What is kleptocracy? Definition and examples

A kleptocracy is a thieving, corrupt government whose politicians and civil servants abuse their powers of state to steal money for personal gain; to feather their own nests, i.e., rule by a thief or thieves.

Those in power steal the country’s national resources.

In a kleptocracy, people in charge seek personal gain and status at the expense of taxpayers and other citizens.

In most cases, the leaders in a kleptocracy aim to remain in control through collusion, corruption and nepotism (favoring relatives and friends).

The leader, lawmakers, and public officials in a kleptocracy treat their country’s treasure as if it were their own personal bank account or treasure chest. They typically pretend to be honest, but are, in fact, exceedingly greedy and corrupt.

Those in a kleptocracy who abuse their powers and steal from the country are called kleptocrats. Kleptocrats exploit the national wealth and use the proceeds for their own gain.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that in the English language, the term was first used with its modern meaning in 1819, in reference to Spain. Etymology is the study of the origin of words.

Examples of kleptocracy

Russia: immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia became ruled by Mafia-friendly government members who allocated themselves valuable shares during the privatization of many of the country’s companies. They also accepted bribes to the tune of billions of dollars from foreign businesses, and siphoned off international aid into their own private offshore bank accounts.

Equatorial Guinea: on September 29th, 2011, eleven sports cars worth $5 million were seized by French police just off the Champs-Élysées in Paris. They formed part of the wealth amassed in France by the Obiangs, Equatorial Guinea’s ruling family – President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and family – where more than 70% of the oil-rich country’s population lives below the poverty line.

According to Forbes magazine, President Obiang, whose net worth is estimated to exceed $600 million, is one of the wealthiest heads of state in the world.

Egypt: Hosni Mubarak, who was president from 1981 to 2011, has been estimated to have a net worth with his immediate family of $70 billion. According to theweek.com, some of it is tied up in properties in Egypt, London, New York and Los Angeles. The rest is thought to be stashed away in offshore accounts and foreign banks.

Kleptocracy and pervasive corruption
In a kleptocracy, corruption becomes pervasive. Dodging paying taxes is fair game for the average citizen, given that the president and politicians are lining their pockets with tax money. Bribing police officers and public officials is a way of life – in fact, without backhanders things might never get done.

Below is a list of kleptocracy leaders and their estimated net worth (Source: Transparency International):

  • $15 billion – $35 billion: Hajji Muhammad Suharto (1921-2008), former president of Indonesia.
  • $10 billion or more in 1986 ($21.6 billion in 2014 dollars): Ferdinand Marcos (1917-1989), former president of the Philippines.
  • $5 billion: Mobutu Sese Seko (1930-1997), former military dictator and president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (which he renamed Zaire in 1971).
  • $2 billion to $5 billion: Sani Abacha (1943-1998), former president of Nigeria.
  • $1 billion: Slobodan Milošević (1941-2006), former president of Serbia.
  • $300 million to $800 million: Jean-Claude Duvalier (1951-2014), known as ‘Baby Doc’, former president of Haiti.
  • $600 million: Alberto Fujimori (born 1938), former president of Peru.
  • $114 million to $200 million: Pavlo Lazarenko, former Ukrainian prime minister.
  • $100 million: Arnoldo Alemán (born 1946), former president of Nicaragua.
  • $78 million to $80 million: Joseph Estrada, former president of the Philippines.

Anti-Corruption Award 2016

In December 2016, Brazil’s Carwash Task Force (Força-Tarefa Lava Jato) was selected by Transparency International as the winner of the Anti-Corruption Award for 2016.

The Carwash Operation started as a local money-laundering probe and grew into the country’s biggest investigation ever. It uncovered cases of state capture and corruption across Brazil.

Transparency International said:

“The state prosecutors from the Carwash Task Force have been on the front line of investigations in Brazil since April 2014. Dealing with one of the world’s biggest corruption scandals, the Petrobras case, they have investigated, prosecuted, and obtained heavy sentences against some of the most powerful members of Brazil’s economic and political elites.”

“To date, there have been more than 240 criminal charges and 118 convictions totalling 1,256 years of jail time, including high-level politicians and businesspeople previously considered untouchable.”

“With their national campaign “10 Measures against Corruption”, they pushed for legislative reforms to enhance the capacity of public administrators to prevent and detect corruption, and law enforcers to investigate, prosecute and sanction it.”

Mercedes de Freitas, Chair of Transparency’s International Anti-Corruption Award Committee, said billions of dollars literally ‘vanished’ in Brazil due to corruption and its citizens had had enough of the nation’s dishonesty.

Ms. de Freitas said:

“The Carwash Task Force is doing great work in ensuring the corrupt, no matter how powerful they are, are held to account and that justice is served,” said Mercedes de Freitas, Chair of Transparency’s International Anti-Corruption Award Committee. “We are pleased to award the Brazilian prosecutors behind the Carwash Task Force with the 2016 Anti-Corruption Award for their relentless efforts to end endemic corruption in Brazil.”

Transparency International’s Anti-Corruption Award honors remarkable individuals, organizations and other entities across the globe, including prosecutors, government officials, journalist, and civil society leaders who expose and fight corruption.

Video – Structure of a Kleptocracy

In this video, the speaker explains that a kleptocracy is a states that is actively structured as a criminal organization, whose objective is the extraction and concentration of resources for personal benefits.