Grand narratives and citizen participation in fight against corruption

Muhammadu Buhari

The somewhat instructive story is told of a man in a rural community who was listening to his favorite news program on radio, only to be jolted by a story of how a public official in Abuja has been facing the law for stealing several billions of Naira from the coffers of government.

Confused about the exact value of a billion Naira, which he had never heard of or seen before, he tried to seek clarification from a neighbor, who seemed to better understand the weird ways of folks in the nation’s capital.

Sensing the confusion of the man making the enquiry, the clarifier had to graphically demonstrate the value of what was stolen by comparing it with the number of cows such an amount could buy.

The calculation ended up showing that the sum in question could purchase herds of cows, which would fill every available in two big cities! With this new and very profound insight, the man it is reported became so livid with rage.

How would only one man make away with such a huge sum of money, when there are so many people going hungry, with no place to lay their heads, he queried.

Still boiling in anger about such audacious greed, he recommended a summary execution of the culprit.

The moral of the story is about how citizens react when the reality of the evil of corruption dawns on them. Of great pertinence is the fact that the man could not connect the embezzlement of such grand proportion to the poverty of his own existence.

It was only after it was linked to his reality that he sought to make a drastic recommendation, which in any case flies in the face of the extant laws of the land.

Again, the anecdote in question concern grand scale corruption happening in some remote far-flung capital. What about the retail and petty corruption, which makes critical services so difficult for people to access?

Is it likely that the protagonist in the above anecdote would have reacted with the same righteous anger if a demand for a bribe was made to him at the point of accessing a service like healthcare or basic education?

These are some of the deep questions anti-corruption campaigners are scratching their heads about as the brainstorming continues about how to shift the ingrained attitudes that have made grand scale and retail corruption a fact of everyday life in Nigeria.

The difficulty is apparent that even when if the anti-corruption campaign wins at the level of systems and sanctions, there have to be corresponding gains to change the mindset at the level of society. That is the framework on which an effective anti-corruption strategy should rest.

The efficacy of this position is further demonstrated by the results of a July 2017 Survey conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in collaboration with the National Bureau of Statistics.

The results were startling about the pervasiveness of retail corruption in the everyday life of the Nigerian.

For example, the survey notes that almost a third of Nigerian adults (32.3 per cent) who had contact with a public official between June 2015 and May 2016 had to pay, or were requested to pay, a bribe to that public official.

The magnitude of public sector bribery in Nigeria, the report states, becomes even more palpable when factoring in the frequency of those payments, as the majority of those who paid a bribe to a public official did so more than once over the course of the year.

According to the survey, bribe-payers in Nigeria pay an average of some six bribes in one year, or roughly one bribe every two months.

The herculean task before anti-corruption campaigners in Nigeria, is not just how to support government to chase down looters. An effective strategy must include how to fundamentally alter attitudes to at the level of society.

This task therefore raises questions about how the ongoing anti-corruption fight in Nigeria has factored in the need to reverse decade long notions that fuel petty corruption, thereby distorting the effectiveness of critical public services at the grassroots.

Among several other weaknesses, one of the major flaws of the current anti-corruption campaign as driven from Abuja is the massive disconnect between what is happening in the capital and what the people at the local levels understand as the prevailing reality.

Many citizens in rural Nigeria are befuddled and thoroughly confused when mentions are made of billions of Naira disappearing into private pockets and bank accounts.

In fact, where there is a faint understanding of the debilitating effect of grand scale corruption, as manifesting in the disappearance of huge sums from government coffers, the people are the local level are increasingly becoming de-sensitized to these narratives, to the extent of not caring about these manifestations of serious corruption.

Some media experts have even canvassed the view that the way and manner in which the mass media has been reporting corruption issues has inadvertently been further de-sensitization citizens, especially when the reality of information overload on corruption cases is considered.

Yet, citizens have a fundamental and frontline role to play in the fight against corruption because they bear the brunt of its cancerous effects.

Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution, as amended provides in Section 15(5) that the State shall “abolish all forms of corrupt practices and abuse of power.”

Interestingly, the Constitution had earlier guaranteed the participation of citizens in the government of their country in Section 14 (2c), by stating that the “participation of the people in the government shall be guaranteed in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.”

Read contemporaneously with the express provisions of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), the place of the citizen as the driving force in the struggle against corruption is well established in not only municipal law, but also in international conventions.

Article 5 of the UNCAC for example notes that state parties shall in accordance with the fundamental principle of their legal system, develop and implement or maintain effective coordinated anti-corruption policies that promote the “participation of society,” and reflect the principles of the rule of law, proper management of public affairs and public property, integrity, transparency and accountability.

It is in the light of these constitutional and conventional frameworks that an interrogation of the steps taken to deepen the current anti-graft crusade through the express and informed backing of citizens may be undertaken.

In the context of specific policies, the Whistle Blower Policy for instance offers a window as to how deep the engagement with citizen at the local level has been with respect to realizing the goals of the anti-corruption crusade.

Just over one year after the introduction of the Whistle Blower policy by the Federal Government in December 2016, the data on total number of blown whistles indicates that 8,018 reports have been made through the various Whistle Blower platforms domiciled in the Ministry of Finance.

Curiously, the trend tends to point at a disproportionate concentration of Whistle Blower activity on the grand scale corruption situation at the Federal level. Clearly, no whistles are being blown at the level of the states and the Local Government Areas.

At a recent conversation on the Whistle Blower Policy convened by the Africa Centre for Information and Media Literacy (AFRICMIL) in Kano, experts across government, the academia and CSOs agonized over the lull in whistle blower activity.

The worry is that after the gale of loot recoveries that were made immediately the policy was introduced, there now seems to be apathy amongst citizens with respect to using the policy to expose corruption.

The being asked is: is it that corruption no longer happens to warrant whistle blowing or citizens themselves have become uninterested in the Whistle Blower process because they do not feel its relevance to their situation at the local level.

Clearly, it emerged the States and the LGAs are not in the whistling blowing loop because citizens have not seen the relevance of the policy at those lower levels of governance.

Also, the required confidence building, which would boost the active participation of citizens, has not been robust enough to motivate meaningful participation at the states and local governments.

One inference that can be made therefore is that as it stands, most states in the federation are clearly not interested in the anti-corruption program as designed by the Federal Government.

Consequently with states and local government displaying absolute lethargy in confronting the monster of corruption in their domains, the responsibility is falling on CSOs to take up the challenge.

Opportunities for preventative programs to deter corruption and enhance transparency are being explored.

In this context, data driven monitoring of government expenditure for critical public services like education are emerging as antidote to both grand scale and retail corruption at the local level.

This is exactly the kind of thinking shaping the interventions of CSOs like the Resource Centre for Human Rights & Civic Education (CHRICED).

The group is currently implementing an innovative data-driven project to empower communities in Kubau, Kauru, and Zaria Local Government Areas to track funds provided for Universal Basic Education in Kaduna State.

A baseline study is also being conducted to document a number of challenges in the primary education delivery system.

Community structures like the social influencers, the Parent Teachers Association and the School Based Management Committees are being trained and empowered to collect data, which would help keep an eye on financial flows relating to primary education.

Preliminary outcomes from this interventions point to the reality that citizens at the local level would become responsive and demand accountability when the anti-corruption conversation break down the grand narratives.

Of utmost importance is the need to focus on the issues which fundamentally impact on the daily living conditions of the people at the local level.

• Armsfree Ajanaku is Media&Civic Engagement Manager at the Resource Centre for Human Rights & Civic Education (CHRICED).

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