The Audacity of Corruption

Sam Amadi By Guest Columnist

It is common to say that Nigeria is a corrupt country. However, that does not really make much sense. Almost every country is corrupt to the extent that there are always some people, in the public or private sector, who deal corruptly. So, a self-acclaimed Nigerian patriot can answer back, “but all countries are corrupt because they have corrupt people”. This is true. I recall a friend who was vexed with what he considers my puritanic stand on public probity and advised that a country needs some corruption to even get running. To him, some degree of corruption is a lubricant of public leadership.

Nevertheless, Nigeria is corrupt in the sense that many countries are not, or at least in the sense that countries aspiring to development should not be. In Nigeria, corruption is not just pervasive, it is respectable and even admirable. One measure of this Nigerian exceptionalism is the number of manifestly corrupt politicians who occupy high political offices in Nigeria, and who have bright political future. These corrupt VIPs didn’t mask their way to the top. They got to the top notwithstanding that people know they are extremely corrupt, even criminal in their conducts. Their continuous ascent to high political offices despite open history of corruption and criminality suggests that either the people do not care much about corruption and criminality, or the system is trapped in indifference or cooption. In which case, corruption and criminality become social norms, a form of social compact.

Do not take my word that Nigeria is corrupt in an exceptional manner. Take the word of a former Nigerian Assistant Inspector General of Police who later became a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. One morning he stood up in the legislative chamber, surveyed the many rows where the so-called ‘distinguished’ Nigerians sat to make laws that cater to their own interests and do deals. He blurted out in disbelief: “I never knew I would meet so many people I put in jail as a police officer here in this chamber”. If you did not get the point. He could not believe that criminals who served terms when he was a police chief could become distinguished senators of the republic. May be that is the reason Alex Perry, the Newsweek columnist, captured Nigeria’s exceptionalism in corruption in these devastating words: “Nigeria’s rulers have often been indistinguishable from its criminals. In Nigeria, corruption does not just pollute the system. Corruption is the system”. 

Nigeria’s rulers are indistinguishable from its criminals. In Nigeria, corruption is the system. Let those words sink in. I didn’t make this up. You can read them up in the April 25, 2011, edition of the US Time magazine. The key point is that Nigeria’s version of public corruption is both pervasive and corrosive of public ethics. Elsewhere criminals operate underground, below the law. In Nigeria, they operate in the full glare of the law, they challenge the legal order; and the legal order bends to accommodate and normalize their nefarious acts. That is what Alex Perry means by saying that in Nigeria, corruption is the system.

Corruption scholars worry about how corruption distorts allocation of resources and leads to development failure, and ultimately compounds poverty. That is the reason corrupt countries are likely to be poor. There is an inverse relationship between corruption and development indexes. Developed countries are usually less corrupt. So, if a country is top on development indicators, it will likely be low on corruption index. It might be that being less corrupt enables a country to develop or that being developed means it will be less corrupt.

The discourse of corruption and development has gone through a lot of nuances and elaborations. Development scholars used to consider corruption as the most important problem of development. However, experience of Asia in development led to the idea that some degree of corruption, even grand corruption, is compatible with economic development. In the case of China, some scholars argued that China grew tremendously despite corruption because production grew faster than the grabbing hand. A popular aphorism puts it better: “In China the Hen was increasingly robust and capable of having more eggs than the Chinese foxes (officials) could grab”.  So, no matter how much official stole, GDP growth continued.

Yet in China, thieving officials faced the music. In 2012, a senior Chinese official, Bo Xilai, was arrested and charged for abuse of power and graft. Prime Minister Xi Jinping took the opportunity to launch war against corruption, warning comrades that corruption “would doom the Party and the nation”.  This began a real crackdown on corruption. Yes. China has corrupt officials. However, corruption has not stopped economic growth. This is partly because in China corruption is not the system. The system responds against corruption when it is detected. In Nigeria, corruption is the system. It does not respond against corruption even when it is in the public.

There are many theoretical explanations for why a country could be pervasively corruption. One of them holds that corruption is a ‘collective action’ problem. This is because people expect others to act corruptly and that becomes self-reinforcing. In a corrupt system, it is difficult to opt out of the corruption web. This is because there is a social compact built on expectations of corrupt acts. We expect people to act corruptly. This makes corruption almost compelling. The transaction cost of corruption is low since you incur no real social cost for corrupt acts. A corrupt system has inbuilt incentives that encourage corrupt acts. It is a form of social pathology. Everyone identifies that pathology. But the problem is understanding how it developed and how to destroy it. This difficulty is what makes corruption path dependent. A corrupt country continues to be corrupt until there is a disruption that creates another trajectory of social development.

Some think the way out of corruption is evolutionary. Others think it is revolutionary. One thing is clear, you cannot exit a culture of corruption if the political economy is not infused with values and institutions of ethical individualism and egalitarianism. Ethical individualism provides the motivation for social accountability. But it does not guarantee accountability. Those who conceive themselves as equals will have reason to demand accountability from political authorities. But even citizens who are motivated to demand accountability may still lack the resources and real opportunity to exert accountability. Where that is the case, there is impunity and corruption trap.

This is where Nigeria is. The exceptionalism of corruption in Nigeria is that corruption is now a system of public leadership. Nigeria’s corrupts are not restrained by threat of legal enforcement or social ostracism. Legal rules are designed and administered to wink at corruption, or even to aid and abet it. Recently, judges have issued decisions that normalize corruption and criminality in public administration. The complicit of the judiciary in helping corrupt Nigerians escape any form of legal stricture is only explainable as a sign of endemic state capture. The entire administrative state in Nigeria is complicit in reinforcing corruption in Nigeria.

In the matter of election, which is the most important issue of national security and stability, the electoral regulator blatantly refuses to act against clear evidence of corruption and criminality. Even when the constitution prohibits certain corrupt and criminal acts, the administration of justice denies accountability. The recent electoral decisions of some tribunals and courts in Nigeria, waving away with disdain clear evidence of corruption and criminality, are classic illustrations of impunity- the audacity of corruption.

What does systemic corruption mean for development. Political economist, Yuen Yuen Ang examines why China prospered in the face of ‘vast corruption’. She analyzed and dismissed some of the expert opinions on the paradox of Chinese economic boom amidst vast corruption. She concludes that the experts fail to understand that corruption takes different forms. Chinese corruption is benign, rather than malignant. She argues that “while corruption is never good, not all forms of corruption are equally bad for the economy, nor do they cause the same kind of harm”. In China, corruption does not fully inhibit development whereas in Nigeria, it does.

That Chinese type of corruption may not ground its economy may be understandable considering the point eminent political scientist, Samuel Huntington, made about how ‘exchange-based corruption’ like petty bribe “may be one way of surmounting traditional laws or bureaucratic regulations which hamper economic transactions.” Petty theft, grand theft, speed money and access money, as bad as they are, may not completely hobble the economic engine. But when corruption has become a system such that its audacity trumps the administration of justice to the extent that the rules themselves surrender to the juggernauts of corruption, then no meaningful development can occur. The engine will grind to a halt.

This scenario is one aspect of state capture. The criminal and corrupt class captures the state and its instrument of governmentality. Nothing is emblematic of governmentality than the judiciary. Formal constitutional democracy howsoever described enshrines legitimacy, based on, the supremacy of the judiciary. Through the power of judicial review, the courts ensure that all forms of corruption and criminality do not become the ‘system’ by imposing costs and deterrence against them.

Nigeria’s exceptionalism in corruption draws another distinctive between it and a comparable country, Indonesia. Indonesia has the misfortune of military dictators like Nigeria, dictators who are corrupt. But none of them is like Abacha who stole an equivalent of 10% of Nigeria’s GDP. John Hopkins’ Political Scientist, Peter Lewis in his book, Growing Apart: Oil, Politics and Economic Change in Indonesia and Nigeria, 2007, attributes the divergence in development between Indonesia and Nigeria partly to corruption (whereas Suharto commitment to growth, Nigeria’s military leaders were committed to “clientelism, distributional politics and economic predation”). While Suharto and his military clique could focus on development despite significant corruption, Nigeria’s Abachas could not. Because corruption was the system in Abacha’s Nigeria, development was inconceivable as the focus of statecraft.

Many development scholars argue that the main ingredient for economic development is an elite consensus for development. Unless the ruling elites of a country are committed to a ‘development agenda’ there will be no sustained development. Development requires the ruling elites to focus on implementing such an agenda as a primary and controlling ambition. This is the secret of the East Asian transformation. Successful East Asian countries were led by leaders who primarily focused on development and were accidentally corrupt. Nigeria hard luck is that its ruling elites are primarily focused on corruption and accidentally hit on development. In Nigeria, development is an accidental outcome. This is also the significant difference between 1960s and 2000s Nigeria. In the former, leaders were focused on development, but incidentally got corrupt. In the latter, leaders are focused on corruption and are incidentally developmental.

Nigerian leaders wax rhetorical about development agenda. President Tinubu talks endlessly about how he intends to push Nigeria towards development. Our ruling elites talk about emulating China and South Korea. But we do not treat corrupt officials like they do? Mr. Bo Xilai was a senior Chinese official, the Governor of one of China’s richest regions. He was arrested and charged for abuse of power. He was imprisoned with his wife. In China, corruption may pollute the system from time to time, but it is not the system. More than two South Korean Presidents have been imprisoned for years for what may be described as petty theft.

Nigeria’s Mr. Bo Xilai would still be seated at a high political seat, brandishing a medal of honor from the highest court of the land. That is what Alex Perry means by saying that ‘Nigeria’s leaders are oftentimes indistinguishable from its criminals. There may be many routes to development. But none of its will accommodate this high level of audacity of corruption.

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