Corruption is for everyone! (Part 2)

Last May I wrote about the ways the phenomenon of corruption in Mali is not restricted to the political elite, as one could conclude from the voluminous public criticism Malians make of their leaders on Mali news websites. Now comes this comment posted to a recent news item about Mali’s political class, ostensibly by a Malian named Kassin in response to compatriots. His critique gets to the heart of the matter far better than I ever could, and I thought it worth translating in its entirety.

Kassin: “When I read these comments, I fall down laughing, Malians are so dishonest!

“You attack the politicians as if they were the only thieves in the country.

“They embezzle from their state offices and from development projects to win candidacies in elections, to traffic in real estate, build houses, buy apartments overseas, send their children to study or show off, their wives to give birth or show off overseas….

“Yes, they are big-time thieves. But they’re far from being the only thieves in Mali, otherwise the country wouldn’t have collapsed like it did in 2012.

“There’s the SOTRAMA apprentice who rips off the driver who rips off the owner who rips off the state through the vehicle’s customs and insurance fees.

Overloaded SOTRAMA (

“There’s the traffic cop who takes 1000 francs to let the vehicle go on its way, even though it has no spare tire, doesn’t meet regulations, has no windshield wiper, no safety belts, it’s overloaded, and 15 meters down the road there will be carnage with 10 dead and 15 gravely wounded.

Gabriel Touré Hospital, Bamako

“In Gabriel Touré Hospital [one of Bamako’s big public hospitals], doctors’ first concern is to treat the best-off among the wounded, neglecting the others… if, that is, [the doctors] haven’t already gone off to private clinics (Farako, Pasteur), the better to sell their services to sick people in good shape, even though they’re paid by the state for a full-time job, and nobody complains.

“There’s the nurses who try to sell the medications they swiped from other sick patients.

“There’s the school principals and public school teachers who charge their students registration fees (300,000 to 500,000 francs), trade exam grades or exam answers for sex or money, and nobody complains.

“Placement in civil service recruitment competitions for Customs, the Tax Office, theTreasury, the Kati military school, the Koulikoro military academy, the National Police, the Gendarmerie, are all sold to candidates for millions of francs, and nobody complains.

“Scholarships for students and interns, generously offered by donor countries, are illegally haggled over in the Ministry of Higher Education like commodities, often sold to foreigners who don’t even have Malian passports but who for a few hundred thousand francs will take the place to study abroad of a young Malian who deserved it.

“Study fees paid by students for the public treasury are embezzled by their schools’ accountants, who lend the diverted money to traders to enable them to get their shipping containers out of Customs to make an illegal windfall, and nobody complains.

“There’s the traders who prefer to pay a few thousand francs to the Customs agent building his multistory house rather than pay the official duties for their vehicles, so the money never goes into state coffers.

“There’s the senior army officers who bicker over fuel allocation for operations or for UN peacekeeping missions.

“There’s the mayors and municipal advisers who sell off the same plots to 5 different people.

“There’s the lawyers and judges who settle their cases among them before trial, having sold the verdict to the highest bidder, and nobody complains.

“Those who win government contracts systematically kick back 10% to the ones who award them, then build defective projects that are nevertheless approved by the public works agency.

“There’s the state electricity workers who take 5000 francs to reconnect service to a subscriber who’s never paid his bills, or help him bypass the electrical meter.

“There’s the civil servant who shows up for work at 10 a.m. and goes home at 2, even though the workday begins at 8 or 9 and ends at 4, and who takes 10,000 francs from anyone who wants to collect an official document, and nobody complains.

“There’s the emigrant abroad who sends money to his brothers, parents and friends to buy a plot or build a house and who is systematically robbed of half his money — and that’s if he’s lucky, otherwise it might be all of it, and nobody complains.

“In short, when we talk about corruption in Mali, 98% of the population does it, so to blame only the ones who go into politics is to lie to oneself and won’t help the country move forward.

“We have to get to the root of the Malian problem by putting justice at the center of our preoccupations.

“If those in the legal system won’t budge, it’s the the conscious young people who must force them to change, otherwise this country will never get back on its feet.”

My own comment: To fix this broken state, it won’t be enough simply to change Mali’s leaders, nor to find more patriotic politicians. The rule of law must be established, and institutions of the state (meaning, the people who work for them) must be made capable of resisting the pressures from society to bend or break the rules.

So, how to do that? I don’t share Kassin’s view that “nobody complains.” In point of fact, Malians complain incessantly about all this these instances of corruption in their lives. But they generally go along with them, because when the rules are not enforced (or selectively enforced to aid those in power*), only a sucker plays by the rules. And until that changes, it doesn’t matter who’s at the top, or how disaffected the people are; Mali’s culture of corruption will go on.

* I recently heard an apparently popular saying among the Brazilian ruling classes: “For my friends, anything. For my enemies, the law.” Do Malians have their own version of this saying, I wonder?

Postscript, 6 June: Malian singer Rokia Traoré said something in a recent interview with Jeune Afrique which touches on the same theme as this post.

In this country, when you run a company, your relatives won’t understand it if your niece doesn’t get a job there. When you’re a civil servant and you offer Tabaski sheep [an expensive end-of-Ramadan gift] to everyone, nobody wonders where you got the financial means to do it. A leader doesn’t fall from the sky, he comes from the people; he reflects the environment in which he grew up. And if embezzling money has become almost normal, how can you expect him to be more concerned with the public good than with his personal comfort?

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23 Responses to Corruption is for everyone! (Part 2)

  1. Corruption does happen at every level. You have asked the multimillion dollar question on how to fix it. Working as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was helping to fund a project around the water pump. We hired a “mason” who when given the money to buy cement, he “lost” it on his way to the cement store. It “fell” out of his pocket, he told me with a mischievous smirk on his face. This was a lot of money. The project was botched and I learned my lesson; the hard way. Neither he nor the villagers were any better off because of what he did. He did not invest it in something worthwhile, nor did he receive any more jobs.

    I have no answers for how to fix Mali, I rack my brain about it every day. Even people who are hired to work for a very good salary, when given the slightest chance, will steal from their boss. Even when it means they will loose their job. They have no concept of working from the bottom up to get ahead and plan or save for the future. Corruption is so engrained in the lives of Malians. If you need a receipt for something you did not buy, no problem. If you need a copy of a birth certificate for a baby who was never born, no problem. You can always pay someone who will pocket the money and give you what you need. This is the root of the problem. It will take much work to fix it.

    • Mali says:

      I just came across this article and i am in tears reading all these negative facts regarding my home country. I have been asking myself the same question on how to fix this broken society, but honestly I am starting to lose hope as the corruption has gained a whole new level. Everyone that I know who goes back home and makes an attempt to change things around finds himself fighting the whole society (not to mention that 80% are illiterate). I believe a good starting point would be through education, particularly the media.

  2. Jonah says:

    Thanks, Bruce.

    This actually reminded me of your post from January, “Barbarians at the Gate”, in which you reacted to the media’s portrayals of the Islamists, who had chopped off the hands of alleged thieves and whipped women who did not wear the veil

    In my humble opinion, the following are equally abhorrent:

    – embezzling money to buy houses in the south of France, while some of the people over whom these politicians and bureaucrats presume authority slowly die of starvation in the desert.
    – blowing innocent farmers and herders limb-from-limb from the sky “by accident”, while Western officials pat themselves on the back for the French military’s “sacrifices” and “surgical precision.”

    Yet the example of the Islamists is probably the one that would resonate most among the majority of Westerners.

    There are probably 1000 different angles from which one could analyze this phenomenon (Violence committed up-close and personal is “scarier” than that delivered from a Tigre helicopter, etc), but clearly a big part of it has to do with pervasive stereotypes we still hold about the “swarthier” people of the world, and about Muslims from the Middle East and South Asia in particular…

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Damn Jonah, you are turning into some kind of radical in your old age!

      • Jonah says:

        Haha At least you won’t be hearing any conspiracy theories from my end, I promise. I will try to stay more on topic though ;>)

    • Ibrahim Toure says:

      With all due respect, your trivialization of the Salafist/Tuareg invasion and occupation of the northern third of the country and the human impact in lives lost, families displaced (many tens of thousands to Burkina, Mauritania and Niger and internally to Bamako and other points south before the French military action) and livelihoods destroyed is insulting to the Malian people. Your attempt to suggest a moral equivalence between the actions of theocratic nihilists bent on imposing a medieval, misogynistic regime in a country that has practiced Islam, it is relevant to point out, for more than a millenium, and the actions of the French–without whose brave and rapid intervention sans oublier the contributions of the Chadiens not only would Konna and Mopti/Sevare have been under the rule of the Salafist invaders, but also perhaps Segou and Bamako–is also an affront to the people whose lives were and continue to be at risk. Such analysis is not radical but retrograde.

  3. brucewhitehouse says:

    One Mr. Coulibaly writes: “Doesn’t theft in this country put your eyes out? The practice is so widespread you get the impression everyone’s involved. From there to blame 98% of the population, though, is taking the joke too far. All the categories mentioned here don’t even constitute 40% of the population. Let’s not forget that 70% of Malians are farmers, herders, fishermen and homemakers, and it’s that 70% of the population that has no access to the tools of thievery and corruption.”

    This being the case, a better title for my post might have been “Corruption is for 30% of Malians!”

    • Ibrahim Toure says:

      I agree with Coulibaly-and will even as a Toure overlook his last name and the fact that he is a bean-eater (Shoduna!)–and would even go further than he does when he makes the excellent point that 70% of the population are farmers, herders and fisherfolk. On what basis can it be suggested that all civil servants are engaged in corruption and also that corruption is somehow more prevelant and more accepted in Malian society than in other countries? The colorful list of First hand examples rattled off by your interlocutor is interesting but I would not want to draw broad conclusions without engaging in more evidence based inquiry such as a survey, focus groups, etc. Undoubtedly some of this work has been done already. But to jump to the conclusion that the endemic corruption within the government can be explained–through a few anecdotal observations about the apprenti in the duruduruni and others–by saying “they’re all corrupt” is hasty to say the least. I have not read your May piece on this subject but will do so now.

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        I don’t really set out to draw firm conclusions in this piece, but were I to do so, it would be not that be that the state is corrupt because “they’re all corrupt”, nor that corruption is more prevalent and accepted in Mali than elsewhere. Culture in my view doesn’t cause corruption (although my use of the phrase “culture of corruption” might have suggested otherwise).

      • Ibrahim Toure says:

        Thanks, Bruce…just read the brutal exchanges on theTuareg problem post. I think you may be too lenient and that you should cut off some of the more racist (Gloria) and insulting invective filled posts (various others). I was redirected to your blog from Heather Maxwell’s blog, a friend. I disagree with the scholar who accused you of promoting anti-Tuareg feeling.

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        That discussion spun completely out of control, and I chose not to cut anyone off for fear of being accused of “silencing” those who disagree with me. Did you notice how merely asking a commenter to refrain from abusive language, or to take up a personal beef with a third party elsewhere, was enough to piss people off? I’m adopting a hands-off approach from now on.

  4. Siby says:

    As some of the comments have mentioned, there is no easy solution. Doing something about it should start at the top. If the President sets the tone and puts the right people in place to enforce the laws and people see the there are consequences to their actions, change will start to happen.
    Corruption is an on going battle in all societies and the fight against it should also be on going.

  5. Assa says:

    I agree that corruption is a big issue in Mali and needs to be fixed as soon as possible so that this wonderful nation can move forward. Our leaders have to lead by example and real justice must prevail. However, saying that all Malians are corrupted is not right. “Il ya beaucoup de Maliens honnetes et integres qui vivent a la sueur de leurs fronts et travaillent dur pour soutenir leurs familles.

  6. fize-roussel sylvia says:

    I don’t know about Malians in their country but those who work abroad without documents and are exploited (they uusually come from Kayes and support with the money they make about ten people at home) are very good people who work a lot taking all the menial jobs.Now when I think of it ,a Malian who I helped in the course of my voluntary work(10 years )told me I was the only one who had not asked for money!

  7. Klaas Tjoelker says:

    Hi Bruce, it appears to me that this time you have gone for a very shallow article. Just copying some frustrated, anonymous* reaction out of one of the Malian media isn’t up to your usual standards, neither as an anthropologist nor as a critical analyst. Your own short comment at the bottom of your article doesn’t, in my eyes, make up for this lack of analysis.

    Although quite a few commentators seem to be happy to share their frustrations concerning the raging corruption in Mali, I feel more comfortable with the reaction of the Mr. Coulibaly you cited: not every Malian is an actor of corruption. The situation needs to be looked upon with a keen eye for detail and nuance and, furthermore, with a real motivation to change it, in the way the acting Malian minister of the Fonction Publique (Mr. Traoré) seems to be trying to do.

    Of course many Malian people act in a corrupt way, but you could tackle the issue from another perspective and from in a more analytic way and from a problem-solving perspective:
    – many people are not actors but victims of corruption and they are probably very motivated to combat corruption;
    – even in the categories of people this Mr. “Kassin” is mentioning, there are persons who try to resist and combat corruption.

    I think friends of Mali should better resist the temptation to indulge in generalized accusations and work together with those who are trying to resist and combat corruption.


    * This Mr. Kassin is a prolific writer of polemics and (often virulent) comments; I suppose “Kassin” is not his real name.

  8. Corruption may not be actively pursued by all Malians but most participate at least as victims of shake-downs at the hands of civil servants (including educators) who demand personal payment for doing what their salary already should cover. Complicit involvement keeps the system running even as its victims decry it.

  9. Patron Ba says:

    Dear Mr. Bruce … I will share you my own work experience in Mali when creating a big business enterprise . First ,When importing goods to Mali , through Senegal or Abidjan , the “facture” and “Bordereau de Chargement” presented to the customs includes very low unreal prices per article ( in order to pay lower custom fees). Second , when actual sales are around 300 million FCFA , only 4 million FCFA is declared to the ” Impot ” ( in order to pay lower TVA and Tax indirect ) . Third , the number of full time employees declared to the ” INPS” is much lower than what exists ( for example , 5 employess are declared with low unreal salary{cumulative salary paid 250.000 FCFA} when there exist more than 60 employees with a total salary of more than 4 million FCFA).Fourth , the number of trucks that is owned by the company is more than 10 trucks , while only 1 truck is declared in the “bilan” . Finally , the end of year ” Bilan” presented to the ” Impot ” is a fake one that corresponds to all the fake monthly declarations made previously.
    Based upon all these facts, the real monthly “Net Profit” is around 1% and the annual “Net profit” is so low ( better invest the money in purchasing treasury bonds with more than 8% interest).
    Accordingly, given the laws and regulations of the state , it will be impossible to enter the market as an investor and survive . There are no professional incentives and regulations that encourage businesses to operate legally and gain profits. If you play by the book , the “Impot” , “Afri economie” , customs and much more will all attack your company and think that the 300 million FCFA declared each month is a fake one and there must be 23 billion FCFA undeclared each month ( which is untrue) and they will hit so hard that the company will be bankrupted.
    However , as for corruption related to ordinary Malians, I will tell my personal experience regarding the employees. After good selection of employees is made ( good character and history),these women and men are originally poor . When you provide them with good salaries and always solve their personal and family problems that occurs ; which means never let anyone go out of your office without her or his problem is solved, then they will never be tempted to use the company’s money or products illegally . On the contrary , they turned out to be so faithful , protective , respectful , and grateful . They will flag out any corrupted personnel or newly employed, They become your eyes and ears and the wall you lean your back to .
    As for those personnel who stole , severe poverty is always the cause and after the coup d’etat , the absent of law enforcement , Been poor and falling into a problem (medication , rent etc..) they tend to panic , and with a salary of 45.000 FCFA a month and with everyday sales cash in hand of more than 500.000 FCFA , what do we expect? They will say to themselves “I will solve my personal problem , and then I will deal with the consequences in front of my Patron”. Even if we take them to the police , we cannot let them there more than 3 days otherwise they will be transferred to the prison and enter into the corrupted judiciary system where your rights will be lost or even you will incur more losses due to extortion by the system. If you are lucky , her or his family will pay you what they really can afford (engagement) and that’s it ,
    Therefore , who is corrupted ? The Malians , the foreign and local investors or it is the state system? I love Mali and the Malian people , and I found them to be the most kind, respectful ,and peaceful in the world and the most oppressed by their state and by the game of international politics .

  10. jbw0123 says:

    What a great collection of ideas. How to shift a system based on bribery and rooted in poverty to a system based on the “rule of law”? People everywhere make projections about how things will work out and act accordingly. I like what Patron Ba says above. If money isn’t going to come in via the rule of law, people will find other ways to support themselves. I also like what Siby says: start at the top. Elect leaders who enforce laws, and who appoint other people who enforce laws. It’s easier to focus on getting one good person to run things well than trying to prevent 16 million people from taking advantage of a lucrative black market; or, as Mr. Coulibaly points out, 5.5 million (the 30%) from taking advantage of a black market.

  11. Caroline Hart says:

    ‘Corruption’ is indeed for everybody, although its a word more often applied to Africa. What about our bankers, own governments that supported war in Iraq, the way we fish the seas, take the smallest fish that all life depends on in antartica, support the arms trade, pay no attention to global warming so that millions suffer. Who are we to say how corruption in Mali should be fixed?

  12. Pingback: Africa Blog Roundup: Kenyan Elections, Corruption in Mali, Demobilization in South Sudan, and More | Sahel Blog

  13. Adoma says:

    Reblogged this on Unadorned Clay Jars and commented:
    That’s my Mali for you. Aw ka jamana!

  14. ximenaperedo says:

    this is an issue too complex to believe any of us can bring some enlightment ideas (but I do believe we are getting closer to somewhere). This is the “big issue” of Mali, but also of Spain, Italy, US, Mexico. Maybe there is something wrong with the Rule of Law… have you ever think on that? I would like to know your opinion on why do we think the same Rule of Law has to work in all the World no matter the cultural systems it reach. And, by the way, I thank you for the work behind this blog. I don´t care how wrong you get, you are motivating a dialogue here. Thanks.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Thanks, I think…. There are those who believe that corruption is THE factor underlying Mali’s crisis, the 2012 coup and the decline of the state. To me, corruption is merely epiphenomenal. It’s part of a bigger picture, which certainly has to do with the rule of law (although I don’t put it in capital letters) and with institutions. It’s less important what the law says than that the law be respected and enforced in a predictable fashion. With respect to institutions and states, I think Acemoglu and Robinson got it right in Why Nations Fail.

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