Letter from Africa: Is corruption just stealing?

David Cameron Buhari David Cameron with Muhammadu Buhari

Sat, 21 May 2016 Source: Elizabeth Ohene

In our series of letters from African journalists, Ghanaian writer and opposition politician Elizabeth Ohene looks at what we mean when we speak of corruption.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron probably assumes there is an uncontested definition of the word corruption.

The big anti-corruption summit he hosted in London last week was held on the understanding that we all agree on what is meant by corruption and the only difference of opinion is about who or which country is more corrupt than another.

There has therefore been much excited coverage of Mr Cameron being caught on camera telling Queen Elizabeth that leaders of two "fantastically corrupt" countries - Afghanistan and Nigeria - were going to be at the conference.

I wish, though, that the conference had spent some time defining exactly what the participants understood as corruption. I have been exploring some different definitions of the word.


The World Bank definition is straightforward and calls it "the abuse of public office for private gain".

The Danish International Development Agency defines it as the "misuse of entrusted power for private gain".

The definition goes further to state that it might or might not involve the taking of bribes. In other words, the critical ingredients in the definition would seem to be public office, or entrusted power, and the abuse of that position for private gain.

So it was interesting that when my president, Ghana's John Mahama, was asked a straightforward question in a BBC Focus on Africa interview on whether he had ever taken a bribe, he stuttered and wanted to know if the question referred to him in his position as president.

The president obviously believed there was a difference between the entity of "John Mahama" and that of "President John Mahama".

It should have been clear to President Mahama that the audience was interested only in the entity called President Mahama.

He was being interviewed on the subject because he is president of Ghana. We have no interest in his exploits as a Ringway Estate boy, nor in his role as an employee of the Japanese Embassy in Accra.

We might be interested in how he performed as a member of parliament, a minister of state and as a vice-president - but the question posed to him in the interview unambiguously referred to him in his role as a public officer, a man entrusted with power. Sanitised

We can take it from the way the interview went that Mr Mahama has not taken a bribe before and we will have to pursue questioning about the situation with President Mahama.

The accepted definition of corruption involves the holding of public office, and if the president wants to make a distinction between John Mahama as a private entity and John Mahama as president, we should be interested in his answer only in so far as it refers to his position of entrusted power.

The difficulty we have surely is the reluctance to call thievery in public life by its proper name of stealing and calling it corruption instead. If the world wants to deal with corruption, we should start by probably abandoning the term corruption altogether.

Corruption simply does not carry the same odium as stealing or thievery. The word has been sanitised.

And yet corruption is stealing, corruption is thievery done by public officials - except the amounts involved are large and instead of prosecutions, we deal with the phenomenon by holding conferences and commissions of inquiry.

If Mr Cameron had been overheard saying Nigeria and Afghanistan have more thieves, dishonest and fraudulent people than anywhere else in the world, there would have been an almighty uproar and it would have taken some doing to pacify Presidents Buhari and Ghani.

I suspect that if BBC interviewer Peter Okochwe had asked President Mahama if he had ever stolen money, he would not have asked whether as president or whatever other identity he thinks he has, and he would have received a straightforward answer.

So let's call thieving by its proper name and stop beating about the bush. Corruption is stealing.

Columnist: Elizabeth Ohene