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.
“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.
“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?