Africans, is it “Bribe” or “Pest Control”?

Shaking Hands

Believe it or not, Bribing has been existing in Africa before colonization. Democracy arrived in Africa on colonial ships. Before the White Men came, Africans had established functional systems centered around local chiefs and patronage.

In some part of Nigeria; the Yorubas precisely, they call it “ISAKOLE”. Isakole is part of the Yoruba culture that refers to a form of payment that involves periodic tribute paid by settlers to the local Kings, Chiefs or a Family with ancestral claims to a land or throne.

This payment could be in the form of money, produce, or other goods, and it signifies acknowledgment of the landowner’s authority and the settler’s right to use the land and resources on it.

This is part of the monetary system African practiced before the white men came to introduced Democracy. African didn’t need a complex system of millions of pages of writing. People back then didn’t even need a writing system; they didn’t have one.

After Colonization; our present age, Africa has a mixture of the traditional systems and democracy. We call it corruption. In the West, they see avoiding bribes as a fundamental value—it’s a principle they never question.

In the US, bribes are usually only an issue for big companies like Boeing, Pfizer, Tesla, Google, Tesla and Halliburton. However, in Africa, dealing with bribes is a common part of everyday life for almost everyone from the very start. For many, strategically giving bribes was a core competency.

Now I thought I understood the situation better. One day, a guest speaker visited our business group. He had founded and ran a large local company. He said, “I’ve never paid a bribe. Just last week, the police stopped me and demanded a bribe or they’d take me to the station. I told them, ‘Let’s go to the station.'”

Afterwards, I told my groupmates, “Wow! He has never paid a bribe.”

They all laughed and said, “Temmy, of course he’s paid bribes. You can’t get where he is without paying bribes. Everyone does it. When an African says that in front of an audience, we’re all secretly smiling. He must be trying to raise money from Americans and wants to impress them. Look how impressed you are.” Sure enough, he soon sold his company to an American investment fund.

Then I asked, “So how do you record bribes in your accounts?”

“Facilitation fees,” they replied.

“Facilitation?” another added. “That’s outdated. Everyone knows it means ‘Bribe.’ Use ‘Bush Clearing or Pest Control.'”

If someone asks, “Where’s the evidence of this bush?” you can say, “It was cleared.” Or use ‘pest control’: if someone asks, you say, “We had a huge infestation, but now, as you can see, the pest control was very effective.” Everyone laughed.

But Are Bribes Bad?

Imagine you’re driving a truck full of food to revive starving people, and at a police checkpoint, they ask for $1 or else you have to turn back, letting those people starve. Is it wrong to pay the bribe, or would it be wrong not to?

What if the bribe was $10 instead? Where do we draw the line? Also, consider that the police officer makes only $150 a month and has a family to support. Is it really wrong to pay him on a “base plus commission” basis? And remember, he likely had to pay a bribe to become a police officer in the first place.

Funny tho. Now, you see that “Bribes” is our day to day living in Africa? Leave your suggestions in the comment section.

Colonization, Democracy and Culture

Democracy could be seen as a form of modern colonialism. Alex de Waal argues in “Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa” that the genocide in Darfur was funded by international NGOs and multilateral organizations like the UN.

They paid Khartoum for permits to help the very people Khartoum was killing. Big NGOs often pay bribes, but entrepreneurs face stricter standards. This isn’t a complaint about fairness, but a reminder to entrepreneurs that they are not alone.

Investors want companies to “synergize public-private partnerships,” yet government contracts without bribes are extremely rare. Funders are aware of this but still encourage these partnerships. Essentially, it’s a “don’t ask; don’t tell” situation.

As I adapted to the African business environment, I realized I couldn’t compete with my local peers without understanding their way of doing business. It’s a classic tale: a Westerner tries to change Africa, but Africa ends up changing him. Lol.

Westerners push for Africa to move from a traditional patronage system to democracy, as if it’s a binary choice. But what if there’s a third option—an authentic African governance system that aligns with Africans’ communal and capitalist nature, instead of imposing a bureaucratic process brought over by colonial powers?