Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor/CEO, Financial Nigeria International Limited

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  • Financial Market
  • Fiscal Policy

Ongoing feminisation of corruption in Nigeria 05 Feb 2024

As President Bola Tinubu begins to tackle official corruption under the past governments, anticorruption in his own administration has yielded a disturbing outcome. One of only seven women in his 47-member cabinet is under investigation for corruption. To enable the inquest, the President has had to suspend the minister, Betta Edu, who was superintending the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation.

With women making only 15 percent of the cabinet inaugurated last August, it might have been unexpected that the first case of corruption among the ministers would involve a woman. But a trend in Nigeria’s anticorruption suggests high probability for this to happen. According to a tally by The Nation Newspaper, a total of 17 ministers have been sacked or suspended since 1999. Six out of the number, representing 35.3 percent, are women. This is a negative affirmation of women inclusion in appointive positions. But with regard to positive affirmation, the country has continued to fall short of the 35 percent target for women inclusion.

This is quite disconcerting. If, indeed, corruption is relatively higher among women ministers, what would be the basis for continued advocacy for gender inclusion in appointive positions in government? The view that women can help in fostering clean government would have been discredited.

This is the third time my column is examining this difficult issue. The first time was in 2013, when, under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, corruption became a major concern over Liberia. From ranking 75th on the Corruption Perception Index in 2012, the country fell eight notches to 83rd position the next year. After two devastating civil wars between 1989 and 2003, the hope was that Liberia would continue to rebuild its economy and society. But growing cases of corruption, with some linked to the family of President Sirleaf, threatened to derail her country’s post-conflict rebuilding.

The second time was in 2017 when I looked at the global political landscape and found that the biggest casualties of anticorruption over the previous one-year period were all women. In April 2016, the 36th President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached and ultimately removed from office following the allegation that she falsified the budget deficit to aid her re-election in 2014. Then Hillary Clinton suffered an unexpected, crushing loss in the 2016 US presidential election in which her nemesis, Donald Trump, castigated her as ‘corrupt’. And in March of 2017, South Korea's Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, the 11th President of the country.

Rousseff and Geun-hye were the first female presidents of their respective countries and the first presidents to be impeached. In the case of Clinton, all moral accusations against her then-opponent during the 2016 campaign failed to stick. Now strolling into picking the third straight nomination of his party for the 2024 presidential election, Trump continues to ride on the waves of his moral failings instead of being torpedoed by them. A majority of the Republican voters say they would still consider him to be fit for office even if convicted in the criminal cases that have been preferred against him.

This phenomenon found no less poignant exemplification in Nigeria. Under President Musa Yar’Adua, three high-profile women in government became the first victims of his anticorruption crusade. Patricia Etteh, the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives, had to resign her position just ahead of being impeached for a N628 million contract scam. Also, Senator Iyabo Obasanjo, Chair of Senate Committee for Health, and the Minister of Health, Prof. Adenike Grange, (and other junior officials of the ministry) were found to have shared N300 million in unspent budget. Prof. Grange, claiming she had been misled on what she was told was a normal practice in the ministry, had to refund her share of the money and resign.

But there is no empirical evidence that women are more corrupt than men. On the contrary, Justin Esarey and Gina Chirillo found that sex gap in corruption exists, but only in the institutional and cultural contexts of the democratic countries. They theorised that, in democracies, women would be more restrained in tolerating or participating in corruption in government than men. But women and men share same attitudes towards corruption in the world's autocracies.

Nigeria is a democracy, even if a still-nascent one. Therefore, the gender outcome of anticorruption in the country is an aberration. Four probable explanations for the relatively higher victimisation of women by anticorruption are: one, women constitute a small minority in government, and this has hardly fostered support from the male establishment. Two, the women in senior roles in government often lack enough or relevant public sector experience and are, therefore, vulnerable to bad advice. Three, the women in government lack consequential solidarity, compared to their male counterparts who are made invincible by their fraternity. And four, social norms still hold women to higher ethical standards. When a woman trips over the moral hurdle, it is considered graver than when men do.

Anticorruption was always going to be a tricky agenda for President Tinubu. Under the preceding administration he helped into office, Nigeria’s famed public sector corruption reached its apogee. But Tinubu has little choice other than to fight corruption in his government and retrieve funds looted by past government functionaries given the fiscal dire straits the country is in. But his anticorruption should play on an even field. Corruption should not be more punishable on the basis of the gender of the perpetrators.

Jide Akintunde is Managing Editor, Financial Nigeria publications, and Director, Nigeria Development and Finance Forum