As usual, the release of the annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI) made screaming headlines internationally – which is good. Countries were graded according to their seeming progress in the fight against corruption - from where gainers and losers emerged. This time, Nigeria was one of the countries that lost just a point, falling from 28 to 27 in the score, just like front-runners in the Index – New Zealand and Denmark - while other countries like Switzerland and Sweden lost four points each.
Two African countries Nigerian and Ghana among others had a surprisingly poor outing. Nigeria’s place dropped from initial 2016 position of 136 to a much lower level of 148 – twelve places down. Ghana’s drop from a score of 43 to 40 cost the country 11 spots from 70th position to 81 st in 2017. Curiously, similar losses did not result in such a high level of impact on other non-African countries –Australia, for instance lost two points but remained in the 13th position. Some have argued this is can be justified mathematically but let us leave it there. Naturally, this rapid drop in position led many organisations in the Nigerian media and civil society to conclude that corruption may be getting worse in the Africa’s most populous country – they may be right.
These groups have expressed their genuine worries publicly that the fight against corruption in Nigeria might have been stagnated due to what they describe as the reluctance of government to tackle grand corruption. Without getting into the fray, there is a point in using the CPI to push for more reforms globally and apply political pressure to the leadership in countries like Nigeria and Ghana, where corruption is said to be endemic. Indeed that might be one of the reasons that motivated those who invented the index. In that sense, the CPI has done very well in giving the fight against corruption some boost and global visibility. However, CPI remains what it is – a perception. If this is the case, then it will be hasty and indeed improper that figures coming from a perception survey are now equated to the reality upon which magisterial pronouncements will be made over a country’s efforts. Do not get me wrong here. Corruption especially political corruption is still a huge problem in Nigeria – persistent, fastidious- describe it as you may wish.
For a President that was elected due to his anti-corruption credentials, it is important to note that many observers are concerned about the need for President Muhammadu Buhari to intensify efforts in this regard – just a little more. The way anti-corruption reforms are being implemented in our country now, makes it easy for anyone to conclude that the corruption problem is more than it actually is. This is because there are too many people fighting corruption in different directions leading to a cacophony of voices. That may actually be the case of Nigeria – too many fights rather than too little. The multiplicity of anti-corruption organisations and interventions with little coordination has been one of the perennial impediments in the success of anti-corruption in Nigeria. The apparent struggle among these institutions for public attention means that they regularly go to the media to announce the progress or otherwise of their efforts.
This strategy is wrong for three reasons. First is that it over-politicizes the reforms and makes it look unusually partisan, as if efforts are targeted to witch-hunt a select group of people. Secondly, it exposes the strategies of these agencies to these corrupt and unscrupulous individuals who now quickly mutate to thwart these efforts using their vast patronage networks across every arm of government. The third is, it magnifies the perception of corruption beyond proportions. These days of active digital media platforms and social media, the unnecessary and unwarranted exchanges between agencies on sensitive anti-corruption issues make the problem look as big as media headlines make them. I propose that we temporarily ignore the dispute between scholars and practitioners about the methodological shortcomings of CPI. After all, any business person or country expert - the type of people, who supply data for CPI country research, will be right to interpret the situation described above as regression rather than progress.
Worst still, enormous resources are lost or misapplied due to unnecessary duplication of efforts. Many observers now derogatorily describe the lingering squabbles in the Nigerian anti-corruption arena as an anti-corruption industry – something that is happening for the private benefits of the vocal actors and not in the interest of the Nigerian public. Bizarre! For instance, it is not uncommon to hear the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC) and the Ministry of Justice take different positions on a corruption issue even though they are all supposed to be part of the same government. Why is it impossible for these agencies to compare notes
and harmonise their positions before going public? The fact that the National Assembly for instance has not been on the same page with the executive on several corruption and anti-corruption issues since the inception of this administration is another case in point. No one can justify this impasse especially when you consider that lawmakers are the ones who will enact the legislations that will codify lasting anti-corruption reforms. Until date, several important bills like that Nigerian Financial Intelligence Bill, Proceeds of Crime Bill, Money Laundering Prevention and Prohibition Bill, Mutual Legal Assistance Bill are all pending in the parliament for one reason or another.
Nigeria remains suspended from the Egmont group of 155 financial intelligence units. Those who insist that the President needs to up his game have a point. It has become necessary for him to set a high profile example, before those who voted him in loose their patience. It must be noted however that Nigeria has made quiet but considerable progress in implementing her commitment under initiatives like the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Progress in open budgeting, open contracting, tax transparency and the effort to establish a beneficial ownership register – achieved in collaboration with civil society groups- have laid useful foundation for a sustainable progress in several sectors capable of advancing good governance – yet a lot still remains to be done. It is a given that any successful anti-corruption fight must be accompanied by tough and often unpleasant decisions which President Buhari seems reluctant to take.
Besides there have been allegations of nepotism and other ethically questionable behaviours against some members of the President’s kitchen cabinet – something that could potentially tar his image which he is yet to address. With the adoption of the National Anti-corruption Strategy (NACS) by the Federal Executive, it is expected that the inter-agency bickering will be reduced, as the Federal Ministry of Justice takes up a coordinating role as prescribed by the strategy document – to urgently support the President to deliver on his promises. Another area of concern to the cacophonous voices is the delay in the prosecution of high profile anti-corruption suspects.
Speedy prosecution of these individuals within the rule of law is an important signal that will re-confirm to observers that the President Buhari’s anti-corruption effort is still on course. With the successful repatriation of some of the monies stolen by the late former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, it is expected that the resources will fund fresh investments in social sectors as agreed in a memorandum of understanding between the Nigerian government and civil society groups recently. It is gratifying that earlier in the year; the African Union crowned President Muhammadu Buhari the Champion of the fight against corruption in the continent.
Such a rare honour is an important recognition of what he represents in Africa. It is also an opportunity for him to scale up his domestic efforts so that he can have something to show to other African countries at end of his tenure in 2019. Surely, there may be a silver lining hanging in the cloud of perception. Even with the low CPI scores it may well be that corruption, at times, needs to get worse before it can actually get better.
Uche Igwe is a researcher at the Sussex Centre of the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex, and Brighton, United Kingdom.