Corruption is endemic to human society. No country, empire, regime, government, or private sector has ever been exempt. Whether the Seven Dwarves of the American tobacco industry who deliberately withheld damaging information about the dangers of nicotine and actively sought to boost its addictive properties; Enron who set up shell companies and impossibly complex derivatives to bilk the public and enrich their executives; or Bernie Madoff who lied to his Jewish friends and supporters and ruined them while his own financial holdings increased.
Political corruption in Ancient Rome is one of the principal reasons cited for its downfall:
One of the most difficult problems was choosing a new emperor. Unlike Greece where transition may not have been smooth but was at least consistent, the Romans never created an effective system to determine how new emperors would be selected. The choice was always open to debate between the old emperor, the Senate, the Praetorian Guard (the emperor's private army), and the army.
Gradually, the Praetorian Guard gained complete authority to choose the new emperor, who rewarded the guard who then became more influential, perpetuating the cycle. Then in 186 A. D. the army strangled the new emperor, the practice began of selling the throne to the highest bidder. During the next 100 years, Rome had 37 different emperors - 25 of whom were removed from office by assassination. This contributed to the overall weaknesses, decline and fall of the empire (Rome.info)Electoral corruption was rampant, and most historians conclude that Julius Caesar won the office of Pontifex Maximus through electoral bribery.
In a letter to Lucilius, lamenting the electoral corruption in Rome, Seneca wrote:
Call it enjoyable when the tribes are called together and the candidates are making offerings at their favorite temples – some of them promising money and gifts…and wearing down their hands with the kisses of those to whom they will refuse the least finger-touch after they are elected…(Lisa Hill, ‘Conceptions of Corruption in Ancient Rome and Greece).
Corruption in Imperial China was no different as Andras Csuka writes :
Corruption in China dates back over a thousand years and has been present through countless dynasties. In fact, widespread corruption is often cited as one of the factors that led to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century.
As a result, the labyrinth of bribes and favors, corruption became an integral part of the entire administration. A European traveller in the 18th century described Chinese corruption as follows: “The man who preserved his integrity is generally considered as incapable or a dreamer. It is not easy to swim against the stream.”English monarchs have been no different. John raided the monasteries to finance his ill-conceived wars. John, Henry VI, Charles I, Mary I, and Richard III used the power of their regency to retain it at all costs, defying any and all rules of court, Church, and kingdom to attain their ends.
In this complex system it was only normal that government officials would trade their influence for money. They also formed strong cliques to protect themselves from punishments by state businessmen, officials, military leaders and other high ranking state employees.
African dictators have a long and sorry history of corruption.
The leader of Ethiopia who either just died or was murdered was a dictator, and despite years of misrule, was the beneficiary of billions. Idriss Deby, the dictator of Chad played the US and the World Bank for fools, duplicitously agreeing to a gas-for-reform agenda and then reneging completely and continuing his despotic rule over one of the poorest countries in Africa.. The lionized Kagame presides with a repressive regime which muzzles opposition. He has lied or distorted reports about his support of anti-government clandestine military operations in the Congo. There are many more examples.
Helen Epstein recently described in these pages the support that aid donors give to Ethiopia’s tyrant Meles Zenawi, who has roughly matched Biya [President of Cameroon] in aid receipts in a shorter period of time.
Peter Gill in his excellent recent book Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid (2010) documents Meles’s misdeeds further, which rise to the level of war crimes in his counterinsurgency in Ethiopia’s Somali region. Other long-serving aid-receiving dictators include Idriss Déby in Chad ($6 billion in aid between 1990 and the present), Lansana Conté in Guinea ($11 billion between 1984 and his death in 2008), Paul Kagame in Rwanda ($10 billion between 1994 and the present), and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda ($31 billion between 1986 and the present)William Easterly, NY Review of Books, 11.2010
These are just some examples of misrule, notable because of the perpetuation of dictatorial regimes thanks to Western largesse. But there are more. Take the case of Togo where President-for-Life Eyadema ruled for decades until his death in a suspicious air disaster:
Idress Deby www.wikimedia.org
President Eyadéma died on 5 February 2005 while on board an airplane en route to France for treatment for a heart attack. Papa Gnassingbé is said to have killed more than fifteen thousand people during his dictatorship. His son Faure Gnassingbé, the country's former minister of public works, mines, and telecommunications, was named President by Togo's military following the announcement of his father's death.
After the announcement of the results [of an ‘election’ in 2005], tensions flared up and to date, 100 people have been killed. On 3 May 2005, Gnassingbé was sworn in and vowed to concentrate on "the promotion of development, the common good, peace and national unity" (Wikipedia).The Central African Republic which endured decades of despotic rule by Bokassa, emerged from that period by fits and startsIn 1999 Mr Patasse beat nine other candidates to become president again, but there were allegations of electoral fraud. He was overthrown in a coup in 2003 and went into exile in Togo.Illegal weapons proliferate across the CAR, the legacy of years of unrest. Armed groups are active in the volatile north. The unrest has displaced tens of thousands of Central Africans; many of them have crossed the border into Chad.
Another threat has appeared - the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels of neighboring Uganda, whose insurgency has spread to the wider region, including CAR. In 2009, LRA activities forced the populations of several towns and villages to flee, while government forces struggled to contain the gunmen.
Why is corruption so universal?
Although large public sector bureaucracies have been cited as hothouses for corruption whether in Ancient Greece or modern-day America and Africa, they are facilitators of corruption, not the underlying cause. Their low pay, subservient status, and lack of advancement are more important factors in bending or overlooking rules and regulations for personal gain.
“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” said Baron Acton. Not only are those with limited power given to corruption; but those with immense power are even more so.
Is corruption endemic because of the lack of moral authority? Doubtful. Church and State were one throughout most of history. The threat of excommunication by the Pope reined in all but the most self-serving ambition of English kings until Henry VIII defied them; and most ordinary subjects feared eternal damnation for their sins. Yet even in such societies governed by strict moral precepts – every religion has its injunctions against lying, stealing, covetousness, and deceit – immoral and unethical behavior are rampant. Although these principles are taught and passed down by parents, Church, community and state, they are routinely and regularly dismissed as irrelevant, inapplicable, or outdated.
Both the Old and New Testaments are very clear about moral codes. Although the message of Christ is one of forgiveness and redemption, the gospels and epistles set forth the moral and ethical conditions for salvation.
Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov argues that theocracies are the most moral and incorruptible of regimes because the fear of damnation is far more threatening than any punitive measure of the state.
Despite theocracies, the Ten Commandments, the code of Hammurabi, and Koranic law, corruption has persisted and thrived in every human civilization.
The same review of history which has revealed corruption at every turn will also reveal familiar, predictable, and seemingly unavoidable patterns of violent self-interest, territorialism, acquisitiveness, and self-protection – the essential expressions of human nature.
It is not hard to see, therefore, how self-interested politicians, ordinary citizens, and family members resort to corrupt, venal, and manipulative means to achieve their goals. Not only is history filled with chronicles of political distortion and overweening ambition, but literature as well. Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Histories are all about such familiar ambition and how everyone at court, in the Church, or among the populace falls prey to it.
Transparency International publishes a corruption index every year, and it is obvious that wealthy countries with a strict rule of law within modern, culturally homogeneous societies are less corrupt than those without. It is no surprise that Denmark, Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, Switzerland, Finland, and the Netherlands are among the top ten least corrupt; and that Somalia, Afghanistan, North Korea, Sudan, South Sudan, and Angola are among the worst.
In other words although corruption is endemic, naturally occurring, and persistent, it can be mitigated by strong economies in which most share the wealth, where a rational, fair, and universal legal system exists and where disputes are adjudicated by impartial courts.
USAID has a number of programs designed to reduce corruption in the developing world. These are likely to end in failure because no amount of information, education, or good will can possibly remove entrenched dictators, reform corrupt bureaucracies, expunge the culture of corruption which pervades countries like Bangladesh where bribes and favors are required from the bottom up despite democracy and civil law. Nor can such well-meaning initiatives improve economic performance or guarantee reasonable access to wealth. .
In other words, since self-interest is an essential feature of human nature; and since in countries where the achievement of personal ends is only possible by circumventing ineffectual rules and regulations, then corruption will continue only until wealth increases universally. At some point all countries corruption curves cross. Government and citizens both realize that more wealth is to be had more equally under the rule of law. This cannot be taught.
At this same juncture, the citizenry will reject venal dictatorship and politicians will realize that their future is more dependent on upholding the rule of law and equality of opportunity than bilking the public.
The once impermeable borders of the least corrupt countries have been breached by forces of corruption. There is no way that Northern European nations suddenly transformed from quietly homogeneous, socialist countries into heterogeneous ones with increasingly poor, disaffected, and angry minorities can retain their moral and ethical integrity. Corruption is bound to increase.
Corruption must be accepted as a normal although unacceptable expression of human nature. Although until recently there was a hope for The End of History – a new, democratic, equal, and fair world – it has been dashed once and for all. New geopolitical configurations once unimaginable are changing world order. Every one within these new configurations must once again sort through the conundrums of governance, civility, ethics, morals, and responsibility. Until then, corruption will increase.
On a mission to Senegal a number of years back, a colleague of mine reported a telling incident. The head of his UN team, invited by the Minister of Health to his home for dinner, challenged him, accusing him and his ministry of corruption. The Minister, immaculately robed in traditional dress and speaking elegant French said,
“Mr. _____, you don’t seem to understand. How is it that I have become Minister in my President’s government? It is because of the support I have received from my family, my tribe, my region, and my country; and I will repay each and everyone of them in turn and in that order.”