At a private breakfast mid-last week, I was run over by a fable on the character of one of the main problems confronting project Nigeria: corruption. Responding to an ad hominem presentation on the country (which, incidentally) situated the national problem along a continuum that had at both ends the corruption of the ruling political class (on one hand), and the indifference of the professional class (on the other), the fabulist (essentially) re-phrased the narrative on Nigeria.
According to this new (to me) reading, what we have come to understand as “corruption” in this country is (simply) the result of disquieting levels of “incompetence” in the public service. Part of the subsequent tale vilipended the parable of development that blames our woes not so much on the absence of plans, but on the lack of the political nous to implement all such plans. “What plan worth its name will not include an implementation programme?” the story teller asked. You just got the feeling listening to this gentleman that the programme of action that attaches to every “well-crafted plan” enjoys the force of law.
This reading did not even consider the possibility that an executive could choose not to implement a plan, or to implement it wrongly (for reasons best known to him/her, and often in conflict with utilitarian goals). All through the fabulist’s short time on the floor, Plato’s utopia beckoned — where only the unenlightened cause injury, and do wrong. Worse was to come. Supposedly, a large number of persons elected into public office in this country (and their appointees) have never supervised any function with more than three staff. From the day they are sworn in therefore, they start treading water. For context, the meeting was regaled with the (tall) tale of a newly-sworn in chief executive officer of a sub-national government somewhere in the South-West of the country.
This unfortunate was so “clueless” (the new Nigerian put down) that a number of weeks into his tenure, he was simply warehousing “secret files” addressed to him for his action. As the administration neared an impasse, one of his aides (finally summoning the courage required to talk to an “oga”) approached him, wondering why the governor had not “treated” the files. Flummoxed by the requirement to “treat” the files, the governor asked what ailed the documents that they needed to be “treated”.
Incidentally, the presentation that drove this fable had ended with the exhortation that “The impact of politics on the national life is too important for politics to be left to politicians”. The moral of the fable then was to invite the professionals gathered at the breakfast to join government, lend their unquestionable competences to the workings of governments across the three tiers, and thus banish corruption from the national life. I guess we then get to “live happily ever after”!
I thought (and still think) this reading too schooled. For sure, there is a strong link between “incompetence” and “corruption”. But a serious reading of the Nigerian case does not establish this relationship as causal — i.e. from incompetence to corruption. Nor is any analysis of the fortunes of this country complete that assigns to corrupt practices a fortuitous provenance. Just on the basis of the stories that we hear (and the cases that have been resolved in courts outside the country) “corruption” as a domestic industry belongs properly (now) to the formal sector of the economy.
Because the perpetration of corrupt practices is this organised, the levels of incompetence (which fuels it, and) to which the preceding fable speaks are not chance occurrences. Instead, it is clear that in this country, incompetence is corruption’s maidservant. Incompetence or the appearance thereof, is so necessary for the levels of rot that ails the country to persist.
Such is the dynamic that one of the more successful (now, this is essentially a question of one’s vantage) managers of this economy advertises the disarming nature of his countrified mien as responsible for his ease of access to public office. The system obviously would rather not have “achievers” in office.
Rather obviously, corruption in Nigeria is the result of conscious decisions by highly educated people to act in their own private interests. It thrives on the complicity of the criminal justice system, where enforcers are also narrowly focused on their navels. It may be helped by an invasion of competent professionals. But fail even this set will were they to proceed on the assumption that our errors as a people are borne of the ignorance of our leaders (to date).