On corruption in Madagascar

What proportion of individual income goes into bribes in Madagascar?

‘We simply do not know’ is the answer to above question. But let me recall an incident that made me think about it in the first place.

Last week I had to return to Tana from the field on a very short notice. This meant I didn’t have time to organise a means of transport for the 10 km of dirt road to the nearest town, from where I needed to take a taxi-brousse for the capital. First, I had to walk about an hour and a half to get to the dirt road from the village where I was based. I had a guide/porter accompanying me for the trip. Once we reached the road, we started walking towards the town as there was no sign of vehicle at all.

After walking for a couple of kilometres, we heard a rumbling noise behind, the noise that old vehicles make – that gives the sense that they are refusing to move but are being dragged along. We turned to see an old tattered jeep overloaded with charcoal sacks coming towards us. It was literally crawling so we had to stop and wait for it, for if we had continued walking assuming it would catch up, it probably would not have caught up with us for quite a while!

Once it arrived, my guide asked if we could get a ride to the town. The driver said we had to pay 5000 each (in old currency, meaning 1000 Ariary). I agreed immediately. My guide sat on top of the charcoal sacks at the back, while I squeezed in between the driver and a middle-aged lady who was sitting on the passenger side at the front. The way I had to squeeze, trying to give space for the driver to shift gears, while not pushing the lady too much was extremely difficult.

I had to keep repeating azafady (‘excuse me’ or ‘sorry’) to the driver when I accidentally pushed his gear stick, and to the lady when I had to move towards her a bit in order to avoid pushing the gear stick. They both repeated tsy maninona (‘it doesn’t matter’ or ‘no problem’) every time.

We crawled along, with villagers on their bicycles passing our vehicle rather easily and disappearing from the sight not so long afterwards. Just before we reached the periphery of the town, the driver asked me to pay our fare. I gave him a crisp 10000 Ar note (he would give me the change later on), while the lady on the side gave him 3000 Ar. He put 1000 Ar in his pocket and kept the 12000 Ar with his vehicle’s documents which was just slotted behind the front handle on the passenger side. I already guessed why he did it but wasn’t sure I would be the witness to what was going to happen soon.

Just as the dirt road was about to end and possibly marking the entry to the town centre, there was a small police booth and a POLICE sign by its side. Our vehicle slowed down (if that was possible given its speed) and the driver honked the horn looking towards the booth. The booth seemed empty and we moved on.

Five hundred metres or so from the booth, the vehicle came to a halt in front of an epicerie and there appeared a fat policeman. The driver just gave him the folder containing the papers and the money of course, and as these policemen normally do, he just went a bit towards the back of the vehicle, pocketed the money, returned the document and told the driver to move on.

Just as we were about to move, the shopkeeper asked for a sack of charcoal. The driver and his helper at the back unloaded one sack and carried to the side of the house. The policeman was just standing by the vehicle, ignoring me all along, until now.

When the driver came back to start the vehicle, the policeman asked him about the passengers at the front, and as soon as he heard I was not a Malagasy, his eyes lit up and he asked me for my passport and asked what I was doing in the village. I told him my passport was in Tana.

I had explained to the driver earlier that I was a forestry researcher and was doing some work in the village, so he answered for me telling the policeman that I did not speak Malagasy. That didn’t deter him for he started saying something in Malagasy which I couldn’t understand, but guessed he wanted something from me as he did from the driver.

When the policeman finished what he was saying the driver just told him that I was a Peace Corp volunteer and that I was just working in the village (earlier on the way, I had actually told the driver that I was not a Peace Corp volunteer). In any case, as soon as the policeman heard Peace Corp he just said Mandeha (Go), he didn’t want to deal with me any further.

I thanked the driver for getting that policeman off me, and started asking him about the money he usually paid to that policeman when he brought charcoal from the village. He said every time he passed that policeman with charcoal, he paid 12000 Ar (he said soixante mille using the old currency). And when he returned from the town after selling the charcoal, he paid another 5000 Ar. So in total he paid 17000 Ar in bribe to this policeman alone per trip.

I then asked how much charcoal he carried per trip and he said he had 65000 Ar worth of charcoal, so 13 sacks, which he sold at 5000 Ar per sack. I just couldn’t believe my ears then. He was making just 65000 Ar for that long hard trip in his old tattered jeep and more than a quarter of the money he made, he paid in bribes to that fat policeman.

This is when I started thinking what proportion of their income do Malagasy people pay in bribes per year. I searched on the Internet of course but most of the measures talk about the incidences of corruption or that of the perception of people about corruption. For example Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer 2013 (PDF link) reports 28% of people in Madagascar saying that they have had to pay bribe to at least one of eight services.

There are estimates of national and global costs of bribery and corruption, with one research estimating more than 1 trillion dollars paid in bribes every year globally. Madagascar’s PM was recently reported as saying that 40 percent of the budget was lost to corruption. From what I have heard and witnessed in my short time in Madagascar, the figure doesn’t surprise me, but the admission from the PM himself certainly does.

Worryingly, for the poor and the downtrodden, like the charcoal trader who gave me a ride into the town, having to pay bribes has become almost an intrinsic part of their lives here, an extra tax that they pay from their meagre income to fill the pockets of fat policemen like the one we met at the edge of the town.

NOTE: You can read more on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2013 HERE OR you can just play around with their interactive map below highlighting the key results.

Social scientist with interests in environmental and natural resources research and advocacy.

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