Between promises and real change, there is ‘political will’

Quite often you hear that the lack of “political will” is the reason anti-corruption programs fall short. Laws may be on the books, but no one enforces them.

“Political will is the incentive to follow through on stated commitments and legislation,” said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. You will occasionally get a visionary who will have a strategy and be committed to it of his own volition, “but for most politicians — whether in Africa or the United States — you need an incentive to make them do that.”

Take, for example, efforts in Madagascar to halt money laundering associated with illegal trafficking in rosewood and native fauna. Several laws were passed, including a 2004 measure that makes it possible to prosecute officials who cannot prove how their assets legally match their incomes. Few officials are aware of the 2004 measure, and no one has ever been prosecuted under it.

Many other countries have stern anti-corruption laws on the books, but because there is no clear political will from anyone in government to go to the trouble or expend the capital to fight corruption, the laws aren’t implemented and enforced.

Cooke points to the performance of Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari and his relationship with voters and the media as an example of how political will can drive change. “President Buhari staked his personal reputation on fighting corruption. The electorate mobilized around him for that reason, and he has, in fact, been following through with high-level prosecutions.”

Cooke says an informed citizenry is key. In Nigeria, advocacy and media groups have joined together to create a “Buhari meter” that is published online and in newspapers. The meter lists the president’s promises and then measures how he’s following up. It’s a regularly updated feature.

“Many leaders don’t have the incentive to follow through on promises because they don’t lose anything by not doing so,” Cooke said. “That’s why you need systems that call them to account. You need voters who know what their promises have been, know how they’ve delivered, and who vote up or down on whether they’ve performed properly.”