The word corruption is such a powerful word, it can make you a villain or a hero. The villains are those accused of corruption, while the heroes as those seen to be non-corrupt, or fighting against systemic corruption. Corruption has been so interwoven in our political and economic fabric that Nigeria has taken pride of place on several lists of the most corrupt countries in the world. It is a cloak that we have wrapped around ourselves for so long, that it now forms part of the country’s identity.
What exactly is corruption? Merriam Webster dictionary online defines corruption as dishonest or illegal behaviour especially by powerful people (such as government officials or police officers); or inducement to wrong by improper or unlawful means (such as bribery); or a departure from the original or from what is pure or correct. When we talk about corruption, it is usually with reference to politicians and public office holders. But the definition of corruption is wide enough that it could include marketplace corruption where a trader buries rotten tomatoes at the bottom of a basket and tries to sell off the entire basket as top-grade, consumption quality. Transparency International defines corruption as ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain,’ and classifies it into three groups – grand, petty and political – depending on the amount of money involved.
For as long as I can remember, corruption and politics have been so intertwined that it is difficult to talk about one without the other. For the better part of my life, Nigeria has been trying to come to grips with corruption. You cannot blame me if I admit that I grew up thinking that Nigeria was the only country with a corruption problem. One day we were singing the jingles of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), and the next day, there was a ‘bloodless coup’ because the military wanted to save Nigeria from the abyss of corruption. It was fight to finish for corruption. We all had to be involved. I even joined my school’s chapter of the War Against Indiscipline (WAI) Brigade. I do not remember what we did or talked about, but if I search hard enough in my family home I will find my uniform. Do not worry, I have forgiven myself. Over two decades later, the fight against corruption is still on, and if you go by the reports from this administration, corruption is not tired, it has not run out of ammunition, it is fighting back.
Anyway, in one of my first set of classes for my master’s degree, the professor started by sharing what he called the corner-stone for everything we would need to know as public administrators – there is corruption everywhere! The difference between one country and another is in the systems that are put in place to hold public officers accountable. And then I started to pay attention when corruption scandals made the news. Corruption in the police; public officers getting kickbacks for awarding contracts; public officers living beyond their means; nepotism; lawmakers taking bribes from powerful lobby groups; etc. In America? In the great US of A? Yes, there is corruption in America too, but we do not often hear of it in the same way that we hear of Nigeria’s corruption. But when they want to catch a big fish, they catch it and they fry it well, spiced with thorough investigations, the due process of the law and the judicial system, convictions, jail time, and in some cases, order to pay restitution and forfeiture of property. They make sure the fire is hot! Make no mistake, the justice system in America is not perfect. Just as in Nigeria, there are political hits in the selective prosecution of corruption cases. Judges can be influenced by politics, and it is not impossible to corrupt members of a jury. What is important is that there is no shuffling about when they set their eyes on a target and there is a structure for accountability, no matter how flawed.
I have written here before that it is in the nature of corruption to fight back. A country may declare zero tolerance on corruption but it is not an animal that can easily be killed. It changes form and develops resistance. If corruption could so easily be crushed, there would be no executions of people convicted on charges of corruption in countries like China where a conviction can carry the death penalty. The death penalty ought to serve as a sufficient deterrent to corrupt practices.
There are many ways to tame the beast. For me, one of the most important tools in taming corruption and its effects on the common man is access to information and addressing power imbalances in our public service institutions. Knowledge is power they say. Without access to information, the public has no power to contribute to the fight against corruption. Thankfully, we now have initiatives such as BudgIT and UDEME that are helping the public to stay informed and take action. There is hope.