Nigerians have an understandable—if somewhat childish and sometimes nasty—habit of singling out a trait in one of their rulers and examining critical arguments from the perspective of that trait every time. Take the Goodluck Jonathan administration, for example: when critics raised an issue, Jonathan apologists would direct the argument to “But he is a humble person” or worse: “You are saying this because he is from an ethnic minority.” Or in Lagos, when ex-Governor Babatunde Fashola’s spending was criticised: “But he is working, compared to others.” This social behaviour is generally amusing, but it becomes dangerous when it starts to repress the space for critical thought. And now, with the Buhari regime, this attitude continues. Buhari apologists tend to review every criticism of current Nigerian politics and government from the perspective of: “But he is fighting corruption.”
Buhari is disregarding the rule of law. “But he is fighting corruption.”
Buhari is not managing the economy. “But he is fighting corruption.”
Buhari is ignoring religious/ethnic minorities with grievances. “But he is fighting corruption.”
This particular defence mechanism is even more understandable because—who in Nigeria doesn’t want to fight corruption? Even some blatantly corrupt politicians now claim to fight corruption! But we ought to examine this claim more critically. Is Buhari actually fighting corruption? Or, is the anti-corruption campaign a sideshow to distract Nigerians from the, so far, unimaginative policies of this administration? Or, maybe, the president is genuine in intent but just clueless in execution?
A lot of us, Nigerians, use the word “corruption” by rote. We rarely think of what it means and so we have no conscious idea of its social dynamics. If we consider it at all, we mostly confine it, simply, to an illegal benefit from public funds. This definition is also the one favoured by the current administration.
But, is this all there is to “corruption”?
To be clear, corruption shows up in Nigeria in its two primal forms: as the corruption of need; and as the corruption of greed. There is a third, but we will come back to that.
Now, almost every type of society suffers from the corruption of greed (e.g., misusing public funds or public office or otherwise defrauding the public through private means). In this sense, even the Western countries are all corrupt countries. The difference in effect is, however, determined by the extent to which legal processes in a society can automatically and efficiently handle its occurrences.
The corruption of greed is derived from a condition of human nature that exploits weaknesses in any political or economic system. An increase in the corruption of greed is not the cause of negative social conditions—it is, in fact, a negative social condition itself. Thankfully, it is a social condition that can be cured through a sound legal system. To handle the corruption of greed as efficiently as possible (because we really can’t wipe out human criminality totally), a society can simply shore up weaknesses in the existing system: usually by capping regulatory loopholes, strengthening the capacity of the police, upgrading prosecuting authorities, promoting respect for the rule of law, and assuring the independence of the judiciary. Utilising the legal process to convict offenders is a normal, system-preserving, expectation that is hardly worth the socio-political energy and hysterical support that is currently attached to it in Nigeria.
On the other hand, the nature and causes of the corruption of need are much more complicated. This is because the corruption of need is a symptom of a dysfunctional political or economic system. The corruption of need is peculiar to underdeveloped or developing countries. It is a corruption of survival that emerges from our daily trade-off between a patriotic desire to obey seemingly good laws, and a deeper, natural, instinct for self-preservation from the unjustifiable adverse effects of the system. The corruption of need is the corruption of our daily lives: from negotiating a bribe with the (poorly paid) policeman to avoid lateness for work, to reconnecting your electricity line illegally (because “NEPA” wants to frustrate you). This is a corruption that exists because the price of honesty far outweighs—sometimes fatally—the consequences of corruption. This is the corruption that destroys us.
And it is this corruption of need that any serious Nigerian leader ought to tackle, first. But this is, almost, asking for the impossible; because the corruption of need stems directly from the nature and design of the political and economic system in which it flourishes.
And so: in an economic system where the government owns and controls all land, minerals, and other resources of production, the corruption of need necessarily emerges from the ensuing patronage system.
In a political system where, despite the heterogeneous nature of the society, all effective policy-making power is concentrated in the central government and local authorities have little or no efficient policy-making, the corruption of need necessarily emerges.
In an economic system where the relationship of a manufacturer to political power—and not his “brilliance” or innate productive capacity—determines profit making, the corruption of need will necessarily emerge.
Yet, somehow, in these underdeveloped or developing countries, the success of any government is assured if it can convince the population that the socio-economic gaps that allow the corruption of need to thrive stems, not from the systemic dysfunctions, but from the corruption of greed displayed by a “previous administration.”
And, no, we cannot cure the corruption of need just by strengthening the police or increasing the independence of the judiciary; not by arresting people or building more prisons. It requires, instead, the dissolution or reformation of the political and economic structures of the dysfunctional system. This takes imagination, innovation and persuasive charisma. It requires a working knowledge, by the politicians, of how to structure a productive economy.
But, does President Buhari understand this? Does he understand that limiting productive activity (e.g., through erratic foreign exchange controls) is part of what breeds the corruption of need in black markets and borders? Does he understand that trying to run Nigeria—instead of trying to reform Nigeria—factors into the corruption of need? Does Buhari understand that the Federal Government of Nigeria is, in fact, the number one culprit?
Well, as some try to argue, maybe Buhari is fighting the corruption of greed first, as a process of reform. But this position is hard to support considering that: (i) this approach has been taken before, and it solved nothing permanently—after all, even the Sambo Dasuki loot is derived from the “anti-corruption” crusades of the early 2000s; (ii) so far, the Buhari government hasn’t processed even the Dasuki case alone efficiently enough to secure any conviction—not that this will solve anything in itself; and (iii) even worse, the Buhari government accommodates people in the cabinet with dubious reputations from their time in state governments.
It seems more realistic to consider Buhari’s anti-corruption agenda as: the usual settling of private or public political scores with specific members of previous administrations—like almost every other Nigerian ruler before him; or—to put it very nicely—as evidence that the president has no clue what corruption in Nigeria really means.
In short, President Buhari is not quite fighting corruption. I believe that the president can perform much better if: (i) he disengages from his overt personal interest, particularly in just singular cases of the corruption of greed, and “allow” the legal process to fully handle all instances of its occurrence without the presidency’s involvement or influence; while (ii) he concentrates on and engages fully, instead, with the political and economic reforms necessary to eradicate the more intricate corruption of need.
“Whatever. But he is fighting corruption. Let us stand with him. And this insistence on mindless “support” is proof of the third way corruption manifests in Nigeria: the corruption of mind—or mental slavery.
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