The Butterfly Effect: Understanding corruption in Africa

October 7, 2020. Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) members carry placards during a nationwide strike concerning corruption-related issues, and job losses in Cape Town, South Africa. PHOTO/Mike Hutchings Via Reuters.
October 7, 2020. Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) members carry placards during a nationwide strike concerning corruption-related issues, and job losses in Cape Town, South Africa. PHOTO/Mike Hutchings Via Reuters.

The term “butterfly effect” was coined by one of the most fundamental meteorologists of our time, Prof. Edward Lorenz, in the 1960s. It is an underlying concept in Chaos theory. 

The Chaos theory states, “Within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, there are underlying patterns, interconnection, constant feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals, and self-organization.”  

The butterfly effect, therefore, embarks on the idea that small things can have non-linear impacts on a complex system. 

It is built on a studied view that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas. 

The concept connotes a sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic non-linear system can result in large differences in a later state.

Just like the weather, corruption is a complex, seemingly deterministic, but non-linear system. It is easier to deal with at a microscopic scale. 

It is easier to assume that a working solution is extrapolating this to a larger scale. But we are wrong because the more the population sample grows in size, the more complex it becomes. 

This is because a small spec of variation at an individualized level creates a bigger loop of perturbation and quanta-sized randomness that it becomes harder to predict the most viable course of action.

In his article “There’s need to change strategy in fighting corruption,” published by Scholar Media Africa, Mr. Johann Thorgeirsson posits a great insight on the issue.

He comments on Transparency International’s “five-point list of key elements to stop corruption.”

They are: End impunity, Reform public administration and financial management, Promote transparency and access to information, Empower citizens, and Close international loopholes. 

The undercoat

Mr. Thorgeirsson suggests that in the five-point list of this global movement working in over 100 countries to end injustice and corruption, “…they all fail in addressing the two primary causes for the corruption— fear and greed.”

Looking at the dynamics of African countries with the highest corruption index, South Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Equatorial Guinea, D.R. Congo and Burundi, I postulate that, our failure to fight corruption is a function of our failure to fight greed at an individualized level. 

By employing draconian measures to indict the corruption bandits, we seek to win the war by losing the battle. It is seeking a temporary solution for a permanent problem.

For instance

I have once had the privilege of working with a group of corporate people. 

Occasionally, at this corporate firm, the administration provided a great breakfast with a variety of snacks. 

However, because of the population of the staff, as was thought before, these resources would be depleted within no time. 

After a survey was done to ascertain why, it was found that the resources were not largely depleted because of how large the population was; a majority of the staff was each taking enough to sustain them for three to five days rather than choosing to come and eat enough for the day. 

Deeply nested in these small acts of greed is what ails society.

A moral construct

Corruption, in my perspective, is more of a moral construct of an individualized behavior that emanates out of the need for self-satisfaction rather than of the group. 

Therefore, all mitigation measures should be addressed as such. 

Given that, in any normal environment, every individual would choose their own survival over that of their counterparts, this is enough reason to show that corruption is as much a natural vice and case of occurrence as is the quest for food and water. 

This tells us something about how differently we ought to handle its alleviation.

Furthermore, I argue that the misconception over corruption in Africa and probably across the entire global spectrum is that it is often envisaged and ultimately addressed as a disease rather than a symptom or, at best, a bug of the societal construct. 

This school of thought makes for social lubrication. 

It misses the proper regimen because of an improper diagnosis. 

Even in places where the diagnosis has worked, it is because of a mere placebo effect rather than the ultimate cure. When foundations fail, the center seizes to hold. 

In my opinion, the butterfly effect is why corruption in Africa has remained a radical ailment to alleviate, a hard feat to quantify and a hefty load to purge. 

Our urge to first deal with it at a structural upper front rather than a microscopic one is evidence of our failure. 

Taking action

There is a need to first establish a standardized assessment of the moral integrity of the leaders we put into office, regarding their previous leadership history and integrity. 

Secondly, there should be accessible time series data on corruption as an instance of moral fracture anchored on the greed of the involved individuals in Africa.

Lack of it has meant that the dominant focus has been on explaining a very important but reductive question of why in many less developed countries, those ascending to higher offices are radically more corrupt in comparison with those in developed countries. 

In context, corruption highly co-exists in a vacuum of a scramble for resources and hunger for development. 

Europe and North America were societies on the verge of development at the turn of the 20th century and China in 1865 after the effects of the Taiping Rebellion. 

Corruption, therefore, became an inevitable consequence. The methods that they employed to curb it were repression and patronage.

I suspect that this is one of the reasons why some scholars have argued that, within the context of Africa, corruption is not how things fail but how they work. 

The trouble with this school of thought is that, when talking about Africa, there has always been an error of generalization in their debate.

The fundamental development of any state is a process that must evolve organically rather than be socially engineered by an external force. The methods used to end it in a rich and developed country do not blatantly work in another by extrapolation.

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Solomon A. Mutagaya is a chemical engineer and author. He is a director at Bouyant Quality Management Synergy Limited, a pan-Africanist and social industrial policy commentator, leveraging data-driven statistics to make informed analyses on African geopolitical juxtaposition, environmental topology, and morality. His contact: admin@solomonamutagaya

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Mr. Mutagaya is a Ugandan Chemical Engineer and Author. He is a director at Bouyant Quality Management Synergy Limited, a pan-Africanist and social industrial policy commentator. His contact:


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