OPINION: Public Perception of Integrity and the way forward

NEWS DIGEST – Integrity, accountability, and transparency, amongst others, are values that form the fundamental bedrock of a nation’s development. These values constitute principles of good governance, policy development, and the will to implement them judiciously.

For over 5 decades, Nigerians have seen the concept of integrity being eroded leading to a range of unethical behaviours that propel corrupt practices such as embezzlement, bribery, disregard for the rule of law, and abuse of contracting and procurement processes. Currently, we live in a society that celebrates the rich without questioning what people did to acquire wealth and this scenario has slowly but surely defined a new normal for the younger generation who aim to be rich by any means possible.

If lack of integrity is the root cause of corruption, then it is imperative that we define integrity. A famous definition of integrity is, “doing the right thing even when no one is watching”. However, the line between what is right and what is not is getting blurred slowly making a lot of people wonder if it is worth it being a person of integrity seeing that corruption is becoming the norm.

A quick look at how Nigeria has fared in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index over the past decade shows that Nigeria has averaged a score of 25, which begs the question of how effective our anti-corruption strategies have been.  The ongoing malfeasance has further deepened public distrust that exists between citizens and the government; the public service users and the public service providers; the masses and the media and so on.

Nigeria ranks 104th out of 117 countries ranked on the Index of Public Integrity which also proves the fact that the public’s perception of integrity is quite discouraging and requires a lot of work to rewrite the narrative.

Many Nigerians agree that the virtue of integrity is very important, but more often than not expect integrity from others but themselves. This is due to the many occurrences of corrupt practices in Nigeria’s economy involving sectors such as petroleum, trade, industrial, agriculture, infrastructure, banking, and environmental management.

In addition, many people expect integrity from everyone else but forget that integrity is a personal decision as we are not born with or without integrity. Rather it is learnt from family and society where rules and beliefs about good behaviours are fashioned and influenced over time.

In a world where people learn from the actions and character of people more than the words they speak, it is worrisome that Nigeria hasn’t presented this generation with many role models to look up to, particularly in powerful spheres like the public service and business environment.

To fix this scourge, there are a few things we can do. The first is to mainstream integrity in practice. People need to see that there are still good men and women out there who are determined not to compromise their integrity by doing the right thing irrespective of the challenging circumstances surrounding them.

At Accountability Lab, the Integrity Icon campaign searches for public servants with integrity to name and fame them by putting the spotlight on them through the power of the media. Making such icons a beacon of hope for this generation and the next inspires an enduring culture of integrity.

Over the past 4 years, Accountability Lab Nigeria has identified, celebrated, and made celebrities of 5 integrity Icons each year. Some of these Icons include Dr. Yemi Kale, the Statistician-General of the Federation – a man who has refused to manipulate the national statistics in favour of a sitting government but rather states the facts as they are.

They also include Dr. Magdalene Igbolo is a senior lecturer and currently Head of the Sociology Department at the University of Abuja and Tina Odinakachi, a lecturer at the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Jos. Both of them consistently refused to bend the rules or lower the education standards in favour of the highest bidders. CSP Francis Erabhor meanwhile is a policeman who has never taken a bribe throughout a well-decorated career as a police officer. The list goes on.

These icons are becoming role models within their various organizations through a series of team-building events, making them integrity ambassadors, helping to win over colleagues, and building a clique of integrity champions through coalitions within their work environment. This in turn increases the number of men and women who stand for integrity and can help resist corruption in the workplace.

At Accountability Lab, we believe that if men and women of integrity are placed strategically in public service leadership, they will greatly influence other public servants to do the right thing. They become role models influencing others with their actions and character, and not just their words. This would go a long way to support the transitioning of personal integrity to institutional integrity.

The Integrity and Ethics policy recently developed by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offenses Commission (ICPC) also facilitates mainstreaming integrity in the workplace and society as it encourages the promotion of human dignity, voice and participation, patriotism, personal responsibility, integrity, national unity, and professionalism.

The second remedy is that citizens need to start seeing themselves as responsible leaders.

Almost every citizen can affirm that one of the major problems of Nigeria is bad leadership and this has been the case for years. Whenever leadership is being talked about, citizens are mostly referring to the government or public service leaders forgetting that every citizen is a leader in their own rights as each person has some level of influence within their community or family. The failure of leadership doesn’t begin with the government or with public officers; it begins with failed leadership within families.

We can see that every government official or public office holder we see today carrying out corrupt practices are products of a failed leadership system within the family where parents or guardians have over time approved certain ill characters, maybe not exactly through their words but definitely through their actions and character. When leaders within the home make lying, cheating, stealing, fighting, and other bad character traits habitual in front of their children and say to them that these things are not good practice but they themselves continue to indulge in such a thing.

Over time, these children become adults who have inculcated these ill character traits from their first role models and it seems to them as the right thing to do. These adults join society with these ill character traits, get a job, get elected, or appointed into public offices and their ill character becomes public through their facilitation and participation in corrupt practices on various scales. These adults return home to their parents or guardians to share a part of their loots with them and their parents or guardians would have no moral justification to stand on in trying to correct these adults as they have always aided them by their actions and character.

To reform bad leadership, every citizen must become a leader, exemplifying the traits of integrity, accountability, and transparency, not just with words but through their actions and character. Every citizen – whether a father, mother, member of the clergy, teacher, instructor, or guardian – should make a very deliberate attempt through personal leadership to groom children in their community and prepare them for contributing to society. If this is done well, Nigeria will stand a better chance of overturning the bad leadership it has experienced over the past few decades and integrity will be restored as a dominant culture once again.

In conclusion, as a nation, we must be strategic with our appointments of leaders in government institutions so as to have the people of integrity lead thereby allowing a smooth transition of personal integrity to institutional integrity. Secondly, every citizen must rise to the occasion and become responsible leaders leading from wherever they are as their character would definitely influence those around them and would slowly become the norm for many. So, we all must remember that, if it is to be, it is up to us.

Written by Prince Chimaroke Chukwuka, strategic Communication expert and Communication lead at Accountability Lab Nigeria.