Monday, October 09, 2006

The culture of corruption

There was an interesting passage by one of the better This Day journalists, Simon Kolawole, in This Day yesterday (on the back page). He goes to the nub of the problem of corruption in Nigeria by showing how it is grounded in social expectations and conventions. Corruption stems from the structure of society itself, in terms of patronage systems and the expectations of the extended family. Until there is a break away from patronage culture and clientism, Nigeria will continue to be deeply beset by problems of corruption. Here is the passage, where Kolawole imagines what would happen if he was given political office:

"I am a journalist. I live in a rented house. I drive an official car. Now, let's say I am given a political appointment today. The first thing is that I will open the newspapers tomorrow and see my face in full-page congratulatory adverts sponsored by my former 'classmates'. Why? they are rejoicing with me for getting a 'plum' job. They are very proud of me that I have been called up to serve my fatherland. they are positioning themselves to 'partake' in my 'patriotic service' to my fatherland. They want contacts and contracts.

Let's also say in one year, I have bought houses in Abuja and built mansions in Lekki. Nobody will ask me questions. Let's say I have acquired a convoy of cars. Nobody will say, come, is this not the same Kolawole who didn't have a personal car? How much is he earning now that he can afford all these? No. Instead, people will be thronging my house to slice their own share of my loot. Youth organisations, women's groups and town unions will all be paying solidarity visits to me. They will present me with a life-size portrait in the full glare of the media. Pastors will become my spiritual consultants, uttering more flattery than I can imagine. Fuji and juju artistes will start to sing my praise. "Kolawole o, baba l'oje!" They will release a whole album with one side dedicated to "Simon", the other side to "Kolawole". They will even address me as "Chief Kolawole", even though I may not have a traditional title. O, that is not a problem. I can easily organise a chieftancy for myself. With a few millions, kings - who are suppose to be custodians of traditional values - will be falling over each other to give me titles for my "contributions to humanity", even if I have not contributed to humanity. Universities will give me honorary doctorate degrees as a "role model" in exchange for donations...

The society expects, encourages, promotes and nurtures corruption. The society condones it. The society budgets for it. If you go into public office and don't come out rich, you are a failure. Your immediate and extended families will curse you. Your community will alienate you. "You're stupid," they will say. "Opportunities come but once. You missed your chance. Look at what the minister from the other community accumulated during his time in office. You must be a fool!" So, we keep dragging the country down, down, down. We keep envying developed countries, wondering why our own country is not making progress, wondering why shools don't have laboratories and libraries."

Tackling corruption is therefore not simply a matter of the EFCC, the ICPC and other legal processes being implemented and effected. It is not enough that Tafa Balogun, Fayose, Tummy Tuck, Mrs Goodluck etc are brought to book and we get to see pictures of them in cuffs, humiliated in the face of the Law. There must also be, as a friend puts it, an acceptance of the reality of the "Abacha within all of us".

We must therefore acknowledge that the structure and expectations of Nigeria society pushes complicity in everyone's face. Everyone in Nigeria is complicit with corruption - it is not an external process that happens to a select few. Put like this: how many could accept public office without caving into demands for access and contracts from friends and relatives?

And it seems to me that religion is entirely complicit with the system of corruption in Nigeria. For instance, the Church in its many denominations wields extraordinary influence over people's ethics and perceptions of right and wrong, yet how many pastors are actively campaigning against corruption? Instead, every day we read another story of yet another corrupt pastor in the news. Beyond the increasingly powerful net of the law, Nigeria needs a transformation of ethical values which views public office as a force for the common good, not a means to enrich one's circle of friends and the extended family. Religious leaders should put this message at the front of their preaching. Getting people to sign an 'anti-corruption pledge' might be an idea - anything that forces people to acknowledge that corruption lies within every Nigerian, thanks to the society in which they live.


Chxta 1:23 pm  

Someone once told my dad: Nna i fokiri op. I nwero mansion n'ogeb ngi. Maka gi me?

I believe the next Igbo person around these parts can translate that. But that sums up your post.

I envy you in the warmth of Naija. How u dey?

Akin 3:26 pm  

No wonder I never did fit in, they expected, I never delivered.

imnakoya 6:53 pm  

I think your post over simplified and over dramatized the corruption phenomenon in Nigeria [re: “If you go into public office and don't come out rich, you are a failure. Your immediate and extended families will curse you…”] Really? As I read the post I couldn’t find any plausible solutions proposed to solve the problem beyond asking various religion bodies to speak against corruption. The Priest, Imam, Bishop etc, have never been effective ‘anti-corruption’ advocates because of how they operate under the constitution and in the society.

And by “showing how it (corruption) is grounded in social expectations and conventions” is really no news. All Nigerians know this. And to expect that breaking away from “ patronage culture and clientism” will solve corruption is not realistic. Well, except there is a way to collectively and safely erase the conscious and subconscious memories (if there is anything like these) of millions of people all at once.

Re: “How many could accept public office without caving into demands for access and contracts from friends and relatives?”

This makes me wonder if those in positions of authority in the more advanced democracies don’t do this.

First, no nation is free of corruption; from America to India, corruption abounds, in a variety of manner, style and presentation. Even the America of the early 18th and 19th centuries was laden with corruption.

What needs to be done is the creation of viable and independent institutions to counter balance the effects of corruption and other ills in the society. That with time will lead to the “transformation of ethical values” the mentioned. It will take time and effort, but can be done...

Jeremy 7:20 pm  

Your claim of over-simplification in my argument unfortunately cites the words of the journalist (Kolawole) not my own words for your case. So therefore I'm not sure if you would want to claim my argument itself is over-simplified.

Whatever the case, the trouble is, Imnakoya, Nigerians also 'know' that they need to create viable institutions, just like you claim that they 'know' the origins of corruption lie in the society itself (I'm not sure this is the case however). Perhaps this kind of knowledge (the kind that circles around in bars and living rooms and on buses, but never leads to action) is not enough?

This is what prompts me to think of religious leaders as one strand of a solution. They are amongst the very few people in Nigeria who are accorded some degree of trust en masse (despite all the scandals). They also have the power to effect ethical transformation in the laiity, if only they preached ethics (and not the illusion of prosperity and puerilities about defeating the dark forces of the enemy) from the pulpit.

Let me ask you this (I'm genuinely interested in your thoughts): in a nepotistic social context like Nigeria, how would you propose that strong and viable institutions are created? What would be the master plan, and what would be the success factors?

imnakoya 9:04 pm  

I do not think Nigerians understand what it takes to build viable institutions.

By the way, Nepotism is everywhere, Jeremy. The Nigerian strain is quite virulent though.

And Yes, I did continue the conversation and have already provided answers to your questions. My comment was more-or-less a 'pingback' of a more elaborate post on Grandiose Parlor.

If I may add, religious bodies will be more effective by educating the masses on the importance of mundane civic duties like voting, and creating 'watch-groups' to monitor the electoral process. Speaking against corrupt is okay, but will not achieve anything by itself.

To answer you question.

First, the activity of the EFCC though crude is necessary to create a 'buzz' around the word corruption, now it's more on people's consciousness than ever before. This is the first step.

The next happens through the electoral process - if the masses would get up their fat asses and do the right thing. The current atmosphere is perfect in Nigerian for this, because I believe, the people are wiser and have seen what goes on in the corridors of power being played out on the pages on the newspaper. It has never happened in the history of the nation. The question is will the people act- by selecting the right candidate, voting and monitoring the electoral process? Will sensible and decent folks step-up and run for offices?

This is what needs to happen before viable and independent institutions can arise. It will happen through the emergence of visionary leaders and activities of progressive members of the local communities.

Imagine, if 3-5% of the adult and able population decides to do what is right, Nigeria will be on the road to building viable and strong institutions.

Anonymous,  12:32 am  

"Until there is a break away from patronage culture and clientism, Nigeria will continue to be deeply beset by problems of corruption."

Excellent point.

Anonymous,  12:36 am  


I like your affirmative approach, and agree that we are on the right path.

Unusally, I disagree with Jeremy on this one and feel he has fallen into the trap of slapping Nija with the "corrupt" tag without acknowledging the underlying social construction, which it rides on.

Corruption in Nija is not accidental, neither is it because we are stupid - it is about survival. Until the average Nigerian can see the benefit of leaving corruption behind, we will hold onto the current system - even whilst berating ourselves and the system we live by.

Why did the West develop "non-corruption" as a guiding ethos - was it not to protect the self-regulating market, to safe-guard the industrial capitalism on which their economy is built?

The reason oyibo man is non-corrupt is because it makes financial sense, let's nor harbour illusions of maral or ethical superiority. It pays (financially) to be honest in oyibo-land - period.

Once non-corruption makes financial sense to Nigerians, we will embrace it. Until then we will use it.


ndesanjo 10:57 am  

First, it is true that there is corruption everywhere, but it does not have to be like that. Second, the level of corruption differs from countries to countries as one can see from Transparency Internation corruption index. So, Imnakoya, I dont see why you would use such arguments (corruption is everywhere) to challenge Naija's post. It does not make it less of a socio-economic problem in Nigeria simply because there is corruption in the US.

Nigerians, and other African countries, might know about the culture of corruption. And we may know what "should" be done and what institutions need to be built, but that's is not enough. Knowing is only part of the solution. We have know this for many years. Corruption, in low and high places, has increased.

If breaking away from patronage culture and clientism is not part of the solution, how can the institutions you are talking about thrive and deliver? Institutions exist in a specific cultural setting. The cultural setting can easily be an obstacle.

As far as I am concerned, there is no either/or.

Jeremy 11:28 am  

I quite like the post by Anonymous above - but that is because ultimately he/she is in agreement with me:

"Unusally, I disagree with Jeremy on this one and feel he has fallen into the trap of slapping Nija with the "corrupt" tag without acknowledging the underlying social construction, which it rides on."

That is precisely MY point - an acknowledgement that corruption is socially constructed. Pointing the finger at corrupt Nigerian individuals currently being investigated is not a solution (it attacks the effects, not the causes) - there needs to be an inward reflection, and each to ask the question in meditative silence: how corrupt am I, have I been? At a Lagbaja concert once, the anonymous one asked the audience to put up their hand if they benefited from Abacha - a couple of brave individuals did so. There must have been many more in the London audience who kept their hand down out of shame.. This is a question that each must ask his peers: how corrupt have you been? What could YOU have done differently? Until a background hum of what I would call peer-to-peer accountability takes place, we will continue to avoid analysis of the cause of corruption. As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu says, "The most successful ideological effects are those that have no words, and ask no more than complicitous silence." One could say exactly the same about corruption: the most successful forms of corruption are those that have no words, and ask for no more than complicitous silence.

The point is, Nigerian society tends to corrupt anyone who comes into contact with it (one only has to think of the actions of the various oil companies in this regard). Human beings (and the organisations they create) are on the whole quite weak animals who quickly take advantage when they can - witness the immediate looting that breaks out as soon as there is a kink in society (a riot, a hurricane..)

Part of what we need as the framework for a solution are viable models of non-corruption. As Imnakoya says, we need visionary leaders - however they are startlingly thin on the ground for some reason or other (please name a few if you can). I suspect that there are potential candidates out there, but the bottom-up pressure is still to opt for a Big Man who shares out the loot to his circle. Until expectations change, the visionaries will get drowned out by the old-men-mafioso. In other words, visionary leaders require visionary followers - its a symbiotic feedback loop.

What we also need however (as part of the transformation of expectations) are historical precursors. Historical figures long dead can serve as role models just as much as living-breathing figures. We need historians, sociologists, philosophers and ethnographers to uncover models of honest, just society from the past to act as guides for the present. It seems to me that amongst the Yoruba, precisely that is available through the Ifa corpus. Unfortunately, the neo-colonial evangelical virus is obscuring this important precursor.

But we also need support from outside. Just as a drunk or an addict needs support, so too does a country that has dragged itself into the mire. All external interventions need a degree of internal mediation. However, the mistake that was made was not to hold those internal mediations accountable for external view. This is why setting up an NGO is seen as one of the easiest ways to make money in Africa - exploit Western guilt-money to one's own ends.

Anonymous,  11:49 am  


So setting up an NGO is the easiest way to make money now, abi - it is not church again?!

I really don't see how Ifa can help us, to be honest - leave that story, I beg.

Corruption is a choice, as is non-corruption. The question is how do we make the "correct" choice attractive.

A lowly civil servant walks to work (since okada is now banned!) and passes a retired soldier living like a vagrant by the roadside, reduced to begging as he fruitlessly awaits payment of his pension. This retiree is a man that has borne arms for his nation, worn the coat of arms proudly and given his all to Nija.

You now expect that civil servant to go to work, toe the line and be a good citizen?!! Only to find himself on the trash heap of life after 30 years loyal and honest service?

No bloody way! If na you nko, Jeremy, you go 'gree?

Corruption is a choice, not a curse or a veiled mystery. It does not need Ifa or Shango to deal with it.

The only way to fight corruption is to incentivize non-corruption. Nigerians are not daft - they do what works (like most human beings). Unless and until we can demonstrate that corruption is a bad idea, it will thrive.

As for TI - they once published a list of African Kleptocrats past and present, without so much of a mention of IBB. I'm afraid they have their own agenda too (don't we all).


Jeremy 12:10 pm  

Anon: its a toss up between Ngo's and the church - but judging from recent news stories, the church seems on balance the most lucrative option...You can fool some people some of the time, and you can even fool all the people all the time..

But Anon - how do you propose to incentivise against corruption? Come up with your own thoughts and suggestions please.

My two kobo: it surely begins by acknowledging that there IS systemic corruption in the first place, and then by analysing the corruption value chain (ie how everyone along the line benefits from the current process). It is actually quite hard to get people to speak up against these things - given that one whistleblower fears reprisals from everyone else on the chain. Complicitous silence rules the roost. So: how do we encourage/incentivise whistleblowing?

Once there is an acknowledgement that the current specific system (within an organisation say) is corrupt, it should not be too difficult to re-incentivise. However, all re-incentivisation strategies must be based on performance criteria, instead of rent-seeking. Your department gets x bonus based on beating efficiency targets, rather than your department gets x egunje for choosing contractor y.

There are quite a few case studies of re-incentivisation strategies from various countries I could mention - but I have not seen it happen in Nigeria yet. Let's see.

But I'm not sure why you are so rejectionist about historical/mythical/spiritual precursors. Nigeria has a huge deficit of positive role models - why would you want to reject historical/cultural models - apart from brute anti-intellectualist/philistine/religious fundamentalist-motivate reasons?

One of the reasons why corruption is under control elsewhere is surely because of the positive influence of role models and precursors who evidently made huge sacrifices for the common good.

When there are practically none in society, a structural self-fulfilling prophecy system installs itself: "there is nothing good here, so why should I do good? Better that I act in my own interest, grab what I can when I can, and leave it at that."

That attitude is perhaps never far from the surface in any society, but it is tempered by the presence of Mandelas, MLK's, Malcolm X's, William Blakes, Nina Simones etc etc in situ.

Role models and precursors create the vital positive energy a society needs to push itself in the direction of the transformative common good.

Is it any wonder that corruption is self-generating in a society where so few people are reverred for the sacrifices they made to the common good, yet so many are reverred for the material wealth they have acquired?

Chxta 4:25 pm  

Long winded arguments by Anon (whoever that is) that as Jeremy rightly pointed out, make his point.

Translation of what I wrote earlier (since there were no good samaritans to help out)

Bros, you are fucking up. You are in this position and you haven't built a mansion in the village. For what?

My apologies for a typo. Village is ogbe, not ogeb

Marin,  5:29 pm  

I am of the simplistic and perhaps untrue idea that corruption was bred into our societies by the colonial system.
Paying off a chief meant that he did what the colonial masters wanted, and everybody could see the results of his having cooperated. The colonial rulers had peace, and the guy grew richer. Be paid off, ignore your conscience became the order of the day. Until people no longer had a conscience to bother them.

Although I do not have any hard facts to support this position, I think it would explain for me the fact that people are completely removed from the moral ideals that once governed our traditional societies.

The only thing I cannot explain is why Botswana, which also underwent colonialism is full of basically honest people. Can someone help me out here?

St Antonym 9:49 pm  

We Nigerians are like abused children.

In the eighties, the leaders and their cronies were corrupt. The man on the street suffered. It was obvious that the problem with the country was with the leadership.

Today, the leaders are (one hopes) a little less corrupt than in the heyday of Shagari and Babangida. However, the damage is done. The Nigerian psyche has been f*cked up. The man on the street still suffers, but now he also steals whenever and wherever possible. He oppresses his fellow man. So, the average Nigerian is hassled from above and from below. Where there was directional thief-thief, it's now full-spectrum thief-thief.

Yes, Atiku is still your enemy, but so also is the guy at the busstop or the roundabout who will "collect" from you, whether you have it to give or not. You are just another obstacle in my way, and I am just another obstacle in yours. We aren't justified anymore to blame it on the leaders. Even my own gateman is "collecting" from me before he opens the gate. Walahi!

How to change it? If I knew how, I'd bottle it up and sell it to the highest bidder...or to whomever gave me the best egunje.

Talatu-Carmen 3:14 am  

Interesting that you call on the religious leaders to take a stronger position of leadership in a fight against corruption. Actually, there has been quite a lot of this among high level leaders in the Anglican Church, the Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN), Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA) etc. See, especially, the Congress on Christian Ethics that has been around since the late 90s.

Of course, from what I've read in your past posts, I'm sure that some aspects of the COCEN statement won't really please you, but one of its primary motivations is galvanizing the church into action on corruption. So, it is one example of what statements made by religious leaders in Nigeria about corruption look like.

Check out


Anonymous,  7:38 am  


I am a little surprised (and disappointed) that you have chosen not to post my last comment.

Yes, I was a little hard on you, but hardly insulting or hurtful.

You come accross as a clever, liberal sort that I would expect to be capable of robust debate.

Since this appears not to be the case - may I offer unreserved apologies for hurting your feelings............naah! Really I just think you're a big wuss!!!



Jeremy 9:43 am  

Anon - I don't recollect rejecting any comments on this post. Pls resend.

I'm not a liberal - its a bit of a swear word for me. Most liberal people practice polite violence under the counter - you know how it is. I like my violence served on the counter or not at all.. (preferably the latter, and only ever verbal forms of the former).

imnakoya 4:49 am  

As it's always the case in the Nigerian society, important issue always get buried under 'big grammer'.

How do we speak to this very important issue of corruption beyond who is right and wrong. It exists, we all know it. Our culture begets it, that is a fact. we need to acknowledge, fine, so what? We need visionary leaders, yes that is that is begining. That they are "startlingly thin on the ground for some reason or other" is because...? And where are the visionary followers?

The biggest harm Nigerians have done themselves is to believe (or forced to believe) that they have no voices.

The issue of leaders and followers is analogous to the case of the chicken and the egg. Which comes first?

There are many credible leaders in Nigeria, is just that they aren't been discovered.

Now of those that have shown the desire to lead, we must scrutinize and question their moral authority. To me this is the most important standard we need in a Nigerian leader today. Who amongst the present crops of 'leaders' have this trait, or significant doses of it? (since we have come to the agreement that we are all morally-challenged)

If I can generalize to the extent possible, the comments on this post, suggest there are visionary followers in Nigeria, but there is problem. This base must be organized and possessively pursue an agenda: To educate and ensure that every Nigerian we know understand and appreciate the meanings and responsibilies of democracy.

It is not enough to be ranting day and night on our blogs about the social ills in Nigeria. We must make a transition from this academic exercise and start organizing and impacting others. All it takes to start is a few good men and women, with a mission. I do see a better tomorrow in Nigeria, but it will take some efforts.

Well, I'm not in Nigeria, so some may say how easy for me to say all this. Buy do you know what? I am ready to 'put my money where my mouth is'. What I can't do physically, I can do in kind and any other ways, to the extent possible. Suggestions, counter-arguments, ideas, from anyone?

Ewisco 9:53 am  

Many atimes, we forget that all that glitters is not gold. The church, the individual and the isntitution are the most common part where corruption has truly eaten deep into the society and when all of them are sensitized, then the nation as a whole would have if not full, at least, cleared of corruption.

corruption has become our daily bread and everyday,we buy and sell it to the younger generation, what will be of our tomorrow's leaders? The future of our youth is on the line and we seem to forget that the future of this nation lies on the youth of today.

Election is by the corner,and the youth are always the bone of contention and destruction, those who make commit these ills are keeping their children free and void of political wars and crimes.

lets fight corruption with every little opportunity we have. Lets see every of our positions in life as an angle to eradicate corruption, the nation is gradually crumbling because, the altar of God where truth is suppose to be heard is stained now a party to corupt practises, where are we going? Fight corruption now that we still have breadth.

Okojie Ewanlen Samuel

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