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Tunde Leye: Corruption, Competence And Outcomes

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I had an interesting conversation on twitter with Mr. Andrew Alli @afalli on competence, corruption and outcomes in public service. After reading that conversation thread, I thought it expedient to document my thoughts on this to shed light on it and correct what might have come across as a condoning of corruption in that conversation. Twitter, of course, limits such finery with its 140 character limit (and this limit is fine. @twitter, take note).

In that conversation, I spoke about a set of possibilities when we reduce the variables in governance to two factors. Of course there are many more factors. But abstraction such as this is an important tool in creating understanding of real world concepts which are otherwise more infinitely complex. And I was deliberate in my use of the word “understanding”. This piece is about understanding and will not pontificate on the the rightness or wrongness of the possibilities.

The two factors are Corruption and Competence. The key results at the other side of the equation is what I have termed Outcomes. These are essentially the results that we desire, the things that will move our nation closer to achieving its potentials. Essentially, the quantity and quality of outcomes a government achieves is a measure of how good or bad that government is. With these in mind, I will go ahead to delve into my thinking on this matter of Corruption, Competence and Outcomes. In doing this, I will also differentiate between two types of corruption and show that while little or no corruption is the preferred state, where it is present, one type of corruption will deliver a degree of desirable outcomes while the other will essentially lead to no or undesirable outcomes.

The first possibility is where corruption is rife and institutional plus a high level of incompetence. This is the native state of things in Nigeria. Most of the people that occupy public office are not only patently corrupt, but perhaps even more unacceptably incompetent. They simply do not have the capacity, vision or qualification to get anything done, and they add stealing aimlessly to this gross incompetence. The result is the kind of state that we have in Nigeria where we have been stuck with things as basic as not having developed rail, abysmal power supply, comatose refineries and a single bridge across the Niger in spite of all of these having gulped huge sums in the past. We will not need to think very hard to come up with typical examples of this combination; they abound. This is the worst possible combination a nation can have and it is the story of not only Nigeria but most of sub-Saharan Africa. It is this scenario that makes things like the Abuja CCTV debacle or the Haliburton scandal possible. It is truly a sad state for a nation to be in.

The second possibility is where the government and/or its officials are not corrupt or at least corruption is not rife and institutionalized, but they are still grossly incompetent. What this possibility eliminates is waste and pilfering of the commonwealth. However, desirable outcomes do not happen, because outcomes are delivered by competence and not incorruptibility. This state however holds one promise. When corruption is not rife or where it has serious consequences, public office will begin to attract the right people while the wrong people will begin to exit and the probability that competence will eventually be injected into the system is very high. This is still however not the state that we desire our country to be in. For example, absence of corruption will not stop us from importing refined petroleum products and exporting crude. At best, it will make sure crude being exported does not get pilfered or proceeds from crude sales are not stolen. However, we will still have to import petrol. Only competence can deliver working refineries that will eliminate the need to import refined products.

The next possible combination is where corruption is present and might even be routine but there is also a high degree of competence. In this combination, desirable outcomes happen. Things get done. However, the presence of corruption makes the cost of these outcomes untenable. Hence, a road that should ordinarily cost 1million dollars ends up costing 2million. The road gets built, yes, but at a high cost that the citizens have to bear. The actual potential when compared to the quantum of resources available to the government is never truly achieved. This is the situation that Lagos was under Fashola’s administration for example. Things got done, but the costs of these outcomes were definitely questionable, as recent revelations of something as basic as the ex-governor’s personal website have shown.

The fourth and most desirable situation is where corruption is low and/or non-existent or isn’t institutionalized and the government is led and populated by competent men and women. In this scenario, desirable outcomes happen and very importantly, at costs that these outcomes justify. A very good example of this is Lagos under Jakande. In 4 years and 3 months, Jakande achieved what, when compared with the level of achievement of today’s state governments, looks superhuman. The Victoria Island/Epe road amongst many roads, Lagos State Television, Radio Lagos, LASACO Insurance, 20,000 units of low and medium cost housing estates all over the state, Lagos State University, the sprawling secretariat complex, 22,000 classroom are a few amongst his works still standing and in use today, over 30years later. He even commenced plans for a Lagos metro and kick started a water transport service, that’s how far the outcomes went. The potential that can be unleashed once corruption becomes a pariah and competence becomes the watchword in public service in Nigeria is almost limitless. It is only in this scenario that our country can achieve fully actualize everything we can, and it is for this that I advocate.

Let me close by differentiating between what I call the corruption that eats the seed and the corruption that eats of the fruit. Again, I will restate that my preference is that corruption ceases to be a part of the fabric of our nation. But I am not unmindful of the fact that many nations that have achieved a lot of their potential today are or were also very corrupt. Examples that come to mind are the China, South Korea and India. What these people have succeeded in doing is to ensure that corruption only facilitates getting outcomes. It never eats that which are supposed to be used to achieve the outcomes. It is only from the fruit or the productivity that the outcomes unleash that they eat. I would love us to move to the fourth combination, where we have no corruption and a full complement of competence. However, we must also recognize that in the evolution of a nation, we may be unable to move from corrupt and incompetent to not-corrupt and fully competent. We might have to pass through a corrupt and competent phase, as some state governors have shown. Where this happens, we must learn from our Asian counterparts to ensure that corruption never eats the seeds of our outcomes but only from the productivity that comes from achieving outcomes. This will create a situation where costs of outcomes outweigh the outcomes and citizens will then be alert to ask questions and pressure the government until the cost of outcomes eventually match the outcomes and we will have moved to the 4th and most desirable combination.

In conclusion, I want to borrow from Pius Adesanmi’s remarks at the platform. We sometimes assume our situation is unique. Or that the strain of corruption that we have is more virulent than any other in the world. But this is untrue. What we must do is to collectively decide to hate incompetence and corruption. It will not be easy. We all benefit from this incompetence and corruption. But it is a short benefit that ends up sending us to Europe and India to treat our diseases and consigns those who cannot afford it to death via abysmal healthcare. And this generation is the generation that must fight this. Daily I see those within my generation fail to see what our real enemies are and fight each other like toy soldiers. I remind us that we are the turnkey generation.

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Article written by Tunde Leye

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