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Corruption has serious effects on development, human rights, peace and security. But too often it is viewed as a bureaucratic crime and its real-life impact on people is still overlooked and underestimated.  

International processes have the power to change this. The 2024 Summit of the Future in September can be a “roadmap to getting things right” – but so far, the agenda includes very little about corruption. On the margins of the UN Civil Society Conference in Nairobi in May, our webinar aimed to put it on the map.  

In this blog, Emily Wegener, our Evidence and Advocacy Officer, summarises the key takeaways from the webinar.  

Betrayed by the Guardians: The Human Toll of Corruption in Defence and Security from Transparency International UK on Vimeo.


When we think about corruption, our first thought is often about the culprits: politicians stealing large amounts of public money, businesspeople bribing officials to get their way, officials handing out contracts to friends or family. Public discussions as well as policy solutions often centre around political ramifications and changes to technical processes.  

As a result, we often think of corruption as a purely bureaucratic crime. The human suffering that it inflicts on populations across the world every day remains silent. To give it a voice, Transparency International Defence & Security published its latest briefing, Betrayed by the Guardians: The Human Toll of Corruption in Defence and Security. Sharing five personal experiences of corruption in defence and security from around the globe, drawn from first-hand conversations with those willing to give  testomony, and from investigations conducted by media and international organisations, it sheds light on the dramatic and direct effects on peace, security, and stability caused by corruption in the notoriously secretive and closed off defence and security sector. 

The panellists at our launch event on May 8 gave testimony to what happens when the very institutions responsible for the protection of civilians fail to fulfil their mandate, act with impunity, and break public trust. Here is what they said:  

  • Peggy Chukwuemeka, Executive Director of the Parent-Child Intervention in Nigeria, shared how her home region in Southeast Nigeria went from being one of the most peaceful parts of the country to one of the most unsafe. She told how violence by non-state armed groups led to the deployment of state security forces to the region. Random and unjustified checks on civilians, which seemed more like a demonstration of power, and extortion of bribes by security forces occurred frequently. But those affected were often scared to speak up or lacked safe reporting mechanisms. Peggy explained how the violence also had gendered dimensions, due to lack of female security personnel to make women in the communities feel safer, and higher vulnerability of female community members to violence and extortion.
  • Sayed Ikram Afzali, Chief Executive Officer of Integrity Watch, Transparency International’s Chapter in Afghanistan, shared his experiences from participating in the country’s National Procurement Commission. He heard reports that the soldiers were receiving much less food than they were supposed due to ongoing corruption in the military’s procurement system. The president of the commission ordered  a committee to be formed to investigate this claim, but even the formation of this committee, or any other kind of independent oversight of the security sector, was blocked by corrupt political networks. Surveys by Integrity Watch showed how examples like this inflicted high and ever-increasing bribe payments on an already impoverished population. Ultimately, pervasive and little-addressed corruption in the Afghan National Security Forces enabled the complete breakdown of their ability to function, which made the rapid Taliban takeover in 2021 possible.
  • Jacob Tetteh Ahuno, Programmes Officer at Ghana Integrity Initiative, Transparency International’s chapter in Ghana, shared how citizens in the border regions observed vehicles carrying goods in and out of the country via unapproved routes. Bribery of security guards stationed along these roads is one of the reasons why some of these vehicles were able to smuggle weapons into the country, which are then used by non-state armed groups to terrorise local communities. 
  • Najla Dowson-Zeidan, our former Advocacy and Engagement Manager and lead author of Betrayed by the Guardians, explained how, while writing the briefing, she found the common theme in the stories to be those with power abusing their power at the expense of vulnerable people, for their own profit. The title of the publication reflected how we rely on defence and security forces to protect our lives and security, so when corruption occurs in these sectors leading to people’s lives becoming endangered and unsafe, these forces have betrayed their mandate.  

What these stories show us is that the consequences of corruption go far beyond the economic and the political. It is a social issue, a development issue, and a human rights issue. But what can be done to improve the situation? And how can upcoming ‘big moments’ at the international level, such as the Summit of the Future and its key outcome, the Pact for the Future, be a pathway to much-needed systemic change?  

The speakers and audience at our webinar made several suggestions for what UN Member States can do this September at the Summit of the Future to accelerate systemic change:  

  • Acknowledge the devastating impact that corruption, as a root cause and consequence of conflict, has on human lives and livelihoods, and the pressing need to holistically address it across all sectors. 
  • Include clear commitments on addressing corruption in the Pact for the Future that include clear targets and objectives, and resourcing to achieve this. 
  • Learn from cases like Afghanistan by acknowledging corruption as a national security priority, especially in fragile contexts, and responding to it through a whole-of-society approach with a strong and supported civil society. 
  • Bridge the gaps between different policy communities so that corruption is no longer seen as separate from development, peace and security, and these communities come closer together to work on tackling these issues. 
  • Increase the transparency of defence budgets and allow for more independent oversight to enable civil society and the media to tackle corruption and increase accountability for human rights abuses of defence and security forces. 

The stories shared in our briefing and during the webinar paint a clear picture of the devastation and suffering caused by corruption. The time for change is now: The Summit of the Future offers a once-in-a-decade opportunity to bring forward innovative, ambitious and impactful systemic change to end corruption. Tackling it is a core part of our journey to sustainable peace and development. Our future is safer without corruption – let’s make a Pact that saves lives.

By Julien Joly, Thematic Manager, Corruption, Conflict and Crisis, Transparency International Defence & Security


Corruption, conflict and instability are profoundly intertwined. It has been shown time and again that corruption not only follows conflict but is also frequently one of its root causes.

Broadly speaking, corruption fuels conflict in two ways:

  1. By diminishing the effectiveness of national institutions; and
  2. By generating popular grievances.

Both of these elements contribute to undermining the legitimacy of the state, and in conflict this can empower armed groups who present themselves as the only viable alternative to corrupt governments. In turn this further contributes to the erosion of the rule of law, thus fuelling a vicious cycle.

Despite this, relatively little attention has been given to addressing corruption through peacebuilding efforts. As corruption is increasingly recognised for its role in fuelling conflict and insecurity around the world, it is imperative that initiatives seeking to address the root causes of violence and build lasting peace take this into consideration.

As a key element of the post-conflict peacebuilding agenda, Security Sector Reform (SSR) lends itself ideally to address the nexus between corruption and conflict. Applying the principles of good governance to the security sector to ensure that security forces are accountable offers legitimate avenues to mitigate corruption.

Nonetheless, evidence shows that strategies to mitigate corruption often fail to receive sufficient attention when it comes to designing and implementing SSR programmes. Such programmes overwhelmingly target tactical and operational reforms, designed for instance to train security forces or provide them with weapons and equipment, at the expense of structural reforms which would focus on bolstering accountability and reducing corruption. Similarly, in SSR policy frameworks developed by international and regional organisations, corruption is too often mentioned superficially and largely marginalised in favour of the ‘train-and-equip’ approaches described above. However, since the emergence of the concept of Security Sector Reform (SSR) in the 90s, there has been a shift from state-centric notions of security to a greater emphasis on human security. In this paradigm, based on the security of the individual, their protection and their empowerment, traditional ‘train-and-equip’ approaches to SSR have shown their limits.

It is clear that transparency, accountability, and anti-corruption are vital to ensure that security sector governance is effective. This means developing new approaches to SSR that, among other things, address corruption effectively.

In many areas, the anti-corruption community and the peacebuilding community would benefit from each other’s expertise. Reforming human resources management and financial systems, strengthening audit and control mechanisms, supporting civilian democratic oversight: these are areas where anti-corruption practitioners have been developing significant expertise over the past decades. They also happen to be key components of SSR.

But drawing from this expertise is only the beginning. In order to promote sustainable peace and contribute to transformative change in security sector governance, SSR needs to take a corruption-sensitive approach and address corruption as a cross-cutting issue. This requires implementing anti-corruption measures as a thread running through all SSR-related legislation, policies and programmes. In other words, this requires ‘mainstreaming anti-corruption in SSR’, which involves making anti-corruption efforts an integral dimension of the design, implementation and monitoring and evaluation of SSR policies and programmes.

While strengthening accountability and effectiveness in the security sector, anti-corruption provisions in SSR can be crucial in addressing some of the drivers and enablers of conflicts. Moreover, by upholding high standards of accountability, probity and integrity within the defence and security forces, anti-corruption fosters the protection against human rights abuses and violations. Ultimately, mainstreaming anti-corruption into SSR can harness its capacity to create political, social, economic and military systems conducive to the respect for human rights and dignity, ultimately contributing to long-lasting human security.

This blog is based on The Missing Element: addressing corruption through SSR in West Africa, a new report by Transparency International Defence and Security, available here.

La corruption dans le secteur de la sécurité a un impact néfaste à la fois sur le secteur de la sécurité lui-même et sur la paix et la sécurité au sens plus large, en alimentant conflits et instabilité. Des études quantitatives ont mis en évidence la correlation entre corruption et instabilité étatique. Les états dominés par des systèmes fondés sur le clientélisme sont plus susceptibles de souffrir d’instabilité. Il est peu surprenant que 6 des 10 pays ayant obtenu le score le plus bas dans l’Indice de perception de la corruption 2019 se trouvent également parmi les 10 pays les moins pacifiques dans l’Indice mondial de la paix 2020. La corruption nuit à l’efficacité des forces de sécurité et porte atteinte à la perception qu’ont les populations de la légitimité des autorités centrales.

En retour, cela alimente un sentiment de désillusion, menaçant ainsi le contrat social et, en fin de compte, l’état de droit. Dans certaines situations, la corruption peut également faciliter l’expansion des groupes extrémistes et non-étatiques et est devenue l’un des piliers des discours de recrutement. En dénonçant la corruption de l’Etat, ces mêmes groupes se présentent comme une alternative légitime aux gouvernements et aux élites corrompus.

Associée à des éléments tels que la pauvreté, les violations des droits de l’homme, la marginalisation ethnique et la proliferation des armes de petit calibre, la corruption du secteur de la sécurité a eu un effet alarmant sur la sécurité humaine en Afrique de l’Ouest. Au cours des trois dernières décennies, la corruption a appuyé certains des pires épisodes de violence dont la region a été témoin. Des guerres civiles au Liberia et en Sierra Leone au conflit actuel au Nigeria, où la corruption endémique a affaibli les forces de défense et de sécurité, alimenté la rancoeur à l’encontre des représentants des États et permis aux acteurs armés non-étatiques de combler le vide, la corruption a été un dénominateur commun de la plupart des conflits dans la région.

Pendant des décennies, la stabilité en Afrique de l’Ouest a été grandement perturbée par les conflits internes, souvent financés par la vente illégale d’armes ou l’extraction illicite de ressources naturelles. Que ce soit au Liberia, en Sierra Leone et en Côte d’Ivoire ou au Mali, au Burkina Faso et au Nigeria, la corruption a souvent conforté ces conflits et est à l’origine de mécontentements à l’égard des dirigeants politiques ainsi que de changements politiques violents.

En ébranlant la confiance du public et en nuisant à l’efficacité des institutions de défense et de sécurité, la corruption a porté atteinte à l’état de droit et a engendré une instabilité prolongée. Concrètement, cela a résulté pour de nombreuses personnes en une dégradation de l’accès aux services de base et a contribué à la création d’environnements propices aux violations des droits de l’homme.

Ce rapport soutient que, étant donné la grande menace que la corruption représente pour la paix et la stabilité en Afrique de l’Ouest, une attention accrue doit être portée aux travaux visant à lutter contre la corruption dans le cadre de la G/RSS. Il analyse le lien entre la corruption et les conflits en Afrique de l’Ouest par rapport à la prévalence des efforts visant à lutter contre la corruption dans les cadres de travail normatifs de la RSS, couramment utilisés en Afrique de l’Ouest, ainsi que dans un échantillon de pays entreprenant une G/RSS.

Par le biais de ce cadre de travail, notre recherche révèle le délaissement des efforts de lutte contre la corruption au profit d’approches de « formation et d’équipement » plus techniques. En conséquence, les structures de gouvernance sous-jacentes restent non affectées et les réseaux de corruption intacts, ce qui représente une occasion manquée d’exploiter les capacités de la G/RSS afin d’entraîner un changement transformateur.

This policy brief explains how corruption in the security sector has a detrimental impact both on the security apparatus itself and on wider peace and security, by fuelling tensions and adding to conflict and instability.

Quantitative studies have underscored how corruption and state instability are correlated, with states dominated by narrow patronage-based systems more susceptible to instability. It is little surprise that six out of the 10 lowest-scoring countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index 2019 are also among the 10 least peaceful countries in the Global Peace Index 2020. Corruption undermines the efficiency of security forces, damages populations’ conception of the legitimacy of central authorities and feeds a sense of disillusionment, which threatens the social contract, and ultimately the rule of law. In some situations, corruption can also facilitate the expansion of non-state and extremist groups and has become one of the lynchpins of recruitment narratives, which position these groups as a legitimate alternative to corrupt governments and elites.

Intersecting with factors that includes poverty, human rights violations, ethnic marginalisation and proliferation of small arms, security sector corruption has had an alarmingly negative effect on human security in West Africa. For the past three decades, corruption has underpinned some of the worst episodes of violence the region has witnessed. From civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone to the ongoing conflict in Nigeria, where rampant corruption has weakened defence and security forces, fuelled resentment against states’ representatives and enabled non-state armed actors to fill the vacuum, corruption has been a common denominator of most conflicts in the region.

February 25, 2021 – Stabilisation and peacebuilding efforts in West Africa are being undermined by a failure to address underlying corruption and a lack of accountability in the region’s security sectors, according to new research by Transparency International.

The Missing Element finds that strengthening accountability and governance of groups including the armed forces, law enforcement and intelligence services – not just providing training and new equipment – is a crucial but often neglected component to successful security sector reform (SSR).

Read the report.

By analysing examples from across West Africa, the report details how the high threat of corruption has undermined the rule of law, fuelled instability, and ultimately resulted in SSR efforts falling short of their objectives.

The report serves as a framework for policymakers to assess how corruption is fuelling conflict, then embed anti-corruption measures to reform the security sector into one which is more effective at maintaining peace and more accountable to the population it serves.


Natalie Hogg, Director of Transparency International’s Defence & Security Programme, said:

“Stabilisation and peacebuilding efforts across West Africa have focussed largely on providing training and equipment but rarely resulted in major change. This report details how a focus on anti-corruption and strengthening accountability has been the missing element. Only by recognising and understanding the impact of corruption in the defence and security sector and taking steps to combat it can these programmes hope to transform the sector into one which is both efficient and accountable.”


The Missing Element analyses security sector reform and governance in five countries that our research has previously flagged as being at a high risk of defence sector corruption: Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Niger and Nigeria.

It concludes these interventions fell short because the focus was on providing practical support such as training programmes and new weapons and equipment (with between 80-90% of funding for SSR initiatives typically spent on these) rather than addressing underlying corruption.

The report assesses the main corruption risks in West Africa which are undermining SSR efforts, including:


Financial management

Limited or ineffective supervision over how defence budgets are spent present a huge corruption risk, but reforms to improve transparency in this area have often been neglected as part of SSR programmes.

National defence strategies in Niger and Nigeria are so shrouded in secrecy that it is impossible to determine whether defence purchases are legitimate attempts to meet strategic needs or individuals embezzling public funds. In Mali, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire, a lack of formal processes for controlling spending has resulted in numerous examples of unplanned and opportunistic purchases.

Defence sector oversight

Effective oversight and scrutiny of the defence sector by parliamentarians is essential to increase accountability and reduce opportunities for corruption, but despite being a key pillar of SSR, parliamentary oversight remains poor in West Africa.

In Ghana, only a handful of the 18 members of the Parliament Select Committee on Defence and Interior have the relevant technical expertise to perform their responsibilities. In Mali, the parliamentary body charged with scrutinising the defence sector was chaired by the president’s son until mid-2020. In Niger, the National Audit Office, which is responsible for auditing the defence sector’s spending, published its audit for 2014 in 2017.



  • SSR policymakers at institutional level, such as United Nations (UN), African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to publicly acknowledge the nexus between corruption and conflict, and adapt SSR policy frameworks accordingly.
  • SSR practitioners operating in West Africa to undertake corruption-responsive SSR assessments to better inform the design of national SSR strategies and in all phases of their implementation.
  • SSR practitioners to build on anti-corruption expertise to ensure that corruption is addressed as an underlying cause of conflict.


Notes to editors:

Security sector refers to the institutions and personnel responsible for the management, provision and oversight of security in a country. Broadly, the security sector includes defence, law enforcement, corrections, intelligence services and institutions responsible for border management, customs and civil emergencies.

Security sector reform (SSR) is a process of assessment, review and implementation as well as monitoring and evaluation led by national authorities that has as its goal the enhancement of effective and accountable security for the state and its peoples without discrimination and with full respect for human rights and the rule of law.

The five countries analysed in this report (Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Niger and Nigeria) were previously assessed in Transparency International Defence & Security’s Government Defence Integrity Index.


About Transparency International Defence & Security

The Defence & Security Programme is part of the global Transparency International movement and works towards a world where governments, the armed forces, and arms transfers are transparent, accountable, and free from corruption.

For decades, stability in West Africa has been severely disrupted by internal conflicts, commonly financed by the illegal sale of arms or the illicit extraction of natural resources. From Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire, to Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria, corruption has often underpinned these conflicts and is the basis for grievances against political leaders and violent political change.

By eroding public trust and undermining the efficiency of defence and security institutions, corruption has undermined the rule of law and contributed to sustained instability. In practice, this has resulted in weaker access to basic services for many and has contributed to the creation of environments conducive to human rights violations.

This report argues that, given the significant threat that corruption presents to peace and stability in West Africa, a greater focus should be placed on anti-corruption work within security sector reform and governance (SSR/G). It analyses the nexus between corruption and conflict in West Africa against the prevalence of anti-corruption efforts in normative SSR frameworks, commonly used in West Africa, and in a sample of countries undertaking SSR/G.

Through this framework, our research reveals the neglect of anti-corruption efforts, to the benefit of more technical “train-and-equip” approaches. As a result, this leaves underlying structures untouched and corrupt networks undisturbed, and represents a missed opportunity to harness the capacities of SSR/G to lead to transformative change.

This project is conducted in collaboration with the Ghana Integrity Initiative.

Ghana is often seen as the good governance frontrunner in West Africa. The country is also a strong contributor to international peacekeeping missions, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, and the Accra-based Ghana Armed Forces Staff and Command College (GAFCSC) and Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training College (KAIPTC) are respected training hubs hosting military personnel from across the region.

However, the Government Defence Integrity Index (GDI) 2020 for Ghana highlighted key areas of continued corruption risk within the defence sector, including a lack of transparency in procurement, limited oversight over key defence issues, and limited acknowledgement of corruption as a strategic issue on military operations.

Our project, which began in March 2019 and is funded by the UK Department for International Development, aims to work with national Ghanaian defence institutions, civil society and media organisations, and parliamentarians to strengthen their anti-corruption expertise and their capacity to implement effective change. Key project activities include conducting Leadership Days for senior defence officials to introduce them to corruption risks and best practice; supporting national civil society and media in engaging in coordinated advocacy activities; conducting capacity-building workshops for parliamentarians responsible for defence oversight; and working with KAIPTC and GAFCSC to strengthen anti-corruption training for military personnel.

In strengthening the expertise and capacity of Ghanaian institutions, Transparency International – Defence & Security and the Ghana Integrity Initiative aim to support the country’s efforts in becoming a regional lead on defence anti-corruption issues and improving the integrity of their international peacebuilding activities.