Abuja, 11 June 2019
I am very glad to be back in Abuja.
Before I start, I want to congratulate the previous speaker, and I hope you don’t expect as good a performance from me, but I will give you something different.
I would like to thank you, Mr President, for the kind invitation to join you at this important summit.
And I wish to start by calling to mind the greatness of this nation.
The diversity, creativity, and ambition of Nigerians represent Africa. The achievements of Nigeria’s sons and daughters, here at home and in your global diaspora, make our continent proud.
Nigeria has always shown common cause with Africa’s progress and prosperity, and this does not go unnoticed. This country is truly the engine of Africa’s potential.
This is how we see Nigeria. I hope you know that.
We stand in solidarity with your efforts to build on all the assets with which this country has been blessed, and we are invested in your success.
I am aware that the summit’s theme focuses on curbing electoral spending and I look forward to hearing from the experts on strategies for eliminating this form of corruption.
However, in order to succeed in the ultimate goal, we have to keep the broader context in mind.
That is why I suggest we reframe the fight against corruption in positive terms: As a struggle for transparency, public integrity and accountability.
On this note, there is one of your own who wrote a book titled “The Fight against Corruption is Dangerous”. She gave me the book when we met, somewhere in the United States. And as I was looking at the title, I reminded her: “you know, you need to be writing another book, to state that ‘Not Fighting Corruption is even more Dangerous’.
So, this is a campaign that can be won. Tolerating corruption is a choice, not an inevitability. It is within our power to end it.
That is the most important starting point. Otherwise, it would be a waste of time for us to keep talking about it.
The primary responsibility to act lies with leaders at every level. Where corruption has become the norm, a way of life, it is because leaders have made it that way, made it acceptable.
We tend to focus on the petty corruption of everyday life while turning a blind eye to the more consequential forms, that people only whisper about because the rich and powerful are the main beneficiaries.
Here, let me again tell you another story.
I was travelling and my plane made a stopover in one of the countries in Africa, to refuel. I walked around outside, not far from the plane and there happened to be a policeman, who approached me and pointed to my chest, asking me for something, I didn’t understand what he was saying, he wasn’t speaking English.
I was dressed casually so maybe he hadn’t even recognised who I was. I had not realised that I had a pen in my pocket, so I pulled it out and asked if that was what he wanted and he said yes. Then I told him to wait, I had understood what he wanted, he was a carrying a gun as well…
So I went back to the plane and the pilot gave me a ten dollar bill, which I gave to the policeman, together with the pen he wanted. He was very grateful.
But this left something in my mind, and when I went home, during a cabinet meeting I told them the story. Since we have a mission to carry out against corruption, there are things I saw in this: a policeman on duty begging for little things. I told them maybe that was even happening in our own country. That would mean that maybe we are making too many demands on these policemen, we’re not paying them well, they are literally impoverished and they have to keep going around begging, and maybe, later on, they will use that gun.
I said why don’t we find all possible ways, we don’t have so much, but we can share the little we have, so that even the policeman feels that they are being taken care of and that they are getting little because there is so little across in the country, but not because others are getting a lot. So we have to create some balance.
In a way, it was to inform ourselves of the complexity of the efforts we have to carry out, and the multifaceted problem we have to deal with.
In other words, corruption needs to be tackled from the top down.
This is not only the fairest approach, it is also the most effective because it empowers the public to join the fight and hold leaders accountable, through elections and other means.
In that way, corruption can definitely be reduced to the minimum possible, and that makes a tremendous difference.
However, it also takes careful organisation and messaging to make this practice widespread.
Overcoming corruption is really about four key principles, in my opinion: Culture, responsibility, accountability, and effectiveness.
We must discard the myth that corruption is endemic to particular cultures. Corruption is a universal weakness, not an African one, and it is not part of our destiny as a continent.
Indeed, research has shown that some of the biggest sources and beneficiaries of corruption are outside Africa, and this has always been the case.
When somebody gives you addictive drugs with one hand and offers the cure with the other, it is not altruism, but a form of control that encourages passivity.
In the absence of a politics that values individual integrity, even well-established institutions are not enough to deter wrongdoing, as has been demonstrated by repeated scandals in advanced economies at the top of international transparency rankings.
That is why it is past time to redefine transparency as a global objective that requires us all to work together with mutual respect.
Corruption does not take decades to eradicate. Huge gains can be made relatively quickly, once we decide to break the habit.
That brings me to responsibility. This principle is inherent to our respective cultures in Africa. We are in charge of our own future.
The purpose of transparency is not to impress others, but rather to make our own societies better because that is what our people expect.
The third and fourth foundation stones are accountability and effectiveness.
Without transparency, it is impossible to earn and keep the trust of the people.
And without trust, we will not be able to effectively use national wealth to make measurable improvements to the well-being of citizens.
We have to set our sights high. It is not enough to “fight corruption”, just as merely “fighting poverty” is too small an ambition for Africa.
Our liberation struggle in Rwanda, and in Africa more generally, has always been based on the ideals of eliminating discrimination, entrenching good governance, and ensuring all citizens benefit equally from nation-building.
As a new government, the turning point in Rwanda’s peace-building process came after months of intense national consultations.
Out of this dialogue, key institutions were created to foster transparency and lay the foundation for a sound national fiscal base.
These included the Rwanda Revenue Authority, the Auditor General, the Ombudsman, as well as home-grown solutions such as performance contracts signed by officials at every level, known as “imihigo”.
We quickly found out that fighting corruption has a huge political cost.
This is one of the things I was referring to when I spoke about the book.
Officials who did not live up to the agreed standards were dismissed or brought to justice. Others fled into exile and pretended to be so-called “opposition” or “pro-democracy” groups.
I’ll give you a specific example here. After the Genocide, the first foreign minister appointed at the time connived with other leaders within our cabinet, particularly the then Prime Minister, and was given money, hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, to go abroad and reopen our embassies, or open new embassies. This guy never came back.
He had been in office for only a couple of months. And this was the first transition government. Today, he is one of the opposition leaders living in France. And people accept that this is a man fighting for democracy. Where he is hosted, they believe it, some groups believe this.
He is not the only one, because a couple of years later the same Prime Minister who he connived with, agreed with the then President of the Transition Government, and was given some money to go buy vehicles, Mercedes-Benz, for members of cabinet.
When I learned about this I went to my President at the time and told him that we were making a mistake, our first priority shouldn’t be buying Mercedes-Benz for our ministers.
You can imagine in 1998, four years after the Genocide, we were trying to build institutions, do a number of things and the first thing that came to the minds of our leaders was to buy Mercedes-Benz for our ministers. These were ministers who had no offices, no office buildings, no furniture, nothing…
I told the President that I thought it was wrong, we could afford to prioritise that sort of thing. Second, have money given again to one of us, the other one went and never came back. Now this one was taking even more money. I said we couldn’t keep doing this kind of thing unless we wanted to be doomed, never to leave the transition.
So that is the cost. You risk many things, this bad name, this same so-called opposition has turned us into what they call “authoritarian”. We are authoritarian because we didn’t allow them to take this money and when they did, they didn’t come back and had to find an explanation.
But between fighting corruption and being authoritarian, I prefer being authoritarian.
Some thought we could not afford to take this zero-tolerance approach, given the fragility of our environment.
The truth, however, is that we couldn’t afford not to do it.
It is the foundation of the modest progress for which Rwandans continue to work.
Everywhere, trust in democratic processes is declining, leaving a cynical citizenry that is easily manipulated by the politics of division.
Fighting political corruption is therefore just as urgent as fighting economic corruption.
And the strategy for doing so is the same: Building on Africa’s cultural heritage to cultivate the mindsets of responsibility, accountability, and effectiveness in our leaders, and especially in our young people, as we continue to build the institutions that will serve this cause.
Before I conclude, I wish to give our very warm congratulations for President Buhari on his re-election, and best wishes for the entire Nigerian people on the road ahead. I also want to mention here that President Buhari is our AU Champion in the fight against corruption and we thank you for your service.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you for your kind attention, and I wish you fruitful deliberations today.