Every year citizens around the world lose trillions of dollars to bribery, government malfeasance, and other forms of corruption. The problem is now recognized by some as one of the greatest challenges to economic and social development, diverting scarce funds from millions of poor households as well as starving many countries of infrastructure, education, and other critical investments. It is also a major source of violent conflict and political instability.

Protesters take part in a demonstration organized by the Free Fare Movement in Sao Paulo, where demonstrators expressed their anger over political corruption. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times)
Protesters take part in a demonstration organized by the Free Fare Movement in Sao Paulo, where demonstrators expressed their anger over political corruption. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times)

December 9 is International Anti-Corruption Day, and this year’s theme emphasizes unity and mobilizing fellow citizens. Nothing could be more appropriate. While the scale of corruption globally makes for a grim outlook, citizens working together around the world have demonstrated time and again that “people power” is an effective means for confronting fraud and abuse. In Burkina Faso, Guatemala, and Tunisia, grassroots mobilizations succeeded in challenging corrupt authoritarian rule and paving the way for more democratic governance. Less dramatically but no less importantly, activists and civil society leaders elsewhere have chipped away at systems of corruption and advanced transparency and accountability one reform at a time.

We recently authored a new USIP Special Report that shines a light on such citizen-led efforts to combat corruption in Nigeria, part of a new wave of activism that has taken shape in Africa’s most populous country. Through in-depth interviews and a workshop held with Nigerian activists in late 2017, we learned of many new organizations and initiatives that work to ensure greater openness in management of public resources and integrity of state institutions.

Three things stood out to us and are worth keeping in mind as anti-corruption campaigners take stock this December 9.

Lessons from Nigeria

First, a power imbalance leaves independent activists and civil society organizations at a disadvantage in their fight against corruption, but they can still set the agenda for reform. A campaign that first emerged in 2015 and later coordinated by Enough Is Enough and BudgIT led to the Nigerian National Assembly releasing its detailed annual budget to the public in 2017 for the first time in seven years. It took time, but persistent mobilization around the #OpenNass hashtag—through citizen hotlines, petitions, town halls, and public rallies—made it difficult for Nigerian politicians to let demands for transparency fade from the headlines and be forgotten. And this three-year effort was nothing compared to the nearly 20-year campaign to pass Nigeria’s freedom of information law in 2011. Nigerian activists can put transparency on the political agenda—and keep it there.

These reforms, however, are not always accompanied by greater accountability. There is a sense in Nigeria that while citizens have much more access to government spending and decision-making, that has not deterred corrupt officials or high-levels of graft. Other research has similarly found that while transparency and accountability are often uttered in the same breath by activists and politicians, the former does not naturally lead to the latter. Renewed emphasis and focus on accountability reforms may be necessary to truly reverse corruption.

Finally, foreign donor funding has been very valuable to such activism. Civil society leaders and anti-corruption campaigners in Nigeria and elsewhere work tirelessly to advance reforms, but their organizations and networks would likely be significantly smaller without the financial backing of foreign development agencies, private foundations, and multilateral organizations. Some of this financial support may also constrain their activism by focusing inflexibility on specific projects and outputs as opposed to a larger vision. Donors should adopt a movement mindset and strengthen efforts to link activists working on national policy issues in major cities with grassroots initiatives carried out at the local and state levels. 

Corruption remains a considerable and critical global challenge. But activists in Nigeria and around the world are showing that together citizens can make a difference in this fight. 

Davin O’Regan is a senior program officer in the Program on Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Samson Itodo is the executive director of YIAGA AFRICA, a civic organization launched in 2007 to promote democratic governance and civic participation across the continent.

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