Nine West African countries shot up while nine others sank lower in the 2008 Transparency International (TI) ranking of perceptions of corruption in 180 countries.
Of the 180 countries surveyed, eight West African countries placed in the bottom 20: Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, and finally, Guinea placing sixth from last.
Cape Verde, the only West African country to have graduated to the UN status of middle-income country, ranked 47.
In a public statement, Chairman Huguette Labelle of the TI corruption watchdog group called corruption in poor countries an ongoing humanitarian disaster. "In the poorest countries, corruption levels can mean the difference between life and death when money for hospitals or clean water is at play."
Cape Verde, Ghana, Mali, Benin, Niger, Mauritania, Nigeria, Togo, and Liberia, improved their ranks, with Benin, Nigeria and Togo making significant gains.
Falling this year were Senegal, Gabon, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, Chad and Guinea, with Senegal registering the steepest drop.
Gambia's rank of 158 did not change.
Hovering among the 10 countries perceived as most corrupt is the oil-rich, but still economically-depressed Equatorial Guinea, which comes 171st on the list. Oil has boosted the country's average annual salary to more than US$8,000 for those who work, which is more than 10 times the average salary of its Sub-Saharan neighbours, according to 2006 World Bank data.
|Oil plentiful, water scarce in Equatorial Guinea|
But despite this, less than half of the population has access to clean water, and one in 10 babies dies in birth, according to the UN.
A high-ranking government minister who requested anonymity says the country's low ranking on TI's corruption perception index is dubious, "These people [Transparency International] always write the same thing. I do not know on what basis, using what criteria, they use to place Equatorial Guinea so low."
TI defines corruption in the public sector as "the abuse of public office for private gain" and draws its data from 13 polls by 11 independent institutions.
The surveys target businesses and experts, leaving largely un-captured, the views of unemployed people, who form at least half the population in most of Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Labour Organisation.
Opposition leader Juan Nzo with the Convergence for Social Democracy party in Equatorial Guinea says his country's rank is mostly justified, "The more money oil it generates, the more that goes either directly or indirectly into leaders' pockets. A lot of corruption takes place in the public sector, for example through contracts negotiated directly between business leaders and a government minister without going through an international bidding process. This is more the case as public works are being constructed throughout the country," Nzo told IRIN.
Mechanic Macoumba M'Bodji says Senegal's drop from 71 to 85 reflects a sad reality, "I think corruption is endemic here in Senegal. Every part of society is touched. From top to bottom, it is all spoiled. Senegal's leaders are not helping; the situation has become catastrophic with the current government [election of President Abdoulaye Wade in 2000]."
M'Bodj told IRIN the near-one party leadership by the Democratic Senegalese Party silences dissent.
Opposition parties largely boycotted the August 2007 legislative election, demanding electoral reforms and decrying the February 2007 presidential election that re-elected President Wade to a second term as fraudulent, even though international monitors deemed it to be largely free and fair.
|Senegal slumps in new rank|
A 2007 constitutional amendment made the head of the newly-created Senate, a presidential appointment, President Wade's successor if he cannot finish out his term.
Dominique Correa, a member of TI's Senegalese chapter, says lack of political will and of an independent justice system have led to a resigned acceptance of corruption in public life, "People have lowered their hands [in the fight against corruption] and just find it normal."
But the director of President Wade's cabinet, Babacar Gaye, says the President is committed to stamping out corruption, as evidenced by his recent decree to regulate how public works contracts are awarded. "We hope to get a better rank in the next TI survey. I am sure that had they [TI] carried out the survey after we put into place this regulation, we would have done better."
The International Finance Corporation report, Doing Business 2009, ranks Senegal among the world's top 10 countries for its rigorous business regulations.
The country advanced 12 places in the survey to 138. Youths in Monrovia welcomed the news. "Yes, I think my country is less corrupt this year," said 30-year-old Kolubah Zazay, "It is clear our government wants to come down hard on corruption by setting up the anti-corruption commission."
After winning office in 2005, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf vowed zero tolerance for corruption.
Photo: Christopher Herwig/UNMIL
|President Johnson-Sirleaf has vowed to stamp out corruption|
International donors, including the International Finance Corporation, had called for an anti-co rruption commission to fight the legacy of graft and embezzlement following a 14-year brutal civil war that ended in 2003.
Critics of the commission created August 2008 complain its members have not been fairly selected, which its chairman, Francis Johnson Morris dismisses, "They do not have an iota of evidence," she told IRIN. "If they had any proof, they would have brought it forward during my confirmation hearings. People who make noise are just considered cheap talkers."
She continued, "The issue of corruption is something that touches every sector of our society. I expect the commission to step on many toes. I look forward to it." said Morris.
But the head of West Africa's UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Mazzitelli, says commissions are not enough to stave off the global phenomenon of corruption. "The proliferation of anti-corruption efforts and plans of action without the empowerment of those commissions with executive and prosecutorial powers will not yield any change."
The UNODC has linked the increase of international drug cartels transiting through West Africa in recent years to government corruption.
Liberian security forces reported their largest drug seizure to date, more than two tons of cocaine, in February 2008.
Despite the hurdles to wiping out corruption, 28-year old Liberian university student Tina Momo remains cautiously optimistic. "Our government is committed to fighting corruption… But yes, I still see it as a big challenge."