Corruption is a Cancer, You Are the Cure
By: Michael C. Gonzales – U.S. Ambassador to Zambia
Corruption corrodes public trust; hobbles effective governance; distorts markets and equitable access to services; undercuts development efforts…; and provides authoritarian leaders a means to undermine democracies worldwide. When leaders steal from their nations’ citizens…, economic growth slows, inequality widens, and trust in government plummets.
– Memorandum on Establishing the Fight Against Corruption as a Core United States National Security Interest
On December 9, the United States, Zambia, and 186 other countries will commemorate International Anti-Corruption Day to mark the 2003 United Nations Convention Against Corruption. We commemorate International Anti-Corruption Day annually by drawing attention to the corrosive effects of corruption and by renewing our collective efforts to curb it. Recalling our own challenges with corruption and recommitting efforts to combat it, the United States is hosting this year’s International Anti-Corruption Conference December 6-10. The Conference brings together government leaders along with civil society representatives, business leaders, and investigative journalists to strengthen the capacity of democratic institutions to address the scourge of corruption.
Zambia ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption in December 2007, committing to address corruption at all levels. Since taking office in August 2021, the New Dawn administration has committed to address corruption and has taken initial steps in the right direction by canceling high-profile and problematic public contracts signed under dubious circumstances and by investigating credible corruption complaints. As I have heard clearly from government counterparts, business leaders, journalists, and civil society activists since my arrival in Lusaka, there is still much more work to be done to end corruption in Zambia systematically and hold those engaged in corrupt practices to account.
From the procurement of medical supplies; to obtaining one’s birth certificate, passport, NRC, or land title; to turning a blind eye to the illegal sale of mukula or of protected wildlife, corruption affects all levels of society. The effects of corruption are not theoretical: Faulty drugs can lead to injury or death of patients. A bribe to a law enforcement officer can lead to unfit vehicles on the road that cause fatal accidents. Faulty road and transportation infrastructure puts the entire public at risk. Yesterday’s corrupt public infrastructure debts will be paid by children born today. And, corruption will keep investors away, leading them to invest – and create jobs – somewhere else where the rule of law and sanctity of contracts are upheld. Corruption is not a victimless crime.
Corruption will not be dismantled overnight, but it can be dismantled through systematic reforms that 1) enhance transparency, particularly in public procurements and asset declarations by public officials; 2) empower robust media and civil society to conduct oversight; and 3) bolster strict accountability mechanisms. Zambians play a crucial role in the fight against corruption by demanding action on these efforts from elected officials.
From projects to build roads to tenders to buy fertilizer, Zambia hemorrhages money in opaque public procurements. When tenders, winning bidders, and procurement terms are made public, the public can determine whether a $20 million presidential jet is worth $190 million or if a $500 million dual-carriageway is worth $1.24 billion. Parliament’s visibility into and approval of new debt is a strong first step, but policies and laws mandating transparency and prohibiting non-disclosure agreements on loans assumed by the Zambian people would drastically stem public theft. The public should demand asset disclosures by public officials – not just by MPs and cabinet officials, but for all those engaged in fiscal or procurement-related roles. And, like my own asset disclosures required as a U.S. government official, these should be made available to the public for accountability to ensure that one’s assets do not out-strip their means.
While transparency is key, an empowered media and civil society are crucial to leveraging that transparency to analyze dynamics and identify corruption. Through such a role, civil society need be not an adversarial “watchdog” keeping government in check, but a critical “guard dog” supporting and enabling government to deliver on its anti-corruption commitments. Passage of Access to Information legislation will be crucial in ensuring that the media and civil society can play this role. As the role of government is to serve and act on behalf of the people, what should the government have to hide from them?
While these prevention measures are key, meaningful and impartial accountability are crucial to curbing corruption by making the risks and costs of corruption unbearable. Until corrupt officials lose their jobs, their ill-gotten assets, and their freedom by being incarcerated, officials will not be deterred from taking their cut. While recent arrests and investigations are crucial, investigations and prosecutions cannot remain overwhelmingly focused on former officials while credible allegations against current officials continue to arise. In response to reports of corruption, Zambians should question: Who has been fired? Who has been convicted? And, they should demand answers.
It is easy to feel that fighting corruption is out of your hands, but by demanding such systematic action on prevention and accountability by elected officials, the Zambian people can play a critical role in supporting the government’s efforts to end corruption. And Zambia is not alone in this fight. The United States is already partnering with the Zambian government to strengthen its capacity to identify, prosecute, and prevent corruption at all levels. From programs to improve tax policy, tax administration, public-private dialogue on public financial management, and improving business environment, to technical assistance to Zambia’s accountability institutions and support of media professionalism, the United States is working closely with Zambians to support this effort.
The fight against corruption is a concern for all Zambians, all political parties, and the public and private sector. Success in countering corruption requires real commitment from the government and private sector, but more importantly, in a democracy, it really comes down to the people, to YOU, to guide, support, and hold accountable your government and elected officials.
The Zambian people hold the power to be the cure to the cancer of corruption and chart Zambia’s path to a corruption-free future.