T.I.A.: This Is Africa

06/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the importance of tailoring country-specific anti-corruption laws.

I wish I could tell you what corruption is, but I can't. I have worked in it, lived in it and experienced it throughout my life. Indeed, we all have. But neither I, nor any corruption expert worth his over-priced education, can give you a precise definition with any degree of confidence. Rather, he may refer generally to some type of abuse of public influence for private gain. While it is important that we be able to define this global phenomenon, for now I want to focus on our role in this plague that robs countries, communities, and people of brighter futures. Our role first begins with expanding our narrow-mindedness.

I'm at my friend's parents' home in Paris' rive gauche for their weekly Sunday dinner. Her mother, a famous French judge, is discussing a case she's working on at the moment. Between mouthfuls of rosemary roast chicken she explains how an American company is suing a central African country for breach of a natural gas contract and how she must determine which side is in the right. The contract was negotiated by the former government recently ousted by a popularly-supported coup d'etat. The new government came in on an anti-corruption agenda, claiming that it would aggressively reverse the legacy of cronyism that plagued the old guard and plummeted the nation's economy towards destitution. Part of the new government's platform required renegotiation of concessionary agreements, among which was the gas contract.

The Judge didn't have to expressly say which side she agreed with: "C'est l'Afrique", she said rolling her eyes and shrugging her shoulders. 'T.I.A.', for English speakers, This is Africa.

The expression is used often around the world to explain all the problems and frustrations with doing business in Africa. Two hundred years after the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, and decades after the brutal era of colonialism, the West's opinion of Africa has little changed. Africa remains one homogeneous country, where brutality and poverty are eponymous with the continent.

We need new and diverse approaches to fighting corruption in Africa.

Corruption, however, is a global crime. It affects everyone, everywhere, indiscriminately. Black, white, woman, man, rich or poor- corruption is truly an equal opportunity offender. But how is corruption so universal yet we don't know what it is? Because we give it euphemistic expressions like, 'that's life' or 'c'est la vie' or T.I.A. We take for granted that people get things done by 'cutting some corners', 'greasing some palms', or 'looking the other way'. This social apathy, and accompanying epithets, must stop now.

I've been enveloped in the world of corruption since before I can remember. While growing up in 1990s Nairobi, corruption was the topic of choice at every meal, family gathering, party, and in my case, playground. Our then-President Daniel Arap Moi had successfully stolen about one billion dollars in public monies, none of which has since been returned. The level of corruption was never enough to instigate an all-out war but it certainly passed a point of sustainability as evinced by the violence surrounding 2007 Presidential elections. Under intense pressure from the international community to clean up his act, Moi responded with violence towards the opposition; my family and I were forced to flee under threat of persecution from the government. I still remember to this day watching the face of my beloved dog Boomer get smaller as we sped off in my father's car towards the airport. I still wonder if she's still waiting at the foot of our driveway- waiting for me to come home.

But this is not Africa.

Another late night in New York, first stop Les Enfants Terribles in the Lower East Side to hear a friend spin records, quick stop at Chloe, the new it place after Beatriz's abrupt closing, followed by night caps at the neighborhood watering hole, The Tribeca Tavern. Just another night with my African friends.

Malez a South African force majeur who recently gave up her lucrative life in banking to try her hand at film-making, Kwame, a Ghanaian accessories editor at a major publication with his eye on Ms. Wintour's seat, and me a Kenyan-Filipina lawyer with dreams of a literary career. We commiserate over cocktails about the stereotypes that pervade about us. How I rode a lion to school in Kenya, how Kwame feels most comfortable in a loincloth, and how Malez, grew up in a hut in some shanty-town outside of Johannesburg. We are all literate, professional and cosmopolitan young people with the same shallow hopes and ambitions as any given yuppie in Manhattan. However, we are told repeatedly that we are a minority and not at all representative of African people. But wait a minute, aren't such yuppies a minority of any population, including the American one? Somehow, when I think of Americans, I do not instantly imagine all of them buck-teethed, wearing overalls and chewing straw, at least not before the Bush years. Is Africa's image problem merely just a PR campaign gone terribly awry?

Since the Live Aid movement captured the hearts and wallets of people in the Occidental world, the sallow-faced Ethiopian child has come to emblematize Africa: exotic, needy, and victimized. But Africa is so much more than that. The continent hosts a panoply of language, cultures, skin-tones, histories, ambitions, dreams and futures. Until Africans and the world-over realize the diversity of the continent, there will continue to be only one approach to fighting corruption, one approach that has hitherto been met with disappointment.

The last panacea to hit the continent was the setting up of Anti-Corruption Commissions. The idea was simple. If you want to stop the abuse of public office for private gain, create lackluster public agencies whose work was diametrically opposed to the interests of the government that the agencies were precisely tasked to clean up. Suffice to say, the plan was a failure, one officially declared so in 2007. Regardless, such institutions still come up in policy discussions on Africa's corruption problem. It is time to put these institutions to rest and begin to think about ways to tailor specific anti-corruption policies to the needs of all 54 African countries, respectively.