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PMB & corruption fight: Beyond probe, prosecute and jail!

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As the lamentations on the way the CJN was suspended from office continue, it is important that PMB and APC appreciate that the outcry is not a support for corruption but on the untidy way it was done and the real intentions of the government. In addition, even if it is agreed that it is a fight against corruption, I am deeply concerned that the present approach of ‘probe, prosecute and possibly jail the offenders’ while important might achieve only limited and unsustainable results. It is mainly the same approach that has been used by all previous governments which unsurprisingly has had little or no impact.

The question that should be asked is why corruption seems to be increasing and getting more complex even with all the presumed efforts against it. In our reactive approach to governance, we lack deep and detailed examination of the historical and sociological genesis and growth of corruption in Nigeria, especially how our formal governance and legal systems have been the major sources and causes of corruption.To make any meaningful progress, we need to properly understand how our institutions, organizations and their interactions have helped to create a dominant culture of corruption. In line with the concept of path-dependence, this unfortunately started even before 1897 when the name Nigeria was first suggested and has continued throughout our trajectories and efforts to create a nation state.

Institutions can be formal or informal and includes rules and laws, practices, norms and values which provide the procedures that moderate or help to eliminate uncertainties and inherent costs (broadly speaking) in human relations and transactions. They are the structures through which incentives are prescribed in all human engagements- education, social, economic and religious. Through the incentives provided by the institutions, organizations emerge to pursue their different aims (such as winning an election, passing an exam, getting a job) within the standard constraints of economic theory. Organizations include political parties, religious groups, government agencies, social groups and individuals. Economic outcome of a society (in this case, presence or absence of corruption) is therefore determined by (i)the mutual relationship between our peculiar institutions and the organizations that have evolved as a result of the incentive structure provided by our institutions (ii) the feedback process by which we (Nigerians) perceive and react to changes in the opportunity set.

Applying the above brief definitions and explanations to Nigeria will enhance our understanding of the reasons for the pervasive corruption in our society. I will clarify with few brief illustrations in line with the concept of path-dependence. For over 400 years from 1455 to 1840s, majority of the ethnic groups that make up Nigeria were subjected to a most inhuman and lamentable experience, the slave trade. Even with the abolishment of the slave trade and its replacement with trade in agriculture and raw materials, the new trade, in line with the concept of path- dependence had all the characteristics of slave trade. It was exploitative, divisive and dominated by dishonest and greedy traders (merchants and middlemen) but interestingly also regulated and supported by the then formal governance system.

Before and after the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria in 1914, the different ethnic groups were governed separately and had limited contact with each other and as a consequence a culture of mistrust was encouraged and supported by the formal governance system. Both the Northern and Southern protectorates reported directly to London with the then Governor General, Lord Lugard, the only semblance of unity. All the ethnic groups maintained their informal legal system and cultures (norms and values) and used the formal English legal system only in situations where the informal legal system will not suffice.

As a child looks up to parents for moral guidance and growth, we looked up to the colonial masters for a formal national value/governance system but what kind did they bequeath us? They bequeathed us formal institutional incentives utilized in achieving their economic interests. Possibly oblivious that their primary interest (economic exploitation of raw materials) deviated from the ones needed for nation building, we adopted and started using those institutional incentives in our formal governance system which expectedly but unfortunately became our national value system.These include dishonesty, use of force and violence, exploitation, abuse of power, greed, divide and rule used for both slave trade and colonialism. Exacerbating our situation is the usage of dual but contradicting and confusing legal systems (the informal, based on our tribal cultures and the formal, based on English common law).

The effectiveness of a law (stating the obligation, justifying it and punishing offenders) depends on the extent to which the law is accepted, understood, internalized and complied with. The success or usefulness of a law therefore starts from the way the law is stated or expressed, its believability and amenability with informal norms and values (social norms). As social norms are rules that are not officially stated or enforced by formal legal actions but yet complied with, the efficacy of the formal law to serve as a good deterrent mechanism immensely improves when it is used to complement social sanctions (informal norms and values).

The helpfulness of informal norms and values is due to their alignment with morality which starts at birth and families. In the above explanation of the relationship between informal and formal laws, Nigeria cannot be said to be a good example. While an alien, misunderstood and forced formal legal system (English formal law) was used in formal governance system, the informal legal system (norms and values) moderated our ethnic groups. Not only did we arrogate superiority to the English legal system, we rejected and denigrated our informal legal system (norms and values) in our formal governance systems. With this grave mistake, we voluntarily set our dear nation in a direction of confusion and contradiction resulting in our seemingly unachievable sustainable development and endemic corruption.

Recalling that Nigeria is a very plural society lacking a common value consensus but with relative rigidity and clarity of group identification, the ineffectiveness of our adopted formal legal system becomes more apparent. This is very evident with the glaring difference between the contents of the law and the practice of the law. While the contents might state the need for equity, unity, transparency, hard work, merit, the practice starting from the slave trade period to the present is the opposite. With limited integration and consequent distrust among the ethnic groups, anything at the center is perceived and approached with deep ethnic sentiments and lack of responsibility. While our respective informal legal systems (norms and values) are respected and obeyed in our villages, our formal legal system is despised and consistently circumvented due to the absence of believability and oneness. As the formal governance system which is the dominant system is flawed and corruption oriented, the society will expectedly be corrupt. It is also the reason for the proliferation of tribal interest groups such Arewa Consultative Forum, Afenifere, Ohaneze, Itsekiri and Ijaw Councils with each having both an elder and youth/militant sub-groups. The emergence and increasing prominence of these groups is a reflection of lack of trust and belief in our formal legal system (adopted English legal system) to properly protect their interests.

Since the end of the civil war, our governance has been dominated by the military or its hybrid which is to a large extent an aberration of good governance and therefore a manifestation of corruption. In addition to being inherently unaccountable to the citizenry, they (military) governed mainly through force and violence which helped in enhancing our moral recession. With easy money from oil rents, all that was needed to be rich was to be in the military or be connected to them. Hard work and merit were further relegated while wealth irrespective of the source celebrated and encouraged. It then became fashionable to owe workers, embezzle public funds, commit violent crimes once you are rich or connected. In this situation, even the gatekeepers (security agencies and the judiciary) are structurally and functionally corrupt as they are agencies of the formal governance system, the principal cause and epithet of corruption.

With the above illustration, it can be deduced that our dominant formal institutional incentives over these years have been that of exploitation, greed, dishonesty, division, tribalism and nepotism. In such situations, achieving any aim (making money, educational pursuit, getting a job, winning an election) is mainly possible through the use of corruption-oriented institutional incentives provided by the society and government. This is why our quality of education is so poor because majority of the teachers and students do not see hard work as the appropriate way to achieve their success. That is why getting a job is not based on how skilled you are but more of who you know or where you come from which interestingly has been formalized using the controversial concept of ‘federal character principle’. It is the same reason why every political party rigs during elections because it is the dominant institutional incentive and procedure to win. The list is endless. When combined, the expected outcome should be a corrupt society which we are. It is a similar story but with their peculiar histories for other corrupt countries in the world such as Sudan, South Sudan, Myanmar, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central Africa Republic, Iraq and Libya.
Using only the current approach of ‘probe, prosecute and possibly jail the potential offenders’ is akin to a difficult and strict father whose children behave well in his presence but wild in his absence. It is an important and unavoidable approach but needs to be complemented with a comprehensive understanding of the underlying causes of corruption in Nigeria. Creating a better and sustainable Nigeria can only be achieved with an approach with deep disposition to our historical and sociological peculiarities. The undisputable factor behind the strength and success of a nation is not the rejection of their historical past and peculiarities but in their deep appreciation and utilization to understand the present and plan for the future.

Fundamental to this advocated approach is the overwhelming need to restructure both our governance and legal systems. While the restructuring of the governance system should be in line with the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference, a more pertinent and urgent demand is the comprehensive reformulation and restructuring of our formal legal system to deeply reflect the importance and superiority of our informal laws (norms and values) over adopted English common law. Gradually, a new value system and people will emerge where corruption will be negatively perceived. As stated “When just men are multiplied, the common people shall rejoice but if the impious are multiplied, crime will increase. And the just shall see their ruin” (Prov 29: 2).


Franklin Nnaemeka Ngwu (PhD)
Dr. Ngwu is a Senior Lecturer in Strategy, Finance and Risk Management, Lagos Business School and a Member, Expert Network, World Economic Forum. E-mail-,

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