with Western lenders for loans for suspect development projects – in direct contravention of an agreement with the IMF and World Bank.

The country was Sierra Leone, my country. The minister in question was my father. In his letter, which was published in the national press, he urged Western nations to prevent the government’s spending spree warning that these debts could never be repaid.

Many years later I came across a memo, written at that time by a junior staff member at the World Bank, questioning – in light of the revelations of the finance minister of Sierra Leone – whether the World Bank should go ahead with a proposed loan to the country.

So what happened? Well, the World Bank went ahead with the loan, anyway. The then prime minister, Siaka Stevens, became a dictator and ruled for nearly two decades. In that time he brought the country to its financial knees, to such an extent that Sierra Leone is now officially the world’s poorest country. And my father? He set up an opposition party which was outlawed virtually overnight, spent years in detention and was hanged in 1975.

This week the Africa Commission will target corruption as the chief priority in saving Africa’s future. And for once, the West’s complicity in African corruption – to which my father drew attention 35 years ago – will be acknowledged. The report will contain tough measures to tackle bribery by multinationals and proposals for Western banks to repatriate money pilfered by African leaders.

That is something I welcome. For too long, when it comes to corruption in Africa, the West’s position has been “do as I say not as I do.” In Sierra Leone and other countries, debts were racked up knowingly by African ministers and Western lenders in the full knowledge that they would not be repaid. This was not mere irresponsible borrowing, but planned larceny. This – not bleeding heart sentiments – is the reason that its debts should be written off.

Africa doesn’t have the monopoly on corruption. Power the world over is misused for financial gain. In a working democracy, it is the role of the political opposition, the press and the judiciary to provide a balance of power. Enron, Whitewater, Sinn Fein’s connection to the bank heist in Ireland – the press investigate the whiff of financial impropriety with zeal.

The ordinary African is as outraged by corruption as we are in the West, though perhaps no longer greatly surprised by it. Corruption is not, as is often hinted, some sort of cultural weakness – even if it has, sadly, become the norm. Africa’s problem is that the structures designed to provide those checks and balances on the leadership are often neither sufficiently strong nor independent. When journalists in those countries do stand up to their leaders they may face threats and intimidation.

Britain has been the primary backer of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah’s regime in Sierra Leone, helping to reinstate it after a 1997 military coup. Since then the UK has bankrolled Sierra Leone to the tune of £100m, with a promise of a further £120m.

There has been much grand talk about good governance and the DfID [the UK Department for International Development] under Clare Short who spearheaded an anti-corruption drive in the country. Yet only recently a newspaper editor was imprisoned on charges of “seditious libel” for publishing a series of articles highlighting a Commission of Inquiry report into fraud allegations concerning President Kabbah in 1967. Paul Kamara is currently serving a two-year sentence, a sentence which is a clear violation of UN Security Council resolution 1562, which calls on the Sierra Leone government to “decriminalise press offences, as other African countries have done.”

The report says “African governments must crack down on corruption.” But this is a misunderstanding of how young democracies mature. The worst of Africa’s leaders seek power precisely because they stand to make their fortunes manipulating the weaknesses of the system.

The key to tackling corruption comes from the bottom up. In Sierra Leone, where scores of teachers have gone unpaid for months, university students and schoolchildren last week rioted in the streets. The Commission’s report will also urge African civil society to play a larger role in holding their government to account. In perhaps no other country in Africa does Britain enjoy such influence as it does in Sierra Leone, influence that could be put to robust good use before the situation there begins to turn ugly.

Here is Blair’s chance. Let’s see this government put its mouth where its money is.

The writer’s memoir of her father, ‘The Devil that Danced on the Water’ is published by HarperCollins.

Categories: Africa, Odious Debts

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