It’s Corruption, Stupid!

The title of this article is not original; it is borrowed from a popular phrase in American political culture. The term “It’s the economy, stupid” first gained global attention during Bill Clinton’s 1992 successful presidential campaign. The two major issues in that election were foreign policy and the economy. The incumbent president, George H. W. Bush, was considered the foreign policy expert, while his opponent, the young and suave Bill Clinton, was considered relatively inexperienced.

As the campaign progressed, it became evident that America faced a much deeper problem; that there was no way the country could sustain its robust and predatory foreign policy without a sound economy. That realisation changed the tone of the debate and, of course, defined the outcome of the 1992 election. The rest, as the saying goes, is history

Fast forward to 2010. Of course, Nigeria is not the United States of America, but something tells me that Nigerians face the same dilemma in 2011 that the American electorate faced in 1992.  In our case, the issue is neither foreign policy nor the economy; it is corruption, stupid! It has become evident that no matter how hard we aspire to make Nigeria work, we can’t build a modern society or become a global contender, if we do not stop the bleeding.

Almost five decades ago, the young military officers who aborted the country’s post colonial democratic experiment told Nigerians that the aim of the Revolutionary Council was to “establish a strong united and prosperous nation, free from corruption and internal strife”. They went on to say, and I crave the indulgence of readers to quote them copiously, “Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 percent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles, those that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds”.

That was fifty years ago; not much has changed. Indeed, if anything things have gone better for the political profiteers and ‘10 percenters’, and of course, worse for Nigerians. The political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 percent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, are still very much around. And if their forbears collected 10 percent, they have graduated to 150 percent. What this simply means is that the only thing that can make them happy is to collect money for already inflated contracts, abandon the job and turn around to collect additional 50 percent of the original contract fee as maintenance fee for a job that was never started, much less completed.

It is estimated that Nigeria has lost close to $500 billion dollars to corruption since independence. We can only imagine what one quarter that that amount can do in transforming Nigeria.  I don’t know any country in the world that can take the kind of battering Nigeria has received from its leaders, the political elite, public servants and their private and foreign collaborators, and still remain intact. From not being able to account for the amount of crude oil that leaves the country everyday, to lacking the desire to “evenbuildtoilets-for-themselves” (in the words of Professor Ogaga Ifowodo) our leaders, at the federal, state, and local governments, seem to be appropriate subjects for psychiatric evaluation. They embezzle public fund to build mansions and ride the best cars in the world, yet there are no motorable roads to get to their houses or even enjoy a comfortable ride.

That is what corruption has done to us. It doesn’t matter if the country crumbles tomorrow, we must keep stashing away public fund; it doesn’t matter if our children, the most important resource of our country, are not in school, as long as the bank account of the honourable minister of education is 100 times fatter than it was when he or she was appointed; it doesn’t matter if Nigerians lose lives and limbs everyday on our roads as long as the minister of transport gets his commission for road contracts; it matters even less, if in the 21st century, Nigerians die from preventable diseases like cholera as long as the minister of health and his counterpart in the water resources ministry, own palaces in Greenland and Acapulco.

You still wonder why nothing works in Nigeria, from electricity, to sports, to the Nigeria police to whom we have entrusted our safety and security. It was not too long ago that an Inspector General of Police incorporated about 8 companies which he used as vehicles to perpetrate fraud and launder money belonging to the Nigeria Police Force. Just one example of his criminal venture will suffice. Tafa Balogun awarded a telecommunication contract to Silem Co. Ltd and Telemobile Nigeria Limited for the supply of telecommunication equipment to the Police at a value of N1.4 billion. When the contract sum was paid, Mr. Balogun collected, as kick back, through three of his companies, the sum of N542 million.

When he was not extorting money from contractors, he was busy dipping his hands directly into police fund, taking money meant for law enforcement and security activities.  By the time Tafa Balogun was convicted, he had over N5 billion, money meant for the police, in his private accounts. With more than 10 properties worth over N3 billion —  properties he acquired as a public servant and Inspector General of Police — you won’t be wrong to think Mr. Balogun was an estate agent not a police officer.

The higher you go, the more bizarre the story becomes. Former military dictator, General Sani Abacha, was reported to have stolen $5 billion between 1993 and 1998 when he expired. That is a cool $1 billon for every year that he was in power. A greater part of the money, expectedly, was stashed in foreign banks. Let’s take the case of former Gov. Chimaroke Nnamani of Enugu State who was arraigned in February 2007 before the Code of Conduct Tribunal for allegedly owning 172 houses. Nnamani was also indicted by the EFCC for corruption to the tune of $147million dollars. We were informed that Mr Nnamani awarded “a N9 billion contract to JAC (Nig) Enterprises and JECNA Nigeria Ltd, for the construction of the Agbani-Akpugo road, and not one ton of gravel or chippings was dropped on site. The money was used to establish Rainbownet and Mea Mater Elizabeth High School, Agbani. Amongst other choice properties, Mr. Nnamani allegedly owns a $2 million estate in Florida. Interestingly, today, Gov. Nnamani is a senator of the Federal Republic.

We all remember the case of the fugitive ex-con, James Ibori. Space may not be sufficient to recount his malfeasance, for which some of his associates have been jailed in the UK. Ibori is currently ensconced in Dubai, United Arab Emirates facing the possibility of extradition to the UK. Ibori ran Delta State for eight years. It is no exaggeration to say that if he had not mismanaged the money that accrued to the state during that period, he would have conveniently recreated the splendour of Dubai in Delta State.

Of course, there was the case of D.S.P. Alamieyeseigha, the swashbuckling  former governor of the oil rich Bayelsa State, who was convicted for corruption. His rap sheet included owning four properties in London valued at about £10 million and another property in Cape Town, South Africa, valued at 10 million Rand. At the time of his arrest in London, £1 million cash was found in his bedroom. Add to that £2 million at the Royal Bank of Scotland in London, assets valued at well over N30 billion in Nigeria and bank accounts in Cyprus, Denmark, USA and the Bahamas. Today, as part of the rehabilitation process for every felonious politician in Nigeria, Alams, as he is popularly known, is set to play a prominent role, as a godfather, in the next political dispensation.

This is just a tip of the iceberg of what corruption has done to Nigeria. Corruption has been described as “arguably the greatest evil confronting the nation today”. We can continue to lament or do something about it. Is corruption the only problem in Nigeria, certainly not. Are Nigerians, as human beings, more corrupt than, let’s say Americans, for example? I don’t think so. The problem we have is simply that of impunity. No one gets punished for being corrupt, even when there is overwhelming evidence; accountability for us is as foreign as snow.

There is another side of this national debate for redemption. The argument is that we should seek first the kingdom of restructuring Nigeria and everything will fall in place. As one from the radical tradition of Nigerian politics, I fully endorse the call for restructuring. It is important that we restructure Nigeria politically, socially, and economically so that every Nigerian can feel at home in any part of the country; so that every Nigerian, no matter where you come from can aspire to the highest office in the country. 

But again, one can argue that with the way Nigeria is currently presently constituted, there is no reason it should not function. The only reason one could possibly adduce is corruption. Nigeria is comatose today, not because of the way it is structured, but because of the actions of our political leaders and so called public servants from every nook and cranny of the country. Every big man, and I must add woman, from every part of Nigeria, has benefitted from the culture of waste and impunity; the difference being only in degree. Every member of the political class, whether from the East, West, North, the Niger Delta, and every place in between, is culpable. Just as our oppressors come from every part of Nigeria, the poverty and hopelessness they spread around is felt by every Chike, Adamu, Kola, Efe, and Ubong across Nigeria.

It is therefore a bit of a stretch to think that Nigeria will function if we restructure it without having in place a system that checks the impunity of our public officers. I guess my thesis is that you can only attempt to restructure a stable society. That brings us to the issue of leadership and the 2011 election. In the new political dispensation, we need a leadership that will be able to say enough is enough, not one that glamorises corruption.

In 2011, we need a leadership that will restore integrity in public life so that resources are actually applied for human and economic development; we need a commander-in-chief who will not only command respect, but one who will inspire and capture popular imagination; one in tune with the country’s anxiety, frustration, and hopes. Beyond that, we need a leader who not only understands and appreciates the intricacies of corruption – the single most important reason for our underdevelopment – but is willing and able to confront it head-on.

This may just be our last chance to get it right before the dawn of a violent and bloody revolution. It is our belief as Nigerians and our ability to translate our belief to reality that will make the difference in 2011. Personally, I believe a new Nigeria is possible! I don’t know about you.

It’s Corruption, Stupid!


Chido Onumah