By NBF News

Corruption is a bad thing. Leaving aside the morality of bribe-taking, influence peddling, embezzlement and other forms of abuse of power for personal or narrow group gain. Corruption hinders economic development, exacerbates inequality, desecrates the rule of law and undermines the legitimacy and stability of democratic regimes.

Political and bureaucratic corruption is potentially tremendously rewarding. Why should people with control over public resources and decisions forego using this power to favour and enrich themselves, their families, their friends and cronies? Some will abstain from corruption out of a higher morality. But many would not and in situations of endemic corruption, most officeholders won't – unless it no longer appears in their interest to behave corruptly.

The fundamental logic of controlling corruption is this: the expected utility or benefit for the individual officeholder of obeying the law must be higher than the expected utility of behaving corruptly. In particular, to transform a situation of endemic corruption, the expected costs of engaging in corruption which are very low or near zero in this country must be dramatically increased.

First, what constitutes punishment severe enough to deter serious corruption? Control of corruption requires that public officials come to perceive a substantial risk that they will lose their offices if they engage in corrupt conduct and a high risk that they will forfeit corruptly acquired wealth and go to prison if they engage in large-scale corruption. If we work backwards from this proposition, we can articulate the kind of institutional framework necessary to control corruption.

First, we need a strong system for monitoring conduct and exposing wrongdoing. Second, we need a system for assessing charges of wrongdoing and punishing wrongdoers if they are convicted. Third, we need a strong framework for constituting and insulating these institutions of oversight, exposure and punishment so that they cannot be subverted by the very actors they are supposed to be controlling. These are the three great challenges for institutional design to control corruption.

Corruption is a systemic disease. It can only be controlled with a systemic cure. Institutions like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) will not do. Unless thought is given on how to insulate them from political subversions by the very politicians whose wealth and power they threaten and unless such a commission itself is scrutinised and checked by a dense web of other institutions with overlapping responsibilities, it will not make a dent in the problem. Instead, as happened during the Nigeria's second republic, it will never be given the leadership, the legal authority and the resources to do its job. Or it may itself become an instrument of corruption and abuse of power.

One of the great dangers of an anti-corruption commission is that if it is not fully autonomous from party politics it may used by the ruling party or leader or faction to punish political opponents as witnessed between 2003 and 2007. Some people will get tried and punished as offerings to a formal ethic opposing corruption, but the only lesson learned will be: don't be on the losing side.

Or such a commission may become like the Great Wall of China, simply an expensive toll road for barbarians to enter the kingdom. Either way, selective enforcement risks discrediting the whole exercise of accountability. Obviously, the law must rule out all forms of bribery, nepotism and misuse of public funds. Comprehensive ethics and anti-corruption legislation is needed. But this is not sufficient. Improper enrichment of public officials cannot be detected unless their own personal and family finances are transparent.

Effective corruption control requires that all elected officials and political appointees and at least all higher-level civil servants, military officers and police officers be compelled to declare their assets upon taking office and every year thereafter and whenever their assets change in some significant, defined way (as through major sale or stock transactions). These assets should be filed with the anti-corruption commission but they should not be kept secret.

If public confidence in the process is to be established and if the overlapping arena of accountability is to facilitated, the declarations of assets must be made available to the press and public ideally through publication in the newspaper, declarations and a website on the internet for all assets declarations. If this deters some wealthy individuals from wanting to hold office, so be it. Endemic corruption simply will not be controlled without this vital step.

Ibezim writes from Lagos.