Nigeria’s President-elect Muhammadu Buhari won a decisive victory in large part because voters expect that he will reduce government corruption. The political survival of his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), could depend on the new government’s ability to show progress against corruption and demonstrate corresponding success in redirecting public money toward job creation.
It will not be easy. Buhari’s image as an anti-corruption reformer derives from his time as military head of state from 1983-1985, but the “converted democrat” will face a different political environment after he takes office on May 29. Here are two balancing acts he may have to perform:
1. Balancing Coalition-Maintenance and Anti-Corruption
The APC is a big tent. Buhari brings his own personal popularity, especially at the grassroots level in northern Nigeria, but there are other components. One major portion of the party is the Action Congress of Nigeria from the southwest, which includes a number of reformist governors but also, like other parties, a number of “godfathers.” Another portion comes from the All Nigeria People’s Party, a primarily northern party. Another portion represents disaffected politicians from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the outgoing ruling party. Some of those who have defected from PDP to the APC were motivated by conviction, but others were motivated by opportunism. The APC is not just a meaningless collection of self-interested individuals – it does have a coherent leftist economic policy framework and an ethos about the future direction of Nigeria – but not all members of the big tent share the same attitude toward public monies.
It has been to the APC’s political advantage to build a diverse coalition – it helped enable Buhari’s victory this year (whereas in 2011, he won only the far northern states). But when it comes to fighting corruption, the coalition will complicate matters, because some people have joined the APC expecting to profit, both politically and financially. If those people don’t get the rewards they expect, that could cause political problems for Buhari, whether in the legislature, with the states, or on the road to 2019.
There may be a way to strike the necessary balance. One question will be whether Buhari and his southwestern advisors can transfer any models from the southwest, especially Lagos, to the national stage. That wouldn’t necessarily mean an end to all corruption, but it could mean better governance, more tax collection, higher employment, etc. On this topic, it’s worth reading Diane de Gramont’s paper on governance in Lagos, where she highlights how former Governor Bola Tinubu – now a key leader in the APC – pursued improvements in trash collection and security not just out of technocratic idealism, but out of political calculation. The Lagos model has proven politically effective, as evidenced by Tinubu’s ability to pick not only one but two successors as governor.
On the other hand, the southwest also offers an example of a reform program that faltered politically, namely in Ekiti, where an incumbent APC governor lost to an infamous PDP politician in 2014. Reforms necessarily generate enemies; the question for Buhari is whether he can make reforms that deliver what he promised to ordinary Nigerians, while not fatally antagonizing key allies.
2. Addressing Both Personal and Structural Causes of Corruption
For many of his supporters, the “theory of Buhari,” if that phrase makes sense, is that his personal integrity and toughness guarantee that he will eliminate corruption. A corollary, sometimes articulated and sometimes not, is that he will initiate a domino effect within the government: he will select the right people for senior positions, who will in turn select the right people and eliminate scoundrels, all the way down the chain, until corruption declines.
There is something to be said for this theory. Individuals can make a huge difference in terms of both practice and tone within an organization. Reformist ministers and committed senior staff could eliminate “ghost workers,” refuse to pad contracts, ensure that bidding is truly competitive, and so forth. But if Buhari relies primarily on personalities to fight corruption, structural factors could complicate even the best of intentions, especially at the middle and lower levels of the civil service, the military, and the police.
Why does the policeman take bribes? Why does the civil servant embezzle money, or ask for a kickback on a contract? Is it because they are bad people? Moral degeneracy cannot be the only factor – there are also the pressures of supporting dependents, the anxiety about losing one’s job, the norms set by peers and superiors and institutional history, and the specters of debt and intimidation.*
These are not all problems that toughness or integrity can solve, especially not quickly. Skilled and experienced bureaucrats can find ways to freeze out and undermine a reformist boss. Reformers don’t always get to pick their own staffs, who sometimes answer ultimately to other powerful individuals whom the reformer cannot gainsay. Finally, political calculations emanating from the president, the party, or other influencers can throw a wrench into reform efforts inside bureaucracies.** This dynamic leads us back to my first point above, about the need for coalition-maintenance.
In any case, if Buhari’s government cannot address some of the structural factors – for example, if they cannot ensure that civil servants’ salaries are adequate – then personalities alone may fail to eliminate corruption.
Buhari’s Plans on Corruption
So far, Buhari’s discussion of his plans on corruption has been politically pragmatic, though not entirely consistent. Perhaps most famously, he and his team have repeatedly stated that they will “draw a line” (see here, starting at 13:30) – meaning that they will consider past offenses off limits for investigations and prosecutions. That attitude could have the benefit of making Buhari’s opponents feel that their situation now is not life-or-death, and that they can walk away from nefarious activities without going to war with the new president. On the other hand, drawing a line could mean that grievous financial crimes go unpunished.
There are already indications that the “line” may not exclude all parts of the past. Buhari recently said he would open a “fresh probe” into allegations that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) mis-allocated $20 billion under outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan. (This issue has been in the public eye again with the release of an audit on the NNPC, which raised as many questions as it answered.) Political pressures may mean that “drawing a line” proves impossible.
Beyond these issues, however the dominant rhetoric about corruption coming from Buhari still focuses on personalities. In one interview (14:10), he compared Nigeria to a fish: “If the head is rotten, the rest of the body will go rotten as well.” But given how many hooks are in this fish, simply replacing the head may not be enough to restore the health of the body.
*My thoughts on this point have been influenced by a recent talk I heard by M.A. Thomas on her new book Govern Like Us: U.S. Expectations of Poor Countries, though I am still thinking through my reactions to her overall arguments.
**My thoughts on this point have been influenced by Nasir el-Rufai’s The Accidental Public Servant.