The Nordic Africa Institute


Corruption along ethnic lines: A study of individual corruption experiences in 17 African countries

Started • 01 January 2012
Ended • 01 December 2014

Researcher: Ann-Sofie Isaksson
Project established in 2012

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to some of the world’s most corrupt and ethnically fragmented countries. Comparing across states, it has been suggested that politicised ethnic divisions impact corruption by reducing the popular will to oppose corrupt politicians. The argument is that redistribution across ethnic groups makes people support candidates from their own ethnic group, even if he or she is known to be corrupt, and by doing so decrease the cost of corruption. Do individual experiences with corruption also vary along ethnic lines? Several studies link ethnic divisions to collective action, arguing that ethnic groups possess cooperation-facilitating norms and networks that facilitate the sanctioning of community members who fail to contribute to collective endeavours. In the context of corruption along ethnic lines, the relevant question becomes what constitutes the collective endeavour among co-ethnics – upholding corrupt relationships or preventing them?

This project explores variation in individual corruption experiences along ethnic lines. Using data on over 23,000 respondents in 17 African countries, the aim is to examine whether individual corruption experiences vary systematically depending on ethnic group affiliation, and if they do, what is the nature of this variation. More specifically, it considers the effect of belonging to influential ethnic groups – measured in terms of the relative group size and the relative economic and political standing of different language groups – arguing that this should be associated with a greater probability that the encountered public official (potentially asking for a bribe) is a co-ethnic. The preliminary findings indeed suggest that individual corruption experiences vary systematically along ethnic lines. Belonging to influential ethnic groups is associated with a greater probability of having experienced corruption, seemingly suggesting more corruption among co-ethnics and supporting the idea that enforcement mechanisms within ethnic groups could act to strengthen corrupt contracts.

In order to be able to effectively tackle corruption we need to understand along which dimensions it varies. The preliminary results of this project point to the importance of impartiality in the state apparatus, and to the danger of ethnically based nepotism when appointing public officials. The study is part of the broader project ‘Political participation and governance in Africa’ (with Arne Bigsten) funded by UFORSK/Sida.