Like corruption itself, punishing the act is all about who gets to define all that. So far, that has been a monopoly of the elite who set the parameters before they are codified into law. The implication is that mainly lawyers, judges, politicians and journalists rather than the masses are on top of what constitutes an act of corruption and how such an act may be punished.
But, even within the elite, there is no consensus. An issue such as the length of time it takes for a typical corruption suspect to be convicted is becoming a subject of loud grumblings. So also allegations of selectivity/partisanship by anti-corruption agencies and the government of the day. Questions are also being asked if there are no newer, faster methods of how to catch suspects in corruption.
Questions are also being asked if legalism is coping with the cultural problems of fighting corruption in Nigeria: “You catch one man who stole N6b but only for the people in his village to begin to say he is their son”. Then the issue of spending much more resources prosecuting potential culprits. Two last points. One is the quality of the judicial testaments at a time it is widely believed that some judges simply do not even read the evidence in order to write their judgment. The second is the creeping phenomenon of in-breeding: somebody was a judge and so his son or daughter or something like that must also become a judge, by hook or crook.
The situation is such that all manner of suggestions are coming in. Some are arguing there should be a distinction between ‘functional’ and ‘dysfunctional’ corruption in designing punishment. Proponents would give example of corruption in India’s railway system as a case of functional corruption in the sense that officials may steal some money from the system but not to the extent that they will kill the rail system. That is contrasted to corruption in Nigeria where the corrupt practice would take all the money and also kill the system, whether you are talking of the rail system until recently or the Nigeria Airways, etc.
In this context, what the people think about punishing corruption should form the core of an anti-corruption messaging driven by the idea of “Amplifying Voices From Below” as has been promoted by MacArthur Foundation for some time now through a program administered by the Centre for Information Technology and Development, (CITAD). In other words, do the masses endorse current practices of naming, shaming, trial and jailing and retrieving of loots or do they have other ideas? What are those other ideas, to what value frames do they speak in terms of power in the anti-corruption war; to what extent do they endorse or critique existing practices; enrich or pauperize existing stock of judicial practices on punishing corruption in Nigeria and how practicable or otherwise are they?
Getting the Masses
As always, the question is how we might capture the marginalized elements in a huge country such as Nigeria to participate in this conversation. Without getting trapped in quantitative representativity, the approach applied here is a simple random interview – Vox Populi. Even then, care is taken to capture the diversity of the category called the masses. This is with particular reference to the trade, religious, gender and regional spread even as the overarching criterion is dwellers in high density neighborhoods around Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory – Abuja. The assumption here is that Abuja is where one finds every species of the Nigerian, being a space of all comers.
Broadly, all the interviewees come from Jikwoyi, Nyanya, Mararaba, Mpape and Gwagwalada. From each of these settlements, five persons were interviewed on the sole question of what s/he thinks is the best way to punish corruption in Nigeria. This question envisages the problematic of detecting and/or proving corruption which is, at the moment, a completely judicial and democratic process.
Of the 25 persons spoken to, below is the identity distribution:
|S/N||TRADE||STATE OF ORIGIN||RELIGION||GENDER|
|12||Petty trader||No state of origin recorded||Christian||Male|
|16||Tea seller||No State of origin recorded||Muslim||Male|
|19||Small scale business||FCT||Nothing recorded|
In summary, there are 19 males as against six females; 14 Christians as against nine Muslims and two others that the interviewers did not record their religious identity; non participation of anybody from any of the following states: Abia; Bauchi; Bayelsa; Borno; Edo; Ekiti; Kaduna, Kano; Kebbi; Kwara; Lagos; Niger; Ogun; Ondo; Plateau; Rivers; Sokoto and Zamfara.
Among those interviewed, Kogi and Osun have three respondents each; Benue, Enugu and Katsina have two each while the following have one each: Adamawa; Cross Rivers; Delta; Ebonyi; FCT; Gombe; Imo; Jigawa; Nasarawa; Oyo and Taraba. The field interviewers did not record the state of origin of two respondents. For a very random exercise, this is very, very representative.
What Are They Suggesting?
Respondents canvassed divergent positions, a synthesis of which would look like this, taken from what may be categorised as the most soft to the harshest or draconian and the most pessimistic.
The nature of the report and the subject matter is that the true identity of respondents cannot be more detailed than they are here. This is not just for their own fear of elite politicians but also of oppressive local structures that allocate shops and similar values. Although many respondents did not raise any objections or seek for anonymity, many others did. In fact, not a few harbored the belief that their interviewers were agents of government or DSS operatives. In one or two cases, only the university ID cards of our interviewers restored their innocence. Throughout the report, the closest reference to the true identity of every respondent whose own contribution is quoted as illustration of a particular standpoint is what is used. Now, the summary of the thematic suggestions that emerge from the totality of the interviews!
There are those who canvass the position that those found to have engaged in corruption should be left to God. This position has only one voice, that of a Muslim male respondent. There is a closely related position that argues for freedom for those who return what they looted. The other variant of this same position is the voice that ties freedom and forgiveness for looters who repent. This is coming from the voice from Cross Rivers, a Christian. So, there is an element of convergence between Islam and Christianity on this.
A respondent argues for what he calls strong penalties based on the weight of amount stolen PROVIDED emphasis shifts to preventive rather than strategies of punishment. Again, only a ‘businessman’ canvassed this position. The text of the interview shows he was not asked to elaborate.
The fourth position is that of those insisting on retrieving the loot and prosecuting the suspects. The clarion call here is: ‘jail them’. Of significance here would be the tinge of class vengeance in the justification of this position by the respondent who said: “let them suffer like us”. As for the criteria for determining the punishment, the second voice here favour “jail terms that correspond with the amount stolen”. This particular phrase is the voice of the Pastor on the list.
Two respondents share a same position in favour of psychological torture. One voice for this explains: block such persons from any other position for life”. The other respondent votes for retrieving everything from them, leave them with nothing or, in her language, “make them poor without any help”. She adds the case for annulling their citizenship by confining them to one space. This is the interpreter’s rendition of the interview since this barber doesn’t speak enough English but thinks that his option is the best because, one, prison life will be too easy for the corrupt and, two, folks will always support rich, corrupt persons. There is a single voice for life imprisonment as solution.
That closes what can be regarded as the first part of the synthesis where the suggestions are, in summary, about:
- Leaving them to God
- Freeing those who return the loot/forgive those who repent
- Shifting the emphasis from punitive to preventive options
- Retrieving the loot and prosecuting offenders, meaning jail them
- Subjecting corrupt people to psychological torture – retrieve everything from them to make them completely poor while also confining them
- Life imprisonment
What is interesting about all the above six suggestions is how none has more than two respondents canvassing for it. This contrasts strikingly with the two other suggestions below, one having four voices in support and the second having nine.
The first of the two suggestions in question is capital punishment. Although canvassed by no less than four voices, it is instantly problematic because it contradicts the modern concept of punishment as a care giving practice rather than spectacular violence. Secondly, Intervention as an organisation does not support capital punishment.
So, while recognising the right of the respondents to canvass capital punishment, such views are, however, not promoted on this platform. The reasons canvassed for that position are, therefore, merely noted. They include the analysis that capital punishment would serve as deterrence. Another is because “the prisons are already filled up”. The third voice here says public resource would then not be used to maintain corrupt persons in the jail house nor would the corrupt subject be around for anybody to treat them as gods on account of their stolen wealth. Nothing more than this much will be reported here of the proponents of capital punishment for corruption.
The second of the intriguing suggestion is that of those who do not believe politicians can ever be punished for corruption. What is intriguing here is the sheer number of those who believe so. Nine respondents subscribe to this out rightly while two others said things that can be grouped under here as well. “We are yet to see influential leaders punished for corruption except those who are being witch hunted by their opponents” is one basis for this pessimism. Another is the more philosophical argument: if we catch a thief in this place, usually we beat him or stone them but rich people have more power than us. So, I don’t know how they can ever be punished”. Yet, a third voice says “we can never catch and punish ‘big people’ in Nigeria. They are the same people who own the government” And so on and so forth.
Even when it was suggested that things are changing as some powerful people have been jailed, the view that those jailed are exceptions remains insistent. The argument seems to be that if we can count the number of ‘big people’ jailed with all the stories about corruption in Nigeria, then it makes sense to believe that politicians cannot punish their fellow politicians when it concerns corruption.
What signals can we draw from these seven standpoints?
While it is true that every reader will draw his or her own meaning about these suggestions, we can also draw attention to one or two here without usurping the right of the reader to do that.
From this report, we can infer that, one, all politicians are suspect in the eyes of the people and a clear class animus among the people against corruption and the elite character of corruption can be said to be evident from the interviews. An expression such as “let them suffer like us” reveals a lot about this.
Two, there is a clear manifestation of how little the folks have been conscientised in Nigeria on the pastoral essence of punishment in the modern state. Corruption is unacceptable and should be punished but there is also a logic guiding punishment generally that cannot be thrown overboard just because it is corruption. The endorsement of capital punishment by several of the respondents demonstrate this lack of awareness of such logics that political parties, the media and political office holders ought to have familiarized the people on.
Three, the tendency to extra judicial options should send a message to the establishment that legalism and/or the law is not working well enough or is not believed to be working well. It should be instructive that there is a consensus on this among both the masses and the elite.
The views above are those of the masses. It may be important to find those of security operatives in EFCC and other anti-corruption agencies, anti-fraud operatives in the banks, accountants and auditors and a host of other spaces tracking corruption. Detecting and punishing corruption in Nigeria is, to that extent, an open and on-going debate in Nigeria!