BY BUKOLA SARAKI
A couple of years ago, I read an interesting article in The Economist that tried to argue that there is direct correlations between corruption and development. I thought this was pretty obvious. What set me thinking more about the subject however was the graphics. The writer tried to show that countries with Higher Development Index, measured in health, wealth and education, also ranked higher in the Corruption Perception Index and conversely, countries that have the worst human development indices also performed worst in corruption perception ranking.
In other words, the richer countries are also the less corrupt; while poorer countries tend to be more corrupt. What got me thinking was the chicken and egg puzzle that that statement immediately raises. Do countries become more corrupt because the people are poor or are the people poor because their country is corrupt? We may never be able to answer this question to everybody’s satisfaction.
However, what the article made clear is the direct correlation between corruption and development. If the purpose of government is to improve the quality of lives of its people, then any conversation about corruption must focus primarily on how it affects human development, whether it is health, wealth or education.
I admit it is early days yet, but one area I believe we have made remarkable progress in the past two years of the Buhari-led administration is that corruption has been forced back to the top of our national political agenda. Every single day, you read the newspapers, you listen to the radio, you go on the internet, you watch the television, the people are talking about it. The people are demanding more openness, more accountability and more convictions. Those of us in government are also responding, joining the conversation and accepting that the basis of our legitimacy as a government is our manifest accountability to the people. We acknowledge that if we want Nigerians to trust their government again, then government at all levels must demonstrate that we are not in office for the pursuit of private gains, but to make our people happier by helping them to meet their legitimate aspirations and achieve a higher quality of life.
What all these mean is that despite all that we have experienced over the years, Nigeria and Nigerians have not accepted corruption as a normal way of life; that we recognize it as a problem; that we are determined to make a break with our past and live by different rules. And, to borrow from the title of the book that we are launching today, that we are determined to find antidotes for this disease that has almost rendered our country prostrate.
And talking about antidotes, I am convinced that we must return to that very basic medical axiom that prevention is better than cure. Perhaps, the reason our fight against corruption has met with rather limited success is that we appeared to have favoured punishment over deterrence. The problem with that approach however, is that the justice system in any democracy is primarily inclined to protect the fundamental rights of citizens. Therefore, it continues to presume every accused as innocent until proven guilty. Most often, it is difficult to establish guilt beyond all reasonable doubts as required by our laws. It requires months, if not years of painstaking investigations. It requires highly experienced and technically sound investigation and forensic officers. It requires anti-corruption agents and agencies that are truly independent and manifestly insulated from political interference and manipulation. We must admit that we are still far from meeting these standards.
Most often therefore, because our anti-corruption agencies are under pressure to justify their existence and show that they are working, they often tend to prefer the show over the substance. However, while the show might provide momentary excitement or even elicit public applause, it does not substitute for painstaking investigation that can guarantee convictions.
I reiterate therefore, that we must review our approaches in favour of building systems that make it a lot more difficult to carry out corrupt acts or to find a safe haven for corruption proceeds within our borders. In doing this, we must continue to strengthen accountability, significantly limit discretion in public spending, and promote greater openness. We in the National Assembly last week took the first major step in this direction towards greater openness. For the first time in our political history, the budget of the National Assembly changed from a one-line item to a 34-paged document that shows details of how we plan to utilize the public funds that we appropriate to ourselves. This is a very significant step forward and we are very proud of it.
In addition to this, we are ensuring that the fight against corruption is taking the center-stage in our legislative activities. At the moment, we are considering for passage into law the following bills:
1. The Whistleblower Protection bill, which I am confident will be passed not later than July 2017.
2. The Proceeds of Crime bill
3. The Special Anti-Corruption Court, which would be done through constitutional amendment and;
4. The Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Bill.
In all these, the National Assembly is driven by the saying that “whoever comes to equity must come with clean hands.” Having demonstrated our commitment to transparency and a more open legislature, we will be operating on a higher moral ground in carrying out our oversight duties as prescribed by the constitution. I believe that the National Assembly, working with the Executive Arm of government can continue to explore creative ways to make corrupt practices difficult and the hiding of corruption proceeds even more difficult still. For instance, if our banking regulations placed the burden on the banks to disclose suspicious lodgment, it will make it more difficult, if not outright impossible for banks to warehouse stolen money. At the moment, there are still too many places to hide stolen funds in the banks.
It must come up with a piece of legislation that imposes heavy fines on banks that fail to report cash deposits that they should have reasonable grounds to suspect. If banks know that they stand to lose more in heavy penalties than they stand to gain by accepting corruption money, we would have shifted the responsibility for due diligence on the banks. By realizing that there would be no place to hide their loot, corrupt officials would naturally be less inclined to steal. In talking about prevention, this is one legislation that would go a long way, as the evidence from most developed countries with similar legislations has shown.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, you would have noticed that each time we talk about corruption, we tend to focus almost exclusively on high profile political corruption. While these tend to be of high impact and high drama, I suspect that they are not even as debilitating as what is often referred to as systemic corruption. Corruption by middle level and junior level government officials who pinch from the system and demand gratifications to do their ordinarily routine duties. From experience, this form of corruption ultimately turns out to be as grievous as the high level corruption that readily comes to mind.
Again, this recommends to us the need to strengthen our system for prevention. We need to simplify our bureaucracy and administrative procedures. Because it is in the complexity and red-tapes that corrupt officials profit. However, I also strongly suspect, while not justifying anything, that majority of these low level corruption are largely powered more by need even more than greed. If I am right in this assessment, then it would seem to me that if we are able to provide much of what the people truly need, we would have gone a long way in minimizing some of these corrupt behaviours.
If we are able to build a quality public education system, especially at the basic and secondary level, which would not require parents to pray through their noses for their children’s education; if we are able to build an efficient public health system that provides insurance covers to ordinary citizens so that when they fall sick, they can access quality healthcare without running from pillar to post looking for money; if we are able to build a system that guarantees food and shelter to everyone; if we are able to do all these, we would have gone a long way in removing much of the driving force for corruption at this level.
If we return to The Economist article that I mentioned at the beginning, I suspect quite strongly that most of the OECD countries referenced in the article are less prone to corruption because in addition to all other things, they have also been able to guarantee most of these basic necessities of life for their citizens.
My last point is on the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI). It is important to note that the CPI always generates controversy each year it is released. This is so because, most often governments and countries tend to believe that the year-on-year report does not fully reflect or account for the progress being made in the fight against corruption. I believe the key challenge here is also because ‘perception’ is largely subjective. And it is so easy for perception to degenerate into stereotype. Therefore, while relying on perception, I think it is important for TI and other such organisations to improve on their methodology by developing more robust parameters that reflect the progress that some countries are making in respect to corruption.
• Saraki is President of the Senate