The social media in Zambia was set alight by the news that $33m was paid to a contractor for the construction of a University. So far no problem. It is however, the accompanying images of overgrown bush where the university should have stood that has made many question where exactly the money went. With nothing infrastructural to show, the social ‘netizens’ have been further enraged. The Anti-Corruption body quickly effected arrests of the alleged offenders. This has in no way appeased the many questioning keyboard warriors. With civil society fully awakened, a protest was quickly organized for the town that was to be the recipient of the FTJ University. Mansa a Northern Town is the provincial capital of Luapula, one of the 10 provinces of Zambia. Demonstrators were schedule to walk through the center of town to deliver a protest letter to the highest ranking civil servant of the Province –The Permanent Secretary. If the hundreds of thousands of comments on the numerous blogs were anything to go by, this protest had all the indications of being a crowd puller.
On protest day May 13, 2022 media houses capture a handful of protestors and one could easily argue fully outnumbered by the police. A renowned musician and civil society activist Pilato travels 757km and graces the event from Lusaka-Zambia’s capital. The disinterest by the ordinary resident is what raises questions for this author. Why were residents who would have benefited from the would-have-been University, through infrastructure, jobs and general economy visibly less concerned with the unfolding scandal? Were the local residents not affected by corruption? More importantly, why were the local residents not incensed enough to guarantee a mass protest?
Corruption is a growing global concern. The definition issue aside, corruption has come to mean different things to different people. To a school seeking young man a missed opportunity for a brighter future; to the speeding motorist an opportunity to save on a fine; to the promotion seeking employee an opportunity to advancement; to the business an opportunity for quicker-illegal growth; to the bribe seeking cop a quick pay; to the patient seeking medical services an opportunity for life. While people may declare a collective repulsion to corruption, it is the individual pain that one feels from the scourge that would call one to action.
The hair raising grand corruption scandals that investigative journalists often unearth catch the eye of civil society activists and politicians on the opposite ends of the political divide. Public interest on the other hand often has a limited lifespan in corruption scandals and wears away with the prolonged legal battles that follow arrests. Anti-Corruption agencies often focus their eyes on grand corruption as a way of justifying their continued funding and public support. A gap therefore exists between corruption that catches the public eye, and corruption that affects the individual. An announcement that $100m meant for a hospital has been embezzled will often not arouse the disgust that missing medicines in the hospital would. A local judge getting a bribe and releasing a murder suspect will evoke more public outcry than a $42m contract inflated for the award of a contract. Put differently ‘virtual’ corruption (or reported corruption) evokes less anger than ‘experiential’ (first hand) corruption. An example here would be the person who daily has to pay a bribe to cops on the road being more concerned about this than the missing millions meant for the construction of a dam.
The author experienced this first hand when he worked as an Anti-Corruption Law enforcer. Part of his duties was public sensitization on the dangers and evils of corruption. In order to illustrate the dangers of corruption examples would be given of real life national scale corruption cases that had deprived the country of millions of development worth financial resources. Good as the examples would be the audience would often show cosmetic sympathy. It is however, when real life examples closer to home would be given that the audience would show greater interest. Often these examples would be simpler and involve insignificant amounts of money, but they spoke to the experiences of the audience. A motorist is more concerned about traffic cops asking for bribes, parents more concerned about the need to pay bribes to access school places for their kids, patients in hospitals more inclined to think about the missing drugs or bed spaces in hospitals. Once, I met a farmers group and gave a well-rounded presentation on corruption, replete with examples about national wide grandiose corruption examples. The audience was moved, but not quite as moved as when I spoke about how a public officer had been picked up for giving 4 bags of fertilizer to underserving applicants. As if throwing away everything I had previously applied myself to in presentation, nearly all the arising question centered on the missing 4 bags of fertilizer. Forget that the previous examples contained amounts that could buy the four bags a thousand times over.
The United Kingdom in 2009 faced a scandal unlike any other. Members of the British Parliament in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords were alleged to have misused their allowances and expenses. The amounts mentioned were quite frankly insignificant, including spending £1600 on a duck house, an MP claimed £5 for a church collection or strange as it may seem, a Senior Tory MP Peter Luff charged taxpayers £17,000 for repairs to his home including buying 3 toilet seats. The public were incensed and the ensuing arrests, resignations and repayments did little to calm the collective anger. While all this was happening another scandal in 2010 involving four labour MP’s did not amass the similar public outcry. The four MP’s engaged in a more deleterious act which involved hiring out their political influence to lobby colleagues on behalf of a private firm in exchange for thousands of pounds. From the two scandals, one could see the expenses scandal hit closer to home as it was relatable while the four MP’s influence peddling scandal, despite being a bigger scandal and arguably of greater potential harm, was of lesser public interest. The expenses scandal emerged against the backdrop of austerity measures, making the general public discontent to corruption high, and yet buying a toilet seat was more annoying to the UK Public than the UK BAE scandal which ultimately saw BAE Arms firm paying a settlement of a whopping £300m among others in settlement relating to false accounting and corruption.
Who then fights ‘the corruption I see’? First, grand scale corruption must be fought, this understandably so, but the neglect of public interest based corruption has led to many a program flop. Often the corruption ‘felt’ by the public requires minimal intervention which can happen at local institutional level. Such corruption if well understood requires basic policy interventions. Secondly, pursuing the big fish must not be at the expense of the small ‘piranha’ which are more painfully nibbling away at the public interest in fighting corruption, leading to the plummeting public scorn on grand corruption. Thirdly, what the public understand to be corruption is key to the public appeasement in fighting corruption which is more important in achieving the perception that strides are being made in fighting the scourge. Finally, it is, admittedly impossible to fight corruption as each and every single person sees and experiences it. Notwithstanding this, the public needs to feel heard. Avenues should be made for redress to the simple everyday corruption that members of the public see. This way the public will continue to invest their confidence in the public institutions and ultimately the fight against corruption. Until people relate with any anti-corruption effort no real strides will be made in bringing down the scourge.
The Author is a graduate of the University of Sussex 2012-2013 under the first cohort to study the Master of Arts in Corruption and Governance. He also has 14 years investigations experience with the Anti-Corruption body in Zambia.