Inculcating Public Confidence In The Corruption Fight

by L.Chinedu Arizona-Ogwu

Nigeria as a nation is experiencing a unique opportunity for a turnaround with respect to acute and pervasive corruption that has over the years bedevilled the country’s polity, economy and society. A series of high-profile initiatives has been taken by the caretaker government to criminalise corruption by prosecuting the allegedly corrupt individuals, irrespective of their political and other status in society. The anti-corruption drive could turn out to be the strongest-ever signal in this nation’s history that corruption is a punishable offence.

A number of initiatives have been taken to reform the legal and institutional structures to strengthen some of the key institutions of democracy and national integrity system. The institutions that have already undergone substantive reforms include the judiciary, the Election Commission (INEC), the Anti-Corruption Commission (EFCC and the ICPC) and the Public Service Commission including code of conduct bureau. The reforms came against a backdrop that saw these institutions failing to perform their due role. Indeed, one of the most pernicious impacts of corruption was politicisation and ineffectiveness of these vital institutions as well as erosion of public trust in the parliament as well as the government.

Another significant milestone was Nigeria‘s accession to the UN Convention against Corruption on February 27, 2007, within six weeks of taking power by the caretaker government. The previous government, it can be recalled, in spite of making public commitment on December 9, 2004, deliberately refrained from taking any positive step. The interim government’s decision to join the convention as a state party constituted a timely message nationally and internationally about its commitment and high priority attached to fighting corruption.

Nigeria was ranked in the third position in 2006 from top together with Bangladesh, Chad and few others in the global list of countries where corruption is perceived to be the highest, according to the Corruption Perception Index released every year by the Berlin-based Transparency International. Earlier for five successive years since 2001 the country was placed at the very top of the list. That the ranking slightly changed apparently for the positive last year was attributed more to the poorer performance of several other countries than to a drop in the corruption level in Nigeria as such. In fact, among African countries, Nigeria was mentioned together with Zimbabwe and Sudan where the lack of political will to strengthen anti-corruption institutions has perpetuated rampant corruption, undermining improvements in quality of life for the poorest citizens.

The depth and breadth of corruption in Nigeria have been pervasive, with losses estimated to be nearly 3 per cent in terms of the GDP. According to a recent study by Transparency International Nigeria, per capita loss of household income to bribery in six selected sectors of public service delivery was estimated to be 7.94 per cent. With the ratio of loss being higher at 9.56 per cent for the low-income groups compared to 2.36 for the high-income category, the poorest have been the worst victims.

No wonder. Usually viewed as bribery, corruption means abuse of power for personal gain. It can be power within the government or outside; and it can be political, social. Not that everyone in positions of power is involved in corruption, but those who engage in corruption abuse power directly or indirectly. Obviously the vast majority of people who are outside the orbit of power-structure – national or local, especially the poor and the other disadvantaged sections of the society are the worst victims of corruption.

The spread of corruption has been so pervasive that access to basic services at the delivery end of key public sectors such as education, health, police, justice, land administration, etc became conditional upon the capacity to make unauthorised payments. On the other hand, the powerful and rich as the direct beneficiaries of grand corruption developed a strong vested interest for sustaining the network of corruption.

That, however, had to change, as it turned out with the taking over of the new government. The chief adviser to the caretaker government in his opening address to the nation after assuming office made a firm commitment to fight corruption and establish an institutional basis that would de-link politics and election from the influence of corruption and black money. The conceptual basis of the speech was anti-corruption drive as the key to the restoration of trust in the government.

In an unprecedented manner the kleptocracy appears upside down as the government pledged not only to fight corruption without fear, favour or bias, but also to cleanse the system by enforcing institutional reforms. The caretaker government has also received enthusiastic support of the people at large who were pushed to the wall and were desperate to see change.

Does it really mean that a lot has already changed in the depth and breadth of corruption, especially in terms of people’s suffering? A question is often asked as to whether all these will have changed Nigeria‘s international ranking in terms of the corruption perceptions index.

The CPI is a composite index, a poll of polls, drawn on corruption-related data from 12-16 expert surveys carried out by reputable international institutions. It reflects the views of businesspeople and business analysts from around the world, including experts who are locals in the countries evaluated. The ranking is about the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians.

Given the high-profile drive and the significant reform measures it will be surprising if Nigeria‘s score and ranking per CPI this year does not improve by a few steps. However, whether or not such improvement will be any substantial will depend on a number of factors. The politicians would perhaps be viewed to have in general lost the power and incentives to indulge in corruption for the time being. But it would be too early to assess whether or not this would translate into a genuine soul-searching by them resulting in an anti-corruption political will and commitment.

As far as possible impact of the campaign upon corruption by public officials are concerned, nothing substantial has happened yet to curtail their incentives to abuse power. On the contrary, at the service delivery end in various levels, people continue to be victims of corrupt practices often through new techniques and innovations as well as added premiums. More importantly, among the key actors of corruption there is almost invariably a third and crucial actor in addition to politicians and public officials – the private sector itself which is the supply side of the win-win game in corruption, both in grand and petty corruption. The anti-corruption drive seems to have led to a genuine sense of insecurity and intimidation in the business community. But again, to what extent this will lead to motivations for integrity and anti-corruption practices in the private and the whole range of non-governmental sector is anybody’s guess.

Corruption exists in greater or lesser degree in all countries of the world, irrespective of political and economic system, big or small, developed or developing. What is striking about Nigeria is that it affects almost everyone in society. Until the recent changes, it was hardly ever that corruption was punished. On the contrary, corruption, especially political corruption, became the fastest way to echelons of power. Given that politics became the other name of investment for making quick money, and in the absence of effective deterrence against corruption, it became so widespread that even the common citizens are affected by it, whether it is political corruption, or it is in the public procurements involving the business and corporate sector or whether it is the service delivery sectors. It took a long process of leadership and institutional decay for Nigeria to reach where it stands today in terms of corruption; it has not taken place overnight. It took time to entrench, it took connivance and participation of people in positions of power – people who are powerful politically, economically and socially – whether at the national or local levels, whether in the public sector or private. For the same reason it cannot also be addressed overnight without comprehensive efforts and without the fullest commitment of all key actors and stakeholders. Success of anti-corruption efforts is a function of the degree of the strength, independence and effectiveness of key institutions of the national integrity system like the parliament, the executive, the law enforcement agencies, the judiciary, the anti-corruption commission, and the media.

No anti-corruption campaign can succeed and sustain without freedom of information. All archaic laws preventing the people’s right to information, including the Official Secrets Act , must be abolished and the Right to Information Law with provisions for whistleblower protection must be enacted to ensure transparency and free flow of information. Appointment of sector-wise ombudsmen as per article 77 of the constitution can make a difference in ensuring accountability, especially in the key sectors of public service.

Fighting corruption is a highly challenging task because of the links of corruption with power, at whatever level it may take place. It is also widely believed that complete eradication of corruption is not a realistic proposition. What is beyond any doubt, however, is the need for a comprehensive policy with a strategic vision. Critical to any effective anti-corruption strategy is systemic transformation. But the ultimate source of strength in anti-corruption movement is the people – their awareness and participation in the form of a social movement with active support of all stakeholders, especially the media.

The main challenge is to create an environment in which corruption would be hated and rejected by everyone and pressures will come from all levels to generate the will and commitment of leaderships and strengthen the effectiveness of the key institutions. Turning around Nigeria‘s pervasive corruption scene will be long and complicated. The institutional reforms mentioned above only mark the beginning of that process. Separation of the judiciary by itself does not guarantee its integrity, and any benefits thereof would come only in a long-drawn process. To enforce reforms for credible election free from the influence of corruption and black money the Election Commission (INEC) will have to depend on government officials at local levels whose integrity will take long to take roots.

Much would depend on the extent to which anti-corruption can be mainstreamed in the public service as a whole, which could be beset by problems of inertia and resistance to change. No less important is the problem of low salaries and benefits of public officials which is one of the key factors – though not the only one – behind erosion of integrity in public service. The fate of cases against those behind bars for alleged involvement in corruption remains wide open in a country that has hardly ever in the past experienced such high-level prosecutions for corruption. The most formidable part of the challenge here is to ensure that the law is allowed to take its due course.

If the high-profile and high-speed anti-corruption drive succeeds in creating a sustainable basis for effectively reducing corruption in Nigeria, of which historical opportunities have been created, this will be the first time that a military-backed government has done so. The sceptics would look at examples where military-led anti-corruption drive led to entrenchment in power by the military itself.

Like any other war this fight against corruption is also likely to bring out increasing items and numbers in ‘collateral costs.’ Implications of emergency in terms of human rights, public harassments and sense of insecurity, especially at the local levels, which is typical of military operations and a shaky confidence in business with its implications especially on the market price – all taken together may speed up the process of erosion of public support and enthusiasm. To sustain public support, the people must be convinced that in the end the anti-corruption drive is going to add value for them and reduce hardships in daily life. And among the indicators they would use are price level of essentials, and visible and invisible costs of access to key basic services like health, education, justice and rule of law.

It remains to be seen what lessons are drawn from the recent events in the National Assembly. Use of force beyond due process as well as intimidation can only contribute to further erosion of the support base of the government and the anti-corruption drive. One abuse of power can never justify another.2007 Elections has come and gone , and it is everyone’s interest that there was no deviation from that timeline. It is widely believed that anti-corruption reforms would have taken root by tomorrow. But whether or not the Yar’Adua’s new political government that emerged from the elections, as it took place, who owns those reforms remain a question wide open.

The real test for Nigeria‘s high-profile and high-speed anti-corruption drive has only started to unfold. All transitions are fraught with risks; there are many ifs and buts. Nevertheless, considering the importance of multi-pronged changes already witnessed there are reasons for continued expectation and optimism – guarded though.

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