How to Guarantee Corruption: A Lagos State Example

'Laolu Samuel-Biyi
How to Guarantee Corruption: A Lagos State...

It is easy to conclude that certain countries or their nationals are intrinsically corrupt. After all, the word “corruption” has become meaningless to most Nigerians just because of how natural it appears to be. However, the reality is that corruption is a plant that needs the right conditions to survive. There are certain things that will almost guarantee or at least incentivize corruption, and oftentimes, these things are disguised. 

One of my favorite academic papers is the one about the Diplomatic Parking Tickets. The authors compared the rate of parking ticket violations by diplomats from various countries in New York. Diplomats from corrupt countries racked up violations, while those from countries like Norway remained civil, even though they enjoyed diplomatic immunity and had the legal freedom to be uncourteous. This proves that there’s a strong effect of cultural norms on corrupt behavior. However, the case also revealed something important: the longer the tenure of diplomats in general, the higher the rate of parking ticket violations. This proves the effect of incentives or mechanism design in influencing corrupt behavior.

One poor incentive design that is very common but easy to miss is one that results in unintended consequences. Following the popular Exxon oil spill, the government enacted a law imposing unlimited liability on carrier vessels. This potentially “unlimited” cost was too great, so the major oil companies simply outsourced their haulage to smaller companies desperate for business. These smaller companies of course have lower safety standards than the big coys, so, although the government’s intention was to reduce the risk of spills, the result of the draconian regulation was that they increased the risk of spills. 

Another very common but poor incentive design is one that results in reverse causality. Doctoral students are taught to be particularly careful about this. Reverse causality happens when you think A is causing B, when truly, B is causing A. There’s a story, I think in India, about the government deciding to eradicate snakes by compensating people for submitting dead snakes. The incentive was designed in a way that it was so attractive, people made a business out of raring those snakes just to kill them and claim the reward. So, rather than eradicating the snakes, the government simply incentivized breeding. It makes sense when you think of humans in their basic form as rational beings interested in serving their own self-interest.

This is similar to what is likely happening in the case of Lagos State in relation to the punishment for one-way traffic violations.

For driving one-way in Lagos, the punishment is the total forfeiture of your vehicle for auction by the government if found guilty. Of course that strongly dis-incentivizes one-way driving, but it’s also very likely that the deterrent from, say, a fine of 2% of the value of the car might be equally as effective. What the excessive punishment of forfeiture does is that it creates a poor incentive design. With a cost so great to the driver; one that could potentially affect their medium-term livelihood in a country like Nigeria, police and traffic control officers are strongly incentivized to take advantage of that, even if they are not naturally inclined to. 

Inevitably, officers of the law will make a venture out of extorting a portion of the cars’ value from errant drivers in exchange for looking away, after all, the driver will reason that any payment lower than the value of the car to the officer is better than a complete loss of the car. It’s a risk-free transaction for the officers, and the government cannot pretend to appeal to the morals or patriotism of humans. This incentive might be so great to the officers that they begin to trick drivers into one-way routes just to take advantage of them. So, instead of reducing one-ways with an excessively punitive law, the government might actually be facilitating more one-way violations. There is already evidence from first-hand accounts on Twitter that this is happening in Lagos. Officers of the law direct unsuspecting drivers through one-way routes, then signal their partners ahead to make the arrest. The major one-way traffic violators like the rickety Danfo bus drivers will hardly have their vehicles impounded simply because they are less valuable to extort.

The media aide of the State Government commented on Twitter that people should consider the loss of life from one-way traffic violations, but if he steps back to think about it, he’ll realize that manslaughter is a separate chargeable offense, the punishment for which is even a stronger deterrent than any vehicle forfeiture. 

The punishment for driving one-way in Lagos is just one example of many things that just simply have flawed designs in Nigeria. For such things, we will keep going in circles by attempting to solve one problem while actually exacerbating it or creating another. 

Show Comments (2)


  • Abiola

    Hmm, i learnt a lot from this article sir. The solution the government proffers to crime further heightens crime in Nigeria. Most times I say, Nigeria’s problems are so intertwined and systemic and solutions to be proffered should be at least holistic. Thanks a lot sir.

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  • MM

    The new order is food for the boys, and rightly so, will end up hurting the State and her people. Well penned.

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