By Tabia Princewill
LAST week through this column I discussed social mobility as a means to tackle corruption: if talent and merit determined success, corruption which exists and is facilitated in part because the wrong sort of individuals have access to government positions, etc., would be lessened. But why are people corrupt in Nigeria? It is important to tackle this question beyond the obvious answer, being greed and a desire for an increase in economic clout or status.

As I said last week, it seems corruption has become an act of survival. Without functioning public healthcare or education,   corruption becomes a means to elevate one’s family and to shield them from the routine suffering and discomfort which afflicts Nigerians at almost all levels. It is virtually impossible to obtain any government services without connections within a specific office and this too encourages corruption from Nigerians who have seen that fighting the system doesn’t pay.

The only reward for that is frustration or the denial of one’s dues. So corruption is a self-perpetuating cycle in Nigeria: the more people are corrupt, the more the system suffers (consequences being a lack of development or economic prosperity for the majority) but the more the system suffers, the less opportunities to make an honest living there are, therefore encouraging people to see corruption as a legitimate means of survival. The system, as represented by those involved in corrupt acts,enables and persuades individuals to ruthlessly acquire power (hence electoral violence) so that they can create special interests, coalitions that work hard to guarantee their self-perpetuating reign. But is it possible to make these people see that another way is possible?

One of the fundamental problems of Nigerian leadership, as I previously stated, is the calibre of persons one finds in our states and public administrations. This has little to do with an elite background or lack thereof and everything to do with education.

Studying governance and political systems teaches you a thing or two about how and why things work (or don’t work). Sadly, many of our leaders beyond their flaunted decades of political experience (which amounts to becoming experts at forming coalitions of allegedly corrupt individuals to support their power bids while for example ignoring party directives) do not have the policy experience or intellectual exposure to the ideas that could actually make a difference in the lives of Nigerians. The first thing one must bear in mind is “politicians, despite their rhetoric to the contrary, do not typically respond to ethical concerns unless those concerns square with their vested interests” (Richard Paul, Power, Vested Interests and Prejudice, a paper presented at the International Conference on the Ethics of Development, 1978). So, for all our talk of the average Nigerian’s lack of morals, it isn’t so much that we all don’t know right from wrong (or that we have forgotten) but rather that it is no longer in anyone’s interest for society to be sane, orderly or law abiding. In Nigeria, it is not in the elite’s unfortunately short-sighted interest for the economy to work for all.

The common good in Nigeria does not seeminglyprovide financial pay-offs. Instead, the creation and maintenance of policies, which undermine the poor, discourage or halt their participation at all levels is extremely rewarding, particularly in regions where mass education is flawed or inexistent. To counter this, we must therefore find practical incentives or reasons for rich, powerful Nigerians to abide by the rule of law. We must look beyond punishment for rule breakers (a necessity, yes, but it won’t be enough given current levels of desperation and inequity).We must realise and accept that those holding our country back are not the poor, guilty of petty offenses and crimes related to the dehumanising effect of poverty but rather the rich who know better (after all, they travel and see how things are done in other climes and are generally well behaved abroad). Therefore, government must make it in the elite’s interest for the rich to do better for the rest of the country.

Strengthening our institutions would go a long way towards bringing impunity and dysfunction to an end but the truth is, even with judicial reform (signed into law by former President Goodluck Jonathan no less) implementation remains the paramount issue. For some who have benefited from the largesse and distortion of a rent-seeking system, it might be too late to appeal to their conscience. What we might then need is shock therapy, aka “big bang”, reforms whereby change happens in one fell swoop rather than gradually so as not to give vested interests time to strategise, recover and further distort or damage new policies. What the Buhari government is not doing is building popular support for its reforms: the vested interests’ spiel and “wailing” is not countered.

A strategy would be to devise compensations for vested interests, as their main fear and the reason for their opposition to reform is sheer panic as to what would happen to them should the status quo change.We need to communicate and reinforce the idea, in Nigeria, that competition is good for business and that hoarding opportunities, establishing monopolies is detrimental in the long-term. Indeed, innovation supports survival and only in a competitive political economy will we build businesses with longevity.

Of all the previously rich families or wealthy military administrators in the ’70s and ’80s few survived till date precisely because they didn’t seek to invest in sustainable ventures beyond their tenures or when they did they refused to innovate or improve on products. Complacency, a love of mediocrity and a lack of education (real education, not just certificates and degrees and by this I mean vision, depth and critical thinking), these are the issues holding the Nigerian elite back, thus making sure that the elite in this country is not at par with its global peers. If the government can speak to the elite in terms it understands, reform might be a little less difficult.

Special  courts

Corruption is definitely fighting back, the best way it knows how,by incessantly adjourning cases for frivolous reasons, frustrating public opinion and promoting a lack of interest. To secure convictions we need our own equivalent of the “Untouchables” on the US Police force which brought down the infamous gangster Al Capone.

This group of “unbribable” men resisted mafia intimidation. It might be difficult, but it is not impossible, to find 20 persons of honour, judges whose responsibility it would be to try cases that need special consideration due to the severity of the alleged crimes. The Administration of Criminal Justice Act (2015) stipulates cases must be heard daily but it seems the public and the judiciary themselves have forgotten this given the propensity to stay proceedings and grant bail to persons accused of heinous crimes and who, moreover are flight risks.

As for the illegal and themselves corrupt perpetual injunctions forbidding certain people from being investigated, arrested or prosecuted, they are an affront to the very idea of justice. Nigeria needs special courts to try corrupt cases so as to restore public confidence in the possibility of powerful people paying for wrong-doing. If we cannot achieve this in Nigeria, then we can forget about achieving anything else.

President Buhari

There have been many criticisms of various members of his cabinet. Again, the question of what qualifies people for political appointments must be posed and the answer shouldn’t be “they’ve been doing this job for X amount of years”.

The difference between a successful chief executive and an unsuccessful one boils down to his team: with truly competent hands, change, although laborious, is possible. Where are the new ideas and policies from ministers to support the Commander-in-Chief’s vision? Leopards don’t change their spots. If some cabinet members didn’t come up with anything revolutionary while in opposition, it is doubtful they’ll do so now, ironically, that they have the opportunity. It might be time for something new.


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