Rebasing Corruption, By Pat Utomi
Our Gross Domestic Product has shot up as a result of mechanics of computation. The factor prices of two and half decades ago being abandoned, for that which is more current and properly capturing emerging sectors have resulted in the economy being, by GDP measure, the largest in Africa. The GDP has been rebased. It would seem though that corruption managed to continue as the hot issue competing with the GDP rebasing for headlines. Will corruption bring down economic promise and the Nigerian society?
Perhaps, if we do a corruption index “rebasing”, we may find how frightening the possible effects of corruption on progress may be. It seemed so natural to try an excursion down the path of this subject again, not to blame and find fault with any particular group of people but to alert us all of what we could allow such a culture to inflict on us and on the possibilities before our children. This is particularly because many in positions of authority and those who profit from it are living in denial about the real consequences of this scourge which is so pervasive in contemporary Nigeria and reminds me so often of Jared Diamond and his reflections in the book, Collapse, about how societies have failed through history.
By now, my favorite quote on the impact and level of corruption in Africa is known to come from the Kempe Ronald Hope Snr and Bornwell Chukulo book on corruption and development in Africa which opened with the puzzle of the spectrum of corruption on the continent, from rare, in Botswana, to widespread, in Ghana, and systemic, in Nigeria. But the book was nearly two decades ago and even to the casual observer, corruption has become much worse in Nigeria. This is even without my returning to my 1996 encounter with Mike Wallace, the revered CBS correspondent and 60 minutes anchor, on his reference to Nigeria as the most corrupt country in the world, in that interview with Louis Farrakhan.
Let us offer a brief anatomy of a grave ailment eating up the soul of Nigeria, like cancer in metastasis. From the civil service where an entitlement mentality towards corrupt gain has ballooned the cost of projects, made a mess of value for money mindset, and auditing, to elections that are for sale to the most corrupt, and legislatures that are extortion rackets, Nigeria is in the throes of hemorrhaging to an undesired end if its elite do not realise the imperative of moral rebirth on this score.
The sad truth is that while there are more good people than bad around, the state of public culture considers the man that does not “make hay” from where he works, a foolish person. Some civil servants cajole service partners who do not pay bribes in a way you would think those people were criminals. The crime is they refuse to “show gratitude”. Service providers, brow-beaten and pressured by many failed bids, decide that it is extortion they can do nothing about and give in. I am perpetually fighting people I superintended who give in so readily. Maybe, it is why my pocket is not so deep but it leaves me a conscience I can sleep well with.
Just as I tell journalists who function in a world where a brown envelope has come to be seen as a perquisite of the job, I do not give because I consider giving a crushing of their dignity, and the dignity of the human person is premium in my worldview. I find that many in the public service have lost the sense of shame to see the effect on their dignity and expect to be paid something by anybody who engages the procurement process. How do you save a system this far gone. So severe is the sense of shame that petroleum marketers joke about government officials decrying how much kerosene costs when they know how much they collect on each allocation. I have also told the story of a lawyer flush with embarrassment after he told a minister trying to extort money from his American clients, for a routine letter, his clients could go to jail back home if they gave him a bribe. The minister then asked if he thought it okay to charge the Americans a fee, and he, the minister, go “empty handed”. Reminded the Americans could go to jail for paying him and advised there are secondary ways he could derive benefit from the project, the minister simply said his predecessors were broke because they believed such stories like secondary benefits from nominating contractors when implementation began.
When culture collapses to that level, progress is challenged in many ways. But it gets worse. The National Assembly has taken over the role of the police and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, investigating some infraction or the other, from fuel subsidy to purchase of bulletproof cars. Most savvy people know the underlying motives. And it makes sick. The pay offs demanded are so huge it only makes the corrupt and criminal scale up the target of their haul, further impoverishing the Nigerian people, so that while the GDP may be the biggest in Africa, the people are pauperised and the feared revenge of the poor remain an imminent threat.
As the few in positions erect “toll gates” and suck in from the desperate and the greedy, income distribution becomes more alarming, the Gini index which measures the gap between the top and bottom of the income scale gets more challenged, flagging a coming anarchy. As I pray often, Lord that I may see, I pray also that God will open the eyes of those who prosper from corruption to see yesterday’s big men in refugee camps in Somalia, that we may come to a new consensus on what is fit and proper for popular culture regarding corruption.
So, what shall we do. It has to start from the family and community. So many stories are told from the 1950’s and 60’s of parents whose children brought home cars the parents thought they could not afford and parents went themselves to invite in the police. Today, that good sense is lost and crooks are celebrated; communities have to learn to ostracise people whose source of material possessions cannot be easily tracked.
One state governor routinely jokes that there is no fear of consequence and that all he has to do is ensure that there is N500m put aside to bribe law enforcement to ensure he is given a bail and enough to keep bribing judges until the matter falls from consciousness.
Corruption which cripples policy initiative can often result in loss that is the moral equivalence of war. Enough die from the harm done by corruption to policy implementation that the effect can be categorised as genocide. Economic genocide should attract severe punishment. But hear the National Conference delegates on corruption. They want a death sentence for it even when many in that chamber would be guilty. Sounded like one former president teasing one Sharia state governor about his hands being intact.
The more realistic the punishment, or deterrence, the more likely the enforcement. China may use these methods but how well have they worked here. It seems to me we have to massively invest in retraining the civil service, making an example of a few to send signals, through humiliation and reasonable jail terms, and social distance for those known to have wealth that cannot be explained. Here, the media have a big role because of the status conferral function of the media.
A fund to reward and celebrate investigative journalists that get a great incentive to expose, name and shame corrupt officials after thorough evidence-based investigation will help with this desirable mission.
Finally, a culture that makes the election process cheap, ideas-based and demands the simple life from politicians is in desperate need. We do not desire big men in power. Let the man of the people live like the people, among the people.
We need clear systems that reduce discretion, especially around procurement, I aim to help scandal watch groups in the media to emerge to ensure that time and new headlines do not submerge yesterday’s scandals. Most importantly strong institutions and institutional memory need to emerge to set boundaries to conduct with consequences of reward and sanctions.
•Utomi, a political economist and professor of Entrepreneurship, is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.
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