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Bribes: Don’t Let Them Bring You Down

Transparency International categorizes almost all African countries as very corrupt. Corruption in the form of bribery, embezzlement and extortion are faced by expatriates, as well as nationals, from the local village to the offices of the highest officials in many African countries.

According to World Bank’s International Finance Corporation more than one-third of all firms doing business in Sub-Saharan Africa expect to pay bribes, or give gifts, in order to do some of the most basic business tasks such as acquiring licenses and getting utilities connected.  According to the Africa Union (AU) around $148 billion are stolen from the continent by its leaders and civil servants.

I want to state right off that corruption, the giving and taking of bribes, is an insidious practice that destroys the very fabric of the rule of law in many Africa countries.  The practice dissolves trust between citizens and those elected to positions of authority.  It gives unfair leverage to those with money while closing many doors to the poor no matter how honest or hard working.

Entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations have discretionary funds that they may be tempted to use to grease the wheels of intransigent officials.  They will face the questions:

  • Should we succumb to the demands of bribery, and become complicit in corruption?
  • What effect will giving a bribe, or refusing to do so, have on our project or business?

There is no doubt that the Chinese government and private Chinese businesses have begun to contribute some helpful projects to Africa, especially in the area of infrastructure building.  Some of their critics say, however, that they are bringing bad habits along with the aid.  They are accustomed to dealing with corruption on the mainland of their own country, so they have few qualms about giving bribes in Africa.  International rankings of bribe-payers list Chinese managers near the top. They tend to undermine honest governance in African countries where they do business. The World Bank has banned some mainland companies from bidding for tenders in Africa.

The Chinese are not alone in their complicity in corruption.  Many foreigners working in Nigeria offer and pay bribes to secure contracts and permission to operate in certain areas of the country.  There are many foreigners vying for market share and they feel that they must play the game in order to compete.

Is that really the case?  Do they have to play the game?

First off one must realize that paying bribes is illegal.  Officials who feel slighted, left out, or are contending for a competitor may well threaten to, or actually, take you to court and have your enterprise thrown out of the country.  Often your tainted reputation will then follow you to other countries, disqualifying you from entry.    It is a serious matter.

Secondly, bribery is a vicious, accelerating cycle.  Once you pay a bribe, the roadside police officer or licensing official will continually expect the “dash.”  In fact, they will up the anti periodically.  The word will spread that you are a bribe payer and hands will appear at every corner.

Thirdly, an to me most importantly, paying bribes is participating in a practice in that destroys the country and lives of people in which you are investing your time and money.

What can you do about it about the expectation that you will bribe?

Some people offer dubious advise, such as:

  • when asked for a bribe by policeman or harassing official, on the road or in the market, speak gibberish or act like you do not understand. (problem with this: You want the respect that comes from understanding people, not by acting a fool.)
  • keep only small bills in your pocket.  Put larger bills in your shoe, so you can only give a little and say, “see this is all I have.” (problem with this: You are still paying the bribe.)
  • just treat it as a tax, something that is the justifiable, a normal cost of doing business. (problem with this: taxes are legal bribes are not.)
  • some recommend asking for a receipt. (problem: they will ask for more because they will have to share some with the one who issues and accounts for the receipt books.)

Some sounder advice is:

  • Be consistent about not paying.  If they do not get money, over time they will not continue to ask, it is a waste of their time.  They will try elsewhere.
  • Give presents of service or goods from your company.  Its advertising.
  • Give a gift after a service has been rendered, but make sure that enough time passes so that it is not seen as a bribe.
  • Know the local laws.  The better you understand them, they better position you are in to resist.
  • Make sure your car, office, factory, and organization are in compliance.   So, if they ask for a bribe they will not be asking based on something illegal your are doing.
  • Do not try to do all the official, government business yourself.  Hire a local person to do that for you.  He, or she, will understand the situation much better than you.   Pay them a flat rate or salary, so if they are tempted to pay bribes it comes out of  their own pockets.
  • Good humor goes a long way.  Take time to talk for a few minutes and have a joke together.  Many times the officials are bored and are grateful humorous distraction and being treated as a human being.
  • Speak the local language.  This gives you credibility as someone who genuinely desires to identify with the people.
  • Explain why you are not able to pay the bribe. Don’t accuse them or corruption, but say something like, “The head of our organization forbids us from paying non-official fees.”
  • Be prepared to wait, sometimes an uncomfortably, long time.   While waiting, persistently show up asking for the progress on your application.  If a policeman will not allow you to proceed without a bribe just sit their for an hour or two they will get tired of you being around and give in and they will not stop you the next time.  Be polite throughout the process.
  • Make sure that your paperwork and documents are complete.  Have photo copies ready at all times so that you can point to portions of the documents to prove that you are in compliance.

It is not impossible to go without paying bribes in my forty years of being involved in Africa, 25 years in residence there, I never paid a bribe, yet I conducted business and became friends with many officials and police officers.