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Field Notes

Corruption: an endemic feature of Tanzanian society

According to a recent survey conducted by Transparency International, one in four people have paid a bribe to a public body in the last year.

When Jakaya Kikwete was elected president of Tanzania, he was quick to declare corruption the number one enemy to democracy and promised that his administration would fight it with every means available. Eight years later corruption is still widespread, affecting nearly every sector of society.

African nations have some of the worst reputations for bribery. The survey indicates that seven out of nine of the countries with the highest reported bribery rate are in sub-Saharan Africa. Key findings of the survey indicate that political parties are considered to be the most corrupt institution, followed by the police and the judiciary.

This map indicates the percentage of the population that has paid a bribe. Source: BBC News

This map indicates the percentage of the population that has paid a bribe. Source: BBC News

In Tanzania, 56% of the population admits to have paid a bribe. I have only been here for five months, but I would say that between my colleagues and I, we have encountered at least a dozen or so situations where a bribe has been offered, demanded or expected in order to complete a transaction. In July, when renewing our visas in-country we were discretely told that if we didn’t want to leave the country to extend it the ‘legal’ way, then we could simply pay $100 USD to have our passports run to the border and back. A large majority of expatriates go this route to avoid the hassle of traveling every time their visas expire, but ultimately the practice is illegal. We chose to renew the legal way out of principle – but it just goes to show how socially acceptable bribery is in Tanzanian society.

By definition, corruption is immensely difficult to measure since a large number of cases go unreported and surveys tend to focus largely on perception. For example, Transparency International’s global corruption index relies on expert opinion while the global corruption barometer survey looks at public perception and experience of corruption.

The Tanzanian government has publicly declared a fight against corruption, and as a result anti-corruption laws have been enacted alongside the implementation of oversight institutions, such as the Prevention and Combating of Corruption Bureau (PCCB). To the government’s credit, Kikwete has successfully brought grand corruption allegations against top public officials in his time as president, which would have been unheard of in previous regimes. During his administration, several former cabinet ministers and public officials have been tried and arrested for corruption.

However, corruption is still deeply embedded in Tanzanian society. It has been accepted as a part of the culture and people rarely avoid the act or adversely, use it to their personal advantage. For example, someone may voluntarily pay a bribe in order to receive preferential treatment or avoid dealing with an official altogether.

This may be an advantageous opportunity to some, but a serious burden to others. Corruption can, and often does, infringe on fundamental rights. If someone is living off of $2 a day, the added costs of bribery can mean the difference between food or no food, bus fare, clothing, etc. The effects of bribery and corruption are far-reaching.

In the report, Transparency International says, “bribery not only costs the individual paying the bribe – it also undermines the efficient and equitable allocation of resources, people’s respect for the rule of law and the overall integrity of a society.”

Corruption facilitates a culture of impunity, and ultimately threatens the democratic process that citizens rely on. It is provoked by a lack of overall transparency and limited access to information, which is a product of a history of single party dominance in the political system.

After consulting my undergraduate journalism students on the topics of corruption I was able to realize just how pervasive the problem is. The stories rolled in, and it seemed as though every student had more than one example of bribery and corruption impacting their day to day lives. Medical officials who extort fictitious fees from elderly patients at hospitals, even though healthcare for elderly citizens is supposed to be free of charge. Secondary school teachers who threaten to fail a child on their exams unless a parent pays them to falsify the results. Bajaj drivers who pay a bribe to avoid dealing with the traffic police. The list goes on and it will continue without proper institutions to prevent and redress corruption.

It all starts with government transparency, accountability and an emphasis on independent and well-maintained institutions. Too many citizens are impacted negatively by a system that is undermined by corruption.

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