It was perhaps a decade ago that a Dublin funeral director told me of his experiences in attempting to comply with a directive from the city council. It had long been the practice for funeral directors to pay the city council fees for burials in cemeteries but also to pass an envelope of cash to the cemetery staff. The council determined that this practice should cease. The funeral director, who worked for a large firm, said that they had always handed over an envelope, but on instruction from the council, ceased to do so. Immediately, they found that no matter how early they arrived at a cemetery, they had to wait for other funerals to arrive and burials to take place before they were given an opportunity – other funeral directors had not complied with the directive. They returned to the practice of handing over an envelope.
Today’s Financial Times story on the criticism of the mining company Glencore because of its alleged conduct in the Democratic Republic of Congo recalled the experience of the funeral director – it is very difficult to do honest business in a situation where everyone around is prepared to make illicit payments. The Democratic Republic of Congo is a failed state, normal business is very difficult in a place where there is not normal governance, where every official with whom one deals expects a kickback.
Travelling the main road from the Rwandan border to the Burundian capital with a friend one day, his mobile phone rang. Answering it as he drove the precarious road, he said he didn’t agree with the caller’s assessment and would have to see for himself.
“A problem?” I asked.
”South Africans. There is a compressor needed for a mine in DTC. They say it is 500 kilos, I think it is closer to a tonne.”
”Why does it matter?”
“Because I am arranging a boat to take it across the lake.”
“Why can’t it be taken by road?”
”Why do you think? How many bribes do you think it would take just to get across the border?”
Ahead there was yet another police checkpoint. We were waved down and a conversation similar to every other checkpoint conversation took place. The policemen wanted 10,000 francs (US$5) to allow us to proceed. My friend repeated the story he had given each time, that he was just a driver and that he would have no money until he had delivered me to his boss in Bujumbura. The policemen, whose pay is so low they rely on extortion, allowed us to proceed.
The Burundi experience is to be found across much of sub-Saharan Africa. To do business without bribes is almost impossible. Perhaps Glencore paid bribes, but had they not done so, someone else would, and the other party would not have been discussed in a newspaper feature, would not have been open to any scrutiny whatsoever. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”, my mother would have commented.