Culture Change: The Heart of the Anti-corruption Struggle, By Sam Amadi

You can only cure such systemic malady with more than a dose of tough law and melancholic prosecution. You need a culture and institution change. To succeed in this, we need to put down the lawyers’ wig and put on the suit of the change manager. We have to reset the incentive and cost structure of politics, public service and management of public finance.

It may be near impossible to cleanse Nigeria of pervasive corruption if we do not expand the current war against corruption to include strategic change management initiatives. A law enforcement based approach, as well-meaning as it is, even if redoubled, would not win the war against corruption. Before I argue this point, it is necessary to establish what success will look like in the war against corruption. What does it mean to win the war against corruption?

If winning the war against corruption means committing to prison many of those who have acted corruptly, that is, those who enriched themselves by violating the rules of public leadership, then we are about to win the war. All we need do is to double our efforts in the ongoing prosecutions. If winning the war is ensuing that politicians who are alleged to have mismanaged the economy for the last 16 years are disgorged of their ill-gotten wealth, then we may be in sight of victory. In that case, we just need to enlarge the list of suspects and make prosecution more rigorous.

But this is not winning the war against corruption. Successful prosecution of corrupt officials obviously helps, especially, in the politics of the war against corruption. And the politics of that war is very important. But that is not winning the war. These ‘successes’ will not rid Nigeria of pervasive corruption. Even in the regime of change, corruption is still well and alive, perhaps a little bit inconvenienced and frightened. Corruption is not easily cowed because it feeds on strong incentive and is reinforced by institutional path dependency. It is self-reinforcing and systemic. There are two regulatory principles of corruption: incentives and costs. Both of them lead to the socialisation that ultimately makes corruption a social habit. Corruption is recurrent and resilient because the incentive structure and institutional path-dependency that feed corruption die hard.

So, to win the war against corruption means dismantling this incentive structure and reversing the institutional path-dependency that sustains it, such that society begins to move in a new direction. If we succeed in dismantling the incentive structure and redirecting the evolution of our institutions towards clean politics, efficient and merit-based production and value-based public service, then we are winning the war against corruption.

Even after the victory we will continue to punish deviants and rebels of the new social order. But punishing those who violate the new social compact is not the victory. It is the act required to preserve our victory. So success in the war against corruption is not measured by body bags. It is measured by how much lost territory we have recovered from the social pathology of corruption. It is measured by the degree to which we have rewired society to encourage and enable efficient, honest and public spirited transactions.

A singular or overwhelming focus on law enforcement will not lead to victory in this kind of war. Let us bring history as a logic in this argument. President Buhari has fought corruption twice in his career as a political leader. In his first outing as a military Head of State he declared a war against corruption and dealt harshly with many ‘thieves in power’. Unfortunately, his rule did not last long. That shortness is both an alibi and a verdict. Perhaps, if it lasted long enough he would have won the war. Perhaps, it did not last that long because he lost the war against corruption. But the point is, he lost the war. If he succeeded in ridding Nigeria of corruption by disciplining the corrupt leaders he would have no reason to fight the second battle against corruption. Nigeria did not win the war, that is why Buhari is back in power and in the trenches fighting the same war.

It is a fact that those General Buhari jailed left prison to continue in the politics of looting for which he jailed them. Those he did not imprison continued to run the system as designed. And the result of running the system as designed is corruption. President Buhari is back in power again to kill corruption before it kills Nigeria. The politicians General Buhari swept away from power in 1983 are not the same politicians he swept out of power in 2015 to become President Buhari. But these different sets of Nigerians produced the same result: corruption. How come?

Anyone who know a bit about corruption in Nigeria knows it is not a matter of illegality. It is an ideology of statecraft. Corruption is as indigenous to the Nigerian political ecology as incompetence is. Corruption is not a disease of governance in Nigeria. It is the logic of the Nigerian state.

Outrageous as it may sound, it is because it is not necessarily the people who are corrupt. It is the system that is corrupt. The system makes the people corrupt. The incentive for corrupt behaviour is powerful in the Nigerian system. It takes just normal weakness of ordinary people to fall victim. Only a few who have manifested unusual strength have avoided the pitfall. Isn’t it true that the same Nigerian police officer who is vilified as the most corrupt public officer is the same officer who is credited as exemplary in United Nation’s operations under a different incentive structure.

Corruption is a socialisation process. Under strong corrupt incentive structures, people who don’t have different and stronger motivation or value system would most likely act corruptly. The great anti-corruption heroes in a corrupt society are usually antagonists of their society. They don’t represent the normal specie of their society. Because we are embedded in our society’s ideological and institutional constructs, we usually reflect the prevailing and legitimised values of our society. If this claim is true, then success in the war against corruption is measured by how much this compelling incentive has been reversed and not how many of those who acted corruptly have been punished. Those who acted corruptly should be punished, otherwise we create another perverse outcome: impunity. But punishing them is, at best, as an outcome of a more strategic fight against corruption.

I know that the above assertion will roil those lawyers steeped in what I call ‘legal fetishism’. Legal fetishism is a social pathology that is characterised by the fallacy that the answer to every social problem is to make a better law and enforce it rigorously. In the present circumstances, it manifests in a fanatical commitment to prosecution and a peevish disregard for institutional change. It might be a bad omen for the war against corruption in Nigeria that its generals are mainly lawyers who have an axe to grind with illegality and not with dysfunctionality. Lawyers trade in legality. There is nothing wrong about that. But legalism is a problem. As Judith Sklar famously wrote, legalism is an ideology, an ethical attitude that believes that morality is just a matter of following rules. So, to solve the problem of corruption we make the rules stronger and more compelling. This ideology strangulates creativity in solving social problems.

Anyone who know a bit about corruption in Nigeria knows it is not a matter of illegality. It is an ideology of statecraft. Corruption is as indigenous to the Nigerian political ecology as incompetence is. Corruption is not a disease of governance in Nigeria. It is the logic of the Nigerian state. In other words, corruption is now cultural, it is justified by a norm that is socially affirmed.

Oftentimes we hear people say that corruption in Nigeria has become institutional. Well, if they know what they are saying it means that corruption has become interred with the Nigerian system. As the Nobel laureate in Economics, Professor Douglas North, puts it, when we talk about institution we are talking about the whole gamut of processes, procedures, norms and mechanisms. In fact, all those humanly devised constraints in society for controlling and enabling performance. That is institution. So, corruption as an institution includes the definition of our bureaucracy, their guiding principles and legitimate expectations of both operators and beneficiaries.

How do we fight corruption as culture and institution? First, we need a good diagnosis of the problem of corruption. Why is corruption rampant and thriving in Nigeria? How come we shuffle leaders but corruption remains unabated. To understand this, we look at all the countries in the world that are least corrupt. They have different regime types. They don’t have the same quality of leadership and social development. But their divergent political systems are underwritten by a culture that discourages corruption and rewards integrity. The culture influences the development of institutions that constrain and enable behaviour. Different types of institutions, similar culture.

Culture in the discourse of corruption does not refer to tradition and religion. It refers rather to the basic ideas and norms that define social interaction in a system. In term of public sector corruption, this culture manifests in three leading sectors: politics, public service and public finance. Since politics is the recruitment process for public leadership, its moral quality defines the character of the society. This is not a matter of rhetoric or moralising. It is strictly a matter of incentives. Nigerian corruption is driven by a corrupt political process. This process culminates in a flawed and fraudulent electoral process. But it does not start there. Its starts with the management of party politics.
Nigerian political parties have remained contraptions to finance violent takeovers of the state. The overlying logic of partisan engagement is to capture and pillage. It is this logic that makes primaries in Nigeria a sham. It is true that in many countries in the world unregulated campaign finance poses danger to democracy. In those countries, unregulated campaign finance procures government takeover by big corporations. But in the Nigerian case, barefaced corruption in party politics results in untrammeled looting in public governance. Dasukigate is not about alleged sweetheart deals to arms suppliers who have ties to the PDP. It is an allegation of bare looting. That is where the culture of organising politics as a legitimate process of violent capture and pillage leads you.

…winning the war against corruption starts with realism about corruption. In as much as we are rightly aghast at the pillage of public finance in the last 16 years of return to civil rule, we should always remember that nothing has really changed since 1960. The scale and style of political leadership as brigandage may have changed but the substance remains the same.

This political culture created the mess Buhari met in 1984. It was the same culture when Obasanjo ruled from 1999 to 2007. And now Buhari is back to battle the same culture and its creation of politics as capture and pillage. So, what do you expect from Buhari as he prepares to battle corruption? You expect a serious attempt to reform politics in Nigeria. So far, political corruption is not dented. The primary focus of the war against corruption would have been to change the incentive structure in partisan politics. The president has the political capital to lead a transformation of politics. He could have started with the election of principal officers of the National Assembly and pushed it towards the various primaries of his party and the elections conducted so far by the INEC. By a combination of body language, bully pulpit and reform of laws and procedures, he could have reset the political culture and its institutional path-dependency such that a major incentive for public sector brigandage would have been minimised.

The relation of politics to public service is very strong. Political culture sets the stage for public service. The general lack of transparency and accountability that necessitated the draconian implementation of the Treasury Single Account (TSA) is a product of political culture that has entrenched secrecy, privilege and impunity. Under this culture, all mechanisms of vertical and horizontal accountability are compromised. So, even though we retain all the formal institutions of accountability: public procurement, auditor general’s report, parliamentary oversight, etc., we discount the values and norms of openness, fairness and merit that sustain such institutions. As long as it is politically beneficial to have a public service that is hierarchical, privilege-based and without regard to merit and efficiency, the public service in Nigeria will remain corrupt and incompetent.

Often the failure of the public service to manifest integrity and transparency will lead to misapplication of public finance. The entire focus of politics in Nigeria is to gain access to public finance for self and group interests. This bottom line is the directive principle of statecraft. It has defined the development of politics and political institutions in Nigeria. It is in this sense that some have defined Nigeria as a criminal state; a state designed for expropriation, not for production. The first victim of this logic of politics is public finance.

Today, we are hearing of billions alleged to be stolen. We know that some of the claims of corruption may be exaggerated. But even if we discount the media hype, it shows that the crisis of corruption in Nigeria is pandemic. The surprise is that we continue to have this level of corruption in spite of the public procurement law, fiscal responsibility law and freedom of information law. This is a sure proof that legalism is pathetic. We are not going to cure this systemic pathology by enacting stronger anti-graft laws and ruthlessly prosecuting offenders.

So, winning the war against corruption starts with realism about corruption. In as much as we are rightly aghast at the pillage of public finance in the last 16 years of return to civil rule, we should always remember that nothing has really changed since 1960. The scale and style of political leadership as brigandage may have changed but the substance remains the same. Otherwise, how do we account for the number of billionaire soldiers in our midst? How come those who has ruled Nigeria or even participated as military governors of the states ended up being billionaires? Professor Billy J. Dudley has convincingly argued that Nigeria’s political crisis arose on the faulty foundation of corrupt partnership between the business class and the ruling political and military class. This partnership continues to determine the culture and morphology of Nigerian politics.

What has changed since Bill Dudley made that penetrating observation is that the political/military class has become the business class, thus aggravating insider dealing. You can only cure such systemic malady with more than a dose of tough law and melancholic prosecution. You need a culture and institution change. To succeed in this, we need to put down the lawyers’ wig and put on the suit of the change manager. We have to reset the incentive and cost structure of politics, public service and management of public finance. We have to create, through body language, aligned symbolisms and the bully pulpit, new ethos and expectations of individual and institutional performance. If government spends time and resources on changing the culture of the Nigerian enterprise it will realise that the laws on the book are good enough to fight corruption.

The good news will be that when President finishes in 2019 or 2023, he would never wish to come back again to fight corruption because the culture of corruption is gone.

Sam Amadi, a former Executive Chairman of Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, writes from Abuja.

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