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What’s behind the wave of protests in Africa?

Zimbabweans protest over fuel price increases, Harare, Zimbabwe – Jan 14. 2019. (Photo by AARON UFUMELI/EPA-EFE/REX (10056289t)

On Jan. 29 Transparency International launched its annual global index of corruption. The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) measures perceived levels of corruption in 180 countries. It gives each country a score between 0-100 – the closer to 100, the better the country is doing in fighting corruption.

African countries come off worst. Across the 49 African states in the CPI the average score remains 32. Transparency International argues that a score of under 50 indicates serious corruption problems while a score of under 30 indicates that corruption is endemic.

Corruption is one reason for protests

The widespread corruption threat has periodically prompted citizens to take to the streets and protest. Indeed, Zimbabwe in recent weeks has seen large protests over an increase in fuel prices, and disdain for widespread corruption continues to stoke that fire. Anti-corruption protests have also recently been seen in South Africa, Malawi and a range of other countries.

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Here’s the puzzle: Not everyone affected by corruption chooses to go out and protest about it. Why are some citizens prepared to risk taking to the streets, while others steadfastly refuse to do so? In our research we try to understand just a little more about what might be driving this differential behavior.

How we did our research

More specifically, we analyze data from the long-standing Afrobarometer surveys to try to make sense of the role that experiences of bribery play in fueling protests. Given the focus of Afrobarometer, we analyze data from individuals in more than 30 countries across Africa, taken from the 2005-2006 and 2014-2016 surveys.

The data is not rich enough for us to be able to come to wide-ranging conclusions as to exactly when people choose to protest corruption. But they do enable us to test whether a percentage increase in one phenomenon — in this case the experience of having to bribe someone — leads to change in another: the propensity to go out on the street and protest about it.

More experience with bribery leads to more support for protests …

In practice, the picture is obviously complex. People act as they do for a multitude of reasons. But we are nonetheless able to illustrate that the more someone experiences bribery, the more likely that person is to support anti-corruption protests.

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Here’s what we found. We can predict that a respondent who has the highest experience of paying bribes will have a 40 percent probability of taking part in anti-corruption demonstrations. On the other hand, the same individual has a less than 5 percent chance of preferring to report the need to pay a bribe — or indeed to say that nothing can be done about corruption.

We also find that those who regularly pay bribes take part in actual protests and demonstrations. The bribery experience perhaps encourages people to take action against corruption; this effect survives various empirical tests and is evident across both rounds of the Afrobarometer survey we analyzed.

… but also to greater willingness to rely on bribes to solve problems

But there’s a catch. We also find that having paid bribes increases an individual’s willingness to rely on those bribes to solve public administration problems. Moreover, those who bribe are significantly more likely to reject the notion that refusing to pay a bribe is the best tactic a citizen can use to tackle corruption.

These findings cast some light on the idea that residents of highly corrupt societies, especially those who are regularly involved in corruption, appreciate the “problem-solving” function of bribery. These individuals know that refusing to pay often means going without the public good or service that petty corruption or connections with influential individuals secure for them. They’d rather bribe and get what they need.

What if corruption becomes routine? 

This analysis also shows that while the readiness to join protests increases with the amount of bribes paid, it does so only up to a certain point. After that, the effect of additional payments tapers off. So it’s quite plausible that individuals for whom corruption has become most routine are likely to be less willing to participate in collective dissent.

What our analysis can reveal is the fact that the regular payment of bribes increases the propensity to use both bribes and protests to solve public administration problems.

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Given the choice between refusing to pay a bribe and taking part in anti-corruption protests and demonstrations, we found that bribers are significantly more likely to prefer to get out and join the crowd.

Taken together, these results imply that those who see corruption as a problem-solving device aren’t necessarily resigned or cynical about the shortcomings of government. In the African context, these results suggest that ordinary citizens who pay bribes are unlikely to resist demands for bribes or report incidences of corruption — but they are much more likely to support citizens’ efforts to bring corruption under control.

Moletsane Monyake teaches political science at the National University of Lesotho, in Maseru. He tweets at @MoMonyake. More on his research can be found here. 

Dan Hough is a professor of politics at the University of Sussex in Britain. He tweets at @thedanhough. More on his research can be found here.