What is the relationship between institutional corruption and public mistrust of governments in sub-Saharan Africa? This paper from Afrobarometer analyses the results of a survey into African citizens’ mistrust of their governments and experiences of corruption and finds evidence of a vicious cycle in the relation between the two phenomena. Encounters with corruption impair citizens’ confidence in governments and public services, while a lack of faith in public institutions promotes dishonest practices in people’s interactions with government. The liberalisation of political life has not resulted in a concomitant alleviation of corrupt practices: increased fairness, honesty and accountability may be the only way to break the link between corruption and mistrust.
Nineteen of the world’s thirty-five most corrupt countries are in Africa, and corruption in the continent is deepening. Recent anti-corruption initiatives have been flawed: Nigerian investigations were directed against government opponents, while corrupt practices in Kenya persisted despite the election of an anti-graft candidate.
Several reasons have been given to explain the prevalent corruption, such as Africa’s “mode of dependence”, its “predatory economy”, its institutions’ lack of legitimacy and the conflict between African politicians’ “primordial and civic duties”. While functionalist commentators argue that corruption can increase government efficiency by overcoming bureaucratic obstacles, empirical evidence tends to support those who believe that it inhibits development.
The survey of citizens’ attitudes provides several insights into the relationship between corruption and mistrust:
- As formal rules of state institutions are circumvented by corrupt practices and mistrust grows, more people turn to informal means to obtain public goods and services.
- People who belong to less influential or worse-off ethnic groups are more likely to pay a bribe to obtain a public service, regarding such an inducement as a means to “level the playing field”.
- Older people, those with lower levels of education and residents of rural areas tend to be more trusting of institutions, possibly because well-educated urban-dwellers have better access to media.
- Citizens who express satisfaction with democracy, identify with ruling parties or show more interest in public affairs tend to display higher levels of institutional trust.
- Optimism about macroeconomic conditions promotes trust in current political institutions, while positive attitudes about microeconomic prospects has little effect on perceptions of trust.
The perceptions of African citizens about the link between public services and corruption follows a similar pattern to their attitudes towards the political system as a whole. Education and health care services constitute one of the few interfaces between ordinary Africans and their governments and represent an important means by which citizens judge their public institutions.
- Those who have paid bribes tend to express more dissatisfaction with government service delivery in basic health and education sectors.
- There is no significant difference between supporters of ruling and opposition parties as regards levels of satisfaction with public services.
- Citizens who perceive their ethnic group’s economic standing to be superior to others are less likely to bribe officials to receive basic health care or education services.