Traffic Lights, Buhari, Corruption and Why Systems Matter


On my way to work yesterday morning, I got stuck in this nasty traffic at an Obalende junction. The gridlock was clearly due to the typical Nigerian ‘each man for himself’ method of driving. This persisted for a few minutes, until a soldier got out of a vehicle and began directing the traffic. In a couple of seconds, the gridlock was gone! Amazing what happens when a system is introduced in the midst of chaos and selfish interests.

However, there is an glum lesson to this short tale. That soldier handling the traffic wouldn’t be there for long – he’d leave as soon as his vehicle was free to move. In his absence, the traffic gridlock would return as drivers reverted to their ‘each man for himself’ mentality.

This got me thinking. In place of the soldier’s intervention, which was short lived, what if traffic lights were installed at that junction?  It would obviously be a more sustainable way of preventing traffic gridlock than hoping a soldier would show up and control traffic.

This story and the implication of having traffic lights serves as an analogy for President Buhari and the importance of having resilient functioning systems.

Going by your analogy of traffic lights, even those eventually spoil. So who says the same thing can’t happen with systems?

Of course traffic lights spoil, but the presence of traffic lights is just one part of the whole system – it is not the system.  Systems are more resilient.

So if the traffic lights are only components of the system, what exactly is the whole system?

In the case of ensuring proper traffic flow at a junction, let’s predictably call this system the ‘traffic system’. A system consists of several parts that work in unison. In the case of the traffic system, these include the traffic light, the maintenance of the traffic light, the presence, knowledge and obedience of people to the traffic rules. When one of these parts fails, the system fails. One fails and all fail.

So what does this have to do with Buhari and corruption?

Buhari is like a traffic light to traffic. As long as he’s present as president, corruption might slightly decline. However, once he’s out, corruption returns, much like the same way traffic congestion comes back to a junction with a broken traffic light. With this understanding, it’s quite easy to see why placing an excessive level of trust in Buhari’s ability to curb corruption is highly misplaced. It takes more than one man to place a long-lasting dent on corruption in Nigeria.

Nonsense! He’s a no-nonsense incorruptible man. That should stand for something, right?

Perhaps, his presence might lead to a decline in corruption, but it hardly guarantees it. The presence of a traffic light does not guarantee that drivers will obey traffic rules, the presence of enforceable laws and enforcing bodies -also known as the infamous LASTMA in Lagos – does. Likewise, Buhari’s anticorruption stance does little to curb corruption if the necessary bodies are not functioning and the laws are not enforced. If EFCC, the Judiciary, the Police and other bodies are comatose, corruption will rise like garri in water.

Oh. So like the traffic light, you’re just saying that it’ll take more than his presence?

Yes. First, he’s only one part of the system. And  second, great systems don’t work in isolation. They intersect with other systems. Traffic lights would be pretty much useless if traffic-enforcement officers went on strike due to lack of wages. People beat red lights, even when they’re aware they might get caught – imagine what’ll happen when people are sure they won’t get caught. Shows you how government’s income-generating system intrinsically intersects with our traffic system.

Ok. I get it. So you’re saying that great systems not only need several working components, but also need proper intersection with other working systems. That sounds a bit complicated.

Yes. It is complicated. It’s the reason many administrations come and go without realizing any sustainable socioeconomic improvement. The key word is ‘sustainable’. Sustainability comes, not just from the effort of a single person, but from deliberate social structures.

What you’ve been talking about sounds like the popularly touted ‘institutions’. Is it? 

Yes. Systems are simply another way of saying institutions.

So why haven’t you used the word ‘institution’ till now?

I haven’t because many people have a quite narrow idea of what institutions are. Some assume an institution is simply a body, an agency, a building responsible for a public task. An institution is more than just EFCC, ICPC or the police force, it is a purposeful arrangement that involves these bodies.

In part, the durability of institutions stems from the fact that they can usefully create stable expectations of the behaviour of others. Generally, institutions enable ordered thought, expectation, and action by imposing form and consistency on human activities. They depend upon the thoughts and activities of individuals but are not reducible to them.

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

So the lack of Institutions are responsible for the intolerable corruption and we shouldn’t blame Buhari if he can’t defeat it?

On the contrary. Delineating between the man and the institution doesn’t absolve Buhari of his responsibilities. Instead, it emphasizes the pivotal role he’ll play and the herculean task he faces. He knows this, which is why he tries to temper expectations. Coming remotely close to the expectations set for him will require strong functioning systems/institutions.

Unfortunately, Nigeria’s institutions are all but comatose – from education to health to the military- with only a couple chugging on. This highlights how crucial his hiring choices will be. He will need seasoned technocrats with adept knowledge of tweaking systems to revive Nigeria’s institutions. He’ll also need the systems of criminal justice to function appropriately to fully and conclusively establish cases of corruption, and act accordingly. And when evidence of corruption is established, he must show that they’re no sacred cows -or boudillion lions- when it comes to prosecution.

It’s the first signal everyone’s watching out for. And if he doesn’t get this right, it’ll be quite unfortunate…you can imagine what happens when traffic lights send the wrong signals.

  • Tony Atambi

    Weldone Chuba. I have expressed quite the same sentiment on several occasions. Nigerians have conferred President with a “Messiah” status. They make it seem like all it will take to save Nigeria is for President Buhari to be in charge. It has almost become like Buhari will be present at every local government of every state in the country. But those of us who see clearly realise that it will take a working system to make Nigeria work. Buhari will need to take steps to ensure that the system works. Otherwise, Nigeria is a long way from being saved.

  • ReformNow

    Exactly why many erudite scholars, technocrats and outstanding professors locally or from abroad have had their will broken! Simply put, a tree does not make a forest! However, we must make the difference of planting the first tree – which in my opinion was roundly achieved with the electoral victory of PMB; and quickly plant others too! Hitherto, we had or were on the verge of giving up on the need as well as our belief on the importance of running away from our desolate and arid conditions! Like in the piece Key areas in the specific system were identified; so do we need to identify key problematic areas, work on them and increment ally build a critical mass. Once the critical mass is built we would have a rebirth of our values which by then there ain’t no stopping us.

  • Rahmon

    Nice thoughts, Chuba.

  • Proud Yoruba

    Why not go and have all this thinking in iboland? Who will develop your ancestral land when you sit your fat ass in Yorubaland when your land us underdeveloped? Who will develop your own land for you, not Yirubas!

    I beg go to your land and study their traffic patterns there, so next time you write, it will be from the SE!