WARSAW, Poland—When Vatican officials visited Nigeria's foreign ministry March 21, at the start of the Pope's three-day visit, and requested the release of political prisoners, one name had been the object of a discreet international campaign.

Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, a former head of state, was in his 40s when he steered the country to civilian rule in 1979. When he was imprisoned five years ago for allegedly plotting a coup, his defense lawyers were jailed with him. So was his former vice president, who died recently due to a lack of medical care.

Now 63, Obasanjo is respected worldwide as head of the Africa Leadership Forum. He is also the honorary president of Transparency International (TI), an anti-corruption organization now active in more than 70 countries. It was TI's lobbying of Catholic bishops’ conferences that helped put Obasanjo's name on the Vatican's list.

"Many people involved in this campaign claim to be working from a non-religious basis,” said Lawrence Cockroft, a British TI board member. “But we're actually working from a foundation of ethics in which Christianity is an important factor. Some TI members, of course, have a more explicitly Christian motivation. The strong response from Catholics worldwide to Obasanjo's case is the latest confirmation of this.’

Founded in May 1993 as a non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO) by a German former World Bank vice-president, Peter Eigen, TI has grown meteorically into a powerful global movement, gaining an average of 14 new national chapters yearly.

One of the oldest, in the United States, is headed by Nancy Zucker Boswell in Washington, D.C. One of the newest, TI-Poland, is being launched May 6, and has already been asked by the country's government to draft an anti-corruption program.

Organizers say it's the first systematic attempt to build a coalition of interests against corruption, that incorporates America and the Third World, as well as Europe—East and West. But they stress corruption is growing, rather than diminishing, as Western governments turn a blind eye to their own nationals.‘“persuasive methods” of securing deals and contracts abroad.

Corruption World Wide

Several countries, from Canada and Mexico to Sweden and Turkey, have anti-corruption codes on their statute books, while the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act has provided a model for others to follow.

But the lack of effective laws has made the struggle an uphill one. Among recent documented cases, AIDS-tainted blood plasma, exported from Europe, caused deaths in a country where an official had been paid to receive it.

Meanwhile, bribery scandals in Belgium, Italy, South Korea, India, Colombia, and Brazil brought political corruption to “new heights” internationally, according to a TI communiquÈ.

"Grand corruption, generated by greed and not need, is distorting development decision-making and contributing to a deepening of poverty in many countries,” the communiquÈ added.

"It's also destroying professionalism in public life, undermining the rule of law, distorting trade, and giving rise to international competitive bribery rather than competition in terms of quality, price, and service.’

As a network of groups and individuals, TI denies trying to “expose villains and cast blame.’

Instead, it aims to raise awareness about the needs and possibilities of counter-action, by being “expert, global, independent, realistic, and courageous” at the same time.

It's less centralized that its human rights counterpart, Amnesty International, and allows each chapter maximum leeway in adjusting to local circumstances. But it also believes lessons have to be learned universally from anti-corruption moves during the past quarter century by the World Trade Organization, International Chamber of Commerce, and other bodies, if the “rhetoric of the past” is to become the “practice of the future.’

"The approach has to be evolutionary: one cannot change the way the world is operating at the stroke of a pen,” TI's brochure notes. “There needs to be a coalition of interests: governments and the private sector cannot achieve meaningful change by themselves. The rules of any particular market-place need to change for everyone at the same time.’

Supporters with Clout

With that aim in mind, TI has attracted influential backers. Besides General Obasanjo, leading members range from ex-German President Richard von Weizsacker to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez, from U.S. Federal Judge John Noonan to Russia's state librarian, Ekaterina Genieva.

At his Berlin secretariat, TI's German chairman, Peter Eigen, says the movement has avoided following any particular religious doctrine, and has stressed practical issues rather than ethical or religious postulates.

However, he believes Christian values can provide a “strong driving force” for anti-corruption campaigning.

"A close association with the Catholic Church can be a disadvantage in some parts of the world, particularly in Latin America where it's often seen as being closely identified with ruling elites,” Eigen told the Register. “However, in countries like Poland, where the Church has an entirely different image, it's very important to have its moral endorsement.’

That moral endorsement has been gradually taking shape. The secretary-general of Poland's Catholic bishops’ conference, Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, told a TI delegation his Church had been largely powerless to combat corruption under communist rule, when “forms of dishonesty were often viewed as honest,” and said attempts had been made after the return of democracy to “set Christian and humanistic values in contradiction.’

However, ethical economic practices should now be a “very important dimension” of current Church priorities in Eastern Europe, Bishop Pieronek added. He promised to support Tl's work.

In the Third World, leading Catholic backers include former Uruguayan bishops’ conference secretary-general, Msgr. Luis de Castillo, and Archbishop Isidore de Souza of Benin, who chairs sessions of his national chapter at his Cotonou residence.

In a March 22 message, read in all Benin churches, Archbishop de Souza urged Christians to take part in a newly convened National Forum against Corruption.

"Christian Churches, and the Catholic Church especially, have been the prime movers in the struggle against corruption here,” said Roger Gbegnonvi, a Benin TI activist. “In reality, only a Christian religious inspiration can sustain this struggle, and open the way to good governance.’

Active Protestant members in Africa include veteran South African anti-apartheid campaigner Bayers Naudee, and the Lutheran bishop of Malawi, Joseph Brumbwe. In a Register interview, Bishop Brumbwe said TI offered “light in the darkness” for many Third World countries menaced with the prospect of being made “corrupt and sinful” by Western economic practices. He believes the movement's work should be supported by Churches as part of their efforts to promote community development and make citizens aware of their right to an accountable democratic government.

p align="left">"All Churches should be preaching against corruption and bribery, and backing organizations which struggle with them,” Bishop Brumbwe continued. “Until justice and fairness are created, the Churches should be actively involved. Only where transparency and accountability are ensured in government and business will power remain with the people, giving them the last word.’

In Europe too, Christian communities have played a role. The ecumenical “Church and Development Joint Committee” of Germany's Catholic and Evangelical churches pledged to back TI's work at a 1996 Bonn hearing.

Lawrence Cockroft thinks it's an anomaly that the main pressure for business ethics and political accountability has so far come from secular groups. But his own British chapter has had contacts with local Churches over the “Jubilee Year 2000” campaign to cancel Third World debts. He expects closer links will soon be forged.

Denis Osborne, a fellow-British member, agrees. By slowing development and diverting resources, corruption mostly hits the poor, he points out. It also threatens health and safety, increases criminality and puts lives at risk. As public awareness of the problem grows, causing anger and frustration, so will political unrest and social instability.

These are just a few of the reasons why all Churches should be campaigning against it.

"The rich can pay bribes, but the poor can't. Nor can they ensure health and safety regulations are enforced, buildings stay upright and prices are fixed by fair competition,” Osborne told the Register. “Like Amnesty International, TI is concerned with protecting people from abuse and exploitation. Those with religious convictions will see it as an attempt to give a practical outworking to standards of conduct which are essential to human welfare and ordained by God.’

Osborne, a former diplomat with Britain's Overseas Development Administration, now works as a freelance consultant on governance, and was asked after a recent seminar in Ghana to address Church leaders too.

Religious Foundations

He sees a strong biblical basis for TI's work, such as Deuteronomy 16:19 ("You shall not pervert; you shall not show partiality; and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous"); or John the Baptist's words to tax collectors and soldiers in Luke 3:12-14 ("Collect no more than is appointed you…. Be content with your wages").

Very similar formulations can be found, Osborne points out, in the words of Confucius and the Buddha, as well as in Islam and the Hindu writings.

"We shouldn't give the impression that the Church itself is always wonderful and perfect—in some countries, TI members have highlighted corruption in Church circles too,” the diplomat said. “But there's clearly a strong theological basis for strong Christian partnership with other faiths in this area, without sacrificing Christian convictions or expecting others to disregard theirs.’

That theme was taken up in mid-February, when Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist leaders met to discuss “worldwide faith and development” at a London seminar organized by the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and World Bank president James Wolfensohn.

TI members are reluctant to predict whether the Vatican's March intervention will save the organization's president, Olusegun Obasanjo. The soft-spoken general's achievements include helping secure a Cuban withdrawal from Angola and the release of Nelson Mandela, as well as supervising elections in Mozambique and initialing negotiations for an end to Apartheid. Today, as a practicing Baptist, he's allowed a Bible in his prison cell, but no other literature. It's anticipated that Nigeria's October elections will be used to give the present military regime respectability.

John Paul II's Take

Whatever Obasanjo's fate, the Pope himself has left no doubt about his own position. In his Jan. 1 World Peace Day message, John Paul II urged Catholics not to be silent about the “plague of corruption.’

"This growing phenomenon surreptitiously and deceitfully enters numerous social circles, laughing at the law and trampling on principles of justice and truth,” the Pope said. “It isn't easy to struggle with corruption, since it presents many different faces. Crushed in one area, it often appears in another. It requires courage just to criticize corruption. To struggle efficiently against it needs the consistent application of authority and sacrificial help of all citizens who are led by a deep moral conscience.’

Denis Osborne thinks this has been an important encouragement to TI's work.

When the eighth International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) brought together government and NGO delegates from 93 countries in Lima last September, TI helped draft its “Declaration against Corruption,” setting out 40 detailed recommendations for action on a local and international level. In December, the organization also helped compile the historic Office For Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Convention. If it's ratified and enforced next autumn, this will abolish the tax-deductibility of company bribes and make it a domestic criminal offense to offer handouts to officials in foreign countries. Meanwhile, in January, a special panel was devoted to TI's “Islands of Integrity” concept at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

In February, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Michel Camdessus, told a meeting of TI-France that the IMF would be advocating anti-corruption projects similar to those outlined in TI's much-praised “National Integrity Systems Sourcebook.’

"TI chapters worldwide are giving a significant voice to public concerns, and being heard by Churches too, at a time when they're seeking to instruct Christians about the dangerous consequences of corruption,” Osborne told the Register. “In countries where corruption has become endemic and is difficult to eradicate, the question always arises as to whether there should be an amnesty for past misdeeds. This is one area where Church teachings on repentance and forgiveness are clearly relevant too.’

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Warsaw, Poland.