“Dasukigate.” “Cashgate.” “The Tageta Escrow Scandal.” With nicknames that belie their shocking scope and scale, high-level scandals like these have strained capacity and tested the integrity of anti-corruption agencies in Nigeria, Malawi, and Tanzania. These scandals also have exposed gaps in conventional narratives surrounding these countries’ corruption investigations and prosecutions that paint them as anemic, hamfisted, and easily politicised.
Seeking to test this conventional wisdom, the research project ‘Fighting high-level corruption in Africa: Learning from effective law enforcement’ led by Gerhard Anders (PI) and Fortunata Makene (co-I), is spearheading the most systematic, comprehensive study to date of the legal frameworks, prosecutorial strategies, institutional constraints, and external influences shaping these countries’ anti-corruption efforts.
This research aims to generate fresh evidence that allows us to better contextualise the corruption headlines coming out of Nigeria, Malawi, and Tanzania. Another important outcome from this project will be a series of feasible, evidence-based recommendations tailored for international policymakers, domestic decisionmakers, and law enforcement officials. In each case, such recommendations will greatly depend on local conditions and context.
In Nigeria, for example, many hoped that President Muhammadu Buhari’s election in 2015 would reinvigorate high-level anti-corruption efforts. And though Buhari gave the country’s anti-corruption agencies free rein to pursue high-level figures from previous governments, he has since exempted his own loyalists from similar scrutiny. Neither has he taken meaningful steps to address the deep-seated challenges that hinder those investigators and prosecutors tasked with combating corruption.
In response, Nigerian anti-corruption officials have adapted and innovated, making more use of informal Deferred Prosecution Agreements that allow high-profile suspects the chance to avoid a costly and embarrassing trial by repaying stolen funds. Prosecutors also have made greater use of civil asset seizure and forfeiture laws. In instances where political stakes are high and the likelihood of successful criminal prosecution is low—as in the case of former First Lady Patience Jonathan—these tools are now seen as faster, more straightforward, and more viable than criminal prosecutions.
In Malawi, the 2013 Cashgate scandal sparked an unprecedented law enforcement response including 100 arrests. The scandal was dubbed Cashgate because of the large sums of cash that were stolen from government accounts during the run-up to the elections in May 2014. According to forensic audits, corrupt government officials and businesspeople participated in the theft of US$ 32 million in just six months and possibly US$ 280 million in total. So far, prosecutions have resulted in more than a dozen convictions of businesspeople and government officials who received sentences ranging from three to eleven years in prison.
Critics have pointed out that the Cashgate prosecutions focused primarily on people associated with President Joyce Banda, who lost the elections in May 2014 to Arthur Peter Mutharika. (Mutharika was re-elected in 2019.) Whilst it is correct that the bulk of the prosecutions focused on officials and businesspeople with alleged links to Banda and her party, the People’s Party, it would be too simplistic to conclude that only representatives of the previous administration have been in the crosshairs of the investigators. In fact, the Cashgate scandal contributed to new anti-money laundering legislation targeting financial crime and gave a boost to investigations in other high-level corruption cases. These cases included ministers in Mutharika’s cabinet and people who participated in the theft of government funds in 2010 and 2011, when Mutharika’s brother was the President. These developments lend support to the idea that even selective justice may have positive effects on law enforcement in general.
Since 2015, the fight against corruption in Tanzania has been championed by President John Magufuli who promised a break with the past in which the worst that could happen to corrupt officials and politicians was dismissal. In June 2017, the two main suspects in the long-running corruption scandal surrounding independent power projects (IPTL, Richmond and Escrow) were finally arrested for economic sabotage and money laundering. It remains to be seen whether these arrests indicate a real shift toward uniform law enforcement or are merely part of a populist and interventionist strategy.
In summary, our initial research findings from all three countries suggest that law enforcement practices targeting high-level corruption are more nuanced and complex than previous studies suggest. Highly adaptive and attuned to shifting political dynamics and ever-evolving corruption behaviours, these practices are becoming more innovative, endogenous, and pragmatic. Whether such innovation diminishes the effectiveness of anti-corruption efforts in these countries—or instead is helping redefine the local definition of effectiveness—will be one of the most important questions this study aims to answer.
Senior Lecturer in African Studies and International Development, Centre of African Studies, The University of Edinburgh
Gerhard Anders is trained in both law, with a focus on international law, and anthropology, especially legal and political anthropology. Gerhard has conducted extensive field research in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Malawi. His research focuses on globally circulating ideas about development, good governance, international criminal justice, and the rule of law. He is the author of In the Shadow of Good Governance: An Ethnography of Civil Service Reform in Africa (Brill 2010) and the co-editor of Corruption and the Secret of Law: A Legal Anthropological Perspective (Ashgate 2007) and Transition and Justice: Negotiating the Terms of New Beginnings in Africa (Wiley-Blackwell 2014).