Corruption in Nigeria: Is It Curable? Part Two

Contrary Institutions: A Brief Description

Why is it that institutional reform as touted by the international and local anti-corruption industries always fails in tackling the problem of corruption in Nigeria or elsewhere in Africa? One major problem is that the reforms are based on the foundations of Western institutions without giving adequate thought or attention to institutional activities or development in Nigeria or anywhere else in Africa (Ayittey 1994; 1999). Professionals thus have to develop a new sensitive understanding of institutions in post-colonial nations like Nigeria.

Institutions that are not enforceable are mere declarations, sweet talk (Hodgson 2006). Nigeria is saddled with a myriad of mostly under-funded and under-enforced declarations paraded institutions. There are numerous instances of robust mutant forms of formal institutions found in the Nigerian society that may be characteristically overlooked or misunderstood by both indigenous and foreign corruption investigators and institutional reformers (Nane 2009). These institutions tend to deviate significantly from the expectations and forms found, say in Western Europe where they are mechanically copied from, their internal mechanism are usually malformed but appear to conform to expected standards externally. Such institutions can be termed to be “contrary institutions“.

A contrary institution can be defined as “any institution which due to perverse or incomplete internal development delivers divergent or contrary outcomes to those it was originally intended“. When police officers routinely engage in violent crime or rent/sell firearms to violent criminals, the Nigerian Police Force becomes a contrary institution. When national legislators vote monies to alleviate poverty in given constituencies, but the funds are pocketed with impunity by respective senators or representatives, the ‘voting process’ and “budgeting process” of parliament are nothing but contrary institutions.

A cluster of institutions established to serve the interest of the general public becomes contrary when it starts to serve the interests of a small group(s) of individuals. Or an array of institutions introduced into a sector to reduce corruption but increases its incidence significantly is contrary. Contrary institutions as dysfunctional entities can also adversely affect the functioning of hitherto properly developed enforceable institutions retrospectively.

The prevalent existence of contrary institutions in Nigeria necessitates the proposition that the external mechanisms of institutions are procedural (i.e. systematic), but their internal mechanisms are volitional (i.e. praxeological). Procedures can be seen as impersonal mechanisms since they entail systems, methods, techniques, measures, practices and their auxiliary paraphernalia. The external mechanisms can be automated or part-automated. Volition is not so because it entails human action and discretion, i.e. preferences, habits, choices and decisions. Procedures are functions of volition, i.e. social processes cannot exist or work without the human agents. The goal of institutions is to make the volition of agents comply with standardised organisational procedures (Etzioni 1961) or goal-consistent ethical rules (Hodgson 2004; 2006).

Let us assume legitimacy has strong moral content since malfeasance cannot be morally justified. If the volition inputted by agents into institutions is legitimate, the procedures can also be expected to be legitimate, conforming to goal-oriented ethical rules, except in cases where there is an error (which should be duly correctable). An institution with internal legitimacy would invariable have external legitimacy and thus adequately be enforceable, constantly and consistently. Conversely, if the volition inputted by agents into institutions is not legitimate, the procedures cannot be valid either, no matter how well they are designed, structured or implemented.

Institutions that lack internal legitimacy are not duly enforceable with constancy and consistency because violator manipulations increase the scope of deviations and deformations in an organisation. This proposition gives credence to the necessity of morality in the understanding of corruption since it is based on the expectations of right actions (Dunsire 1988, Owusu 1996, Aluko 2002, Miller 2003, Hodgson & Jiang 2007, Rose-Ackerman 2007, Etzioni 2010). The internal mechanisms of institutions can be deemed to be dependent on the moral responsibility of agents (see Hodgson & Jiang 2007; Nane 2011). In Nigeria, the structural adjustment years saw severe economic conditions and uncertainty lead to the widespread compromise of the moral fibre of agents and hence the volitional component of institutions (Akande 2003; Owusu 1996).

The origin of contrary institutions in Nigeria like many recently post-independence nations is primarily due to opportunistic interactions between traditional indigenous institutions and colonial (and later global) institutions. In pre-colonial times societies, in what is now known as Nigeria, had robust, enforceable traditional institutions by which society was adequately organised (see Ayittey 1999; Englebert 2000, Falola 2003; Falola & Heaton 2008). These institutions were customarily legitimate, and the Nigerian people embodied them without question. Legitimate indigenous institutions governed trade, agriculture, marriage, religion, ceremonies, arbitration, property rights and the like (see Ayittey 1993).

The arrival of the colonial power, Great Britain, ushered in by way of the transplantation and superimposition of numerous European institutions that were intended to reorganise African society to meet the needs of their rule; indigenous institutions were left mainly intact but steadily rendered dormant. This superimposition of foreign institutions on colonial societies never really attained complete or even reasonable legitimacy even up to the time of independence in 1960 (Ekeh 1975). However, as long as these foreign institutions satisfied the specific interests of the colonial power, they were deemed to suffice.

Rowley (2000) contends that colonial rulers in Africa deliberately kept local traditional institutions weak or unenforceable to prevent local citizens from building the capacity to kick them out. Rowley’s argument is subject to challenge by the suggestion that well-embedded direct rule was too costly for Britain. However, the institutional transplants of the colonial rulers created an intractable dilemma; local traditional institutions did not lose their legitimacy while colonial institutions acquired significant “visible” but inadequate legitimacy. In essence, Nigerian society throughout the colonial era was operated with partially robust traditional institutions, but colonial institutions barely sufficed.

Put another way traditional institutions constituted the substance of governance while colonial institutions constituted the form. The internal mechanisms of Nigerian formal institutions were never developed sufficiently in the image or likeness of their progenitors in Europe. The colonial expediency of improvisation as governance on the pragmatic grounds of “whatever works best for the moment” rendered long-termed requirements for modern institutional building unnecessary, hence the incidence of contrary institutions.

We can see through evidence why current and past institutional reform fail woefully in Nigeria, especially with regards to anti-corruption activities. Reform as existing institutions are enforced and that their internal and external components are congruent to each other. It is the primary error of institutional change in Nigeria. New institutional thinking is thus necessary to create the tools and approaches that will have both the capability and legitimacy to develop and enforce institution that can robustly cure the problems of corruption and development in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa.

Culled from – Grimot Nane (2011), Do the Preferences of Corrupt Agents Evolve?, (A Paper prepared for the) 13th Conference of the Association for Heterodox Economics, Nottingham, 6th – 9th July 2011


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