If there is one thing Nigerians agree on, it is the fact that corruption in Nigeria is endemic and systemic. There is data and research to support this but the greatest proof of how destructive corruption has been in Nigeria is the fact that hardly anybody believes it can be addressed or that any government is sincere enough to want to address it. Practically every government since the 80s came into power with a promise to address corruption. However, its cancerous fangs continue to spread and the nation’s psyche violated so much so that we have come to accept it as a way of life. This mental enslavement that corruption is bigger than all of us has emboldened the unscrupulous and undermined successes registered in the fight against corruption.
The All Progressives Congress (APC) ran an anti-corruption campaign, riding on Nigeria’s frustration and Buhari’s personal pedigree. Since the inauguration of the Buhari led government, its anti-corruption effort has been equally controversial and divisive. Every side of the aisle has a notion of what the motive behind the anti-corruption effort is. It has been called vindictive, selective, and insincere. Many Nigerians though believe that it is an effort that should be supported. However, the fact that there is this level of resistance only goes to show that we are dealing not just with a crime here but a deep-rooted social malaise. Hence the effort to win the war against corruption and rally as many Nigerians as possible to support the effort must be multifaceted. History has shown that when you make majority of your citizens part of a cause, it rarely fails.
Anti-corruption efforts would always be resisted. Many of our politicians made a living out of it. Sadly our political life is rooted in corruption, driven by corruption and sustained by corruption. This chain of corruption cannot be broken so easily. While our politicians enjoy the spoils of their illicit conquest, they convince us that anything done to fight corruption is selective or motivated by every other thing but their culpability. Given the reality of our context, government must push back not only in seizing the narrative of corruption in Nigeria but also in agitating Nigerians enough to come together on a common purpose of fighting corruption.
There has to be leadership by example. As commendable as some of the steps taken so far by government are, President Buhari will need to do more. The delay for instance in the public declaration of assets by the President and Vice President was regrettable. However since they have done it, they must be encouraged to ensure every appointee of this President does the same. Public servants mostly buy assets in other people’s name so it cannot be traced to them, that we know! But the fact that they will need to go through all that trouble is a subtle message that the times are changing. The credibility of appointees must in the least be tolerable. In Nigeria we know ourselves, and there is no excuse to appoint publicly recognized crooks to government. And yes here perception is important, if an individual is unfairly perceived by the public as corrupt, he or she should not be in government.
Prudence in public spending is key. In this area the Buhari led government has been excellent. However, the ruling party will need to push this at the State level through incentives and rewards creatively designed to support fiscal responsibility at the state level. Nigerians will see this and be reassured. But making the savings is one thing but properly applying the saved funds is another. It is important to document these savings and apply them to projects that have a direct impact on people’s lives. It is equally very important to communicate the gains achieved in the anti-corruption fight to Nigerians. In the past funds have been repatriated to Nigeria but only served as slush funds for new sets of itchy fingers.
Public communication is equally important. The National Orientation Agency sadly in the past has been the mouth piece of government and a propaganda department, losing its credibility. However it is important that the agency refocuses on citizens. This shift in focus will encourage citizen’s vigilance, educate Nigerians on where to get redress and inform them on what government is doing with a view to encouraging them to get involved. Civic education has to be an integral part of our school curriculum and national culture. We need to teach ourselves some of the values of patriotism and service.
Most importantly, Nigerians want results. People need to be prosecuted and jailed by our courts; by our institutions. The greatest boost for anti-corruption is the certainty of prosecution. While we have numerous overlapping institutions working on anti-corruption, our judicial system has been woefully inefficient in fighting corruption. It is not just about the fact that the system is also a victim of corruption but also because people get away with gaming the system. This is a tough call but unless there are convictions, nobody will take this government seriously. However, such convictions no matter how ‘selective’ will reinvigorate the anti-corruption fight and most likely trigger some level of ‘cooperation’ from beneficiaries of the loot.
Nigeria celebrated its independence on October 1. Though there is much reason to cheer, the reality is that we have equally a lot to be worried about chiefly amongst which is how corruption has practically damaged every facet of our nation’s life. The cost of corruption on the average Nigerian is huge. It is the duty of government to help Nigerians understand that cost without necessarily blaming it on any group. While corruption cannot be eradicated on moral appeals and public enlightenment, it helps to let citizens know the damage it has done – the insane high cost of living in Nigeria that is sustained by corruption and the inability of Nigerians to have a decent life. Government is about people, corruption destroys people and therefore government cannot be for the people if it does not fight corruption effectively. The people must also be an integral part of that effort for it to work. Nigeria is presented a unique opportunity to make a break from the past!
Udo writes from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa- @udoilo