A Criminal Opportunity

Hennie van Vuuren

Africa’s growing number of megacities will over time prove attractive bait to criminal elites and grafters who engage in grand corruption

Criminal_opportunity_finalThe lobby of the Hilton hotel in Addis Ababa, characterised on any given day by the incessant buzz of caffeine- and alcohol-fuelled chatter between local politicians, foreign contractors, aid workers, fixers, soldiers and sex workers, is a grand bazaar for the powerful. This is where relationships are brokered and important decisions made—in plain view, but far from the popularly elected assemblies. Until a few years ago the lobby featured a large display of a vast new private middle-income housing development for Addis. It has been suggested that the developers are closely linked to Ethiopia’s political elite and the personal fortune of its former first lady, Azeb Mesfin, a wealthy businesswoman who seemingly benefitted from the patronage of her husband Meles Zenawi’s authoritarian rule.

The detrimental impact of corruption involving elites and the vast sums of money involved is well documented. However, it is too seldom the focus of discussions on urban governance in Africa. While many national economies are heavily reliant on extractive resources such as minerals, oil and gas, this will inevitably change over the next few decades as resources are depleted and economies—by necessity and design—slowly diversify. Most of the new sources of economic growth will be rooted in emerging African megacities, a kind of Eldorado that offers a source of new taxation and potential alternate prosperity for rent-seekers and corrupt elites. As bureaucratic entities, many cities have the capacity to tax and spend, wielding large budgets. Public procurement is an area particularly vulnerable to corruption, even more so at local government level, particularly given the risks of limited public oversight capacity over decentralised spending. Add to this the fact that most city administrations, with very limited internal capacity, will continue to rely on public-private partnerships and contractual relationships with the private sector to deliver services and extend public infrastructure.

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