Obasanjo’s recent treatise on corruption in Nigeria is a must-read for policymakers because it essentially bought into what several academics and public intellectuals have been saying over the years about the endemic ‘war against corruption’ in the country.
In a lecture in Abeokuta, Ogun State, on “The Role of the Church in the Fight Against Corruption in Nigeria”, the former President and military Head of State was quoted as saying that despite all the efforts in the fight against corruption in Nigeria, including enacting anti-graft laws, the scourge seemed to be worse now than it was in 1999. Obasanjo created the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) in 2000 and the Economic Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in 2003.
In the lecture, which took place on April 8, 2017, Obasanjo took a dim view of the effectiveness of these contraptions in the whole ‘war’ against corruption. He was quoted as saying: “How far has this [the use of contraptions like the EFCC or the ICPC] actually helped in the eradication or better still, in reduction of corruption in the country? Unfortunately, the act [corruption] has continued to spread like a wildfire, from federal to the states, to the local government level and to other authorities, even within the educational sector in Nigeria – from secondary to university levels.
“A student bribing lecturer for higher grades is corruption. Lower clerics have been found to be bribing their way through to be promoted even in the ‘house’ of God. Evidence also abounds in which female staff enjoys unqualified rapid promotion in many offices and organizations, particularly among the ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs).”
Essentially Obasanjo told us that corruption is pervasive and manifests in different forms and that our current system of fighting it has not been effective.
On the causes of corruption, Obasanjo was quoted as saying in the lecture:
“The rise of public administration and the discovery of oil and natural gas are two major events seen to have led to the increase in corrupt practices in the country. The government has tried to contain corruption through the enactment of laws and the enforcement of integrity systems, but success has been slow in coming.”
Obasanjo was right on the role of public administration and oil in the emergence and exacerbation of corrupt practices. What the former President did not bring out forcefully, however, is that it was not ‘public administration’ on its own that was the root cause of corruption but rather the alienating character of the colonial State that created the public administration. The colonized people did not have any sense of co-ownership of the State and therefore did not have any emotional attachment to the state’s institutions, including its public administration. In fact in several Nigerian languages, the colonial civil service was translated in a way that expressed its alienating character. Among the Igbos, for example, the colonial civil service was called the ‘Whiteman’s work’, a terminology that implies exclusion or people’s lack of emotional involvement in the colonial state’s public administration. Precisely because it was seen not as their own but ‘Whiteman’s work’, ‘outsmarting’ the public administration system was seen as heroic by various in-groups.
As it was with the colonial public administration so it remains today with the Nigerian public administration! And the reason is because the project of nation-building, which would have changed people’s emotional attachment to the State and its institutions through creating a sense of co-ownership, has not been very successful. If anything, it is now mired in crisis, creating alienation, which leads to several groups and individuals de-linking from the State into primordial identities. And contrary to what some think, this is not limited to groups like Boko Haram, Biafra agitators, Niger Delta militants, Oduduwa irredentist or those who talk of ‘the North’ as if it is a country within a country. It includes the wealthy who have no qualms bribing their way out of situations, the law enforcement officers who do not mind turning the other way on little inducement and the politicians and top civil servants who are treated as local heroes and heroines because they populated government jobs with their ‘people’.
Following from the above, the discovery of oil as Obasanjo rightly noted, increased the opportunities for State plunder by contending ethnic and regional factions of the elite. And because the State controls the oil resource, the struggle for State power itself also became anarchic. Apart from political power becoming a means for wealth accumulation and dispensation of privileges, there is a pervasive fear among the contending regional and ethnic factions of the elite that the faction that captures State power will use it to privilege its in-groups and disadvantage the others. Essentially therefore, any effective fight against corruption must address the question of the alienating character of the State. It is the root cause of corruption, not its manifestation in some acts of impunities and corruption by some elites. Have we wondered why the incidence of corruption is least in countries where the nation-building process is most advanced such as the Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland) and why it is most prevalent in countries regarded as failed or fragile states? The truth is that while nation-building cannot guarantee a corruption free society, it creates a durable template for attenuating the problem and for ensuring that other solutions proffered to challenges in the polity do not quickly become part of the problem.Corruption is likely to be endemic in polarized societies where the basis of nationhood remains contested.
In the same lecture Obasanjo was quoted as saying that the spread of corruption is aided by the developed countries that serve as safe havens for stolen funds. This is unfortunately true but also understandable from the perspective that countries’ policies are primarily driven by their national interests. If it is in those countries’ national interest to domicile proceeds of corruption in their countries while, like an ostrich, publicly inveighing against the scourge in the ‘Third World' countries, they will most likely do so – tongue-in-cheek. This should lead us to ask some sober questions: why are the corrupt domiciling their loot outside the country? How do the countries where these loots are domiciled benefit from them? Are we missing on two fronts in the ‘war’ against corruption – not winning what is obviously an unwinnable war and allowing our looted funds to accelerate others’ economies?
I have been a consistent believer that our system of fighting corruption is a charade and that what is required is a new beginning. Such a new beginning should include a conditional amnesty against all currently standing charges of corruption and a renewed focus on nation-building. Any sustainable and winnable engagement with the scourge must necessarily be institution-driven, not just mere ‘gra-gra’.
Flowing from the above is the need to stop the hype that corruption is the most urgent problem facing the country or that it is responsible for the current state of affairs in the country. It is clearly not. A starting point is to address the misnomer that we are waging ‘war against corruption’. The whole notion of ‘war’ implies an expectation of a decisive victory over a relatively short period of engagement. This is unlikely to happen with corruption because of its systemic nature. I believe that it is this wrong expectation of a decisive victory against corruption that has led to beliefs in some quarters that we need a warrior to lead the fight against corruption. Corruption, as mentioned, is tied to the success or otherwise of the nation-building process. I am happy that Obasanjo has come up with this timely treatise. Hopefully it will start a whole new conversation on corruption in Nigeria – the causes, the trajectory and the way out.
On the prognosis for action, Obasanjo’s otherwise excellent analysis however disappointed. According to him, to effectively curb corruption, “children, youth and adults must be given the power to distinguish between the rights and the wrongs. Schools should return to the teaching of moral education to empower children with the spirit of stewardship and scholarship, while adults live exemplary lives, reflecting truth, kindness, healthy competition, dignity in labor and integrity. It must be all hands on deck within the society.” This solution did not flow logically from the former President’s otherwise sober analysis. In fact this sort of wrong prognosis, which sees corruption as a simple question of moral lapses and lack of good civic culture or good moral upbringing on the part of the corrupt, is the template on which the country’s ‘war’ against corruption has been based. And it is probably why the ‘war’ was a charade under Obasanjo as it was under Yaradua and Jonathan and remains under the Buhari government.