A Third Look at Corruption: An Innovator’s Perspective

Mayowa Okegbenle

As President-Elect, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, prepares to take his seat come May 2023, one question on everyone’s mind is: “Will he tackle the deep-rooted corruption that has shackled our economy for decades?”.

For too long, we have viewed corruption as an insurmountable problem that requires a war to be fought against it. We see corruption as being perpetuated by bad people in power, and as such, our solution revolves around getting rid of these people. So we crave an honest government. But is there an honest government anywhere in the world?

I believe we need to rethink how we approach corruption in Nigeria. Our approach over the last few decades has clearly not worked. It is time to adopt a different perspective. The corruption we have in Nigeria is not caused by bad people, it is designed by leaders at every level of government, and we are all partakers in it. Corruption in Nigeria is not a bug, it is a feature.

Let’s begin by recognizing that corruption is simply an alternative to getting things done. When there is no clear legal means to get what you want, you hire corruption to do the job. If we see corruption as something hired to do a job, a potential solution becomes more obvious.Rather than fight against corruption, it becomes clear we need to provide better alternatives.

I am not recommending that we fix the government, because “fixing the government” has the same drawback as “fighting corruption”; you are simply looking at the problem the wrong way. I will illustrate how to provide a better alternative using the Nigerian Immigration Service as an example, specifically the process that deals with passport application and collection.

Today, if you want to apply for your Nigerian passport and you have the means, you will find an “agent” who will collect a fee from you. This fee is shared with parties within the system to make the process easier for you. This is corruption. If you are going to fight this corruption, you will spend time and valuable resources, but still achieve nothing.

Instead, we should take a different perspective. We should say, “I see people are paying to make this process easier for them, why don’t we set up a different process for these people”. The immigration service could set up a fast-track process, invite bids from private companies to handle that process, and sit back as the selected company remits revenue earned from the process.

The money that once went into the pockets of officials and agents, will now go into the immigration service. The immigration service now has the money to invest in improving the standard application process. Overtime, this improvement in the standard process shortens the time it takes, and reduces the cost of getting a passport, for everyone.

This is not a genius idea. The UK government has a standard process that takes 6 weeks to get your passport, and a fast-track process that takes 1 week to get your passport, but costs about double. Same fast-track job is accomplished. The difference is that the UK process is not corrupt.

In 2016, as the United Kingdom (UK) began the process for leaving the European Union (EU), it was clear the country would need a huge wave of new talent, to make up for the shortage that will be caused by no longer having access to talents from the EU. On May 3, 2018, the UK government commissioned an organisation called Tech Nation, to handle endorsements for exceptional talent in technology and business, this endorsement is the primary requirement for immigrating into the UK as an exceptional talent in technology or business. Tech Nation was founded in 2011, but from 2018, immediately rebranded to focus on this new business.

Yes, it is a business. You pay to have your endorsement application reviewed in 8 weeks, and you pay more to have it reviewed in 3 weeks. Everyone (Tech Nation and the Government) got paid, and you got what you wanted – a simple, straightforward application process. We all know about the “japa movement”, Tech Nation has reviewed thousands of endorsement application from Nigeria alone.

If the UK government had tried to handle this endorsement process, it would have put a lot of pressure on their existing process, and made the process chaotic. Guess what would then happen? People will find a way, and someone will know someone that can take a few hundred British pounds to put your application at the top of the pile. And, that ladies and gentlemen, is how corruption is birthed. Some people say this is exactly what happened when the Nigerian custom services needed to do a new batch of recruitment and there were thousands of applicants.

We need to stop seeing corruption as something evil. So that we can stop fighting against it, or praying against it. But instead see corruption as an alternative to getting things done. Because once we see corruption as an alternative to getting things done, then the solution is immediately apparent – provide better alternatives.

I may have focused on one or two government agencies, but the truth is from the time you are born, up till the day you die, you must take part in this corruption. Your parents gave someone “change” to fast-track your birth certificate; you “sorted” someone to get a driver’s licence; you did the same to get the necessary permits to acquire land and build your house; and it goes on and on, until your children finally pay someone to fast track your death certificate.

You could read all these and be angry about the whole thing, or, you could see the massive opportunity we have in our hands to provide good governance. The process and perspective I described in this article is applicable to every parastatal. It is a process of identifying the corruption opportunity, defining the existing process so that it is well understood, documenting a process for selecting the right private contractor, putting together a standard operating procedure for this contractor, and making sure they perform to an agreed service level. This is the hard work of governance. There is nothing to fight.

I do a lot around product and business model innovation, but I cannot claim to know it all. This opinion piece was influenced by the book “The Prosperity Paradox”, written by Clay Christensen, our very own Efosa Ojomo, and Karen Dillon. I would recommend it to everyone putting in the work, to bring millions of Nigerians out of poverty.

*Okegbenle is the CEO/CoFounder PressOne Africa.

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