Re-thinking the Fight Against Corruption

Jideofor Adibe

Nigeria’s ranking in the recently released 2017 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), contrary to the headlines, does not show that the incidence of corruption in the country has grown worse since 2016. The CPI, published by the global corruption watchdog, Transparency International (TI), tracks the degree of perception of corruption in different countries  as experienced by business people and analysts and scores each country between 100 and 0, where ‘100’ means completely free of corruption while ‘0’ means stinking corrupt. Following from this, that Nigeria scored 28 points in 2017 against the 28 it scored in 2016, means that its position was unchanged from the year before – not that it got worse.  True, in 2017, Nigeria was placed at 148 out of 180 countries, besting only 32 countries compared to 2016 when it was ranked 136 out of 176, besting 40 countries. A country’s score will be more important in estimating its progress in the fight against corruption rather than its ranking in the CPI league table because the ranking is influenced by the number of countries being compared, the number of countries that tie at a particular rank and of course the fact that other countries may have also improved on their own score.

The above however does not imply a pass mark for Buhari’s War Against Corruption. What the ranking clearly shows is that there has been a steady but statistically insignificant ebbs and flows in Nigeria’s performance in the CPI since she was first ranked in 1996. For instance in 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012, the country scored 26, 27, 25 and 27 respectively, meaning that nothing significant changed in the perception of the country’s corruptibility over those years. The pattern is virtually the same for the periods 1996 to 2011. One of the things to be deducted from this therefore is that despite the small ebbs and flows in our ranking, nothing substantial has changed about the way corruption is perceived in the country. In practice, many will argue that the incidence of corruption is getting worse. This means that despite the grandstanding by such contraptions as the Economic Financial and Crimes Commission (EFCC)  and its routine announcements of  humongous sums it seized from “treasury looters”, the current approach to fighting corruption has not really worked.

Even before the current misleading headlines from the 2017 ranking of the country in the CPI to the effect that the incidence of corruption has increased under Buhari (as if it ever significantly went down under any government), Olusegun Obasanjo who created the ICPC and the EFCC in 2000 and 2003 respectively recently admitted that there has been no progress in the war against corruption despite the existence of these contraptions. In a lecture in Abeokuta, Ogun State, in April 2017, on “The Role of the Church in the Fight Against Corruption in Nigeria”, Obasanjo 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 [ of 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.”

If our current approach – which is based on seeing corruption as basically an issue of moral lapses – has failed, it means the need for a new approach, for as the wise ones would counsel, if you continue to do what you have always done, you will continue to get what you have always got.

I believe that a starting point for an effective approach to fighting corruption in the country will be to understand its root cause. I agree with Obasanjo in his lecture mentioned above that corruption could be traced to the rise of public administration in the country and the discovery of oil and gas which exacerbated the problem. I believe however 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. The discovery of oil only 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.

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, it is not only groups like Boko Haram, Biafra agitators, Niger Delta militants, Oduduwa irredentist or those who talk of ‘the North’ as if it is a separate country that are de-linking but also the wealthy who have no qualms bribing their way out of situations and the law enforcement officers who do not mind turning the other way if they are offered little inducements.

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 the challenges in the polity do not quickly become part of the problem.

I believe that we 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. There is also the issue of the misnomer that we are waging ‘war against corruption’, which wrongly 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 over corruption that has led to erroneous belief in some quarters that we need a warrior to lead the fight against corruption and consequently celebrate the use of untoward tactics as evidence that the fight against the malaise is working.

We need to reset the whole ‘war against corruption’ by granting conditional amnesty to all those charged with corrupt practices. This will benefit the country in many ways:

First, with so many challenges facing the government, and the country more polarized now than ever before, the fight  against corruption, using the failed  approaches of the past,  has not only proven to be distractive  but is evidently not deterring corrupt practices. In fact the current system appears to appease only those baying for the blood of their perceived ethnic, political, regional and class enemies.

Second, managing the politics of fighting corruption using the current ‘gra-gra’ approach appears to complicate the nation-building process.

Third, a conditional amnesty programme will encourage the repatriation of much needed funds hidden in different parts of the world to help accelerate the economy. Such funds will be extremely helpful to the government in these austere times.

Third, countries all over the world have used amnesty programmes to deal with problems that appear intractable. In 2004 for instance, George W Bush enacted tax amnesty programme, which allowed US corporations to bring home, tax-free, the billions of dollars they stashed away in tax havens. Just before he became gravely ill and subsequently died, Yaradua also offered amnesty to militants of the Niger Delta in exchange for their laying down their guns. If we can grant amnesty to those with blood on their hands, I see no reason why a similar tool cannot be used to draw a line in the fight against corruption in the country.


Twitter: @JideoforAdibe





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