"Corruption creates a way to perpetuate the regime, and one of the ways they perpetuate the regime is to buy votes, so that really affects the quality of democracy," said Murisa, noting that a government deemed corrupt inspires little trust in the people, whose voices are often silenced or ignored when they speak out against graft.
Because the poor rely more on public services, they spend the largest percentage of their income on bribes to officials and even school administrators, so corruption pushes the most vulnerable further into poverty. In Sierra Leone, 69 percent of people think the police are corrupt, and in Nigeria the figure rises to 78 percent, said UNODC's Lapaque.
Floundering anti-graft war
Despite efforts to increase transparency and accountability throughout the continent, the war against graft in sub-Saharan Africa has been on the decline over the last decade, according to the World Bank's 2013 World Governance Indicators. With the exception of South Africa and Botswana, sub-Saharan Africa scored in the lowest percentile for the control of corruption worldwide.
"If a country's [public] service is staffed by civil servants based in nepotism or bribery, rather than merit and competence, it creates significant problems," Lapaque said. "Not only are fewer job opportunities made available to those who deserve them, but the rule of law is undermined and economic growth is stifled."
Weak governance often undermines security services, which can lead to an increase in local and transnational organized crime, including arms and drug trafficking. It can also undermine human rights. "It's really very often a failure of our government to be efficient gatekeepers of our resources, and of them allowing leakages within and out of our economies," Murisa said.
To fight corruption, governments first need to recognize that it is a real problem. "They need to ensure that national structures in charge of fighting corruption are well resourced, and staff have the capacity to do their work in an independent way, without political interference," said Marie-Ange Kalenga, Transparency International's West Africa regional coordinator.
"They also need to ensure there is an appropriate legal framework, in line with the regional and the international instruments on anti-corruption, and to educate ordinary citizens and promote integrity at the individual level," she said.
Lapaque said this could mean creating an independent anti-corruption entity, or giving political independence to judges and prosecutors. Civil society groups and NGOs can help in developing codes of conduct, promoting integrity, and advocating the adoption of appropriate legislation, as well as the training of anti-corruption agencies, added Kalenga.
Empowering citizens to denounce corruption and to seek redress if they are victims of corruption could also help, as could making budgets more transparent and including people in the participation of public spending, Lapaque suggested.
"Transparency is an important factor in building democratic governments that are accountable to their people," said Tom Cardamone, GFI's managing director. "I think that's what we need to do to stem the flow of illicit money and stop this corruption."
Murisa said, "If we just got back 50 percent of what we are currently losing to corruption, it could mean things like advancements in education or better road systems. We could make sure our children are back at school, we could make sure we are maintaining social welfare systems, and we could make sure our healthcare delivery systems are working properly."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]