"Rewarding Corrupt Conduct Sends The Wrong Signal" – Ezekwesili

Since the controversy stirred by her mentoring speech delivered to the graduating students of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, UNN, late last year, Dr. Obiageli Ezekwesili spoke extensively last Wednesday during Channels’ TV magazine programme, Sunrise Daily. Here are excerpts from that televised interview.

How would you assess government’s fight against corruption so far? I would want to firstly condole with the families that have lost people in the recent carnage in Kano and I pray and hope that government would provide a more secure environment. I do also note that most of those affected are Igbos and I want to plead with the Federal Government to grant them special protection as most of these killings in some places affect them and their businesses.

The spirit of communality should be encouraged and it can only be encouraged when people feel free to live and work and do business in any part of the country without the fear of being killed. The elders of this land should come to the table and have a conversation on this issue of insecurity. Government should step up. Now to the issue of public sector corruption; at many levels, there are significant challenges that are emerging and any effort by government, by virtue of research regarding the fight against corruption, stands on a tripod.

The first leg is that the leadership at the very top should be able to signal to the citizens that there is a necessity for a moral revolution such that the climate of corruption would be seen as being too costly to allow to pervade, such that the choices before people would leave every one in no doubt about government’s commitment.

The second is the prevention leg, which relates to structural changes and institutions and systems that would engender transparency and which would lead to better and informed process of decision-making – budget process, procurement process that is transparent. The structural and policy changes that allow deregulation to thrive should be put in place.

The third and final leg is the deterrence part of it – the laws and their enforcement that enables you to sanction corrupt practices in a conclusive manner that sends the signal that bad behaviour would not be tolerated. Whenever bad behaviour is rewarded or tolerated, just as in the laws of demand and supply where you make profit, there is the tendency for people to do it more. So the cost of corruption must be very high. With all these, you should be able to identify where we fall.

Which part of these are we not getting right? In terms of the first tripod, which is about leadership and its intolerant stance, I think there is a long way to go. If you feel the pulse of the society, there is a sense that the whole theatre of public governance is having credibility crisis. The fact is that once you have served in government, then you are expected to be corrupted and that demonstrates how serious a crisis we have in our hands in terms of a value construct regarding our attitude to corruption. We have a long way to go in terms of a leadership that signals an unbridled intolerance for corruption.

Preventive tripod Clearly, when you look at what has happened in the telecoms sector where deregulation reduced the issues of corruption in that sector, that’s a plus. When you look at institutions like the EFCC and the ICPC, these are institutions built with a view to preventing the prevalence of corruption in the society; NEITI is another institution which signals a strong commitment to preventive engagements and fight corruption.

Now, the question is, are they functioning at the level they should? Of course no. There is not even an optimal level of effectiveness in the way these institutions function. Look at NEITI, if properly implemented, we wouldn’t have the type of distrust that we have in the petroleum industry. Everything about making that sector transparent and accountable is within that law and the spirit and intendment of the law and the practice are being done in the breach.

There are people who argue that we need institutions while some go for strong-willed personalities? They are not mutually exclusive. An effective anti-corruption strategy would require the political commitment of the strongest and the highest office in the land. And so, normally, the president, prime minister or head of government, as the case may be, must be the leader on the issue of tackling corruption. Political will is fundamental because you need to make some of the very difficult choices that are difficult.

But you need the institution. But, sadly, people have this wrong idea of thinking that you can just legislate into existence an institution. But institutions are process-driven; so it takes time. The artificiality of having an institution that does not produce the needed result of its mandate is not going to work. Institutions exist in some countries, yet they haven’t made any dent on corruption. We need all of these working together and the key thing is not just about the leadership but the society too can assess the cost of corruption and says to itself that enough is enough. Corruption perverts everything about society and it is very costly because it means you are not operating at a level of allocational efficiency of your resources.

But people say our colonial history plays a role. Do you agree? I was one of the youngest co-founders of Transparency International in the very early 1990s and I was aghast when colleagues from the countries of the North would say Africa suffers from endemic corruption, simply because Africans accept gifts and, therefore, we were prone to crossing the border and this made me so sad and I would fight that slothful generalization and I would say to them that everything about African history tells us that the community was so punitive on bad behaviour.

There were times when families were made outcasts just because a member of the family stole a goat. This was effective and it served as a very important deterrent and it didn’t matter that, even in those days, if leaders tried to pervert the rule and say they forgave, the citizens would never forgive. So, there was a trend of punishing corruption and it was in the society at that time. The pre-colonial African society did not struggle with the issue of corruption.

With independence, there had to be a marriage of the Anglo-saxone public sector (the Western public sector) which Africa inherited but which, unfortunately, did not make room for an effort to bring them into convergence with pre-colonial values for dealing with bad behaviour; so there was a disconnect. There was almost alienation and the people did not own it. There is disconnect in the relationship between the governance system and the people. That is what we are struggling to understand within the construct of history. Now, we should ask, how do we redefine the fundamental values that must underpin the choices we make?

How is it that those in government always see things differently from the way the citizenry sees things. You have been in government before, how does this happen?

This whole issue of disconnect between the way government and the people see facts differently is a matter of the tone they set within government at any point in time.When we were in government, one of the things we said was that we had to own Nigeria’s corruption problem. You can not solve a problem you have not taken ownership of and we saw that corruption was going to stand in the way of many of the things that we had planned to do. We didn’t succeed in tackling all the problems, but you can not solve a problem that you have not owned.

If you define a problem as something that is used against you because people don’t like you, then you are not going to be able to solve the problem. That is something that is a unique characteristic of whoever sets the tone. The President said recently that government was doing so much against corruption and that, in fact, Nigeria was one of the very first signatories to the inter-governmental group against money-laundering in West Africa and that he also signed a legislation into law. Government is saying here that it is doing something.

In terms of putting in place rules or systems or institutions, you cannot say Nigeria has not tried, but in the implementation of the mandate, what do we see? That is the issue. Governance has to do with results – output and outcomes. These are the important issues. More have to be seen to have been done. It is about respecting those systems and the kind of political will and signals given to these institutions are going to be key in the assessment of these institutions.

At a meeting of TI, I was told by TI’s chairman that Nigeria was in the FADF list of countries as a non-cooperative regime and I did know that we had been on that list and we had to work our way out of it and part of the efforts was carried out by Nuhu Ribadu’s EFCC. It is a global framework and we need to be seen to be doing more because the cost of corruption is very high. Okay, are we doing enough really? Compare what is happening now to what happened during your years in government in the area of that last tripod.

The judicial system for sanctioning corruption, indeed, the entire justice system has its own challenge. We talk about systemic corruption in TI when corruption pervades the entire system of governance and, so, governance, which includes the three arms, have their challenges. Though the current CJN is doing her bit in the fight against corruption in terms of the justice system and judicial process, it is very slow, very slow; so I don’t know of how many conclusive corruption sanctions we’ve seen in the media in the last five years.

What vibes do you get when you read what is happening in the media? You can tell clearly and I haven’t read of any high level cases being conclusively sanctioned. There is grand corruption and there is petty corruption. People believe that grand corruption is not tackled the way petty corruption is. We can do everything about the first and the second tripod but if people do not get the sense that, with predictability, there would be serious sanctions against bad behavior, you would not achieve the desired objective of fighting corruption.

For the cases that were conclusive, were the sanctions costly enough? Well, there are many people who would never agree that the punishments were adequate. In fact, some people in the study of the economics of corruption tried to build some analytics around what is optimal sanction for corruption but what I know is that the cost ought to be greater than the benefit. The greatest cost that society has, even where government fails, the citizens can have their own cost of corruption by deciding the character of the leadership they have because legitimacy resides with the citizens. This is a fight that government needs to lead. Corruption is a cancer and when you have cancer you don’t go taking Panadol. You have to do the very painful things.

When you talked about the $67billion, those in government challenged you, and they insisted that there was some pun intended?

Laughs) All things are pure. I didn’t intend any pun. I was speaking to a generation of Nigerians that were graduating from the university – but I would ask that people should read that speech. It was a painful speech to write. I traced the path that, in more than fifty-something years of independence, our lives have revolved round a commodity called oil. I told them the history of how we have had five oil booms that we have enjoyed to date and I said the story is that the nations that we started the development race with have completely left us behind because we have not translated those oil revenues into an improved economy and good quality life for the people.

Singapore started the race with us and the country is at almost $50,000 income per capita while Nigeria is just about $1,500. I was merely advising the students to look beyond the traps of oil well. Oil economy has been mismanaged. That they needed to make technology and manufacturing as their own philosophy of development.The issue of the reserve was just a part of that broader story that was administration neutral. If administrations were to take on me, then all the administrations should take on me, including the government in which I served. It was a speech, for life-changing mentoring. Here is the issue: In the speech I talked about the reserve that was handed over and I said this reserve has been squandered; that it was $45billion and the excess crude was $22billion.

Now, that statement is factual, just goggle the officials of state and see what they said of the reserves and the excess crude over the years, as being what was handed over to them when they took over. The foreign reserve is a composite figure, the foreign exchange that a country has and it is held by the CBN and it is the sum total of everything.

I said the reserve was $45billion and the excess crude account $22billion. These are inclusive and so there was no basis for the kind of abusive language from government. I wasn’t taking on government. If the foreign reserve was $45billion at the time we were leaving government some six years ago and, since we left, oil prices have doubled – mind you our government grew it from $5billion to the $45billion we are talking about. So the question is, why was it not increased or doubled?

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