Africa tries to shed long-held stereotypes of corruption, graft

May 26, 2013

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, center-right, and Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, center-left, share a joke as Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba, right, looks on at the AfricanUnion summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Sunday, May 26, 2013. The AfricanUnion on Saturday marked 50-years since the founding of a continent-wide organization that helped liberate Africa from colonial masters and which now is trying to stay relevant on a continent regularly troubled by conflict. (Associated Press)
South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, center-right, and Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, center-left, share a joke as Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba, right, looks on at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Sunday, May 26, 2013. The African Union on Saturday marked 50 years since the founding of a continent-wide organization that helped liberate Africa from colonial masters and which now is trying to stay relevant on a continent regularly troubled by conflict. (Associated Press)

ADDIS ABABA Ethiopia – A theme of this year’s African Union summit here was the shedding of some of Africa’s old stereotypes, such as hidebound corruption and government thievery.

As the African empowerment federation celebrated its 50th anniversary, speaker after speaker praised the rise of new ideals and better business practices. Some welcomed gains toward more transparent, more accountable governments on the continent that is still the world’s poorest.

So what did an ordinary room in the scruffy Hilton hotel run during the weeklong conference? Just under  $1,050 a night, plus a 10 percent special “service charge” and a 15 percent government tax.  The regular rate is about $250, a slightly embarrassed clerk said.

That didn’t include Internet service, an extra $20, but did include shabby 1970s décor,  a crumbling balcony with two bent, rusted aluminum arms chairs and a sign in the bathroom helpfully instructing patrons to put the curtain inside the tub before showering.

Americans journalists traveling with Secretary of State John F. Kerry were charged roughly twice what others checking out of the Hilton on Sunday were paying. 

Kerry, who stayed at the plusher Sheraton nearby, spent two days at the AU summit. The entire traveling party was instructed to avoid all produce and fruit and take other precautions against intestinal difficulties best left vague.

It was Kerry’s  first trip to sub-Saharan Africa as secretary and was planned as a way to see several African leaders at once while also affording meetings with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Kerry also was supposed to address the gathering early Saturday evening-- the closing speaker on a roster of heads of state and diplomats who regularly overran their allotted three minutes. Running more than two hours late, and after a brief power outage, Kerry’s public speech was canceled.

Kerry spoke at a separate, closed-door dinner instead. The State Department tried to get reporters a copy of Kerry’s remarks, but spotty e-mail and text-messaging service in the Ethiopian capital made the effort almost moot.

“The future is being defined by countries like Ethiopia, the future of Africa, which we are celebrating in this 50th anniversary meeting, Kerry said earlier Saturday, as he stood with the country’s foreign minister. “There’s been an enormous transition in the last 50 years. There are many more democracies and many more transitions to democracy, and many more peaceful places than there are violent ones and dictators,” Kerry said.

The apparent price-gouging, massive traffic snarls and poor communications surrounding the AU meeting are not necessarily a mark of corruption, although businesses regularly complain of the hidden or upfront costs associated with doing business in the Horn of Africa.

Ethiopia’s director general of customs and 11 other people were arrested earlier this month on corruption charges. Reuters reported that it was Ethiopia’s largest move against graft for more than a decade.

Transparency International ranked Ethiopia 113 out of 176 nations worldwide in its 2012 perception of corruption index.  No. 1 is considered the least corrupt.

 

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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