Ethnic Nepotism Is Corruption By Another Name -By Kenneth Amaeshi

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Kenneth Amaeshi

On the face of it, the anti-corruption war is a good thing. It is desirable; and therefore should be supported. It is very difficult to argue against this stance. What is rather much more convoluted is what corruption means and entails. It is neither straightforward nor narrow, as often presented.

Corruption goes beyond stealing public funds, although it is a major understanding of the word. As much as it is important to curtail the opportunities for embezzling public funds, and bring perpetrators to justice, it is also important to cast a wide net on corruption, and frame it as an act of “stealing opportunities”. The view of corruption as stolen opportunities can offer a different lens to appreciate the anti-corruption agenda.

Amartya Sen, one of the leading economists and a Nobel laureate, argues that poverty is unfreedom. It is a lack of freedom, because in such situations, choices are limited, and the capability to meet the very few available choices is significantly constrained. This capability approach to understanding and addressing poverty has gained global recognition.

Inherent in the capability argument is the question of opportunities. Some people are trapped in poverty because they don’t have access to opportunities. This can be as a result of poor education, lack of access to resources, and inappropriate social networks. To minimise these challenges, some societies have chosen to concentrate on building institutions that will address such challenges. That’s why some countries have free education from kindergarten to university education. Scotland is a good example of this.

Good education helps people to explore good opportunities to improve their lot in life. The negative impacts of lack of resources and social networks are also addressed through institutions. Banks, for example, are there to help people fund resources that will help them achieve their goals. In some instances, the civil society steps in to support those who may not have good access to financial services or who require other non-financial resources to achieve their goals.

Although social networks are usually seen as positive, they also have some negative impacts on society, such as marginalisation and exclusion. Research evidence shows that entry to some professions and progression within them are largely shaped by one’s social networks. This is obviously not good for social cohesion and equality. To address the negative impacts of social networks and homophilia, there are clear rules and regulations regarding the employment of labour, acquisition of contracts, and other services.

These institutional approaches help to create a level playing ground, reduce inequality, and enhance freedom, inclusion, quality of life and prosperity. They also de-emphasise personal-level trust and enhance institutional trust in the search for opportunities, which is necessary for creating a fair and just society, amongst others.

Notwithstanding, opportunities can still be stolen, especially where you have weak institutions and where people largely and inappropriately rely on other sub-optimal indices – such as ethnicity, race, gender, and religion – in the creation and distribution of opportunities. In such instances, competence and meritocracy are completely or partially ignored. This is a form of corruption that is hardly talked about in the current framing of the anti-corruption agenda in Nigeria.

Whilst focus is obviously important, one would expect the anti-corruption agenda to be founded on such principles as justice, fairness, equity, trust, and transparency. Articulated as such, the anti-corruption agenda becomes a visible manifestation of some deep-seated broad values, which can be broadly and not narrowly applied. These values become the lens through which everyday social interactions and decisions are measured. However, this is not often the case because ethnicity and corruption are often seen as separate constructs in practice.

Some people argue that corruption has no tribe. As such, it provides a meta-space beyond ethnic divides, where what counts most is the shared interests of the looters and not necessarily their ethnicity or any other differentiating factors. This narrative is true to some extent. However, it can be limiting and obstructing to other possible interpretations and accounts – especially where one sees corruption as an ethnic project, and the inappropriate enactment of ethnicity as a project of corruption. In other words, ethnicity and corruption are intertwined to the extent that the inappropriate pursuit of ethnicity can be as corrupting as corruption, and the pursuit of corruption can become an expression of ethnic loyalty and patriotism.

In present day Nigeria, the relationship between ethnic loyalty and stolen opportunities is something everyone knows but chooses to ignore. It has become the norm. It has become a legitimate expectation. It has become a culture. As a result of this normalisation, people jostle to steal opportunities from others simply on the basis of their ethnicity. This jostling is embellished with organisational stories and myths to further legitimise them. No one cares; that’s how things are done. Anything short of that, is naïve.

Unfortunately, cases of stolen opportunities as a result of ethnicity often create lopsided outcomes where trust becomes a very scarce commodity. In such instances, negative politicking, which often is marred by betrayals, becomes the order of the day. People watch their backs, operate in cliques, and strike at the slightest opportunity. Mediocrity is augmented and enhanced by sophisticated eye-service and bootlicking. In such instances, organisational objectives are significantly compromised and productivity often suffers.

There are accounts of extreme situations where people resort to occult powers. It is a very terrifying and terrible situation to work in. No wonder the market for spiritual protection is ever burgeoning. Prayer and praying have become visible signs of work and working.

The Nigerian public sector appears as one where ethnic politics is rife and very much alive. Your ethnicity defines and categorises you before you are fairly assessed. This seems to be very much an open knowledge. Notwithstanding, this form of identity-based politics and screening can only lead to biases and prejudices, which will obviously kill the public sector if not checked. This also comes across as an open secret.

Hopefully, the recent public sector reforms will include the fight against ethnic politics in the public sector and minimise cases of ethnicity-based stolen opportunities. This is where I think the National Orientation Agency, the Federal Character Commission, and the Bureau of Public Service Reforms can help the government to expand the scope of its anti-corruption drive. This expansion will help to eschew blatant and subtle nepotism, which no doubt has negative impacts on the ability of the public sector to appropriately serve the country.

Nigerians require a change in orientation in this regard, and the public sector should be seen at the forefront of this change.

Nigeria is ours; Nigeria we serve!

Kenneth Amaeshi is professor of business and sustainable development and director, Sustainable Business Initiative, University of Edinburgh Business School, United Kingdom. He tweets @kenamaeshi