Last week, the world was treated to the leak of what has come to be termed as ‘the Panama Papers.’ It was the story of a systematic money laundering service involving public officials and politicians around the world. A few African politicians such as Bukola Saraki and James Ibori, were affected, but these ones had already been indicted in their countries.
Still, the relative sparseness of Africans in the scandal does not mean that our leaders are mostly honest. It only implies that they do not have the means or the anxiety required to hide money through sophisticated channels.
Every region of the world has corrupt politicians. Yet, some countries seem to have developed in spite of corruption while others are practically crippled by it. This point requires layers of historical and social analysis. But from, at least, a postmodern perspective, every country is corrupt: with the difference that developed countries have dealt with the corruption of need, while underdeveloped countries keep blaming the corruption of greed.
The corruption of greed is, simply, the theft of public resources. Much like petty theft and armed robbery, it is an exploitation of weaknesses in any political or economic system. This is the type of corruption that worries President Muhammadu Buhari and commentators such as Professor Itse Sagay.
Yet, the corruption of greed is relatively easy to resolve. Like any other crime, it requires an efficient and automated policing and criminal detection system, a well-equipped prosecuting office, a non-partisan executive administration, and an independent judiciary. We lack all these in Nigeria.
More importantly, crime fighting requires that the citizens have a strong sense of social justice. Yet, it is difficult to generate a sense of social justice in a society where the corruption of need thrives. The corruption of need is not as clear-cut as the corruption of greed—which is why it eludes a lot of seemingly sensible Nigerians.
This type of corruption is the aggregation of the negative consequences of inequalities in a society. It is generated by conflicts between the legal obligations in a dysfunctional political or economic system and the natural instinct for self-preservation from the unjustifiable adverse effects of that system.
This is better illustrated than defined. For example, because the President can discretionally exempt any person from the application of taxation and business laws, it is expedient for citizens to aspire to “friendship” of the president rather than be subject to those laws. Because a governor’s convoy can clear traffic automatically, it makes more sense to have access to the convoy than join regular citizen in obeying traffic laws. Because administrative procedures (from passport applications to land registration) are fast-tracked for high-ranking politicians, it is practical to have a politician in one’s reach. When the wife of the president visits a state and all movement is stopped to keep the roads open, it is very convenient to be her friend on such a day.
The majority of Nigerians who cannot attain these friendships of patronage either suffer the consequences of being regular citizens or pay in cash and kind to achieve these same privileges. These payments—often made to get the service that citizens ordinarily deserve—are called bribes. Multiply these bribery scenarios by a hundred million people and you can see how the corruption of need permeates a society. This is the real corruption, and it arises from social inequalities embedded within the political and economic system.
When citizens observe these inequalities in the system, it is difficult to motivate them to a sense of social justice. It is, instead, more sensible that they align with politicians whose clout can elevate their status within the system—even if those politicians have been accused of the corruption of greed.
It is, therefore, easy to see how the corruption of greed depends on the corruption of need. Mr Bukola Saraki refuses to resign from his position because he is strengthened by the corruption of need. He has supporters who will champion him unconditionally in order to secure their stake in the patronage system. The same principle applies to other politicians: their success in Nigeria depends on the continued corruption of need.
President Buhari has not shown any intention to tackle the corruption of need. Such a campaign will require him—and other politicians—to step down from their pedestals and become equal with the average citizen. Public officials will lose their autocratic authority. The rights of every citizen will come before the privileges of office. But, in a political system where governors can keep a convoy of 10 cars, slap their staff and insult traders, fighting the corruption of need is a hard task.
It is easier, and self-serving, for President Buhari to focus on the corruption of greed. The money recovered from previous looters ensures funding for the privileges and inequalities enjoyed by new administrations. It is, therefore, disingenuous for the president to suggest—as he keeps implying—that the economic fortunes of the country are tied to the fight against the corruption of greed. This type of reasoning suggests a deficiency in economic theory at best, and a lack of creative thinking at worst.
Serious governments don’t wait for scandals like the Panama Papers to fine-tune their economic policy. A country’s economy should be dependent on productivity and not access to loot. A house owner—or president—whose primary economic agenda is dependent on catching thieves will be heading a house of perpetual poverty.
It is good for us to catch looters. Hopefully, this will inspire a sense of social justice and stimulate productivity. Still, the inequalities and wastage encouraged by the corruption of need are directly responsible for the suffering of ordinary citizens. Buhari’s government has to tackle this if it really wants to inspire Nigerians. Otherwise, as a friend says, we might as well cut to the chase and appoint the EFCC Chairman as the Co-ordinating Minister of the Economy.
Originally published in slightly different form here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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