Thoughts On Fighting Corruption: Nigerian Economics Game Theory - Nash Equilibrium

02 January 2011

By Saadu Jijji

The field of Economics has some interesting theories that are worth learning partly because the social science assumes that most people are rational human beings. It is tempting to dismiss some of these concepts as destructive theories developed by ‘…white men with blue eyes….' whom outgoing President Lula da Silva of Brazil believes have led the world to the present economic crisis. Nonetheless, there will always remain some value in these concepts. One intriguing ‘Game Theory' concepts in Economics is called the ‘Nash Equilibrium'.

The concept of ‘Nash Equilibrium', propounded by the Nobel Prize winning Princeton University Economist John F. Nash (whose life story was the inspiration for the Oscar award winning film – ‘A Beautiful Mind'), like some Nobel winning ideas, is commonsensical. Simply, the concept states that Ahmed and Emeka are in a ‘Nash Equilibrium' if Ahmed is making his best decision taking into to account Emeka's decision and Emeka is making his best decision taking into account Ahmed's decision. Although this state of equilibrium may not be the best for both Ahmed and Emeka, none of them can benefit by unilaterally changing his decision as long as the other party maintain his stance.

Anyone who has been to a football stadium for a match would have seen the ‘Nash Equilibrium' in practice without necessarily realizing it. When one team attempts to score, the usual reaction is for spectators to, out of excitement, stand from their seats. Now, if those on the front row stand, it is only rational for those behind them to also stand. All fans will rationally remain standing after the attempt even though ALL fans will be better off returning to their seats. To achieve a better equilibrium, you have to convince (or force) those in front of you to return to their seats before it becomes rational for you to also return to yours.

Corruption in Nigeria has reached such a level that it has put our society in a dangerous and unproductive ‘Nash Equilibrium'. Morality aside, our society is degenerating to a level where people are rationalizing corruption. Since someone will eventually steal the money or rig the election and go free, it might well be you or someone close to you. Nigerians claim to be religious. A 2010 PEW study found 87% of Nigerians (Christians – 80%, Muslims -93%) saying ‘Religion is very important to our lives'. In practice, many Nigerians tend to treat God in the same way we treat a First Aid Box – ‘Get it when in trouble, otherwise hang for display'. When faced with the prospect of corruption, many Nigerians simply wonder whether it is rational to remain honest in a country where others are enjoying the benefits of corruption unhindered?

The politician who does not rig elections faces almost certain defeat at the polls – the worst punishment that has ever been meted out on any politician for criminally rigging himself to office is been asked to leave the office, possibly after 3 years. The civil servant who does not inflate contracts and receive his share faces the prospect of penury during and after service. For the typical private sector participant; corruption is simply a business expense. In Nigeria, most people that remain incorruptible, despite having the opportunity to abuse their position, are regarded by the society either as Saints (not to be emulated) or ‘Mumus' (to be derided). Not only do your family and immediate community expect you to be corrupt, your employers (especially the government) probably assume you are already helping yourself anyway.

Corruption in Nigeria has produced such a sub optimal equilibrium that even the beneficiaries are worse off. The public official who steals public funds to buy exotic cars will eventually damage them on the pot-hole infested roads whose renovation he frustrated. The mansion he built from his loot, is essentially a prison whose high walls not only obscure its beauty but whose bugler proof windows can lead to certain death in case of a fire incidence – If the poor cannot sleep because of hunger, the rich will not relax because of insecurity. The children of the corrupt elite may attend the most expensive schools abroad, but many of them are certain to return to Nigeria and live in fear of being kidnapped for ransom or robbed to death in crimes committed by the very children whose education and economic advancement their parents jeopardized so that they could school abroad. The major reason why life in the so called developed countries looks far better than ours is because they are operating at a better equilibrium. Anyone who has been to the UK would be struck by the British obsession with ‘following the queue'. Queuing has become so British that it is often joked that ‘An Englishman even if alone, forms an orderly queue of one'. So what makes the Nigerian traveler queue in the UK but attempts to shunt in Lagos? How can we move Nigeria to a better equilibrium?

As the 2011 elections approaches, Nigerian voters should be asking who amongst the major aspirants can effectively move our society to a better equilibrium where corruption can be minimized. Democracy, even in its pristine form, is essentially a popularity contest. Merit, like beauty, will lie with the beholder. That notwithstanding, Nigerians should be looking for candidates whose very reputations and antecedents will send strong signals to all that not only will it no longer be worthwhile to be corrupt but candidates whose competences assure ordinary folks that other Nigerians will not be allowed to benefit from corruption to their exclusion. In achieving this objective, prosecuting corrupt officials may help but cannot be the most effective method. Policing is a reactive, expensive and thankless endeavour. How many policemen do you need to stop policemen from collecting N20 from Okada operators? EFCC and ICPC may prosecute high profile offenders or achieve plea bargains with them, to many Nigerians; these agencies exist for the big out-of-favour crooks. In any case, corruption has become so pervasive in our society that fighting it has also become a very lucrative profession.

For Nigeria to turn a new leaf, Nigerians have to elect leaders whose very identity will send a strong signal that business will be unusual. Leaders, the mere thought of who repulses corruption. Any Nigerian leader who has to explain his new found resolve to fight corruption can as well forget about the fight. In the development of Nations, except through revolutions, profound changes begin, and are sustained, by a consensus of the elite. From Secularism in Turkey, End of Apartheid in South Africa to Economic Reform in China, an elite consensus, however vague, is needed for any peaceful change. The Adamu Ciroma led Northern Political Leadership Forum (NPLF) is a close example of an elite consensus albeit localized to a party and region. By their very choice, the Ciroma committee has sent a clear signal that fighting corruption will unlikely be the focus of any future PDP led federal government. In fairness, the PDP never had much options – the party is structured to make the emergence of any anti-corruption candidate an aberration. As President Jonathan would have already realized, a President's latitude for fighting corruption in Nigeria is determined and capped by his manner of ascension. Fighting corruption, as a PDP President, requires biting the fingers that fed you. If you happen to see the light on your way to Damascus, you may as well not get there.

Outside of the PDP, there are very few serious parties or presidential contenders. Some of the parties have remained stillborns; others are already struggling with terminal illness. The only other viable parties are the resurging Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and the General Muhammadu Buhari inspired Congress for Progressive Change (CPC). Of recent there have been newspaper reports about an alliance between the two. This in itself does not say much. Both parties may be similar in their ambition to dethrone the PDP, but as we all know, presence of similarities is not the same as the absence of differences. The leading candidates of the parties, Muhammadu Buhari (CPC) and Nuhu Ribadu (ACN), have the reputation and pedigree to make fighting corruption the focal point of their campaigns. However, unless the two parties are able to move the fight against corruption from campaign rhetoric to coalition manifesto and ultimately government policy, whoever emerges as their candidate may well be reminded that it takes more than reputation and good intentions to fight corruption in Nigeria.

In analyzing the problem of corruption in Nigeria, there is no need to apportion blame; there is enough to go round. However, in fighting corruption, the Federal Government and the Presidency are the most critical institutions. The Federal Government not only controls more resources than all the other tiers combined but also has exclusivity of law enforcement. Whoever emerges as the next President of Nigeria has a unique opportunity to change the course of this country.

While we remain hopeful that the new Jega-induced INEC equilibrium will produce leaders of our choice, we have to use that choice to excise the malignant cancer ravaging our nation. The fight against corruption in Nigeria is a collective responsibility we all share.

Sa'ad A. Jijji writes from Lagos. He can be reached at


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