Is President Jonathan right to say most corruption is just ‘common stealing’?

Corruption is Nigeria's greatest challenge.

A US-Africa summit last week opened with warnings about the toll corruption takes on development, sparking discussion about the extent of the problem in Africa and how it is defined. That’s an issue which Nigeria’s president has also been debating of late.

On May 5, Goodluck Jonathan responded to allegations that he is not doing enough to curb corruption among his ministers by claiming that most of what is referred to as corruption is not really that at all.

“Over 70% of what are called corruption (cases), even by EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) and other anti-corruption agencies, is not corruption, but common stealing,” the president told national television, saying the corruption claims appeared “politically motivated”.

Barely two weeks later, Ekpo Nta, the chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), one of Nigeria’s anti-corruption agencies, told an audience in Abuja that “stealing is erroneously reported as corruption” even by “educated” Nigerians.

So was the president right to dismiss most corruption claims as being nothing of the sort? Africa Check decided to look at the definitions.

Is corruption simply stealing?

Put simply, while stealing can be defined as taking a person or organisation’s rightful property without their permission, corruption is not one but a whole range of misdeeds, the common factor in which is the abuse of a person’s office for personal gain.

As this attempt to define corruption makes clear, it can range from the petty corruption of junior officials – bribe-taking by police officers on the street corner for example – through high-level embezzlement and theft of public funds to the payment or receipt of bribes made to affect office-holders’ decisions in office.

The key difference with “common stealing” is that the people who break into a house and steal, have no authority over the house or property. And people who carry out a corrupt act do have that trust as a public office holder of some sort and abuse it for their own gain.

And it is this abuse of public trust that explains why civil society groups and others see corruption as a more serious crime than typical “common stealing”.

How is corruption defined in Nigerian law?

So is the president right in terms of law? The answer is no. Under Nigeria’s Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act of 2000, the term corruption does indeed apply to crimes such as the theft or embezzlement of public funds, but also to bribery, fraud and “other related offences”.

And in all these cases, it is corruption only if the person in question has carried out the offence through the office they hold.

Section 382 of the Nigerian Criminal Code, by contrast, provides a much simpler description of theft, unrelated to the role a person take in life. A thief is simply “a person who fraudulently takes … or fraudulently converts to his own use or to the use of any other person anything capable of being stole”.

Is the pattern of corruption changing?

So the president is clearly wrong to claim that the theft of public funds by those in public office is simple theft, and not corruption.

But could he be right to say that the pattern of corruption is changing and that today “over 70%” of cases now relate to theft of public funds, not bribery and other such offences.

Here, there does seem to be some evidence of a trend. Speaking at the 50th anniversary of his old school, Ilesa Grammar School, Osun State, the 2005-2010 chairman of the ICPC, Emmanuel Olayinka Ayoola, said that the nature of corruption it uncovered had changed in recent years.

“The commonest form of corruption in Nigeria used to be bribery but in recent years, this has been overtaken in level of prevalence by embezzlement and theft from public funds,” he said,  though without providing figures.

Africa Check this week asked the EFCC to say what percentage of corruption cases they have investigated since 2010 would fall under the broad category of theft and embezzlement of public funds, and what would fall under bribery and other offences.

If or when they reply we will update this report.

Is the level of corruption changing?

It is difficult to say. Many public commentators say that it is.

However Nigeria’s ranking in anti-corruption group Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index – which lists countries based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be – is little changed from when Jonathan took over as president in 2010.

In 2013 Nigeria ranked 144 out of 177 countries in the index. In 2011, Nigeria ranked 143.

Conclusion – Corruption is more than ‘common stealing’

The way officials talk about crime matters. And President Jonathan’s claim earlier this year that more than 70 percent of corruption cases today relate to nothing more than “common stealing” appears to be an attempt to downplay what remains a massive problem in Nigeria.

It is also wrong in law. The theft of public funds through the abuse of an official’s office is different from “common stealing” because of the abuse of trust it entails.

And it is because it reduces the funds available for public spending, distorts the decisions made by office holders and undermines public trust, that corruption has such a negative effect on Nigeria’s development as numerous studies  have shown.

In the end, whether the pattern of corruption is changing – from bribery to theft of public funds – matters less than that the overall level of corruption appears not to have changed at all.

Edited by Eleanor Whitehead and Peter Cunliffe-Jones

This report was done by our partner, Africa Check, a non-partisan organisation which promotes accuracy in public debate and the media.We have its permission to republish. Follow the organisation on Twitter at @AfricaCheck or visit its website at www.africacheck.org 


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  • Olusegun Adekoya

    When things are taken out of context, what is sometimes left is misrepresentation. GEJ was responding to a question about high corruption with no high profile conviction in the country. GEJ then explained the complexity involved in getting a corruption conviction and inferred that theft/ stealing however is easier to proof and get quicker conviction.

    In agreement with GEJ, when you take money in the pension pot or take money that should have been used for building schools, hospitals, road and put this same money in your account for personal use, to me that is theft. To now take this case to court seeking conviction for corruption would be difficult due to our archaic penal code whereas it would be easier to get one for stealing.

    • I Hate Sycophant Truly

      Mr. Man what inform corruption? you must have taken something or stolen something or you must have done something negative before you can be said to be corrupt. Stealing is the baby of corruption and cannot be separated from it. Whether stealing or theft or embezzlement, if you take anything not originally meant for you, it’s stealing and is under the plague or parent word CORRUPTION. Stealing is what inform corruption.

      This is how another dictionary defined corruption. I like the “d” part that says a departure from the original or from what is pure or correct.

      Full Definition of CORRUPTION
      a : impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle : depravity
      b : decay, decomposition
      c : inducement to wrong by improper or unlawful means (as bribery)
      d : a departure from the original or from what is pure or correct

      • Olusegun Adekoya

        You are still missing the point and i believe its because you love the word corruption. No one is saying that corruption does not exist but that as it is much more difficult to proof in court, maybe it would be better to just charge corrupt officials with theft that is more straight forward. We have high profile cases in court at the moment that has been going on for close to a decade due to one injunction or the other. A theft case however would be quicker to prosecute.

        The AGF has forwarded bills to the national assembly to amend our archaic penal code that was handed over to us by the colonial master but it is being sat upon.
        Tinubu and Bankole were recently discharged by the court and the more we keep banging on about corruption charges, more like them would be set free whereas, they would have been easily done for stealing of public funds if they were charged theft..

        • Denis_NG

          You need help. Truly!

        • Wale

          I disagree with you; It does not matter what you charge this people with, either corruption, theft or whatever charges you can bring against them, they’ll continue to walk.
          Laws are already there folks; If Nigerians can just overhaul their judicial system; fight against corruption will be much easier to win. ICPC is a joke, EFCC are bunch of crooks, Judges are billionaire wanna-bes. with all of these scenario in place, its happy days for the thieves.
          Since OBJ left office, how many high profile conviction have heard from any court case? None, Zero.
          Between Jonathan and Babangida, its a toss up on who is more corrupt, OBJ is also corrupt but not as much as these two.

          • john micheals

            So as OBJ is your brother, you claim his own corruption is less ? OBJ was terrible, his government was very corrupt and some of his corrupt practices put us where we are now.

          • Wale

            Shallow conclusion;
            Never met the man, the records are there, if you only care to check them out.

        • I Hate Sycophant Truly

          No sane Lawyer would go to court and say I charge this person or Mr. A with corruption. Like the case of pension, the charge read embezzlement of pension money and at the public domain it was called corruption but Lawyer will never say it was a corruption but they will be more specific. I have stated before that corruption is just a parent word.

    • john micheals

      The misinterpretation is what most people are judging their opinions on. A guy that steals money in his private office is a thief but when another guy steals in a government own office, they say the government is corrupt, that is a bias that people are failing to understand.

  • Okache

    Mr. President completely missed the mark when he notoriously classified corruption as mere stealing. UNESCO recently came out to say that corruption in school system comes in several forms such as ghost schools, STEALING OF SCHOOL FUNDS, absent teachers, missing textbooks, awarding of fake diplomas, misallocation of school grants etc. Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Third Edition) defines corruption as an “illegal or dishonest behaviour, especially by people in positions of power.” It is an improper or immoral act. To be corrupt according to the dictionary is “dishonestly using your position or power to your own advantage, especially for money.” People should wake up and be bold enough to call a spade a spade. Mr. President must wake up and stop living in denial.

  • Okwuosa Iyasara

    If our President said that most corruption is just common stealing. Yes why not we ask him to treat them like thief not like corrupt people. So their case would not take more 6 month, but for corruption some of the case have been more than 15 years. So there are Thieves and we should treat like thieves.

  • john micheals

    70% of the corruption/stealing id done in the civil service by the common man, but since they have not had the chance to do it on a larger scale, they often accuse the big looters of corruption. The context the president meant it was understood in a different light by the public. If a guy dupes another, that is corruption and people will also attribute that to the government, when in the true sense we should start by analyzing our own behaviors and habits. There is corruption in Nigeria but to say the politicians are more guilty of it is wrong, amongst the common man corruption prevails and no one is looking at that. We can have a clean system with dirty people, When we are clean of petty things we then have a chance of sanitizing our system.

  • Okito

    Wat is this Olusegun guy saying abeg?? U hav done nothing but make it even more complicated than GEJ himself. “when u take money from pension pot and put in ur account that is theft…….” rily???? I can’t believe how some pple think or if they even think at all. So wat then is corruption? Please enlighten us! What has the definition of the word got to do with provin it in court?…………….mtswww, my guy; jst like Denis said, u rily need help!!!!

  • Pause

    With all due respect, This piece has revealed for all to see why the saying is true that the road to hell is paved with bricks of good intentions. Wole Soyinka has always positioned himself as the on with GOOD INTENTIONS……but Nigerians have now gathered enough evidences to reach a conclusion about Wole Soyinka: He has no good intentions about Nigeria; he always is anchored in Yoruba tribalism……..

    I reach the conclusion because one cannot believe that Wole Soyinka is actually advocating for a Buhari presidency know what we know about his deep-rooted support for Boko Haram and all atrocities that have been unleashed on Nigerians by the born-to-rule Islamists who are sponsoring Buhari alongside their British cohorts and Arabian backers……..so for Wole Soyinka to know all that and still rationalize a Buhari presidency is nothing but a betrayal………let’s not forget that the same Wole Soyinka approved Obasanjo in 1999 (at least he did not fight his presidency as he did Abacha’s) who later ruled Nigeria with impunity……….now Wole Soyinka is urging Nigerians to give a chance to a worse dictator in DEED than Obasanjo to rule………why should a man with Soyinka’s intellectual bearings urging Nigerians to EXPERIMENT again!!! with a man like Buhari? Have not Nigeria experimented with Obasanjo by the urging/complacency of Soyinka and what came out of that?

    WHO SHOULD WE VOTE?

    President Jonathan’s blunder was thatShe did not handle Boko Haram effectively…..he had a chance to give order to COAS Ihejirika to finish them at sambisa Forest in January of 2014 but he hesitated……..today we see the Nigeria Army doing what they supposed to have done a long time ago……
    ….I understand that some say that corruption was an issue under Jonathan too…..my take is that Nigeria saw worse corruption under Obasanjo than Jonathan…..and of course corruption has always been an issue; we must urge Jonathan to do more but he cannot be blamed or voted out based on unsubstantiated numbers being thrown around by APC……it is insane……N30 trillion? or $20 billion…..those throwing throwing around these numbers are doing that for die-hard APC members…….no sane person would take them seriously if they check how these numbers are arrived at…..

    Lest we forget, President Jonathan has done well in economy, railways, road construction, airports, agriculture, education…….as a ‘war’ President, men & women of goodwill understand that Jonathan & team have done a good job to merit re-election….

    Voting Buhari will amount to perpetuating the mindset of born-to-rule in the north…..for Nigeria’s survival, born-to-rule must be sent a strong message once and for all…….it is the born-to-rule mentality which created Boko Haram……..even Obasanjo could not confront the creation of Boko haram under his watch…….Obasanjo did nothing when born-to-rule Islamists overturned Nigerian Constitution by imposing Sharia in 12 northern states…….today we have thousands of Nigerians killed by PAMPERING PEOPLE LIKE BUHARI…….about 20 million Christians are displaced in the North due to Boko Haram…………
    …….for the integrity of Nigerian system the Boko Haram problem must be by a President who is not a BORN-TO-RULE ISLAMIST…………….believing that Buhari will stop ISLAMISTS in the north as it should be handled is like expecting a Biafran President to stop the Biafran War…………………voting Buhari is worse than voting Jonathan…………now I have done the analysis that WOLE SOYINKA was shying away from……….

    SOYINKA’S QUESTION?

    Lastly, Mr APC Wole Soyinka’s question of what might one do if his or her daughter were kidnapped DEMONSTRATES how disingenious WOLE SOYINKA IS, at times………the analogy is like comparing orange and pawpaw……..here we have 200 girls (not a daughter) kidnapped, allegedly,……so what should a leader do? Two options…….attack the kidnappers and kill the girls in the process or find ways to release the girls……….I can understand a leader who might take the latter option……

    • akin

      Its quite interesting how you accuse the Prof of Yoruba tribalism whilst your words spew intolerance and bigotry…these words are his opinion; and he categorically stated that the words were not meant for the undecided voter. However, what I have read in your words seems an obvious campaign for Jonathan(apologies, if I have misinterpreted them); but the electorate as well as the international community have come to associate this name with corruption, cluelessness and a lack of leadership material. This is someone whose campaign has been built on religion, ethnicity and what he will do as opposed to his achievements. I sadly refer you to Sambo’s recent utterances. Let’s be frank, people are wiser now and can make up their minds without prompting because they see the state of the country. Even if you choose to disregard Soyinka’s views, the fact that the objective electorate considers Buhari a better alternative shows how much goodwill GEJ has lost. In simple terms, students are advised to withdraw as opposed to repeating a class for obvious reasons…

      • Adesuwa

        I do not see how WS’s dislike for GEJ’s handling of the Chibok issue should now make him less preferable or electable than GMB given the latter’s gory past and antecedents which he had roundly exposed and articulated in the past. The blatancy of the Professor’s about face and his unwillingness to acknowledge GEJ’s obvious good points or even GMB’s earlier unguarded utterances concerning Boko Haram are, to me, an unbalanced assessment.

        • King Carlos

          Haba…he said it all.

    • olawale

      I’m so sorry to say that you are the only bigot here. If you read and comprehend fully well the Profs article, I’m sure you wouldn’t have written what you wrote here.

      My good brother, Where were you when the Prof. with some very notable Nigerian were on the streets protesting against the Turia Cabals when they never wanted President Jonathan to succeed the late President Ya’adua as the Nigerian Constitution stated due to the power sharing formula that was purportedly agreed to by the PDP? Were were you when the Prof. was locked up during the civil war because he was in support of the Igbos?, Were where you during the annulment of the June 12? Where were you when the prof was vehemently protesting against the military rule?

      To me, the Prof. remains a National Treasure and should be treated with respect that he already earned.

      Try to read what the great Maya Angelou wrote about the Prof. you will be proud to be from the black race and your will even the more proud that Prof. is a Nigerian.

      I’m sure if the Prof. is an American or a British you will be here celebrating him.

      More blessing to you Prof. and may you live long to witness the Nigeria of your dreams.

      May the labor of our heroes past never be in vain…AMEN!

      God bless Nigeria.

      • Pause

        deodorizing Wole Soyinka will not obscure his tribalist intentions. That is just the truth. As per where was I when people were on the street, my answer is on the street!! On Wole’s support of Biafra, he did a great job but when it comes to his intellectual dishonesty in this election he did poorly; how about that? Are you a linear thinker that you cannot marry both issues?

        Lastly Wole Soyinka’s values have been eroding so fast that he/people like you do not get it. As at today, Wole is now an average Yoruba man, changing because stomach infrastructure as it were; otherwise how else could he sell his conscience to the devil: it has got to be stomach infrastructure.

        Per being proud of him, the bad news is that if Wole Soyinka was not a Nigerian and Achebe did not exist here, he would have been a struggling dramatist. So, being Africans, we have actually overpraised him for nothing to show for it, to benefit Africans.

  • King Carlos

    Omo…my brain just expand ni sha. Omówè