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Ola Orekunrin Headshot

On Donald Trump, Africa and Corruption

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I have always been a big fan of Donald Trump, mostly because I like determined business people but also because I love disruptors, especially confident ones. I would always prefer to speak to a person who has an opinion that is different to mine rather than no opinion at all.

But Trump's love of controversy occasionally leads him to say things that are flat out wrong - trying the patience of even his most steadfast fans. This summer, Trump took to Twitter to paint Africa as a hopeless case, declaring that all the money being invested by the U.S. government in Africa is a 'waste' and will be 'stolen' because according to him 'corruption is rampant!'. He is not alone in that opinion: it's shared by many Western business people, who all too often write off my continent as a large war-torn, disease-infested, corrupt, single country that should be completely avoided .

Trump's comment passed with little notice in the United States, but sparked widespread criticism in Africa, where many took to social media to vent their frustration. Ugandan tycoon Ashish Thakkar, often described as Africa's youngest billionaire, dismissed Trump's comments as ignorant and misguided.

Unfortunately, that ignorance is widespread. People like Donald Trump believe that corruption is largely an African problem. But I wonder what he thinks of the Western politicians and regulators who stood by and watched while thousands of U.S. mortgages were sold to people who clearly couldn't afford them, heralding the biggest worldwide financial crisis of all time?
When it comes to Africa people like Trump will back their assertions by telling us to look at the international corruption indices. But the interesting thing about corruption indices is that the measures are designed in the West and then applied to Africa. If Africa had a hand in designing global benchmarks for good economic management, the sub-prime mortgage scandal that not only destabilized Western financial markets but financial markets worldwide, would earn America the lowest possible grade.

Corruption in many parts of Africa involves money that is put into a large travel bag, taken to a secret meeting and, wad by wad, is shared among politicians and other powerful people. Corruption in the West has the same result even if it has different characteristics and distribution methods; it involves lobbying, speakers fees, corporate entertainment, offshore accounts, 'expenses' and complex financial instruments that nobody quite understands. The underlying commonality is that the social elite -- in politics, the military, business and entertainment -- seem inextricably linked by birth, marriage and mutual interest. It in this smelting pot that corruption brews.

Whether cash is dispensed from a bag, or floated more broadly through a system of derivatives, options, policy pronouncements or 'favors', it doesn't change the fact that money is still changing hands, moving from the pockets of the less privileged to the accounts of the over-privileged, just through more sophisticated means.

Instead of pointing fingers at Africa, we need to realize that corruption in its various forms is a global problem, not a solely African problem. Therefore, to tackle this global problem we need global solutions.

If African economies are to continue to grow then we need ethical business people to invest in our future despite corruption. It's not a 'waste' to invest in Africa it simply requires an understanding of a different culture. Just because the culture is not Western does not make investing automatically wrong or corrupt.

In order to prove my point I would love to take Donald Trump on a guided tour of the varied continent that is my home and where, as a 27-year-old businesswoman, I have built West Africa's first indigenous private air ambulance service, amongst other business interests. Perhaps then Mr Trump would realize that this continent is a collection of 54 culturally and physically distinct countries that speak more than 1,000 languages. He would see the myriad investment opportunities in some of the world's fastest growing economies. He would realize that, because of strong demand, if he built one of his famous hotels in Accra or Luanda or Abuja the return on investment could be up to twice as fast as in many Western countries. I would introduce him to great African entrepreneurs like Aliko Dangote, Tony Elumelu and Mo Ibrahim. They would educate him that, just as good ethical business can be done in United States in spite of the corruption that exists, the same is true in Africa.

Flying 10 hours from one side of the continent to the other Trump would go from the skyscrapers of Johannesburg to the Calabar festival in Nigeria and from the beaches of Cape Verde to the seaside of Mauritius, (perfect islands for a Trump signature condominium hotel). We would visit Nigeria's oil center of Port Harcourt to look for a new site for one of his famous members-only golf clubs where the oil moguls can retire after a long day's work and secure the next deal. After all, are the deals done in the oil business in Houston, Texas really so fundamentally different to Port Harcourt? Perhaps after this trip Trump would finally see that Africa is home to some of the world's most interesting and entrepreneurial people, some of the world's most sought after natural resources and some of Mother Nature's finest creations. A better investment would be hard to find.