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Policy options on political corruption reform

Political corruption has violated public trust and the social contract that underpin our democratic existence as a nation.

The creation of a functional and balanced human system is largely dependent on in-built mechanisms and processes that serve as necessary architectural framework for self regulation. These instilled checks and balances avert exploitations, despotism and totalitarianism while aligning all branches and units with the projections of corporate benefits to all stakeholders as well as the promoters and strengthening institutions value foundation.

This was the spirit behind the paper titled: “Constitutional Foundations of Political Corruption in Nigeria and a Reform Strategy” presented by a foremost political scientist, Professor Rotimi Suberu of Bennington College, USA, at the June 12 seminar of the Ibadan School For Government and Public Policy (ISGPP). This piece majorly summarizes the key substance of that paper and the inputs of a high-end cream of scholars present.

Read also: Buhari signs an executive order on preservation of assets connected with serious corruption

Professor Suberu whose intellectual contributions, especially to federalism research and scholarship, have attracted global attention and recognition is a renowned expert in Nigerian politics and government. This former University of Ibadan don chose his topic well. The seminar argued that though corruption is not a new word in the Nigeria’s socio-economic and political lexicon, it has mostly been viewed with fiscal lens. It interrogated the issue of political corruption and established that this brand of corruption manifests through the manipulation and exploitation of political institutions, deliberate weakening and violation of their value foundation, in a nation where the essence of everything, including the meaning of eternity; where we would all be at the end of time is politicized. It affirmed that political corruption has violated public trust and the social contract that underpin our democratic existence as a nation.

Nigeria’s distasteful entanglement with corruption has been variously documented and almost legendary. The public domain is awash with reports, research, literatures and findings that connected the country with this malaise. Nigeria has been labeled and derided as one the most corrupt nations in the world. There are indexes that have registered Nigeria as an unsuitable clime for investment because of institutional corruption and decadence. The World Bank in a recent report said that “the percentage of firms likely to encounter corruption by public officials in Nigeria is more than double the average for sub-Saharan Africa” and in the Transparency International (TI) index for 2017, Nigeria was ranked 148 out of 180 countries.

Read also: The Transparency International corruption report

Corruption has festered in the country because of the over dependence on crude oil and this has continued to stifle the fiscal creativity in the leadership, weakening the fiscal social contract and distorting political leadership by making them rent-seeking, predatory elites, almost allergic to reforms and lacking the self motivated incentives to “build strong institutions that might interfere with their ability to allocate rents.” Beyond this, successive governments have not displayed the political will, commitment, boldness or resoluteness, which are all key in fighting corruption. Corruption is legitimized by popular expectations and norms supporting the appropriation of resources and opportunities in the public sector, for the benefit, not only of individual public office holders but also of members of their sectional or political support groups. Corruption thus becomes a social equilibrium, a collective action problem in which both agents (political office holders) and principals (the citizenry) are implicated.

All these find perfect breeding ground in the weak formal political institutions and constitutional frameworks including ‘presidentialism’, federalism/decentralization, low-quality democracies, and electoral systems as well the design of oversight institutions among others.

Conversely, and taking inspiration from a strand of a multiplex and deeply nuanced institutionalists’ perspective which dominated discourse at the ISGPP seminar, the act can be balanced out by the creation of viable institutions that can drive the necessary social, political and economic changes. Such institutions would provide the necessary framework to complement political economy, political leadership, and political culture. These strategic institutions draw their strength from the constitution and they are instrumental in shaping political and economic development. It is instructive to note that these institutions can be subverted for political capital depending on how they are designed. Formal political institutions can reduce or extend the scope for political leadership abuse, reinforce negative or positive political culture norms, and exacerbate or mitigate problematic economic incentives.

There are some schools of thoughts that say positive socio-political outcomes like prosperity and democratization are driven not so much by initial structural conditions, such as demography or culture, but by inclusive institutions and rules that effectively constrain and broadly distribute or divide power. The widespread third wave of democratization in Africa since the 1990s has witnessed the growing formalization and institutionalization of power including but not limited to courts, parliaments, elections, and constitutional reforms, as distinct from informal personal and patrimonial politics. The recent electoral reforms in Nigeria including the enhancement of the financial and operational autonomy of the electoral administration transformed and improved the quality of Nigerian elections in 2011 and 2015.

It is established that public participation in designing, deliberating and ratifying a constitution can help advance processes of democratization and nation-building. The 1999 constitution which is the rule book for our democracy is often derided as an imposed document. The constitution as amended is still fraught with loopholes and grey areas. These include excessive discretionary powers for chief executives of different tiers of government. There is also evident weak political insulation for anti-corruption and oversight agencies. Also, the constitution provides weak transparency frameworks as well as a fundamentally flawed, patronage-promoting, fiscal federalism

According to sections 4 and 148 of the constitution, the President has broad “discretionary” powers to veto legislation, including constitutional amendments already approved by a supermajority of national and state legislatures. The stark reality, going by the conclusions of the seminar, is that these broad powers are prone to corruption and have been used, on occasions, to delay or frustrate anti-corruption reforms, for example, the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and 4th Constitution Alteration Bill.

To be continued

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Tokunbo David
Tokunbo David

Writer and editor.

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