We are all only too aware that greed, poor controls and red tape play a role in encouraging corruption in the African public service. But there’s another less obvious factor that also plays an important part: the lack of affordable living accommodation for public sector workers.
As Africa develops, its cities have, like magnets, drawn in millions of people from rural areas. With this migration comes an obvious problem – congestion and a lack of adequate housing.
It’s a problem that affects not just new arrivals. National housing deficits are high across the continent. According to estimates, Nigeria has a shortage of more than 20 million dwellings, South Africa about 4 million, Uganda 2.4 million, Kenya 2 million and Ghana 1.7 million.
As a result, decent housing comes at a premium, making home ownership an unattainable dream for many, public sector workers among them.
Rents are also high, relative to incomes, especially in the cities where government offices are located. In Accra, Nairobi, Algiers, Lagos and Rabat, for example, monthly rents exceed average monthly salaries.
Due to a lack of efficient mortgage systems, home ownership remains a challenge even for those with regular incomes
Even for those with good regular incomes, home ownership remains a challenge because many African nations do not have efficient mortgage systems and, even if they do, they are priced beyond the reach of most. In Nigeria, for example, mortgage rates range from 15% upwards. In Ghana and Democratic Republic of Congo, they are above 20%.
A career in public service is not highly paid, which means public sector workers can no more afford a mortgage or the high rents charged than anyone else. Unfortunately, however, some have found a way to afford it, opting to supplement their basic income from corrupt activities.
This may involve taking bribes, inflating contracts, collecting commissions on government contracts and purchases, abuse of position, and many other forms of financial impropriety.
In some African countries, giving and taking inducements is becoming the only way to get things done. Simple government services such as renewal of documents like international passports or driver and vehicle licences have become avenues for collecting bribes.
Public officials at land registries, schools, public works, the police and other services have built a culture around this. And this culture has no borders.
There are efforts by some governments to make mortgages affordable, especially for public officials
A few years ago, I drove along a stretch of the West African coast, from Lagos to Accra. At the three borders – Seme (Nigeria-Benin), Hilaconji (Benin-Togo), and Aflao (Togo-Ghana) – officials openly demanded bribes and made it clear that there was no passage without payment. Their boldness corroborated what I had noticed in some government offices – these public officials have mentally added the proceeds of this wrongdoing to their compensation.
When asked why they were engaged in graft, some would say they just joined in an established practice, while others would say their salaries did not cover the cost of living and that graft was the only way to augment their income.
There are efforts by some governments to make mortgages affordable, especially for public officials. For example, Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria sells mortgages at 6% and Ghana’s National Mortgage and Housing Scheme sells them at 10%. But these offerings do not even scratch the surface of the problem.
Lack of liquidity
One reason for this is inadequate liquidity; another is the inability of public servants to afford down-payments for mortgages. To address these issues, countries like Nigeria and Kenya have established mortgage refinancing arrangements, while Nigeria has launched a system that allows a portion of pension assets to be used for house purchase.
Such issues are laudable but limited in their effect. Providing affordable houses for public officials must be part of the fight against official corruption. The stick – catching and punishing perpetrators – must continue to be deployed, but the carrot should also be used.