Finding alternative strategies in Nigeria’s war against corruption

‘A rotten apple spoils the whole barrel’ is the proverbial saying that has been used by many to describe how corruption spreads. This suggests that a bad person can infect/corrupt a group of people. The story of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden corroborates this notion. The serpent deceived on Eve, who went on to deceive Adam, and Adam in turn infected the entire world with sin, as the story goes. However, you are likely to read stories about rotten apples, not about rotten barrels. So what happens when the barrel is rotten? As corruption is both systemic and endemic in Nigeria, it begs the question: Is Nigeria a rotten barrel? In such a situation, where are the positive influences expected to come from? Can those who are themselves down help others up?  Can many wrongs make right?  What are the implications of tackling corruption in a rotten barrel?

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), corruption increases the cost of doing business; excludes the poor from public services; and, delegitimizes the State. Corruption also has adverse budgetary effects in that it leads to waste or the inefficient use of public resources. Imagine schools without chairs; hospitals without drugs; pensioners without pension; housing units without water; citizens without passports; Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps without food, and universities without research laboratories. Sadly, you do not have to imagine too hard. This is the reality that depicts the Nigerian State, which can be equated to the decay that occurs in a rotten barrel.

Corruption in Nigeria is pervasive and has untold consequences. The cost of corruption though topical and deserving of a lot of attention is not often discussed because it is hard to establish a direct causal link; there is a plethora of other factors that may be responsible for poor service delivery and underdevelopment in corruption-prone countries. Nevertheless, the high correlation between corruption and the pathetic state of our nation is not to be ignored.

Corruption is said to limit economic growth as it dissuades investment into the country. Researchers at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) claimed that countries, where corruption is rife, are likely to have 5 per cent less in investment than countries with lower corruption rates.  In addition, a PwC Nigeria report estimated the economic cost of corruption to be approx. $1,000 per person in 2014. The report warns that this could balloon to 37% of GDP by 2030 if corruption is not dealt with right away. This would translate to about $2,000 per person by 2030. How about the human cost of corruption? Can this cost be quantified? Perhaps a measure of corruption in body bags may drive home the point. How many people have died because there was a lack of oxygen in our hospitals? How many die from expired malaria drugs? How many fatal road traffic accidents are due to bad roads? How many deaths from severe burns owing to adulterated fuels? And the list goes on.

These figures and probable impacts are mind boggling and disturbing yet corruption continues to thrive in the land. Clearly, something is wrong! The anti-corruption strategies and tactics deployed by past and present administrations have been largely ineffective, as the focus has been on drawing attention to the bad apples only.  How then does one successfully fight corruption in a rotten barrel?



The rotten barrel notion suggests that corrupt tendencies in a person can be attributed to widespread societal influences and pressures. Citizens have been shaped by standards and customs in the society that permit dishonesty. This implies that the likelihood of being incorruptible in an environment predisposed to corruption is extremely low if not near impossible. Researchers at the University of Nottingham and Yale University found that corruption not only harms a nation’s prosperity but also shapes the moral behaviour of its citizens. The impact of corruption is more damaging when the barrel is rotten because people tend to acclimatise in the rot. Imagine stepping out of a crowded room for a while and stepping back into the room only to discover the air in the room is stale and pungent and has always been. Citizens are simply unable to link corruption to the state of their affairs, as they are also infected with the same virus. How else does one justify a corrupt politician being publicly celebrated in his constituency even though he steals from them? Or how a former Chairman of an agency charged with an anti-corruption mandate is being investigated for corruption? Ibrahim Lamorde, former Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), was alleged to have fraudulently diverted over N1tn proceeds of looted funds recovered by the agency. It’s little wonder that with the recent discovery of over N13 billion in a Lagos apartment, citizens are being subjected to an episode of -Whose Money is it Anyway? Multiple interests continue to vie for ownership of the funds. Many Nigerians are now wondering whether this is a deliberate attempt to divert attention away from the money so that the real looters can get away with it.

Is the story all bleak then? Corruption is ultimately a learned behaviour and as such the fight against corruption, though multi-faceted, must be primarily focused on behavioural change strategies and interventions if it is to be sustained and effective. Nonetheless, how does one go about fixing the barrel? Is it about the apple(s) in the barrel or the barrel itself or both? Can one really be separated from the other or are both intertwined? Can a person really be separated from their culture? These are pertinent questions we must answer if we are to gain ground in the fight against corruption.

By focusing on behavioural change strategies and interventions, the fight against corruption will progressively be championed by all. Institutions, such as the home, religious institutions and schools, responsible for value reorientation and learning should be targeted. Places of learning should be specifically targeted as they are where an understanding of what corruption is in the Nigerian context and its associated risks and impacts should emanate from.  Being able to identify what corruption really is, the cost of corruption and how much of a corruption risk an individual or organisation is are good places to start.

Doyin Olawaiye is a Public Policy Manager at The Integrity Organisation, an anti-corruption training, research, advocacy and consulting organisation founded in 1995.