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The Corruption Riddle By Arnold Obomanu

April 6, 2011

In spite of wide public condemnation of the corruption situation in our country, things seem to worsen. And contrary to the disclaimers a lot of us put out in public, we frequently find ourselves complicit in corrupt acts. Some may want to deny this but a friend puts it this way; he says someone who lives in Nigeria can get away with claiming not to have taken any bribe but he cannot successfully claim not to have given one! And this is not to glorify corruption but to accurately set the scene for taking a deeper look at the problem we are facing as individuals and as a nation.

In spite of wide public condemnation of the corruption situation in our country, things seem to worsen. And contrary to the disclaimers a lot of us put out in public, we frequently find ourselves complicit in corrupt acts. Some may want to deny this but a friend puts it this way; he says someone who lives in Nigeria can get away with claiming not to have taken any bribe but he cannot successfully claim not to have given one! And this is not to glorify corruption but to accurately set the scene for taking a deeper look at the problem we are facing as individuals and as a nation.

Corruption is so ubiquitous in our society now that in a lot of situations, it has become the default way to get things done. And although the display of corruption and its attendant impunity grows on a daily basis we do not seem to know how to put it to rest. A lot of times when we decry corruption it is usually because we experience its negative consequences. And as corruption spreads, its impact is spreading across the strata of society even to the elite. Our elite may be able to fly out for treatment abroad but they must use the same chaotic airport as the rest of us. Even when they fly from city to city they have to at some point drive through the same cratered roads as the poorest Nigerian. And this provides a basis for everyone to position themselves on the same side of the table and against the corruption monster.

I find it interesting that Senator Maccido who died in the 2006 air crash was in the Senate when the 2005 Sosoliso crash was investigated. Or consider the fact that General Adisa, a former Minister of Works, who oversaw for some years the ministry responsible for road works across the country, was involved in a road accident that eventually led to his death in 2005. Yet another example is the death, last year, of Abubakar Rimi, the first civilian governor of Kano State. He is reported to have died waiting for emergency attention at the Mallam Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital in Kano. There are many others but these few examples show how connected we all are in experiencing the negative consequences of our current situation and thereby illustrate that no one is spared. There is no need to discuss whether or not these people failed in their roles. The point is that every point of failure or inefficiency eventually leads to collateral damages that can spread in any direction. 

Most people claim that the fight against corruption is failing due to the lack of enforcement of existing laws. And while that sounds true, I want us to examine that claim a bit further. Lack of enforcement is usually taken to mean that people are not getting punished for doing wrong. While that can explain why more wrong will be done and therefore be the reason for the scale and levels of impunity being displayed today, it does not explain the existence of corruption. People do not start doing the wrong things, in the first instance, just because they may not be caught. There must also be a need to meet. 

Based on the foregoing, enforcement may reduce the scale or delay the growth but will not eliminate corruption. In other words, enforcement is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success in the fight against corruption. And some might say that whatever we get from enforcement is good enough but if we are looking at a drastic reduction in levels of corruption currently seen, we need to look at root causes and we need to look beyond enforcement. Enforcement is expensive because a lot of resources are needed to effectively police this country. The effectiveness of enforcement also depends heavily on the publicity given to the successes of the relevant agencies. If wrong-doers are getting punished and people do not know, they may still carry on normally believing things are business as usual. More to the point is the fact that the fight against corruption through enforcement is being fought to a standstill not just by corruption itself but also by the inefficiency of our judiciary. Hence, we read of many arrests and suspects but few convictions.

The above instances look at enforcement from the point of view of the government. But even on individual levels things are not much better. We know so many people around us; relations and friends, who get involved in corrupt acts on a daily basis, but we rarely caution them or report them not just for sentimental reasons or because we do not trust the police but also because, at some level, we understand their situation. So, we find it infinitely easier to rail against corruption when it is either perpetrated against us or by someone we do not know. But what is it that we understand? We understand that a lot of Nigerians do not go out wanting to commit crimes but frequently find themselves in situations where the corrupt way becomes the sensible thing to do. Like when you are alone in a deserted road with policemen who insist that N5000 will temporarily clear you of car-smuggling charges. As you see them glance longingly at your purse and at the same time fiddle with their guns you may quickly decide to see their point of view and choose another opportunity to progress the fight against corruption. 

In their recent report titled “Nigeria’s Elections: Reversing the Degeneration?”, the International Crisis Group warn that the average politician going into elections today is faced with a dilemma: whether to do the right thing and risk losing to corrupt politicians or to rig the elections themselves knowing that they are unlikely to be caught. That is the same dilemma most Nigerians face on a daily basis with respect to corruption; do things right and suffer or do the corrupt thing and risk getting caught. Knowing that the chances of getting caught are low makes it easier for most people to choose the latter option. But it goes beyond that because in Nigeria today, the corrupt way is frequently the more effective way to get things done and that makes corrupt way a fait accompli.
And that is where the other way of looking at lack of enforcement is useful. Enforcement should not just be seen as punishing people for doing wrong. It should also extend to include rewarding those who do right. So, when people who do right are not rewarded or are maybe even punished for doing right, that is also lack of enforcement. It is my claim that, corruption thrives in societies where people are not provided enough legitimate means of meeting their legitimate needs. When that happens, people who have to meet their needs anyway they can, turn to available, effective ways whether or not such ways are corrupt. I will illustrate with 2 examples; one from the recent Voter Registration Exercise and another from the E-passport Registration Process.
In the early days of the Voter Registration Exercise, in most polling booths where things worked well, people queued up properly, waited their turn, registered and received their cards. Those who did not succeed planned for another day. But as days progressed and the demand for voter’s cards exceeded supply, as the threat of government agents increased the importance of owning a card, desperation set in. People were no longer sure that they would obtain cards in the available time. Queuing and being patient became a poor strategy and alternative arrangements were needed... and provided. We eventually heard of locations where people just showed up, paid and were given express service. 

The E-passport Registration Process is another example where people find that going the official route of making online payments rarely works. So, a lot of people pay more than the official rates in order to get their passports on time through unofficial means. In these 2 instances there were legitimate needs to meet but the more effective way to meet them was the corrupt way.

I will define corruption as the perversion of official activities for inappropriate private gain. This definition covers both public and private sector and also captures wrong-doing from the perspective of the taker as well as the giver of bribes. While the giver participates, at least, in “the perversion of official activities”, the taker adds “inappropriate private gain” to his crime. However, no matter the culpability of the parties involved, it is obvious that, in most cases, the activities are rooted in meeting legitimate needs. There is nothing therefore peculiar about Nigerians or citizens of other African or Third World countries where corruption is rife, except in the fact that these people live in societies which do not provide enough legitimate avenues for their citizens to meet their needs. This is also proven in the fact that when a lot of these people find themselves in well-run societies with robust processes, they adopt those processes and thrive in them and when they encounter corruption in such societies they do not just sit back and say this is familiar. They usually challenge such corrupt practices using available mechanisms. The corollary is also that when foreigners visit Nigeria they tend to adopt the corrupt approaches irrespective of their own previous experiences. This is readily witnessed by the many international companies who have gone afoul of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act due to the activities of their Nigerian subsidiaries.
In the circumstances we have described, where the official way is difficult, insisting, through enforcement, that people do things the tough way simply because it is right is asking people to work against their natural inclinations. Asking people to choose between meeting their needs through legitimate but difficult ways or through corrupt and easy ways is not much of an option. Natural thing is to go for easier. Lack of enforcement only lowers the barrier and makes decision-making easier.

This therefore means that the other crucial aspect to fighting corruption is in making both existing and future legitimate approaches effective.

People are not enamoured of the corrupt way (except for the habitual criminals who law enforcement will eventually catch up with) but need effective means of meeting their needs. If the legitimate way is made easy, simple and fast, human nature makes it the obvious choice thereby invalidating the corrupt way. In the Voter Registration Exercise example given above, making the legitimate way effective would mean providing enough resources or extending the exercise over a sufficient period of time to enable smooth registration. For E-passport registration, this means ensuring the online system works while providing other options for people who are not online.

Another approach that complements making legitimate approaches effective is to consider legitimizing currently effective but corrupt approaches, wherever possible. Bearing in mind that the needs are legitimate and it is usually the approach that is corrupt, what this then entails is to review existing practices and identify those useful ones which are not backed up by existing rules and adopt them. Some things that are widely acknowledged as sensible are illegal simply because they have not been accommodated in existing rules. By correcting such, everybody is free to operate and everything is done in the open. This might not strictly apply to both examples given above but we can look at possible scenarios.

In the Voter Registration Exercise, INEC could, in theory, consider setting up a Quick Booth where people with valid reasons could be served separately. What those valid reasons are or how this will be implemented are details that must be worked out. Similarly, I think the Nigerian Immigration may already have an option for quick registration. What I am unsure of is whether it is implemented officially or unofficially. The quick action would then be to make the unofficial official to complement the existing online facility.

Although these two broad strategies can quickly turn the tables on corruption, they are by no means easy to implement.
Firstly, it is difficult to get things right first time. And that is why services are supposed to be tested rigorously or carried out in small pilot projects to ensure robustness before rolling out to the public. It is therefore necessary that process owners remain accountable for ensuring that their processes work effectively. 
Secondly, an effective feedback mechanism should accompany these processes. Mechanisms such as Customer Feedback phone lines, suggestion boxes, online forms and toll-free lines are necessary to enable active collaboration with customers. Every time, the system works against people, they will happily give feedback especially when they believe there is genuine interest in improving things.
Thirdly, there is a need to regularly review existing practices with a view to identifying obsolete practices and improving them. This is particularly necessary because the allure of the corrupt way is always in presenting itself as the more effective approach and so those who perpetrate corruption will go out of their way to make the official way ineffective.

 That is why, for instance, the E-passport online payment system will not work most of the time. If process owners keep their customers in view and work with them, they will identify genuine opportunities for improvement.
Lastly, all of these must be backed up by an effective judiciary which serves as the arbiter for aggrieved parties. An effective judiciary is one which, in my opinion, does not just deliver impartial judgments but delivers them fast enough to make a difference in the issue at hand.

The breadth of corruption cuts across every area of our lives in Nigeria ranging from the judiciary through to vehicle license registration and these strategies are applicable to most. The main point made here is that corruption thrives today not because Nigerians are bad people or just because people are not punished enough but mainly because a lot of systems are not working effectively. There is no doubt that in a lot of the cases we see, the systems are being deliberately undermined. But the point is that in allowing such ineffective systems to continue and focusing more on people’s behaviors, we encourage the spread of corruption. For a lot of people, it is the structure in place that drives their behaviour so to change behaviour, what is required is to change the structures.

I think it worth noting that this discussion seems to leave the desired change in the hands of those who own these systems and therefore seem to currently benefit from corruption but that is not entirely true. Most of the time, corruption works against most of us (and benefits a few in the short term) and that creates a lot of interested passionate parties. If these people are empowered, their passion will drive change through irrespective of the desires of the few who benefit from the status quo. That empowerment resides mainly with the judiciary – another system that desperately needs improvement and which may therefore be the first port of call for any genuine anti-corruption exercise.

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