Professor Pat Utomi, in this exclusive interview with Funsho Balogun, says corruption is the bane of the country’s development, suggesting steps towards curbing the problem that he describes as the ‘hydra-headed monster’ that has ruined the economy
Pat Utomi:Corruption has become hydra-headed
President Muhammadu Buhari has reiterated that his administration has no room for graft, but it would require a lot for the nation to be rid of this problem. What can be done to win the fight against corruption?
Corruption is a hydra-headed monster. I think the starting point of the problem about corruption is that Nigerians don’t fully appreciate the level of the devastation of the impact of corruption on the Nigerian dream, on the quality of life that we live as a people and on the relationships we have as a people. One of the major reasons why Nigeria has not found social harmony is corruption because to be able to exploit ‘corruption’ opportunities, people look for all kinds of things that divide people. People say this person is Yoruba, Hausa, Calabar etc, while their real motive is to abuse their position for their personal aggrandizement, and we continue to divide ourselves.
And then we have the consequences of the amounts of monies that have left the system, which, if they had been applied appropriately, would have provided the kind of infrastructure that would have improved the quality of our lives. The infrastructure would have enabled people to be more productive and to evacuate what is being produced in a better way. The problem of corruption is huge. But not being rigorous in the way we do things, we are unable to appreciate the damage.
When General Obasanjo was first elected, he made a lot of noise about corruption. He even set up a high powered panel to look at corruption and the institutions of transparency in government (that was what they were called). In fact, he appointed a Special Adviser on Corruption and Transparency Matters. That was Ambassador Emeka Azikiwe, the son of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, and that office then managed the work of this panel. The panel was so high powered. It included the then president of the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture, NACCIMA and the heads of the major known transparency organisations, such as Major General Ishola Williams of Transparency International Nigeria. It included somebody from Transparency International in London, named Neville, who came to join the panel. It included a Deputy Inspector General of Police, just retired then, Wushishi, and also the ASUU president then, and the executive director of Business Integrity. And it included me.
I was the chairman. It must have cost the Nigerian government a lot of money because we were living in The Hilton for nearly six months doing this work. And the work was completed and handed over to General Obasanjo. To the best of my knowledge, that was the last time I ever heard anything about it. So, one of the big problems about corruption is that it is a fighter. It fights back.
You need elite consensus on the damage that corruption does to stop it. The good news is that through history, it has often been stopped, where people are determined to stop it. The ways that people have stopped it vary. Where there had been the determination and the will, it has happened. It can be stopped. Among the ways that people have typically stopped it is to have a very transparent culture. That is, we will have a society that is so transparent that if you have more than you should have, it would be obvious. The media would be there as a critical element.
Those who have done media studies would tell you about the phenomenon of the status conferral function of the media. That is to say the media confers status. When people see you on TV very frequently it boosts your image. When you put a criminal on TV every day or your magazine puts him on the cover, then the society becomes more criminal because these people become models in the society. If the media recognises that this is the case and as part of that social consensus ignores people who you can’t explain their money, after a while they will begin to ask themselves “why do I need this money if it doesn’t even make me respectable”. Therefore, all of us as a society have a role to play in reducing corruption in that regard of culture.
Another way that you can deal with corruption is through having tighter systems, reducing discretion. When there is no discretion, or there is limited discretion, there will be less corruption. It is when a governor can wake up and decree something without consequences that he can corruptly use that capacity to do things. Where anything you do is scrutinized, based on principles that are established, there will not be too much room to abuse the system corruptly.
When you now have transparent systems, it is only in the third place that you have mechanisms of arrest and prosecution. But sometimes in our environment, we focus obsessively on prosecution. But that is only third place. When you have strong institutions – and what institutions do is try to make sure that people stay within boundaries – then those who, in spite of the institutional arrangements behave inappropriately would have to deal with consequence management systems. I think it is premature to talk about what has been achieved. But I think in general, Nigerians are relieved that at least it is on the front burner. Previously it was like ‘what’s your problem with corruption?’
I wrote something about this just recently. There is somebody who is in the senate right now – it is about a book I wrote 14 years ago – who saw me and said ‘bros, bros, come. I want to talk to you’. He was a Commissioner at that time. He said, ‘one of my colleagues rushed into my office holding a newspaper and said to me ‘what is the problem with this your brother? Why is he always talking about corruption? And there is rumour that they want to make him Finance Minister. In Jesus name it will not happen. He would go and block people’s road.’ The point is that as far as these people are concerned, it is you, who complain about corruption who has a problem. They think something is wrong with you. They would say people came to ‘chop’ their own, so you should come and ‘chop’ your own, what’s the matter? They say this because they don’t have the brain, the capacity to really understand or appreciate the depth of the problems that corruption has created for us in this country. When we begin to select people to go into public positions based on their understanding of those things, I think that is when we would begin to score significantly on this question of corruption.
In some quarters, there is this belief that one of the problems the president may face if he truly intends to bring corrupt elements to book is that many of such people contributed in no small measure to his victory at the polls. Would this really be a problem for him?
In our country, it is very easy to speculate. If you show evidence that somebody has done something, then let it be left to the conscience of the person who will prosecute. Let me tell you about one of my most amusing moments in this country, in the very early 90s when we were just getting going with the Lagos Business School. I was in traffic one day and saw this on the front page of one of those soft sell magazines: “Nigerians with The Most Money Abroad”. I saw the list of this and that person and was amazed that they had so much money. Then I saw my name and I shouted “What?” I am telling you I didn’t have one thousand dollars anywhere in the world. On that day, I am not joking, I didn’t have one thousand dollars anywhere. As I speak to you, I don’t own a window outside of Nigeria. Every small boy in town seems to own a flat in London but I don’t own a window anywhere outside Nigeria, not to talk of a house. And the kind of accounts I have, some of them were from my days as a graduate student. I am lucky when they rise to two thousand or three thousand dollars.
I am not pleading poverty. I am not poor. But for you to not have a thousand dollars, and see your name amongst those who have the most money abroad, it tells you that sometimes people just look at someone and assume some people must have stolen so much money. And maybe he has. But if you see most of the people who have the real money, you won’t even know.
I will tell you a story. The late Garba Ali Madaki, who was Minister of State for Works saw me one day and said “Pat I have a story to tell you”. He said after he became Minister, he was to go on his first foreign trip and was very excited. He kept asking for his estacode all over the place. He kept shouting “Have they not brought the money, where’s the traveler’s cheque?” But he noticed that while he was so anxious about getting the money to travel, all the civil servants who were to go with him remained calm. He was amazed that they were all so disciplined and were not anxious.
What if the money doesn’t come before they go? He kept wondering. After a while he was embarrassed, because he appeared to be the only one desperate to get the money. They eventually boarded the plane and got to London and as soon as they got there, he quickly went to change his traveler’s cheque at the airport. At the back of his mind, he thought those civil servants would find it hard to function on that trip. But before he knew it, they were bringing out Platinum American Express Cards. These were civil servants with shoes that were in bad shape. But those guys were rich enough to carry Platinum American Express cards. It might be true that some of the people who backed the president are involved. I don’t know. But from my understanding ICPC is going after a few former APC governors. I am sure those are the ones who backed him. I don’t think there is evidence quite yet that he may be unwilling to probe because those who backed him are corrupt.
Where should the president draw the line in terms of how far back the searchlight can be beamed on such people that were allegedly corrupt? Could the exercise end up being a distraction that would not allow government to concentrate on the task at hand as some have said?
That is precisely why I emphasized those points earlier. It is more important to try to change culture. Next in line is trying to have systems that make the possibilities less likely. Third, is to have consequences in ongoing scenarios, everybody should know the consequences of those misdeeds and the consequence should come to you immediately. The fourth point is to try and clean up what we can from the past. If you are obsessed with yesterday, you will be distracted to face tomorrow. And tomorrow is more important than yesterday. But it does not mean therefore that you say because tomorrow is more important than yesterday we should forget all the wrong that was done.
If anybody brings concrete evidence about something from yesterday, you should look at those things. However, bear in mind that in most places in the world we have such a thing as a statute of limitation. In the United States of America, it is only for crimes of murder that you can go back beyond seven years, so as a matter of natural logic, if it does not involve murder, seven years should be the maximum that you go back on these things, otherwise you would do nothing else and it would be an unnecessary distraction.
What is your opinion about agitation in some quarters that graft should attract death penalty?
As a person raised in the belief in the dignity of the human person, and that God the creator of all is the only one who has the right to take life, I have always objected to the death penalty for anything, even for murder. Even more importantly is the fact that death is irreversible. You can sentence a person to death and find out tomorrow that somebody gave fake witness. How do you reverse that error? Anyway, Nigerian experience proves that execution is not necessarily a deterrent. When we were executing armed robbers by firing squad, armed robbery was going up. So, there is no indicator that fear of death penalty necessarily stops crime. If anything, it seems that it makes the criminals more desperate because they know that when they fail, the consequence is this severe and so they do things in a way that costs society more. Having said that, I think that for people of a certain status, three or more years in jail is probably worse than a death sentence. After those three years the person is a pariah.
While some have accused the ICPC and the EFCC of suddenly waking up from their slumber just to impress President Buhari, it has also been said that those agencies are now actually encouraged by the president’s anti- corruption stance. What is your view on this?
First of all, it is clear that whenever things are achieved, especially in contentious contexts, the political will is very important. Secondly, leadership or the top is always very important in signalling the whole system, about behaviour. I know that from some of the work that I have done on leadership in the past, you see a situation where the president of the United States is a reader, some presidents can read one book a week or whatever. And you would see how America’s top corporate leadership suddenly becomes readers. Everybody is reading because the incumbent president is known as a reader. There was no decree that people should read. You would see where a president is a great time manager.
Bill Clinton was remarkable for time management, and you see corporate America becomes masters of time management. So there is such a thing as signalling from the top. People take cues. For instance, if you have a situation where somebody is being investigated and as the boss of an anti-graft agency, you visit the president. And the president, without saying anything directly to you, hints that there is a major initiative of the government that is being championed by this man and that he is complaining that your work is distracting him. He hints and leaves the topic, but you too would take the hint. These things can happen. But the more autonomous the agencies of state are, and the stronger the quality of leadership, the more likely they are to do the right things.