An Alternate Look At Fighting Corruption


Corruption is a learned habit

A habit is a routine or practice performed regularly. It is an automatic response to a given situation. Just like how every habit we have subscribes to this definition, so also does corruption. If you look around today, many of the corrupt practices we experience in Nigeria have somehow become the “automatic, and expected response to given situations” and not just because the participants of the corruption are “morally bankrupt” or “not disciplined enough”. If you go to the immigration office to renew your international passport for instance, it is automatically expected of you to “sort” someone or a couple of people out if you want to receive it within the actual stipulated time frame. If you decide not to do this, your passport would be delayed for an outrageously long amount of time than you’re willing to wait for. The same goes if you want to get or renew your drivers license, and many other government agencies and establishments. There are consequences, not rewards for people who try to obey the law, follow due process or just do the right thing. If you go to the police station to report a case, it is expected of you to “drop something” to enable them get started on your reported case quicker. This is also true for private businesses and establishments. You might have to “show love” to the security officer or one “small oga” somewhere before you can get anything done in such private establishment.

How habits are formed

For many people and situations, the feedback loop we get from a particular habit determines if such a habit stays with us or not. I’m sure many of us had many habits as kids/teenagers, however, the feedback we got from our parents or older siblings regarding such habit(s) contributed to the demise or sustainability of such habit today. A very popular example is the sucking of the thumb finger. This small habit is usually met with aggressiveness or slight punishment which ultimately leads to the demise of such habit. Feedback can be that of rewards, no-consequence or little to no punishment, praises, etc. It is easy to see which of these is the case for corruption (in Nigeria). In numerous cases of corrupt practices in Nigeria, particularly with respect to government agencies and establishments, the feedback from corrupt practices are usually that of rewards. This is not to say that there aren’t cases where punishments haven’t been meted out to corrupt practices. However, even in such cases, the punishment is usually not commensurate with the already derived reward from such corrupt activity.

James Clear in his best seller titled Atomic Habits lists four ways of developing any habit, either as an individual, entity or business. And it is obvious that the habit of corruption (in Nigeria) has gone through all four steps over the years. The steps are;

  1. Make it obvious
  2. Make it attractive
  3. Make it easy
  4. Make it satisfying

Corrupt practices are so obvious in Nigeria that sometimes we barely know what the actual due process looks like. There seems to have been a swap between due process and corrupt practices in Nigeria. That is, “due process” is now the “corrupt practices”, and vice versa. Your goods or container might never leave the Nigerian ports if you plan on following “due process” (original meaning) to get your container or goods out. In many cases, by the time the due process actually works and your goods is about to be released, the demurrage and other costs that it might have incurred would make following due process a bad decision early on. We have already talked about the attractiveness of corrupt practices due to the high rewards it guarantees its participants. It is easy to be corrupt because of how the environment and many processes are designed in Nigeria.

Fighting the corruption habit

From the same book by James Clear, he also gave four steps to take if we want to stop and phase out a bad habit. He simply inverted the four steps for building habits as mentioned mentioned above. That is, to stop a bad habit, you should do the following;

  1. Make it invisible
  2. Make it unattractive
  3. Make it difficult
  4. Make it unsatisfying

One of the most effective ways for the government to curb corruption (and its effects) is to design a system that makes it easy for people “not to be corrupt”. This goes in line with step 1 and 3 of James Clear’s steps mentioned above. Many people have parroted this in many ways such as “reducing physical contact as much as possible” in government systems. I think we rely too much on an individual’s “innate moral stance” or “strong will not to corrupt” as a way to fight corruption rather than creating an environment that makes it easy for people to follow due process without consequences or threat of punishments. While morals and self-discipline of individuals or groups cannot be excused from the corruption fight, systems that make it easy for people to do the right thing should also be paramount. For instance, I should be able to renew my driver’s license from the comfort of my house with a computer and internet, and have it delivered to my address.

Just as minimizing human contact in (government) processes is paramount to making opportunities for corrupt practices invisible, and difficult, it is also of equal importance to make it unattractive and unsatisfying. The reality in Nigeria today is that many processes would still involve human-to-human contact, and in such cases, the most appropriate action is to make the aftermath of corrupt practices highly unattractive, unsatisfying and unprofitable. For instance, the a way a foreign employer will treat its workers in the UK will be different from the way the same foreign employer might treat its workers in Nigeria because treating workers below the standards set by labors laws in UK attracts serious consequences. This easily happens in Nigeria because treating workers poorly is attractive as in many cases it’s an avenue for the business to make extra “profit”.

What next?

As I have suggested through out this write up, the government should also place importance on designing systems that are favorable to due process and unfavorable to corrupt practices, and not just hoping on the innate morals of individuals not to be corrupt as a means of fighting corruption. Systems and morals should go together. And finally, in other to achieve this, we should be out to get individuals who have morals, self-discipline but also very competent in designing laws, systems and consequences grid that makes corrupt practices unattractive and due process very easy and rewarding.

Data Analyst, I Like to Read. Politics, History, Psychology, Sociology, Self-improvement

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