A Two-Step Recommendation To The In-Coming Buhari Administration For Curbing Bureaucratic Corruption.

Editorial Commentary.

At the outset, it must be understood that corruption is a universal phenomenon, and not an exclusive preserve of Nigeria. However, its domestic manifestation is invariably conditioned by a wide range of unique cultural, social, religious and political realities extant in the territorial competence of a country, and thus shape its meaning and policy implications. Reducing the incidence of corruption is vital to a nation’s economic and social well-being for it sends the correct signal to its citizens and the outside world that the domestic climate is conducive to investment and economic growth, and together mediate the process towards political stability. Since bureaucratic corruption is a manifestation of human foibles, it is not possible to completely eliminate its occurrence, nor is it wise for public policy to pursue such objective. It is, nonetheless, possible to reduce its incidence to levels where it cannot have serious dislocative effects on resource allocation, and at worst, constitutes a ‘harmless nuisance’ to the social objective of good governance.

It is usually the case that governments are ‘forced’ into action to curb corruption by a state of crisis (Hong Kong, Mexico, U.S), or required to implement anti-corruption measures by donor nations (developing countries). In Nigeria, as was the case in Hong Kong, the impetus for change stems from a national crises that require immediate attention; but unlike Hong Kong this special crises require two sets of policy actions: one to address the short-term need to curb bureaucratic corruption in the interim period of 12 months, the other for a longer-term, approximately three years hence; the former to stabilize, the latter to ensure sustainability.

A twelve-month plan of Action:

In the normal run of things, a policy recommendation would be informed by a thorough understanding of the relevant social institutions that have meaning to the citizens of the state, i.e. political, religious, cultural, legal and economic institutions. In Nigeria the Council will assume that these relevant institutions are minimally functional for the simple reason that anti-corruption measures, especially ones that involve specialized units, are only effective in countries that have in place essential legal and political institutions necessary for effective governance. Thus, in poor countries where such minimal standards are lacking, and where the political elites have thoroughly debased existing economic infrastructure, anti-corruption agencies are usually ineffective. Anti-corruption measures in the next 12 months will mimic actions taken by a physician in a medical emergency — first stabilize the patient, and then apply palliative medical procedure. In this case the Council would recommend a centralized anti-corruption agency that is immune from the body politics with broad powers to investigate, prosecute, and inform the citizenry of the harmful effects of corruption, but most importantly, reports directly to President-elect Buhari. The existing anti-corruption agencies now operational in the country are clearly compromised and should be decommissioned.

The new anti-corruption agency would be similar in scope and depth to Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), or Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), the two anti-corruption agencies widely recognized as role models for modern-day best practices in the fight against corruption. For expositional simplicity, the Council would identify such agency as The Nigerian Bureau of Investigations (NBI), and it would contain three divisions with well-defined duties:

  1. Division of enforcement and prosecution: This unit will be responsible for enforcing established laws promulgated by NBI, and prosecuting public officials who contravene such laws. It would have sweeping powers to investigate all areas of government activities, and private enterprises that receive contracts from all levels of government. If the country’s existing budget permits, prosecution should be held in a special court that hears only corruption cases.
  1. The Enlightenment/Education Division: The goal of this unit would be to educate the masses of the laws against corrupt practices, and to inform them of the harmful effects of corruption on the collective welfare of citizens. Individuals should be encouraged to report activities that violate such laws, and given the assurance that their safety would not be compromised, and that their complaints would be taken seriously. A monthly report on the progress against corruption should be issued to the public, and its reaction and assessment of the agency’s effectiveness recorded for evaluative purposes.
  1. Policy Enhancement Division: This unit would be responsible for policies that reduce institutional opportunities for corruption. The objective is to minimize the means by which public and private employees engage in corrupt practices, and may involve issuance of transparency rules in public employment, procurement procedures, and how public contracts are awarded and executed. The rules of transparency should also extend to the financial sector to monitor the receipt and transfer of foreign exchange instruments.

If well implemented, the NBI should have an immediate effect on curbing corruption through swift prosecution and stiff penalties, and making it clear to the citizenry that the new administration would not tolerate ‘business as usual’ from civil servants; and since it takes at least two participants to effect corruption, both the ‘giver’ and the ‘givee’ would be equally held accountable and punished if found culpable. The perception of corruption (the folklore effect) and actual incidence of corruption are both damaging to the country’s image and ability to attract investors, thus the NBI should devote significant resources to its Enlightenment/Education Division to enable effective propagation of NBI’s successful and high profile prosecutions. This is a useful strategy to change public opinion on the prevalence of corrupt practices, restore investor confidence, and provide social and political stability, albeit in the short-run.

Because bureaucratic corruption is essentially a rent-seeking activity, the use of a single-agency approach, such as the NBI, may only be effective as a short-term measure. And even then, it has the potential for a serious short-coming if relevant social and legal institutions that provide needed checks and balances are lacking. Specifically, the NBI has the potential to become the mechanism by which agency officials perpetuate the very acts of corruption they are employed to curtail. This is a common outcome in many developing countries in Africa, e.g. Nigeria. Therefore, the Council would recommend that the NBI remain under constant scrutiny by the press, the public, and the legal establishment.

The longer –term Approach (three years hence)

Once the Nigerian economy is stabilized by effective deployment of the NBI, the administration should immediately begin to put in place long-term anti-corruption measures that would complement the efforts of the NBI. These measures must be robust enough to reflect and accommodate the complexities of corruption, and must, at the minimum, engage the following steps:

  1. Embark on Sustainable Economic Development: A review of the literature on bureaucratic corruption would readily point to the fact that countries, at their infancy, and thus economically underdeveloped, are prone to high incidence of corruption primarily because essential social and political institutions are either nonexistent or too weak to provide effective deterrence. But with economic development, these countries are better positioned to provide funding for these institutions, educate their citizens, and pay competitive wages to civil servants. The long-run effect of economic development is a systematic reduction of petty bribery, and may even dampen grand corruption.
  1. Freedom of the Press: A powerful tool in the fight against bureaucratic corruption is a free press that serves as the ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ of the citizenry. The ability of the press to report all forms of corruption serves as a check against would-be participants, and ‘shames’ public officials that are caught in corrupt practices. But for the press to have such effect on public officials, it must be the case that existing cultural sensibilities are unsympathetic to corrupt practices, otherwise a free press may achieve the opposite effect by pointing out to the public who to go to in order to effect their ‘corrupt activities.’ Lawrence Rosen (2010) points out this possibility:

“In the Arab world corruption is viewed as a failure to share any largess you have received with those with whom you have formed ties of dependence. Theirs is a world in which the defining feature of a man is that he has formed a web of indebtedness, a network of obligations that prove his capacity to maneuver in a world of relentless uncertainty. It is a world in which the separation of impersonal institutions from personal attachments is very scarce. Failure to service such attachments is thus regarded as not only stupid but corrupt.”

In other words, culture matters in the fight against bureaucratic corruption.

  1. Paying Civil Servants a Living-Wage: A well-paid government official, everything thing else being equal, is less likely to engage in petty bribery. In many instances in the developing world, the incidence of bribery is a direct consequence of inadequate compensation for civil servants. By instituting a policy of fair wage for all public employees, the government effectively removes the rationalization for accepting extortionary ‘gifts’ from the public in return for services the official is duty bound to provide. Furthermore, paying fair wages to public employees conduces to professional pride, which serves as a disincentive to engage in the demeaning act of accepting bribes. Again, Rosen (2010):

“It may be that professional pride is the key to reform. The rise in professional associations in the West coincided with the civil service reforms of the early 20th century, and those forums, which were not agencies of the state and were not configured as nongovernmental organizations in order to avoid government control, built on the self-respect and pride their participants craved. Nor is pride limited to the technical professions or the craftmen’s guild or labor unions….. Archibald Macleish was right when he said that there are two kinds of people in the world – the pure and the responsible. Pride can go either way in the dichotomy, but being indispensible to both, it cannot be ignored in either.”

These three policy instruments would be the Council’s recommendation for controlling and minimizing corruption in the long-term.