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Curbing Corruption in Asia and Africa: The Effectiveness of Political Will and Anti-Corruption Agencies

Jehad Alyahya

University of New Haven 

Corruption is considered a persistent and endemic problem. It has been perceived by many intergovernmental organizations as a cancerous social phenomenon that presents a substantial impediment to the sovereignty of law, economic growth, and national and international stability (Azfar et al., 2001; Semchuk et al.; 2018; Sissener, 2001). Its annual cost is estimated to be at least $2.6 trillion in developing and advanced economies (United Nations, 2018). Given that no consensus has been reached regarding the definition of corruption (Kurer, 2005), the most often used definition – although broad in scope – refers to the abuse of entrusted power for private gains (Scholl & Schermuly, 2020; Rose-Ackerman, 1999; Torsello & Venard, 2015; Zimring & Johnson, 2005). Such private gains, whether they be individual or collective, can include both monetary and non-monetary benefits.

Corruption occurs in many forms, including (but not limited to) bribery, embezzlement, nepotism, and abuse of power (Boles, 2014). Corrupt acts can be committed by or against public officials, private employees, and the public. To tackle corruption, governments need to strengthen their domestic legal systems through preventative anti-corruption measures. These include developing and enforcing laws along with launching independent Anti-Corruption Agencies (ACAs) to more effectively investigate and prevent corruption (Najih & Wiryani, 2020). In response to corruption, countries such as China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Zambia have implemented various measures to investigate and prevent domestic corruption. However, the level of their responsiveness in tackling corruption varies to some degrees due to variations in political leadership and the efficiency of established ACAs. The latter are worth investigating to understand how corruption has and has not been tackled by various countries.


This paper examines the importance of political will in fighting corruption. Politicians are the predominant group that change a culture of corruption in a country, because they are involved in nearly every government function, from making and enforcing laws to allocating funds (Senior, 2006). Hence, if a government is committed to fighting corruption, it should demonstrate its political will by providing its ACA with the necessary power and other capabilities needed to meet their desired outcomes. Based on the extant literature, this paper also will explore legal mandates of established ACAs in selected countries, with respect to investigation and prevention measures. This paper does not intend to downgrade the effectiveness of countries’ efforts against corruption, but rather seeks to explore their political will alongside investigative and preventative measures. The goal is to benefit policymakers, academics, anti-corruption experts, and other criminal justice practitioners who are interested in understanding how political will alleviates corruption and bolsters the performance of ACAs.


Contextual Background

Given that corruption is widespread and its consequences are harmful, robust political will is required to foster government efforts in fighting corruption (Ankamah & Khode, 2017; Rotberg, 2009). Although political will may not be adequate for fighting corruption without having competent agencies, the existence of political will is undoubtedly a key pillar for advancing the war against corruption, and it often is indicative of the effectiveness of ACAs. In other words, the effectiveness of ACAs may not be recognized without an examination of political leadership.


Political Will in Fighting Corruption

Quah (2006) has underlined that fighting corruption is neither an impossible mission nor a dream; rather, it requires robust political leadership that is keenly committed to combating corruption. In his article, which is based on an assessment of several Asian countries, including Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Malaysia, and Indonesia, Quah posited that only Singapore and Hong Kong have exemplified the political will to control corruption, while the others are still confronting some challenges. China in particular faces some challenges in coordinating and cooperating effectively with its national agencies, because some of these agencies are overlapping with each other in terms of their function. (Guo & Li, 2015; Quah, 2015). China also lacks a sustained anti-corruption effort due to the country’s political leadership (Pei, 2018). In addition, Siddiquee (2010) has corroborated Quah’s view and highlighted that the lack of political will in Asian countries (such as Malaysia) is apparent, and corruption will likely worsen.

Recently, Quah (2020) noted that regardless of Indonesia’s efforts in fighting corruption across various sectors, police corruption is prevalent, and only sustained political will can minimize it. Other researchers have shed light on a list of comprehensive factors affecting the success of anti-corruption efforts in Malaysia. They found that despite the country’s efforts in combating corruption, it still lacks a robust political leadership (Kapeli & Mohamed, 2019; Muhamad & Gani, 2020). Quah (2020) took a further step by examining corruption scandals in six Asian countries, including Malaysia. He found that the strength of political will represents the state’s commitment to fighting corruption. Nevertheless, Malaysia and other countries were found to be in fragile positions, as they have been unable to hold certain corrupt offenders accountable for their crimes. By contrast, countries such as Singapore demonstrate solid political will due to their swift and decisive investigations prosecuting offenders.

Further existing research has identified several errors made by political leaders in Asian countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia. Notably, Quah (2021) concluded that the reliance on corrupt political leaders and the police does not deter corruption, but rather worsens it. He also added that relying on many ACAs with overlapping tasks, and limited preventative and investigative powers, likely would lead to a cycle of failure in fighting corruption. To break such a cycle of failure, corrupt political leaders and officials need to be held accountable for their criminal actions. Otherwise, they will continue abusing their power and change the role of established ACAs from watchdogs to attack dogs. ACAs are viewed as double-edged swords that can be utilized for good or evil purposes (Quah, 2010), but only truthful, transparent, and accountable governments will make the right choices to combat corruption across all sectors.

In some African countries, corruption remains a persistent epidemic, regardless of existing anti-corruption efforts. In Nigeria, for example, corrupt practices mostly are committed by the Nigerian government political elite. Although the country has made further anti-corruption efforts through establishing ACAs, corruption is still widespread due to the constant level of corruption at the government political level (Albert & Okoli, 2016; Otusanya, 2012). A recent study found that the absence of political support from political leaders in Nigeria is apparent, and this erodes the functioning of the established ACAs. In addition, the country is unable to bring many corrupt offenders to justice, demonstrating the failure of the government’s pledge to fight corruption. Such a failure also occurs because of the constant interference in the work of the established ACAs by the political leaders (Olujobi, 2021). With respect to Zambia, Mbao (2011) has argued that given the widespread and insidious nature of corruption, adopting declarations such as “zero tolerance with corruption” is insufficient. What is needed is unwavering political support that aims to combat corruption across the country, while promoting integrity, transparency, and accountability among all members of society.


Legal Mandates of Anti-Corruption Agencies

Having unwavering political will is critical in the fight against corruption. Nonetheless, it has been argued that competent agencies for fighting corruption can have a greater influence on controlling corruption in conjunction with strong political will. To examine this claim, the enactment of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has been seen as a significant step for Malaysia against corruption. The commission uses a three-pronged strategy responsible for detecting and investigating corruption offenses and for the processing and conducting of case trials. The MACC also provides consultation to public entities and fosters public sector governance (Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, 2021). Despite the legal mandates, opponents have criticized the MACC for lacking full autonomy. In contrast, those working for the government have viewed it as a powerful and independent commission that will be impactful in addressing corruption, compared to its predecessor ACAs (Siddiquee, 2010). More crucially, the successful arrest of several public officials and civilians (Muhamad & Gani, 2020), particularly the recent arrest and prosecution of former prime minister Najib Razak in 2020, has contributed to increasing the MACC’s operational credibility to curb corruption (Quah, 2021).

In Indonesia, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has similar legal mandates pertaining to the investigation and prevention measures as the MACC, including prosecutorial power (Corruption Eradication Commission, 2020; Ismail & Hapsoro, 2020). Although the KPK relies on imposing extensive corruption eradication measures, the agency does not seem to have an impact on changing people’s perception about corruption. Regarding public officials, for instance, anti-corruption measures have only led to increased uncertainty in discerning what constitutes a corrupt practice (Tidey, 2016). Prabowo and Suhernita (2018) also noted that regardless of the anti-corruption campaigns the KPK held to educate public officials about the danger posed by corruption, campaigning alone may not always be effective in deterring officials from engaging in corrupt practices. Moreover, Ramadani and Mamonto (2018) highlighted the need for the KPK to have full independence to perform its tasks more effectively, as it often is met with resistance and interference from many parties.

In the case of China, the country has received limited academic attention with respect to its ACAs’ legal mandates and efforts, unlike Indonesia and Malaysia. Regardless, China has several agencies responsible for curbing corruption, which requires interlinked coordination and cooperation among these agencies to ensure corruption is addressed swiftly and effectively. However, Quah (2006) has found that these agencies lack effective cooperation and coordination due to their overlapping tasks. Other researchers have argued for the need to reform the Chinese anti-corruption measures to ensure the high-level efficacy of its ACAs (Guo & Li, 2015). He (2016) has highlighted that the Central Discipline Inspection Commission (CDIC) of the Chinese Communist Party is the highest central authority, tasked with conducting the initial investigations of corruption cases involving high-ranking public officials. After their initial investigations, cases are further processed and investigated by the People’s Procuratorates of China. Moreover, the police are mandated to investigate corruption cases committed by non-state workers in private sectors. Overall, the present anti-corruption system in China is decentralized, and clearly overlapping authorities in the investigation of corruption crimes is apparent. Thereby, China’s ACAs should move from decentralization toward centralization (He, 2020).

Other ACAs are far from reducing corruption, despite their investigative and preventative powers resembling the MACC and the KPK. Okogbule (2006) has assessed the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Act of 2000 and the Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) Act of 2004. He concluded that such legal and preventative measures were ineffective in combating corruption. Albert and Okoli (2016) assessed the role of the EFCC in Nigeria from 2003 to 2012, and their findings corroborate Okogbule’s. They also took a further step in identifying factors that undermined the efficiency of the EFCC, which include continuous government interference, a lack of independence, poor funding, and weak laws. A recent study reiterated the aforementioned factors, implying that the EFCC is ineffective and that further improvements to the organizational structure are needed (Umar et al., 2018). The lack of effectiveness in curbing corruption in Africa is not only seen with the EFCC but also with Zambia’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), which lacks sufficient funding, operational independence, and comprehensive legal frameworks (Krambia-Kapardis, 2019; Malila, 2012). Nevertheless, academic research devoted to examining Zambia’s ACA legal mandates and prevention measures is scant.

In short, given that the aforementioned studies vary in their research designs and methodology, they serve as an overview illuminating what a resilient or weak political will can do against domestic corruption. Having robust support from the top government political leadership is imperative in obtaining tangible results against corruption. Additionally, there is still a need to further examine efforts made by the selected ACAs pertaining to investigative and preventative measures. Such an examination should provide an in-depth analysis to uphold other countries’ experiences in fighting corruption, particularly in developing countries. This examination will allow other countries to learn from each other on how to fill gaps that promote corruption, mainly at the institutional level of the government.


Contemporary Research

Recent empirical research has placed more emphasis on examining the underlying causes of corruption in both institutional and social contexts, as this influences the probability of reforming the political system (He, 2020). Other studies have examined the legal basis for anti-corruption prevention and enforcement measures (Najih & Wiryani, 2020), in conjunction with providing solutions to curb corruption (Muhamad & Gani, 2020). Further literature has analyzed corruption scandals in various Asian countries (Quah, 2020). In addition, this research has examined anti-corruption mechanisms meant for combating corruption in public institutions instead of examining the role played by established ACAs. These mechanisms include for example, complying with the provisions of international treaties, such as the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) and other related treaties (Mzumara & Ndhlovu, 2021).  

He (2020) analyzed 97 severe corruption cases of high-ranking and non-military officials who committed crimes between 2012 and 2015 in China. The study examined various facts about corruption and its forms, and investigated the underlying causes of corruption. One finding indicated that among the 97 officials examined, bribery was the primary offense committed. Of these officials, 92% were punished severely with imprisonments of 10 years or longer. Other findings highlighted that the causes of corruption resulted from ineffective law enforcement, a lack of transparency, and weak respect for the rule of law, as well as a lack of sufficient supervision over public entities. Other findings emphasized that corruption in China was not previously systemic, but has evolved rapidly into institutional and social corruption (He, 2020). Given that the study focuses on the significance of democracy and the rule of law, it lacks an in-depth presentation of the role played by the Chinese ACAs in the apprehension and investigation of the 97 officials. If such presentation was incorporated, this would have provided additional insights to better understand how the investigative measures were conducted in China.

Najih and Wiryani (2020) conducted a study aimed at identifying an effective legal basis for anti-corruption and law enforcement measures in Indonesia and Malaysia. The study utilized a qualitative approach based on a legal content analysis that used historical, jurisprudential, and comparative methods along with interviews. The analysis examined factors such as the legal basis for drafting criminal acts for corruption and their enforcement by government agencies, including courts’ discretion to process corruption cases. The study found that the legal basis for eradicating corruption is a key pillar in the enforcement of anti-corruption laws, and noted that the execution of anti-corruption laws in both countries has different effects. More importantly, the study identified two approaches to prevent and curb corruption, namely legal and non-legal approaches. The legal approach centers on enforcing the criminal law that both Malaysia and Indonesia possess. In contrast, the non-legal approach concerns preventative enforcement policies, which include launching law enforcement agencies and special courts for corruption that prosecute corrupt offenders (Nijah & Wiryani, 2020). As the study used a qualitative analysis, it barely touched upon the investigative and preventative measures of ACAs, but rather focused on the legal framework and legislation in place in both countries.

Other contemporary researchers focused on examining anti-corruption mechanisms to combat corruption in the public institutions of Lusaka, Zambia (Mzumara & Ndhlovu, 2021). This examination focused on evaluating the existing anti-corruption mechanisms in Zambia. The researchers used a hermeneutic phenomenological design, which consisted of 14 interviewed participants. The study found that the existing mechanisms for fighting corruption in public institutions in Zambia were insufficient due to inconsistency in the domestication of the provisions of anti-corruption conventions and protocols, such as the UNCAC. Another finding showed that the Zambian ACC lacks a planning unit in its operational structure that can engage donor institutions to provide funding for the commission beyond government funding, the latter of which is inadequate. Furthermore, the Anti-Corruption Act of 2012 lacks enforcing minimum mandatory sentences for corruption offenses and it does not consider serving ministers as public officials; therefore, these ministers will not be held accountable for any crime committed under the act (Mzumara & Ndhlovu, 2021). The study offers a comprehensive analysis of the anti-corruption mechanisms in Zambia, but its focus on the ACC is limited. Rather, the study mainly highlights aspects related to funding the commission and developing its staff competency by providing them with training.


Policy Implications

Several policy implications can be drawn from this paper. To begin, unyielding political leadership committed to combating corruption is the cornerstone for determining the extent to which policies are effective (Senior, 2006). For example, the creation of ACAs is seen as an effective policy for curbing corruption. However, without robust political will, they may be left ineffective due to a lack of government funding, inadequate personnel and training, and a lack of independence (Albert & Okoli, 2016; Krambia-Kapardis, 2019; Malila, 2012), all of which interferes with their daily tasks (Ramadani & Mamonto, 2018). If a government is obligated to show zero tolerance with corruption and further shows that no one has immunity from prosecution, this should demonstrate the robustness of political will for combating corruption. One policy implication of this paper is to ensure providing the established ACAs with the needed power to investigate and prevent corruption without interference. Unfortunately, some ACAs have limited power that mostly concerns prevention, rather than investigation (Quah, 2010). Such limited power likely will result in the ACAs’ inability to bring many corrupt officials to justice and to deter corrupt behavior in the social context.

Another policy implication indicates that policymakers should consider strictly enforcing anti-corruption laws to criminalize corruption offenses across all sectors. Regrettably, in some countries only those who bribe public officials are criminalized, whereas those who receive the bribe are not (Olujobi & Olujobi, 2020). Other states do not have any strict legislation to criminalize private sector bribery in either domestic or international trade (Boles, 2014). Currently, corruptors may be able to evade prosecution due to weak national laws that are unable to hold them accountable for their crimes in both the public and private sectors (Malila, 2012). On the contrary, countries exhibiting strict legislations against corrupt practices and responses to corruption in a swift and certain manner – such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Macau – have a lower corruption rate compared to countries that tolerate corruption (Quah, 2015; Quah, 2020; Wu, 2006). As a result, enforcing strict anti-corruption legislations to criminalize, for example, bribery in both the public and private sectors can be seen as a deterrent approach against corruption (Boles, 2014). However, it is worth noting that cultural and geographic factors, including the size of population and government, also can be influential in deterring or spreading corruption (Goel & Nelson, 2010).

Creating a national anti-corruption strategy is another policy implication to consider. The use of such a strategy is a key pillar for guiding not just the work of established ACAs, but also for educating and raising awareness of public and private entities, including the general population, about the threat posed by corruption. Raising awareness about the impact of corruption is a valuable source for enhancing anti-corruption interventions to detect and prevent corruption through public engagement and support (Zhang et al., 2019). Nonetheless, some existing anti-corruption strategies focus more on legal reform rather than encouraging public engagement and participation (Najih & Wiryani, 2020). As such, it is important to develop an anti-corruption strategy that is based on an integrated approach, covering not just the legislative aspects but also the economic, social, cultural, political, and ethical aspects. Creating pathways to empower and involve the public and private sector in a national anti-corruption strategy is key for fighting corruption. Thus, designing an anti-corruption strategy should be a top priority in every country, while noting that an anti-corruption strategy should be designed based on a country’s individual circumstances.


Suggestions for Future Research

Policymakers, academics, anti-corruption experts, and other criminal justice practitioners who are interested in delving into this topic should consider conducting qualitative studies using phenomenological methods or semi-structured interviews with anti-corruption experts and financial criminal investigators. The aim of such studies would be to examine and explore the investigative and preventative measures used to tackle corruption by established ACAs. Qualitative approaches studying corruption are important because they will help people understand corrupt acts in different environmental settings. In addition, qualitative research aims to answer questions that pertain to “how” and “why” (Najih & Wiryani, 2020), by gathering information from individuals who have first-hand knowledge. Conducting such studies will likely provide comprehensive and descriptive explanations of the nature of domestic corruption events and help develop the means to reduce corruption.

Furthermore, shedding additional light through case studies in different countries is crucial. Such studies will help people obtain a greater understanding of situations that are both complex and ambiguous, as corruption by nature is a complex social phenomenon. In particular, case studies will contribute to comprehending the situational factors of corruption incidents and developing future solutions for ACAs with investigative and preventative powers. In most actual cases, a decision must be made, although that decision might be right or wrong. Thereby, incorporating case studies in future research can yield significant analytical views (Salmon, 2017) that may help experts learn how to overcome challenges or problems that may occur when analyzing and investigating corruption cases.



Corruption remains a complicated issue that continues to grow in many nations, but curbing it is not an impossible mission. This mission requires a solid commitment from the top government political leadership. Without such a commitment, efforts undertaken by ACAs may not be effective. Extant literature has helped reveal how political will mitigates corruption and strengthens the performance of ACAs. At the same time, the literature has shown the dearth of available information devoted to examining and exploring the investigative and preventative measures taken by ACAs and their experts against domestic corruption.

Policymakers should account for the importance of developing an integrated national anti-corruption strategy that invites every member of society to participate. An awareness of corruption does not depend on public officials only, but rather every individual of society. Providing ACAs with the investigative power is crucial to tackle corruption more effectively. In addition, the enactment of anti-corruption laws can deter corrupt behavior, but the impact of such laws may differ from one country to another. Ultimately, future research should focus on examining and exploring the investigative and preventative measures of those ACAs that have succeeded in bringing many corrupt officials to justice with the hope of sharing lessons and expertise in fighting and preventing corruption.



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Photo by Nathaniel Tetteh on Unsplash


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