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A social norms approach to curbing corruption in Nigeria


Corruption in nigeria

Right from its cover page, the 41 page Report titled ‘Collective Action on Corruption in Nigeria: A Social Norms Approach to Connecting Society and Institutions’, presents the serious implications society faces, when the monster of corruption bedevils its institutions and distorts its progress. The image on the cover illustrates the breakdown of values, and the attendant chaos, which corruption inflicts on everyday living. The report firstly invites the reader to come to terms with the damaging spiral a society in the vice-like grip of corruptionfaces, especially its freefall towards a chaos and dysfunction. The cover picture alone conveys the ugliness and disorderliness, which corruption inflicts on society, with the implication that society becomes too incapacitated to work for the good of the majority. With the stated aim of diagnosing the drivers of corruption, as well as the types of beliefs that support practices that are understood to be corrupt, the report’s findings are based on a household survey jointly developed by Chatham House Africa Programme and the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Norms Group (PennSONG) in collaboration with Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics.

The damaging effects of corruption in Nigeria are underscored with an allusion to the familiar Nigerian story of how resources which would have been invested to promote lofty societal goals are diverted into private pockets. Expectedly, the report makes references to the hefty sums, which have over the years disappeared from the Nigerian treasury, just as it draws parallels between those disappearances and the concrete services those financial resources would have provided for the country. The report notes for instance that it has been estimated that close to $400b was stolen from Nigeria’s public accounts from 1960 to 1999. It also draws attention to authoritative sources which have documented the fact that between 2005 and 2014, some $182 billion was lost through illicit financial flows from Nigeria. According to report, this stolen wealth in effect represents the investment gap in building and equipping modern hospitals to reduce Nigeria’s exceptionally high maternal mortality, which is estimated to be 2 out of every 10 maternal death in 2015.


The authors similarly note that the hefty financial resources lost due to the huge scale corruption in Nigeria could have been used to expand and upgrade the country’s educational system, which is currently failing millions of children. Those resources could also have been used to procure vaccines to prevent regular outbreak of preventable diseases. The authors go on to describe the destructive nature of corruption by noting that: “corruption tends to foster more corruption, perpetuating and entrenching social injustice in daily life. Such an environment weakens societal values of fairness, honesty, integrity and common citizenship, as impunity of dishonest practices and abuses of power or position steadily erode citizens sense of moral responsibility to follow the rules in the interest of wider society.”

After providing a brutally frank assessment of the damage that corruption has done to Nigerian society, the report goes on to analyze what is being done to tame the monster. It notes that while the focus on transparency and legal sanctions are critically important, “there is need for innovative and complementary approaches to foster a comprehensive shift in deeply ingrained attitudes to corruption at all levels of society.” As such, the authors strongly canvass the position that while government’s avowed commitment to the anti-corruption crusade through the whistleblower policy and the use of traditional legal sanctions, such as prosecution of high profile individuals are essential, these by themselves cannot foster a sustainable reversal of long established assumptions and practices that create opportunities for corruption to gain a foothold. In terms of finding a sustainable strategy to rescuing Nigeria from the quagmire of corruption, one of the core assumptions in this report is that until there is a decisive shift in public apathy and the collective will towards achieving collective behavioural change, anti-corruption efforts may not be impactful enough to vanquish the monster. The authors put it thus: “Nigeria’s ongoing anti-corruption efforts must now be reinforced by a systematic understanding of why people engage in or refrain from corrupt activity, and full consideration of the societal factors that may contribute to normalizing corrupt behavior and desensitizing citizens to its impacts. This holistic approach would better position public institutions to engage Nigerian society in anti-corruption efforts.”

To underscore the need for a collective response to the problem of corruption, the research which formed the basisof the report was framed as an exploration of the corruption in Nigeria, in terms of its character as collective practice. This approach was adopted because it was reckoned that how people think and act is often dependent on what others think and do. The point was underscored that corruption is difficult to curb because it is motivated by many factors, including expectations of how other people are likely to behave. This is why the researchers reiterated the point that “efforts to change the beliefs of a few individuals are not in themselves enough to induce a sustainable change in collective behavior. That requires a systematic approach that is context-specific—and that, crucially, is undertaken, owned and sustained by a critical mass of local actors who want to forge a ‘new normal.’


Also, the report presents some key findings and critical challenges, which go to the heart of the anti-corruption debate in Nigeria. One of these findings is that social norms of corruption are limited to specific contexts and sectors. The research showed for instance that social norms drive the solicitation of bribes by law enforcement officials, whereas the giving of bribes by members of the public is influenced “more by circumstances and by people’s beliefs about what others are doing.” In this context, the authors talk of opportunities for interventions to address specific beliefs and expectations that motivate corrupt behavior in specific sectors and practices. The research also found that if the environment or options change, behavior will change. In this regard, the authors talk about the fact that a vast majority of Nigerians know when a practice is illegal, but that individuals may still engage in such because they observe others doing so, or as a rational response to a situation.

Subsequently, the authors raise the issue of the deep seated lack of confidence in official institutions. This they note, “severely weakens the consolidation of a Nigerian national identity, based on common and equal citizenship. Instead, less effective social contracts are forged particularly around ethnic or religious identities—an arrangement that fuels intercommunal distrust—and increasingly fragmented social identities, which impedes the construction of a national social contract that could form the basis of collective action to overcome corruption. This particular finding is very apt, and it reechoes the seminal thesis of the “two publics,” as expounded by Peter Ekeh. The manifestations of the fragmented social contracts, which impede the construction of a national consensus against corruption, would be gleaned from the example of former Delta State Governor, James Onanefe Ibori who returned home, from a London prison, to a rousing welcome by his people. This was despite the fact of Ibori’s conviction by a London Court for looting his state’s treasury. Similarly, there are monuments in parts of the country, like stadia, roads and army barracks, which are named after the kleptocrat and dictator, Sani Abacha who stole so much from the Nigerian treasury that efforts are still ongoing to recover the billions he stole.

Consequently, the report puts forward a number of innovative policy approaches to influence collective action against corruption. One of these is the need to change incentives in contexts where corruption is a rational response to the environment. This would entail administrative and institutional reforms that would remove some opportunities for officials to exert the leverage that encourages or forces citizens to engage in corrupt practices. As the authors put it, it should be less costly and more efficient to abide by the law. In response to the absence of a grassroots resolve to forge an effective and sustainable response to corruption, the report suggests the need to target sectors and communities with information on the human costs of corruption. “Anti-corruption campaign messages should be reframed to resonate in affected communities, context or sectors by using pertinent and positive norms, values and expectations. Showing how these are undermined by corruption can help render the drivers of corrupt behavior socially unacceptable. Messages about the cost of corruption will become more effective if they seem relevant to a specific audience, rather than generic and unfocused.”


Interestingly, the insights provided in the report are already being used to shape the anti-corruption work of various civil society organizations in Nigeria. Specifically, civil society actors working on various anti-corruption projects across Nigeria, with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation are bringing some of these insights to bear on their work. CSOs tracking Universal Basic Education Funds, and the Homegrown School Feeding Programme in various states, are innovatively taking the anti-corruption message to the grassroots, with the broad goal of building a critical mass of citizens, which understands the cost of corruption, and is prepared to take action against it. Also, the Foundation’s support to bolster the capacity of state institutions which shoulder the huge responsibility of waging the anti-corruption war at the level of traditional and legal sanction, highlights the critical nexus between the efforts of those institutions and innovative grassroots approaches to vanquishing the monster of corruption. The report, ‘Collective Action on Corruption in Nigeria: A Social Norms Approach to Connecting Society and Institutions’was presented at the MacArthur 2017  Annual Grantees Meeting held on Tuesday, September 26th, 2017 at Ibeto Hotels, Gudu District, FCT-Abuja.

Armsfree Ajanaku is Media & Civic Engagement Manager at the Resource Centre for Human Rights & Civic Education, a knowledge-driven platform of active citizens working for democracy and good governance in Nigeria.

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