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Published On: Sun, Nov 2nd, 2014

What does corruption really mean?

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By Kolawole Olaniyan

That does corruption look like? The short answer is: not what you think it does, at least according to President Goodluck Jonathan who while recently “rethinking corruption” said that: “Over 70% of what are called corruption [offences], even by the EFCC [Economic and Financial Crimes Commission] and other anti-corruption agencies, is not corruption, but common stealing.” This very high percentage suggests that Nigeria may be nearly corruption-free. If this is the president’s proposition, this government has something of a mountain to climb to satisfactorily prevent and combat corruption and impunity of perpetrators in the country.

The ‘over 70% cases of corruption’ that fit as ‘common stealing’ under the president’s ‘definition’ would presumably include dozens of unresolved corruption cases against former governors, unresolved cases of corruption in the petroleum sector especially the case of the missing $20 billion from the account of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), unresolved oil subsidy scam, the unimplemented KPMG report on corruption within the NNPC, unresolved cases of corruption in the pension fund, unresolved cases of corruption in the Universal Basic Education Commission funds, and the unresolved cases of corruption in the capital market. The list goes on! If these are cases of ‘common stealing’, then what is corruption? Nigerians would like to know exactly the measurement or empirical data used to come up with such notion of corruption. Clearly, the message being conveyed would seem to be that the country is making progress against corruption. But this idea of corruption is certainly in the realm of feelings and not of legal rules, morality or facts.

Here is the thing: The term ‘corruption’, probably the most used word (inevitably subjec¬tively and controversially, but almost always habitually) in the whole vocabulary of politics, is derived from the Latin verb curruptus, which is translated as ‘to break’. Linguistically, the word is used rather pejora¬tively and censoriously to refer to any of the following: ‘dishonest or illegal behaviour, especially of people in authority’; ‘the act or effect of making someone or something change from moral to immoral standards of behaviour’.

What President Jonathan called ‘common stealing’ is what I referred to in my new book (Corruption and Human Rights Law in Africa) as “the deliberate, intentional mass stealing of public wealth and resources by senior state officials entrusted with its fair and honest management for the common good and achievement of human rights, whether carried out individually or collectively, but with the support, encouragement, or acquiescence of the state, combined with a refusal to genuinely, thoroughly and transparently investigate and/or prosecute the mass stealing and recover stolen assets, which violates the human rights of the economically and socially vulnerable.”

Let me say a bit more about why I think the ‘over 70% thesis’ is at odds with legal rules and credible evidence of corruption and its devastating consequences on the effective enjoyment of human rights in the country.

That there is corruption in the country is beyond doubt, especially if it is considered that Nigeria was ranked 144 of the 177 countries on Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Nigeria has ranked very poorly in Transparency International’s CPI for many years, and the US State Department Country Report for 2012 illustrates the inte¬grated problems of corruption, money laundering, poverty and lack of respect for human rights in the country. But the government would readily dispute this evidence. The government in fact once said that, “Perception is different from reality.” Yes, the CPI may not be perfect but no index is. Even so, perceptions may provide a pointer as to the real evidence of corruption. In any case, while real evidence of corruption may be difficult to obtain (in part because of the secretive and complex nature of corrupt acts and the fact that those who perpetrate corruption rarely admit to doing so), its devastating effects across the country are too glaring to ignore.

If it is true that knowledge comes from seeing, most Nigerians will ‘know corruption when they see it’: whether it is in decayed infrastructure, weak and inaccessible health and education systems, crumbling and poorly maintained roads, lack of regular and uninterrupted electricity supply, or rampant violent crime, insecurity (and the slow response to Boko Haram’s abduction of hundreds of Chibok school girls) and entrenched impunity of perpetrators. As a matter of fact, citizens’ anger at corruption by high-ranking public officials has never been so intense.

It is difficult to imagine a greater breach of trust than when senior public officials entrusted with the peo¬ple’s wealth and resources then turn around to use their public entrusted position to steal people’s resources with impunity (basically turning public treasury into a private ‘cashbox’).

Clearly, the ‘over 70% thesis’ can inadvertently lead to watering down the fight against corruption and creating wider wiggle-room for high-ranking politicians and would-be corrupt officials. It can also lead the citizens to lose confidence in the government’s ability to combat corruption. And as experience has taught us, loss of confidence can do terrible things.

The government should care more about combating corruption rather than strenuously attempting to deny or justify it. Secondly, there needs to be a consistency of approach and messaging in the fight against corruption. Transparency is the best weapon in fighting corruption, and the president can lead the way by making public his asset declaration. It’s a seemingly easy thing to do. And the president won’t be breaching any legal rules for doing this. Leadership by example is urgently needed if the government is to show to the citizens that corruption does not pay, and if corruption is to be combated in public sectors, such as the police, prison service, health service, and local government, as well as in the private sector.

As former President Olusegun Obasanjo once said, “Fighting corruption is not a one-night affair. Of course there are deep-rooted interests, and if you are going to deal with it, you have to deal with it consistently [and truthfully]. If you deal with it today and you then turn a blind eye tomorrow, it will come back with vengeance.” While Obasanjo might not have practised what he preached, this government will do well to heed his advice.

Kolawole Olaniyan is Legal Adviser, International Secretariat of Amnesty International, London.


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