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The ease of being law-abiding

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The Ease of Doing Business Index is a yearly publication released by the World Bank, comparing different features in business regimes across different countries, resulting in a league table. Generally, countries in which companies can be registered quickly, contracts can be enforced in courts without undue delay, capital can be moved securely and with relative ease and so on, rank higher on the index. Nigeria has never ranked very high on that index and the government repeatedly reiterates its commitment to doing better. This is why visas on arrival and a much quicker turnaround on business registration at the Corporate Affairs Commission have become a reality, for which the government should be commended.

When one looks at the Doing Business index, one quickly sees that there is a correlation between the prosperity of countries and how high or low they rank on the index. Although there is no empirical Bretton-Woodsian data to back it up, this correlation or coincidence extends to crime rates too. Nigeria has never ranked very high on the Doing Business index and while the bulk of its citizens and residents may not be “criminals”, we can admit that most of us are unable to transact without ‘gaming the system’ or participating in the gaming. And we cannot really be blamed for it – the opportunity cost of trying to be law abiding, the time that the system ensures you will waste, is simply too high.

Whether it is applying for passports, land documents, trademark certificates, vehicle particulars or permanent voters cards or reporting incidents to the police or trying to clear goods at the ports, the default design of the system is to have as many bottlenecks (by way of human obstacles) as possible. The default system process design is also guaranteed not to work for you if you follow it. You cannot make an input into the system and sit back with the assurance that it will run its normal course and produce its supposed output at the other end without further interference or manipulation. There is a significant time and money cost to this uncertainty and almost certainly guaranteed delay. So we hedge by “knowing” the people in charge and either “seeing” or “appreciating” them.

The failure of government, if indeed it has been interested in fixing this flaw, is that it has made no effort to provide any clarity. The gatekeepers – the various clerks, officers and directors across the civil service and government agencies – thrive in this nebula. It is to their advantage, of course, that as much detail as possible be withheld from the public. That way, drivers will never know for certain what documents they need to have to pass through police check points without incident, businesses never know for certain what their tax obligations are, local governments never publish any by-laws so they can ambush residents. The citizenry is desperate for this information, not because it means they won’t have to part with some sort of bribe but rather, so that they are not fleeced above and beyond what is reasonable.

Further, it is not an easy or straightforward matter to complain through official channels when one is being compelled to go the unlawful route. It is usually much more difficult and time-consuming to seek redress than to comply with the suggestion of impropriety. In the first instance, it isn’t clear who such complaints should be channelled to or whether they will be addressed. In some organisations, it is clear that the hierarchy is part and parcel of the racket.

One of the most lampooned statements of President Goodluck Jonathan was his analogy of focusing on keeping the goats away from the yams, rather than fixating on flogging the goats. It was in response to a question about fixing corruption. He was ridiculed, but he was spot on. The government has to begin to focus more on making it easier for people to obey the law and less on punishments and creating new crimes. If the Government is serious about curbing the unsavoury aspects of our day-to-day living, it must review the processes of its service delivery, first of all for efficiency but also for the bribery/corruption vulnerability points. If the country is going to be fixed, it must become easier to obey the law than to break it.


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