In July 2016, during field research for our report Collective Action on Corruption in Nigeria, my co-author and I drove from Abuja to Makurdi in central Nigeria. We had meetings at Benue State University scheduled for the early afternoon. We were stopped at a Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) in Nassarawa Eggon just a stone’s throw from Alizaga—almost right smack bang in the middle of Nigeria. It turns out that our driver had an expired driver’s license, and the FRSC officer issuing the citation informed us that we had a ‘very small window to make this go away.’ The euphemism was intended to convey the idea that we could pay a bribe to avoid going what would become the cumbersome official process for adjudicating the fine.
The official fine was ₦10,000 (~$31; £25) to be paid to the state; we were asked to pay ₦5,000 (~$16; £13) in a private bribe to the FRSC officer. We did not take the FRSC officer up on his offer and so our vehicle was impounded (and us along with it!). In order to pay the fine by following the rules of the official process, our driver took a taxi to the state capital, Lafia, around 30km away. He paid the fine at the bank and then took the receipt for confirmation to an official FRSC office in Lafia. He returned to the checkpoint around three hours later. We missed all our meetings that day.
While we were at the checkpoint, a group of three people were stopped and pulled up next to where we were impounded. One was an elderly, seemingly sick man; another was an elderly woman, his wife; and another their son, probably in his late 20s or early 30s. The group had been stopped for the same violation as us—an expired driver’s license. The son insisted that they were on their way to the hospital because of his sick father and they simply did not have time to ‘drive to Lafia to pay a fine.’ The FRSC officer—apparently now determined to follow the official rules—insisted that the son take a taxi to Lafia and return with a confirmation of the payment, just as our driver had set off to do. Indeed, the FRSC officer pointed at us as an example of people who were following the rules during their interaction.
The son understandably protested: ‘I am not going to Lafia. I must take my father to the hospital.’ Voices were now being raised. The FRSC officer went on to insist that the fine ‘must be paid to the account of Nigeria’ and that these apparently burdensome rules were there to ensure the ‘honesty and integrity of Nigeria.’ The patriotic appeals fell on deaf ears; the mother simply responded: ‘Nigeria will not save our patient.’ The FRSC officers finally gave in to the mother and the son’s protests, and the group paid a small bribe and moved on. They spent around 30 minutes at the checkpoint against our three hours.
The ostensibly patriotic appeals of the FRSC officer—although in this context probably a form of virtue signaling to us since we had been forced to endure the mini-ordeal of the ‘official’ process—did have some truth to them. Rules requiring payment directly into a central bank account is the result of a conscientious public financial management policy known as the treasury single account system which aims to consolidate all government revenues into a unified structure. This stands in contrast to having a fragmented system characterized by numerous accounts operated by various governmental agencies. Having a single account has its benefits: it reduces borrowing costs by allowing cash in separate banks to be used by a central bank instead of remaining idle. It also allows for greater oversight and management of cash inflows into state coffers. And anti-corruption efforts were a motivation for the implementation of a treasury single account system in Nigeria precisely because of a need for greater oversight and management of cash inflows into state coffers.
It’s not without irony that cases such as these make it obvious why some people engage in petty bribery at checkpoints across Nigeria. It makes sense to pay the comparatively less costly ₦5,000 in an unofficial private transfer against the ₦10,000 fine with its stressful official process. Giving a bribe might be cheaper and take minutes; playing by the rules is expensive and could take literally hours. It’s a frustrating fact that anti-corruption efforts like the treasury single account can leave people in situations that encourage bribery because most people simply don’t have time to drive for hours to abide by the rules. And their pockets may not be deep enough to abide by the rules either—this is especially true in rural Nigeria, where up to 80% of people live on less than ₦12,000 a day. For them, the difference between a bribe and playing by the rules is the difference between someone taking 40% of their income and minutes of their time or 80% of their income and hours of their time.
Due to the threat from Boko Haram as well as road safety reasons, there are numerous road and safety checkpoints across Nigeria—these include FRSC, police, and military, to name but a few. This results in a lot of interaction between the public and low level government officers. Markets emerge from these kinds of repetitive interactions. A sociologist from Sokoto told me that in northern Nigeria, different checkpoints require different amounts of naira: an FRSC officer might require a particular amount, a Nigerian police officer yet another amount, and a Nigerian army officer a still different amount. Travelers make sure they have multiple denominations of currency for the exact bribe required to get through the specific type of checkpoint. And when they do stop at a checkpoint but don’t have the right denomination to pay the bribe, then they are directed to a nearby currency dealer who can exchange large denominations for smaller ones—for a price, of course. The price of money in these informal currency markets in northern Nigeria is 20%, or so I’m told. Moreover, given that the information about the price of money and the price of extortion at the various checkpoints is generally well known, norms emerge around taxi-drivers holding multiple denominations of cash for the ease of their passengers. Making sure a taxi driver has multiple denominations before setting out on a journey—and pressuring them to get some if they don’t—is not uncommon.
One might be forgiven in thinking that this kind of petty corruption is trivial. After all, if there’s a currency market for small denominations, then the bribes are on the magnitude of multiples of ₦100 or less (~$0.31c; £0.25p). This aligns with a general sort of intuition about how much weight petty corruption should be given vis-à-vis grand corruption as a matter of policy: why, in other words, should policy makers focus on petty corruption when the costs seem so low compared to grand corruption characterized by the theft of billions of naira?
This line of thinking is mistaken for a number of reasons. First, it’s a false dichotomy—anti-corruption efforts should be aimed at curbing both petty corruption and grand corruption. And as my experience in Alizaga suggests, policymakers ought to be sensitive to the fact that attempting to control for grand corruption might inadvertently create pressures or opportunities for citizens to engage in petty corruption. Cumbersome administrative hurdles in the service of oversight must be easy to manage for everyone who is beholden to them—especially since these administrative rules govern millions of interactions between the public and low level government officers every day. If these rules give people the wrong incentives, the losses can be quite high.
Second, there are links between petty corruption and grand corruption. In a society where petty corruption is widespread, people who themselves hold negative views on corruption come to falsely believe that others in their community are either neutral or even sometimes in favour of corrupt practices. Social scientists refer to this as pluralistic ignorance—a majority of a group privately reject some widespread practice but systematically make mistakes about what others in their community believe. The mistake they are making is that they believe that other similarly situated individuals in their community do not feel the same way they do. These kinds of situations fuel general apathy and result in a resignation toward corrupt practices—both petty and grand.
In Nigeria, you often hear people talk of corruption as an example of Nigerian exceptionalism. It’s hard to separate hyperbolic metaphor from bad armchair biology with this kind of talk. People say that corruption is a kind of psychological defect that afflicts Nigerians in a particular way. Others say that corruption is genetically encoded in Nigerian DNA. One senior government official described corruption as a ‘psychiatric problem for Nigerians’ at the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC)’s 2017 annual conference in Abuja earlier this year. Hyperbole (or false biological fact) aside, these kinds of explanations make more sense in a context where many people hold false beliefs about what others find acceptable when it comes to corrupt practices.
And finally, widespread petty corruption erodes the legitimacy of political institutions. As extra-legal payments become entrenched in well-functioning markets of the type described above, petty corruption becomes a staple of everyday life. But when people come to expect extortion at a checkpoint every time they get stopped, they lose respect and trust for the institutions that are extorting them—whether that be the Nigerian police, the Nigerian army, or the Nigerian Federal Road Safety Corps. A widespread loss in respect and trust for a society’s institutions hinders the ability for a state to carry out its basic functions and threatens the stability of the society itself. To paraphrase what one Nigerian academic said to me: when the state gives a man a uniform and a gun, and that man repeatedly robs you while wearing that uniform with that gun, you stop seeing him as a police officer; you see him as a state sanctioned armed robber.