The Psychology of Nigerian Corruption


The 2014 scientific conference of the Association of Nigerian Physicians in the Americas (ANPA) took place in Anaheim, California between July 17 – 20. The theme of this year’s conference was “The Mental Health Challenges in Contemporary Health Care”. I was privileged to be one of the invited speakers for a panel discussion on mental health service development in Nigeria. My talk focused on opportunities to improve access to mental health care by utilizing and adapting existing human and structural infrastructures in the country. I also emphasized the need for pursuing a development model that synergized Nigerian diaspora experts and local talent; a model that has been successful in the so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries.

The conference was well attended, with the Nigerian minister of health Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu, the former Nigerian Minister of State for Health Professor Muhammad Ali Pate,  the Nigerian Ambassador to the United States Professor Adebowale Adefuye, the Consul-General of the Nigerian Consulate in Atlanta Ambassador Geoffrey Teneilabe in attendance.

It is almost a constant for every discussion on the prevailing ills of the Nigeria society to devolve to a discussion on corruption. Such was the case, during the question and answer session that followed my presentation. An attendee – a representative of the Nigerian embassy in Atlanta – asked a question that got me thinking and contemplating the inner workings of the minds of Nigerian politicians.  To paraphrase, the question was:

“Why are Nigerian politicians so corrupt? Why do they loot in billions of Naira and still loot some more?”

The gentleman was curious to know if there was any psychological basis for such corruption.

Of course being a Nigerian, I answered his question with a couple questions. First because I had no direct answers for him and second, because his question raised other unanswered questions.

Why is corruption so endemic in a country that is more religious than Jesus Christ, Mohammed and Buddha put together; where every street in every major city has at least three worship places?

Why is corruption so endemic in a country where every child is raised from cradle to respect the elders and  fear the gods; to see armed robbery, stealing and other vices as taboos that tarnish a whole clan; to observe the sacred customs of the people and “keep your hands clean” as a means to avoid natural redistributive justice?

Corruption exists in many countries but the massive and unprecedented scale in certain domains and countries have spurned efforts at psycho-social explanations. Classic papers have been written on the psychology of corruption. In a theoretical analysis of corruption in India for instance, the authors concluded that the real problem of corruption was not political but psycho-social. They wrote:

Corruption is a widespread phenomenon which is increasingly a normative behavior and can be curbed through effective implementation of various schedules of reinforcements, punishments, transparency, accountability, awareness, modelling, and psychological strategies to understand and combat corruption. The real problem of corruption is not political; it is psycho-social.

I hereby propose a causal hypothesis for a psycho-social basis of corruption among the Nigerian political class by making a simple non-scientific comparison of children raised in Nigeria and the West. In a piece published by Corruption Watch – a civil society organisation that gathers, analyses and shares information on corruption in South Africa, a clinical psychologist described corruption as an anti-social activity learned through poor parenting. Another noted that “an individual’s morality and ethics are based on the process of socialization as well as on modelling and education from parents or caregivers – in essence, we learn behavior at the knee of our parents and teachers”.

Grandparents and other elderly Africans who visit their immediate and extended families in Western countries often bemoan the “disrespectful” attitudes of children raised in the west. Lamentations like “these children have no respect”; “look at how they talk to their parents”; “they can’t even say common good morning”; “they call their elders by their first names” are not uncommon.

My response to them has always been that those children who our forefathers raised “in the good old days” who showed lots of respect and never talked back when scolded; who did what they were told and received a decent beating when they did not; and who greeted them every morning by prostrating on the floor, are the same generation running Nigeria to the abyss in the present day. Their counterparts in Western countries who “lacked respect” constitute the generation that have led these countries to relative greatness and will continue to lead them to even greater heights.

I may be over-generalizing but as I think about possible explanations for the kleptocratic proclivity of the average Nigerian politician, I wonder if it is rooted in suppressed childhood rebelliousness, denied pleasures, limited avenues for self-expression and the need to fill a void left by lack of parental warmth, appreciation and expressed love.   Perhaps our chance for ultimately reducing corruption will come from raising children whose individualism, self-expression, sense of fulfillment and worthiness are less suppressed by certain religious and cultural mores that belong in Victorian England.

Credits: Image Courtesy of BusinessDay Nigeria.