Ex-Minister, Ex-Vice President (Africa), World Bank
Last Wednesday, March 20, 2013, Mrs. Obiageli Ezekwesili, former Minister of Education and ex-Vice President (Africa), World Bank, spoke extensively on Channels Television’s morning magazine programme, Sunrise Daily. Here are excerpts from the interview. Please, note that questions have been abridged for clarity and conciseness.
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 secured 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. It has to do with institutions, individuals, families and the nation at large. That is the first tripod and it is credible leadership that signals that.
The second is the prevention arm of the tripod, which says that you need structural changes and institutional growth and systems and all kinds of procedural changes that would enable transparency that would lead to better and informed ways of decision-making and evidence-based approach to making policies. And things that are accountable and transparent and part of this is that you make the budget process transparent and build institutions for public procurement, like the Bureau of Public Procurement, and establish institutions like the office of the Accountant General, the Auditor General, the Public Accounts Committee. All of these structures and institutions are things that are important for the structural and sectoral policy changes that include deregulating sectors that lend themselves to markets, so that you reduce the opportunity for corruption eventually. That is what the whole prevention strategy is all about.
The third and final leg of the tripod is the deterrence part of it – so that you have laws and its enforcement and the whole justice system that enables you to sanction corrupt behaviour in a conclusive manner and in a manner that says that there is a cost for bad behavior and that when bad behavior happens, the society would not tolerate it. Any time the society tolerates bad behavior and rewards bad behavior, it is in consonance with the law of demand and supply that whatever you pay for or what there is a profit for will happen more; and so you have prevalence of corruption in a society where the cost of corruption is too low. So, when you look at this in this comprehensive sense, you then have to analyze by yourself where you think we fall.
In all of this, especially in the second leg of it, where we don’t have to encourage people, what are we not doing right?
In terms of the first tripod, which is about leadership that signals an intolerant stance against corruption, I think there is a long mile 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 and this credibility issue is so huge. The fact is that once you have served in government, the assumption is that you can’t serve in government without being corrupted; and that shows to you that we do have a serious leadership crisis as far as the issue on conveying a very strong signal to society that we must be a society with a value construct that eschews corrupt behaviour. So, there is a long journey ahead of us in terms of that first tripod of leadership that leads and has unbridled intolerance towards corruption.
In the prevention strategy where I talked on structural issues and the kinds of roles and responsibilities and the division of labour in the management of the economy, clearly when you look at what has happened in the telecoms sector where the deregulation and liberalization reduced the kind of corruption we faced in the telecoms sector of this country, that is a plus. When you look at the existence of new institutions like the EFCC and the ICPC, the existence of the Bureau of Public Procurement and the NEITI and the agencies and laws that underpin all these institutions, that is progress; and constitutes evidence to the fact that prevention activities were going on. Now, are they functioning at the level they should? Of course, no. They are not. Not even near an optimum level of effectiveness in the way these institutions function. Look at NEITI, if properly implemented, we wouldn’t have the type of disgust of government 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. And so, it is important that we should assess ourselves in that regard.
There are people who argue that is it institutions that we need first or the political will. From what you have listed, it doesn’t seem as if we lack institutions. Is that we don’t have the will? ?
They are not mutually exclusive. An effective anti-corruption strategy would require the political commitment of the strongest and the highest office of the land.ment, as the case may be, must be the leader on the issue of tackling corruption. Political will is fundamental because you need to be able to make some of the very difficult choices and take difficult decisions. And there are politically costly decisions that any leader must take, if they are committed to fighting corruption. So, that is fundamental.
But you need the institution. The sad thing that I sometime hear is that people think that you simply legislate into being and then they become and achieve legitimacy to carry out their mandate. It doesn’t happen like that. Institutions are process-driven; so it takes time. The artificiality of having an institution that does not produce the result of its mandate is clear to the citizens. That is why some institutions exist in some countries; yet, they haven’t made any dent in the tackling of corruption. So, we need all of these working together. And the key thing is not just about the leadership but also about the society getting to the point where it can assess the cost of corruption and say to itself that enough is enough, because it is too costly. 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 to enable you get the kind of outcome that would improve the quality of life of everyone.
But people say our colonial history and our background plays a role. Do you see any of these coming to play?
?I was one of the youngest co-founders of Transparency International in the early 1990s and I was aghast when colleagues from the countries of the North would say that Africa suffers from endemic corruption, simply because it is cultural. And then they would say Africans culturally accept gifts and, therefore, they are prone to crossing the border of what is appropriate behaviour. And that made me so sad and I would fight that kind of very slothful intellectualism. I would say to them that everything about African history says to us that our community was so punitive on bad behaviour.
When you study Africa history, you will see that there were times when families were made outcasts just because a member of the family stole a goat. The sanction regimes in the pre-colonial African society were effective and were fun. This 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, we forgive you for your bad behaviour, the citizens would not immediately forgive. They would want to see if there was, indeed, remorse and a trend of change that is so visible. So, the legitimacy of punishing or condoning corruption lies within the society at that time. So, the pre-colonial African society did not struggle with the issue of corruption.
Now, with colonialism and subsequent independence, there had to be a marriage of the Anglo-saxone public sector (the Western public sector) which independent Africa inherited and became a set of systems and rules and procedures, which, unfortunately, did not make room for an effort to bring them into convergence with the existing pre-colonial values, structures and mechanism for dealing with bad behaviour. So, there was a disconnect in the society. There was almost an alienation of the citizens from the public service. For example, I am an Igbo-speaking Nigerian and the public service in my language is called ‘Olio Oyibo’ – the white’s man job. This is alienation because it didn’t make it something that you own. So, that alienation created the gorge that we have seen over the decades manifest in the relationship between the governance system and the people. That is what we are struggling to understand, and finds within the construct of history now make us ask ourselves: it’s been many years of independence but how do we define the kind fundamental values that must underpin the choices we make, whether in governance, in private sector and in civil society?
How is it that those in government always see things differently from the way the citizenry sees things, especially when it has to do with facts and figures and the indices of corruption? You have been in government before, what goes on and how does this disconnect happen?
You have to understand that 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’t solve a problem you have not taken ownership of. We knew we had a fundamentally serious problem of corruption and it was going to stand in the way of everything we tried to do. We didn’t succeed in tackling the huge problem of corruption we met in the system. We could not because there was so much to be achieved. But one thing you could say was that we decided that we were going to take ownership of the problem. You can’t solve a problem that you have not owned. So, if you define a problem as something that is raised against you simply because people don’t like you or that they are opposed to you, then, that means you haven’t owned 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 action group against money-laundering in West Africa and that he also signed Anti-money Laundry Act into law. So, the perception from government is that they are doing something. What do you think?
Like I said, I don’t think that in terms of putting in place rules or systems or institutions or structures that you can debate if there is not a clear trend. But the issue is in the implementation of the mandate, what do we see? That is what is important. The world is talking more and more about results. So, governance has to do with results. The input is important but frankly, everyone is looking out for output and outcomes, and they are two different things from input. So, more have to be seen to have been done in ensuring that all the institutions and the legal underpins of those institutions are completely respected and the resourcing and the kind of political signals that is given to these institutions to exercise their full mandate is key in the assessment of what we are doing.
I remember that at a meeting of Transparency International, TI, I was told by the chairman of TI at that time that: ‘Oby, what is happening? How did you find yourself in FADF list of countries that have been sanctioned as a non-cooperative regime?’ And I was completely taken aback because I didn’t know that we had been on that list. And we had to work our way out of it and part of the efforts was the work that Nuhu Ribadu did in the EFCC through a unit called the investigative financial unit or something like that. It basically was a unit that was just busy with tracing of the movement of resources and being able to provide the necessary domestic support to any international partner. It is a global framework and we need to be seen as doing more because the cost of corruption as a nation is huge.
Talking about the last leg of the pivot on deterrence, are we doing enough really? Comparing what is happening now to what happened during your years in government.
I don’t really know. The judicial system for sanctioning corruption, and indeed, the entire justice system has its own challenge. In TI, we talk about systemic corruption when corruption pervades the entire system of governance and, so, governance, which includes the three arms, has their challenges. We know that our judiciary is facing it’s own problems of corruption. Though the present CJN is doing her bit in the fight against corruption in terms of the justice system and judicial process, and I really pray for her because it will be a vote for women. But thinking of the justice system and the judicial process, it is very slow. So, I don’t know of how many conclusive cases or corruption sanctions that we’ve seen in the last five years. Perhaps, you in the media can tell.
What is your assessment from what you read or what is happening in the media space?
You can tell clearly and I haven’t read of any conclusive high-level cases. There is grand corruption and there is petty corruption. I was reading an article that the tackling of corruption actually happens at the lower level. The poor man who steals something gets quick justice because he is sentenced to jail. But in grand corruption, it becomes a corruption that probably would never be conclusively sanctioned. So, that whole deterrence disconnect basically breeds inequality in the society. I think one thing you can say of Nuhu Ribadu is that he did excellently work of bringing some of the cases to conclusive prosecution and for the court to sanction appropriately. We can do everything about the first and the second leg of the tripod but if people do not get the sense that, with predictability, bad behaviour would be costly, then practically, you have put forward an incentive for bad behaviour.
For the cases that were conclusive, do you think the punishments were costly enough?
Well, there are many people who would never think 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 of corruption and that is somehow difficult to assess. But what I know is that the cost has to be higher than the gains of corruption. If you look at it in that perspective, then, you can determine what the true cost ought to be. The greatest cost that society has, even where government decided not to look at the cost of corruption is such that it deters people from engaging in bad behavior, is for the citizens to have their own cost of corruption. The cost of corruption for citizens would be the fact that they ultimately can decide the character of the leadership they have.
Clearly when people think that there is a clear case of corruption that has not been given the adequate cost that it should, they can give a cost because legitimacy and credibility resides with the citizens. And I think that in a way, some of the reactions from government show that they are aware of this, that the citizens are communicating something. They are communicating and speaking to government and if government would look at the fight against corruption as a fight that it needs to lead, and bring everybody into, it would listen to the statements that the citizens keep making. Corruption is a cancer and when you have cancer you don’t go taking Panadol. You have to do the very painful things that are necessary to make sure that you can mitigate or tackle hands on.
When you talked about the $67billion foreign exchange reserve, what was the intention because, some of those in government said that there was some pun intended?
You see, to the pure, all things are pure. I didn’t intend any pun. I asked an accountability question. The issue is this: 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 was speaking to them and said, what is your history? 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-of the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s the early 2000s and the 2010s, and I said the story is that the nations that we started off the development race with have completely left us behind because we have not translated those oil revenues into an improved economy and good quality of life for the people.
Take for example, Singapore started the race of the development bloc with us with just about $300-and-something dollars income per capital while we had something less than $100 dollars. So, it was not too far. But now, we are about $1,500. Singapore is amazingly at almost $50,000. So, I was saying to these young graduating students of University of Nigeria, my alma mater, and advising them to make choices that would make them look beyond the traps of oil well. Oil economy has been mismanaged over the decades of our existence. That they needed to make knowledge and education, and that they need to make technology and manufacturing as structural change of the economy as their own philosophy for economic development. That was what is was all about.
The issue of the reserve was just a part of that whole broader story that was completely administration neutral. If anybody was to have a 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 kind of mentoring for young people who would have to lead this country even right now. So, 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 official records of states and see what they said of the reserves and the excess crude over the years, as being what was handed over to the administration that came after us. The foreign reserve is a composite figure, and it is a sum total of the foreign exchange that a country has and it is held by the CBN and it is the sum total that includes everything.
I said the reserve was $45billion and the excess crude account was $22billion. These are inclusive and so there was no basis for the kind of abusive language issued from government. I wasn’t taking on the government. I was just pointing out the fact that there were challenges. If the foreign reserve was $45billion at the time we were leaving government some six years now, and subsequently oil prices have doubled since we left, so, I was saying if oil prices have doubled, why have we not doubled the reserved that we had? This is a factual issue and so, it is a kind of thing that should make us sit back and say, what exactly is the issue? What do we need to do in order to change what we see on the table? It shouldn’t be the way it is? So, there was absolutely no need for the kind of language that was used.
In a democracy, demand for democratic accountability is a right of every citizen. And anyone who says that simply because I served in government, I have no right to demand accountability is basically saying that we have no democracy. And I don’t think that is proper. I believe that the voice of the citizens is important. I will never be a mischief-maker and I am not a politician and nobody knows me to be a politician in this country. I have no such interest. Even when I was in government, I was a technocrat who was simply doing my work. And for people who don’t know, for many years, I have been on this issue of accountability.
Why do you think I led the world in the public procurement reform? It’s so important. A lot of vulnerability to public resources happens within public procurement. I worked with the team to make that reform happen in this country, and also in the oil sector transparency. I did that one too with the team. We were the first country that implemented an extractive industry transparency initiative. So, by accountability credential, I am not in question. Globally, I am known to be one of the founders of Transparency International. You shouldn’t expect any thing less from me on the issue of good governance, transparency and accountability. I hope that answers your questions?
-Recorded on Channels Television