by Rotimi Fawole
The mantra is that government is corrupt. And politicians and senior civil servants surely must be, given the billion naira scams that we keep reading about.
But there is a level of life and living that that these lofty politicians don’t descend to. The president, for example, in spite of his ubiquitous portrait, does not sit at police stations across the country and demand bribes for bail. Governor Fashola is not the civil servant who, after making a song and dance about morning devotion and keeping you waiting for an extra 15 minutes, demands a bribe before attending to you. It is neither the president nor the governors who pay the bribes to get things done – it is ordinary people like you the reader and me the writer. There clearly is more to corruption than government and politicians.
Perhaps the greater mystery, since we all agree it is such a terrible thing, is that we do nothing to stop it.
If you have ever been in a bus stopped by the police, with the driver trying to talk his way out of being “tolled”, you will testify that the passengers very quickly lose patience with the driver and urge him to pay up. Passengers in buses with more cooperative drivers would have made much better progress with their journeys and, with such a brittle passenger-load, there are only so many times that the driver can attempt to resist the extortion. Corruption wins.
And many times, even when you set out determined not to pay a bribe, the process for obtaining that Driver’s License, important document or regulatory consent is so convoluted that you wonder if it was designed by a mentally challenged person. Most systems are structured to make uprightness excessively more difficult than corruption. Wouldn’t you rather pay a single person and have them deliver what you’re after to you, than go from desk to desk greeting civil servants who carry on like they’re doing you a favour, several of whom won’t be “on seat” anyway for most of the day? Corruption wins again.
What’s worse, there are no disincentives for corruption. The typical choice one is faced with is, do I refuse to pay this bribe (and have my goods impounded/my office sealed/spend the night in police custody/wait 6 extra weeks to get this important document, etc) and do what I hope will make Nigeria better eventually? Can I afford the time that will be lost and all the other inconvenience of refusing to be corrupt? Usually the answer is no and for logical reasons.
While you’re busy being a goody-two-shoes and waiting for the rusty wheels of the civil service to turn, several others have oiled the cogs and gotten what they’re after, to no one’s detriment except, perhaps, the generations of unborn Nigerians for whom the system will be infinitely worse. Corruption wins forever?
Perhaps the biggest challenge to tackling corruption is the attitude of the average Nigerian, who doesn’t respect any semblance of order, whose matter is of greater urgency than anyone else’s, who doesn’t care about the wider consequences of his course of action as long as his immediate inconvenience is resolved.
Everyone’s in an orderly queue and waiting their turn at the toll gate but Mr. Average Nigerian is in the greatest of hurries and gives justification to the necessity of the sign that says “One Car Per Barrier Opening” (we really need to be told that?). A process is designed to take 5 working days to complete but Mr. Average Nigerian needs his to have been completed yesterday. Mr. Average Civil servant is of course happy to oblige, given either his meagre earnings or his insatiable greed.
The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the average public official in a position of authority runs their departments on whims, euphemistically termed ‘directives’. Instead of enacting legislation or issuing regulations, these directors, permanent secretaries, etc ensure that things are constantly in a state of flux with their frequently conflicting directives. Many times, these directives are decreed without consultations with stakeholders or warning. People, including civil servants themselves, are therefore never really sure what the proper processes are. Uncertainty leaves plenty of room for extortion.
So here we are in this melting pot of our self-centredness, regulatory uncertainty, lack of punishment of perpetrators and society’s celebration of all types of wealth, including that of the ill-gotten variety. How do we vanquish corruption?
First of all, corruption has to begin to make less sense than doing things correctly. Processes need to be simplified, possibly even automated and time-frames for box-ticking and approvals need to be shortened. A serious government can set targets for its various departments, monitor compliance and sanction defaulters. Offices can also be fitted with microphones and CCTVs, to monitor conversations, although this ventures perilously close to violating privacy rights.
Secondly, and this is probably the most idealistic thing my mind has ever conceived, we all just need to refuse to be extorted; accept lawful fines, stop demanding illegal fast-tracks, exhale and allow the system to run its course. Yes, initially, there will be delays but personal sacrifices have always been the currency of political struggle. However, if “facilitation” – another beautiful euphemism – dried up completely, government departments would have no choice but to treat and move all files equally. Unless, of course, I’m wrong about productivity being a concern of government.
The bitter irony here is that I am thoroughly convinced that neither of these suggestions would ever work or be allowed to work. The day CCTV is installed in a ‘juicy’ department is the day they begin to have epileptic power supply or repeated fires in the control rooms. Our culture of self-importance and entitlement will also not let people consider the greater good for too long. Directives and convoluted processes will always be justified with “urgent need to respond to a situation” and “need for audit/checks and balances”, respectively. As for the justice system, well, the combination of police training and an insufficiency of judges can’t forebode very well, can it?