Much of the routine criticisms of Nigerian politics has to do with the seeming of absence of ideas and ideology in organising political competition and contestation for public office from where service can be rendered a population desperate for leadership so as to realise the promise of a great African modern nation state. It is useful therefore to situate the current campaign against corruption and buildup of consequence management in public life in Nigeria, in that context.
Something about the mood of the moment, in spite of those who as usual suggest the anti-corruption crusade may be targeting more of the opposition, suggest the a refrain from a hymn I have chanted for a quarter is finally beginning to resonate among a broad part of the population. Corruption is far beyond good cop, bad guys moral issue. It has indeed crippled the possibilities of progress in this land of great potential. But today it is desired to bring to the fore how that has harmed the place of ideas in politics and governance.
First, too many people in Nigeria have either lived in denial about the extent and effect of corruption; wish it away as a moral issue divorce from performance outcomes or seen it as nitpicking by those ‘unfortunate’ to be outside the arena of ‘chopping’ and so should want their turn for God to butter their bread. But the cost is so high and stirs us in the face all the time. Among the points I raise on this score is how it shapes perception of national character with costly consequences for our economy and the dignity of the Nigerian travelling around the World.
This denial on our side has not changed our reality and how we are seen. I often draw from the opening paragraph of a book on corruption and development in Africa by Kempe Ronald Hope Snr. and Bornwell Chikulo. Those first lines of the book suggest that corruption runs the range in Africa, from rare, in Botwana, to widespread in Ghana and systemic in Nigeria, tells a sad story.
I like also to recall an encounter with American investigative journalism great, Mike Wallace, while I was on sabbatical leave, writing a book on uncertainty and strategy in emerging economies, in 1996, in the United States. Wallace in an interview with Nation of Islam leader, Loius Farrakhan, challenged Farrakhan with questionable associations, industry visiting, in his words, the most corrupt country in the world, Nigeria.
I thought the reporting unfair and sent a fax to CBSTV expressing surprise that a thorough bred like Wallace would violate a law laid up for would be journalists in Journalism 101 classes, care with the use of superlatives. Mr. Wallace on receipt of the feedback called me and suggested that sometimes hyperbole is used to make a point. He noted that Nigeria had disappointed many who wished it well by allowing corruption to cripple it. He said he had come to Nigeria in 1970 to interview the Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon and presented an optimistic story about the coming of the first black power. He said corruption had prevented Nigeria from claiming that promise. I insisted that even though his observations on corruption were not inappropriate it was still unfair tarring all with same brush.
I said to him, I am a Nigerian and have served in government at a presidential advisory level, in industry as an executive of a multinational in manufacturing, in thought leadership and journalism as columnist, and at the time in academia and I could state with certitude that I had never asked or received a bribe in my life and I was sure there were many Nigerians better cultured than I.
Wallace expressed a wish he could correct the impressions and return to Nigeria with me and do such a story but regretted that in those Abacha days he could not expect to leave Nigeria alive after the stories with the hidden cameras and policemen extorting money on the streets now compounded by the Farrakhan interview.
The bigger irony of that encounter was that I had told Wallace I was a member of the board of the Transparency International, Nigeria, as it was in those days. Barely a few months after the encounter Transparency International published its first corruption index and Nigeria came out the most corrupt country of those surveyed in the world, in the perception of the businessmen surveyed. Wallace could then have been justified in his use of superlatives.
With these images dogging Nigeria from corruption one would expect it to be a central issue in how social, economic and political reforms are engage in Nigeria. But this has not been quite so until recently because the market place of ideas has been the arena of a few civil society types shouting themselves hoarse on the matter. The powerful, who profited from the corrupt and corrupted order, somehow were successful in tagging the anti-corruption crusaders as impractical iconoclasts or even freaks angry with the world. So the mainstream saw the crusading with the bemused understanding reserved for those who have growing up to do.
For me the big challenge is in the effect corruption has on allowing for the flow of ideas that improve policy choice and reduces the extent of iatrogenic choices where the policies do more damage to the patient than the original problem policy intervened to solve.
Who are the kinds of people that engage in debates in the electioneering campaign process and how are they funded. No doubt just as people complain of the role of lobbyists in many more mature democracies we can complain about the place of corruption in determining share of voice. The bigger part of the problem is that many people of ideas, who could enrich the process, exit the arena, which for me is fleeing citizenship, but it is hard to be too hard on them.
The bottom-line outcome is that the system is denied a body of ideas that can lead to consistency of superior ideas for progress. It is even more in the choice of political association and body of ideas, as ideology, that the trouble with corruption does even greater harm. Many move from one party to the other; opposition to ruling and back, if there is change.
In pursuit of the gains of being close to power in the ruling party, some of those crisscrossing blur what the parties represent. If the lure of corruption were not there the tendency would be for belief systems to orient how and who people associate with. It would therefore be easier for people of ideas to coalesce into followers of approaches on how to organise society in advance of the common good.
The lack of ideological movements make recruitment into political parties more challenging for people motivated by more than just raw power has meant that our society cannot find the right footing for sustainable growth.
As we hear the speculations on how bad things got with abuse of the commonwealth, it has become clearer that if we had a proper market place of ideas, parties that were based on an articulated view of how human progress is made, things would not have gotten as bad as they have become.