The Prime Minister has been accused of a diplomatic faux pas in describing Nigeria as ‘fantastically corrupt’. I only know Nigeria at second hand: over the last fifteen years I’ve met a long series of Nigerian students studying for the Masters in Public Administration. Most of them would, I think, share the Prime Minister’s view. If anything, they have an exaggerated view of it; I’ve sat in class while Nigerian students claimed, in the presence of other students from Iraq and Somalia, to be the most corrupt country in the world. The Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International ranks Nigeria 136th in the world, while Iraq is 161st and Somalia is bottom at 167.
Initially, I found students training for public administration were reluctant to discuss issues of corruption. As time has gone on, there has been a greater sense of openness, and willingness to discuss the situation, both ethically and practically. Klitgaard argues, in Controlling Corruption, that some corruption may be necessary for a system to work at all: the task is to reduce it, not to impose zero tolerance. Low pay in the public service is a problem, because it makes the system vulnerable to bribes. There is a case for introducing standard charges for services, because there is not much point in pretending that services are free if people have to pay bribes to get the free service.
Many of Nigeria’s official efforts have been devoted to catching the big fish, through the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission; but that is not the everyday aspect that most affects people’s everyday lives, often based in small-scale shakedowns and demands for money from officials. According to my students (who may not be representative) items where people used to demand bribes or a ‘dash’, like birth certificates or passports, have become more automated, and people have learned to record the behaviour of corrupt police and officials on their mobile phones (e.g. in this report). Things are getting better, but they have a way to go.