Pangolo Junction
Life, arguments, and kunu... with Max, Nat and Zack

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Bribery and Corruption

Good day. Once more, you are privileged to be privy to the goings on in the Junction as our friends meet up after a hard day's work to discuss what has been happening in their lives.

(Max and Zack are listening to a very animated Nat talk about a workplace incident.)

Nat: ...So I was bored of being in the backroom trying to figure out what script to write to retrieve the data, and I decided to wander down to the banking hall to chat with one of my colleagues at the front desk.

Zack: Do they allow you to do that at your bank, then? Weren't you telling me that since the consolidation exercise, your MD had declared 'Operation One Hundred Percent' where he was aiming for a one hundred percent year-on-year increase in the bank's profits? If that's the case, shouldn't they be monitoring staff to ensure that nobody takes an unapproved break?

Max (scornfully): You can talk! We all know that when it comes to ministry officials, it's not so much a case of having rest breaks during a 9-to-5 period of work - it's more a case of having work breaks during a 9-to-5 period of indolence!

Zack (blustering defensively): Nonsense! If you measure the amount of work done per naira paid for the work and consider the pittance we get paid as civil servants, you will find that we do far more work than so-called businessmen who engage in dubious deals. (In a raised voice to drown out the start of Max's retort) Aaaaaanyway Nat, you were telling us about your unauthorised break.

Nat (relieved at the fizzling out of a potential war of words): Yeah, so I was in the banking hall looking for Tunde, and I noticed this very well dressed lady...

Max: What? You're now looking at ladies other than the lovely
Jennifer? She won't like that o!

Nat (laughing): No, this was a much older lady. She looked like a big madam - like the wife of some 'big man'. She also looked somewhat lost - like she wasn't quite sure what she should be doing.

Zack: Not a proper Nigerian big madam, then. If she were, then she would have been throwing her weight around, pounding on desks, shouting "Do you know who I am?" and demanding to be served this instant.

Max (mockingly): Hm... sounds like someone is talking from his rich experience of having to deal with irate citizens who are quite rightfully annoyed at his lackadaisical attitude to his work.

Nat (hurriedly interjecting to forestall another war of words): Well, I don't know who exactly she was... but as I said, it was obvious that she needed help. So I walked up to her and asked her if I could help her. It turned out that she wanted a bankers' draft prepared for her. She had asked a cashier to help her, and he had gone away and disappeared for over fifteen minutes, and she had no idea of where he had got to.

Anyway, I got a description of him from her and told her I would look for him to find out what was happening. It turned out that the reason he was taking so long was that he had been hijacked by a manager to do some other work while in the back. He hadn't thought the manager's work would take so long, but unfortunately... Anyway, I helped to get someone else to sort out the woman's draft, and in five minutes it was ready. She was so grateful to me that she offered me a gift of five thousand naira. Of course I refused, saying that I was just doing my job, but she insisted, so... (he spreads his arms outwards, shrugs and smiles).

Max: Lucky you! No wonder you're so happy today. Of course, as your friends, we must celebrate your good fortune with an extra glass of kunu - not so, Zack?

(But Zack slowly shakes his head disapprovingly.)

You mean to say that you went ahead to accept money from this woman?

Nat: Yes, I did - what's the problem there?

Zack (still shaking his head): That is as good as accepting a bribe.

Nat (surprised): What are you talking about? I didn't ask her to give me the money before I helped her. For heaven's sake, I didn't even know she was going to give me money before offering to help. And I even refused her offer of money at first. So how can that be like accepting a bribe?

Zack: Think about it. Supposing she returns to your bank in the future and you see her waiting around the hall looking for help, are you not going to be more disposed towards helping her? And would that be fair - giving precedence to one customer over another?

Nat (slightly annoyed): Zack, honestly I think you're overreacting here. First of all, you wouldn't normally find me in the banking hall anyway - so it's not likely that she would see me there. Secondly, even if I did see her on a subsequent occasion, my decision to help her would have nothing to do with whether she had given me money in the past.

Max: Don't mind Zack. To hear him talk, you would think that his ministry people were paragons of virtue who even paid you for allowing them to serve you. And even if you chose to be partial to the woman, whose business is that? After all, we are all partial to different people for different reasons. I mean, if Jennifer was waiting to be served, are you honestly telling me wouldn't give her preferential treatment?

Zack: Come on, don't talk nonsense. Nat knows that he is supposed to treat each customer fairly and equally. If he now starts favouring customers who have given him or who may likely give him money, can you not see how this will warp his sense of duty? Instead of him thinking "Who needs the most help?" he will start asking "Who is more likely to reward me with a tip?" And worse still, after a while he will start expecting that he should be rewarded, rather than regarding it as a possibility. He might start hinting that payment for his service should be obligatory rather than voluntary.

(Max begins to retort, but Zack holds up a hand to continue.) And before you bring up Jennifer, it's not the same - even if he treats Jennifer preferentially, the reasons he does so are very specific. So he isn't likely to extend the same treatment to other customers in the same way that he would if he was only interested in serving 'paying' customers.

Max: I still don't agree. By Nat focusing on wealthy customers, he is performing a valuable service. Think about it - when customers who are too poor to offer a tip see that they are spending a longer time waiting at the bank, they'll withdraw their services and leave. Conversely, richer customers who offer a tip will notice that their service improves, and they will spread the word to their friends about "this fantastic bank where you're in and out in five minutes". That means more rich customers, which means bigger profits. There will also be the side benefit that such customers will no longer have to mingle with the riff raff and endure their terrible sense of fashion.

Zack (disgusted): Oh, you think you are too good for us now, eh? Talking of banning poor people from banks because of the way they look! I suppose you'll be telling us that you're too good for this place, and that we should start meeting at 'Nite Lights', that fancy restaurant on the other side of town!

Max: Cool down. You know that I have no problems with anyone's social status - but I can tell you that this is how rich people are. They want to keep themselves to themselves, and that's why they live behind big fences in secluded estates.

Nat: Anyway, your argument is flawed on so many levels. For one, since consolidation, banks have to be more competitive to make money - and that means making money not just from a few rich people but also from the emerging middle class in Nigeria today. Secondly, you're assuming that all rich people will want to tip bank staff. They might note that the staff of other banks don't ask them for tips and still give good service and wonder why should they offer tips at this bank.

Zack: Abi o! Then our money-mad friend here is forgetting that sometimes, rich people may send someone to make a bank transaction on their behalf, and that person may not be disposed to pay out tips. But the worst thing about this idea of a bank saying that it's all right for its staff to solicit tips from customers is that it now makes the whole process of doing business with the bank unpredictable and arbitrary. If I go to the bank hoping to cash a cheque, I don't know how much money I need to take along in tips to ease the process. I haven't even spoken about the stench that will hang about the bank's public image when it is perceived as "that place where they encourage their staff to take bribes".

Max (hotly): I object to that last sentence of yours, Zack! A tip is not a bribe. In fact, there are very subtle distinctions between these financial transactions that you should take care to make instead of confusing issues.

Nat (amused): Oh? Would you care to share?

Max: Of course. First, you have the reward, which is something you give after a service has been rendered to you. It may be unsolicited - in which case, you offer it to express your thanks at having the service rendered - or it may be solicited - in which case you offer it so that you don't get cursed for being an ungrateful bastard. Then there is the tip, which you offer in advance of a service being rendered - usually 'to induce promptness' of service. Again, this may be solicited, if you think it'll speed things up for you or it may be unsolicited, in which case you know it'll speed things up for you.

Nat: Interesting... please, go on.

Max: It gets a bit murky from here. There's the dash which is what you give to forestall the possibility of hassle, even though you may be on the right side of the law. This is almost always solicited, and it is what most Nigerians refer to as a 'bribe' even though it technically isn't, really.

Zack: Hold on, Professor of Bribery and Corruption! What's the difference between a solicited tip and a dash then? After all, if I don't offer a tip that has been solicited, my service is going to be poor.

Max: That's a good question. Well, it's a question of degree - if you don't offer the tip, you won't get bad service. You'll still get the normal level of service, only that it won't be as good as it would have been if you offered the tip. On the other hand, if you don't offer the dash, you might end up being unbearably delayed or you might not get any service at all. And of course, if it's a law enforcement officer asking you for a dash, you had better make sure you know your laws and rights inside out, else he'll find a way of turning the situation from one where he asks for a dash into one where you have to offer him a bribe.

Nat: I guessed you were going to get to that soon.

Max: Oh yes. The bribe - which again may be solicited or unsolicited - is where you offer something to cause Black to turn into White and Wrong to turn into Right. In other words, the bribe is like a magic wand that causes irritating laws and regulations to disappear in a puff of smoke. You may offer a bribe for two main reasons - first, because you want to obtain something good, and there's a law standing in the way - and second, you've misbehaved and want to avoid the full weight of the law falling on your head.

Zack: From the lack of condemnation in your voice, I'm sensing that you've given a few bribes in your time.

Max (in a hurt voice): Zack, how can you say such a thing about me? I'm just an honest businessman trying to make ends meet in this harsh country of ours. If I have ever given a bribe - and I'm not saying that I have - then the blame lies not with me but with the federal and state governments that introduce ridiculous and counterproductive laws which serve no purpose except to hamper and frustrate businessmen so that they are forced - yes, forced - to bribe government officials.

I mean, look at the other day when the state government enacted a law decreeing that all business premises must have a portrait photograph of the State Governor. Of course they conveniently added that only officially approved photographs should be used, and such photographs could only be obtained at the Ministry of Information at an exorbitant price. Tell me which businessman wouldn't be tempted to make that law vanish with a wave of a wad of naira notes?

Zack: Don't use the excuse that the government passes lots of stupid laws to justify giving bribes in order to escape sensible ones. If that was the case, we might as well abolish laws altogether - and you know where that would get us. And really, the right thing to do is to publicly campaign for the stupid law to be scrapped. If you choose to bribe your way round it, then you're just encouraging the government to come up with more of these stupid laws to make more money for government officials.

Nat: So Max, are there other kinds of payments we should know about?

Max: Just one more - the extortion payment. This is pretty much as near to robbery as it gets without it actually being robbery. Here, it is made clear to you from the outset in no uncertain terms that you are expected to give something, sometimes in return for performing a service of dubious value, sometimes in return for nothing. The important distinguishing factor is that failure to give could result in something very unpleasant like property damage or physical abuse. In fact, the only thing that stops me from calling it robbery outright is that the people who make the demands are not as aggressive and threatening as an armed robber might be - indeed, they can be quite polite.

Nat: I guess you're talking here about those area boys who converge on your vehicle at night if it's broken down and 'kindly' offer to push it to safety, right?

Max: Yep, Brother Nathaniel - that's a good example.

Zack (dismissively): I think all that you've just said about all these categories is just an attempt to create confusion. For me, all of them are branches from the same stem - the stem of corruption. Once you try to excuse one type, you are opening the door to excuse the rest - and that is wrong. We must adopt a zero-tolerance approach towards these kinds of behaviour if we are ever going to eradicate corruption from this country!

Max (shrugging): Well Zack, that's certainly your point of view - but you won't get many people who will share your view that someone accepting an unsolicited reward for services provided should be dealt with in exactly the same way as someone seeking a bribe in order allow someone to dump toxic waste on farmland. The reality is that a lot of people weigh up the benefits against the costs of either giving a dash, bribe or tip on the one hand - or dealing with the hassle of going down the legal route on the other. And in a country like Nigeria where law enforcement is weak and arbitrary, the former option is often more attractive. (Clears throat) Anyway, enough of this talk. Nat, how about those two celebratory glasses of kunu?

Nat: Two? Who isn't drinking?

Max: Who isn't drinking? Our incorruptible civil servant, of course. The last thing we want is for him to be sacked for enjoying the ill-gotten gains of corrupt practice!

4 Comments:

  • Interesting. One thing caught my eye though -- is the state you were talking about [the one requiring a portrait of the governor] un-imaginary? What state was it?

    By Blogger azuka, At May 06, 2007 1:21 pm  

  • Nice one...Personally I don't think you can classify the 5k as a bribe...
    A bribe, according to Wordweb, is "Payment made to a person in a position of trust to corrupt his judgment"
    Nat's judgement wasnt corrupted at the time. He was just doing his job and got rewarded afterwards

    By Blogger aloted, At May 09, 2007 4:36 am  

  • Nice one!

    By Blogger Nilla, At May 10, 2007 2:41 pm  

  • Azuka,

    I'll tell you which state it was... if you agree to 'settle' with me first. :)



    Aloted,

    So you don't think that his judgment would then be corrupted on subsequent occasions?

    By Blogger Atala Wala Wala, At May 12, 2007 4:09 am  

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