As discussed in the first episode of this series on corruption, it is my view that a government which truly intends to tackle our infamous corruption issues must target institutions, not individuals. Logically then, the next question is, which institution do you begin with?
I was recently involved in a friendly (and exceedingly civil) debate about how to tackle corruption in Nigeria. At one point we had everyone state which area they felt would need to be handled first. Interestingly, though there were all kinds of options to choose from, only 2 came up; police and the justice system. I had chosen and argued for reform in the justice system so, naturally, I will now argue that police reform needs to come first.
I highly recommend listening to “Can a Corrupt Country get Clean?” by the BBC’s The Inquiry podcast. It’s very interesting and most Nigerians will recognise some of the corrupt practices mentioned. For those who can’t (won’t?) listen, I’ll quote what applies as I go along.
I understand, to a reasonable degree, the hunt for those who have emptied government coffers for their private gain or who have accepted money and favours from others in exchange for manipulating government to suit them, even though I am personally more concerned about the corruption that occurs on the streets of Nigeria everyday. Besides, simply going after bigwigs and famous names is not a sustainable policy that will truly remove graft from Nigerian society; indeed, one might argue that its primary purposes are to recover funds and boost popularity ratings. Popularity will work because, as I have mentioned in a previous article, most Nigerians harbour some form of resentment or craving for vengeance and seeing the downfall of those who have lorded it over us will serve to satisfy some of that feeling. And while it is fine to do that, is it really an anti-corruption fight the people can get behind if they still have to pay bribes at police checkpoints? Are you fighting corruption if the average citizen still cannot run his microscopic-sized business to feed his gigantic family without being harassed by agents of one government agency or the other, who can have his life snuffed out by a “stray bullet” because he wouldn’t pay N100 and get no justice? Because to get people to really back the fight, it needs to have some kind of impact in their daily lives. So one must ask – is it possible to wage war against corruption in Nigeria without an overhaul of the police force?
We’re not the First, nor the Last
Looking at countries that have been more successful in rooting out corruption, it becomes clear that the police and judicial system have to be top of the list. Georgia (the European nation, not the American state) rid itself of corruption by starting with the police, as we will see in a minute. Kenya also employed a similar method, using technology to track bribes collected by police officers via mobile payment systems and sanction them accordingly. And since the judiciary has been raided by federal agents and also begun its own housekeeping, we should, for now, focus on the police and, even though reforming the police would ideally go hand in hand with doing same for prosecutors, there’s probably only so much you’re willing to read from me in one sitting.
While there are some exceptional police men and women, the police force does contain a lot of bad eggs. It’s difficult to blame some of them when you get to learn about the conditions and pressures they’re faced with but, at the same time, this is an institution that is of utmost importance to any civilized society but has been brought to its knees whether by design or dereliction. Among many other things, the Nigerian Police Force (NPF) has been accused, even by retired officers, of basically hiring out police officers like a local militia, which is funny because the Nigerian Army has been conducting exercises in the Northeast, Middle Belt, Southeast, South South and Southwest with a view to tackling every security challenge from insurgency to cultism, a lot of which should be pure police work.
But police reform will be hard in this country, make no mistake about it. It will take a brave and determined president to tell the rich and powerful, including those in high government positions, that they can no longer use the police as their private militia. And I use that term very deliberately because, when you hear about courts and legislators being prevented by armed police from sitting and conducting their constitutional duties, you cannot help but come to that conclusion. Especially when you consider the number of other agencies that are having to do the work of the police. Heck, just a few days ago I was in a traffic jam in a busy part of town which was being directed by a uniformed soldier with not a policeman in sight. Ironically, I had passed a police checkpoint that very morning manned by a single policeman who was clearly inebriated.
We cannot, in this article, go into details of what measures can be taken for police reform because that would take up too much time. Instead, we will just look at the task in terms of strategic choices.
The Georgian Method
The case of Georgia is an interesting, if rather extreme, one. Georgia used to be a “fantastically corrupt” country until, in 2003, they elected a no-nonsense new president who campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket. Sounds similar so far, right? The new Georgian president, Mr Mikhail Sakashvili, decided he wanted to start by reforming the police force. Georgia, in those days, was similar to Nigeria in that you couldn’t travel the roads without being stopped for a bribe by traffic police; a former government spokesman (listen here) says it was so normal it was part of the culture, like tipping a waiter at a restaurant. So the government decided to do something about it. They chose to begin with the traffic police not because they were the most important but rather because they were the most visible, essentially they would make for very good scapegoats. Because at the time, Georgian police paid their superiors to get juicy postings and then had to pay each week to be allowed to stay in that post. It was so bad that a policeman who got married in 2002 was given 3 days on Tbilisi’s busiest highway as a wedding gift from his colleagues.
And so President Sakashvili sacked the entire traffic police. All sixteen thousand of them. To a man. Afterward they hired new people to work as traffic police, though a much fewer number than previously, which allowed the government to have money left over to give them proper training and also pay them better wages. Of course, they also put agents within their ranks so that anyone who was engaging in corruption was quickly reported and dealt with. Naturally, the people loved it; polite and professional traffic police really helped to put a good face on the government. Once this was done, they moved on to reforming the rest of the police force.
First, the Georgians were smart enough to know the importance of picking a scapegoat to make an example of and, in essence, get everyone else’s attention. They also recognized that whipping the scapegoat into shape needs to be publicly visible and efficient, even ruthless. This strategy is visible in many areas of life, particularly in areas of human conflict; quickly and aggressively dealing with a chosen scapegoat (it is super important to choose your scapegoat, as we shall see in a minute) helps to establish that you are not to be trifled with and, in fact, drastically reduces the number of battles you have to fight. Case in point: the federal government’s anti-corruption drive first focused on prosecuting the former National Security Adviser, Col Sambo Dasuki, a case which is still nowhere near conclusion. In fact the man has been granted bail by several courts, including the ECOWAS court, but the government refuses to release him, maybe because it would be hugely embarrassing for them to admit defeat by their first target. But that’s just it – they didn’t pick their scapegoat strategically; in fact one could argue that it was the “mind-boggling” sum of $2.1bn that enticed them into facing down the former NSA. Arguably, a better strategy would have been to select a department, ministry, parastatal or agency which is public-facing to whip into shape, recover looted funds and make an example of, for two reasons.
First, it is much easier to control when you do not have to invoke the judicial system (which they apparently already deemed corrupt anyway) and so, with the awesome powers available to the executive, they could investigate, publicly shame, fire, and then prosecute abusers of office, and all with relative ease.
Secondly, as I said, select a department, ministry, parastatal or agency to investigate and prosecute; focusing on individuals rather than offices is counter-productive when you’re trying to build strong institutions (at least I’m assuming that they are). Focusing on individuals rather than institutions is why this administration is constantly being accused of using anti-corruption to prosecute political opponents. At this point it is worth noting that the rest of the Georgian police force did not need to be sacked in order to be reformed; making an example of the traffic police was enough to convince them that the government was deadly serious. Thus, even before the Georgian government turned its gaze to the rest of the police force, it was already abundantly clear that there was no going back.
Finally, those recruited into the anti-corruption government were told that they had a small window of 8-9 months to make a visible change. As President Sakashvili said, “If reformers make compromises, if they wait for too long, the window of opportunity will be shut quite soon.” This is an area where President Buhari failed. He dallied for too long, and ended up not taking advantage of the goodwill, hope and belief that followed him into office. It is an unfathomable error from a former general who should know, better than most, that victory is for the brave, and a good leader must seize opportunities and press their advantage.
As an aside, I’d like to point out that, counter-intuitively, a government that is honestly and earnestly fighting corruption will, from time to time, find itself in scandalous situations. That is the reason why the allegations of corruption around the president’s man, Babachir Lawal, as well as the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), and others was something that I was quite impressed with. While one would normally assume that an administration that is truly fighting corruption is one which would be squeaky clean, the fact is really quite the opposite; an administration that is honest about its fight against corruption is one which will be caught up in scandal at times, simply because it is looking at corruption, not individuals. While the scandals are inevitable, what counts most is the way the government handles the matter. It is the president’s reaction to when his men are caught with their hands in the soup that will tell you how earnestly and honestly he is fighting corruption. The outcome of Mr Lawal’s case as well as the government’s decision to sue the former policeman (and current senator) who accused the IGP of corruption is, in my view, a loud and clear statement.
And now that it is clear the IGP has the backing of the executive without even the formality of an investigation, one can begin to understand why he is able to disobey direct orders and dismiss legislative summons. But even without that, with the NPF being labelled as the worst police in the world, and with no apparent reaction from the government except to denounce the report, it is clear that police impunity will continue with this government and beyond, and it is the simple citizen who will suffer for it.