There is a popular aphorism that goes thus: ‘a fool at 40 is a fool forever’. With Nigeria remaining in socioeconomic doldrums at age 59, which is only one year shy of 20 years of exceeding the proverbial 40 years threshold for being a fool, does it mean that Africa’s most populous country is now certainly a fool forever?
By way of comparison, China also celebrated 70 years as a communist country on the same day-October 1st that Nigeria marked its 59th anniversary of independence from Britain.
That means China is only 11 years older than Nigeria in terms of nationhood and independence.
But the East Asian country has grown from being an autarky (like North Korea trading with nobody) some 30 years ago until it joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001 and became a production factory to the world.
Subsequently, China assumed the position of the world’s second-largest economy status with an estimated $12 trillion GDP, and it is now on track to becoming the largest economy by global ranking, in less than two decades, when it would have overtaken the USA’s economy which is currently the world’s largest.
By contrast, Nigeria has degenerated from being a peer to countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and South Korea of which it was at par at independence in 1960, to banana republic levels, in terms of socio-economic standards of living and security of lives and properties of citizens.
In my considered opinion, the unfortunate and depressing descent of Nigerians into a vortex of misery, courtesy of reoccurring visionless leadership of our country is a much bigger malaise than the anti-corruption rhetoric of governments from the colonialists to military and democratically elected civilians that have not yielded any modicum of positive dividends since independence some 59 years ago.
There is a common saying that it is only a mad man that does one thing consistently the same way and expects a different outcome. One thing that is clear to all is that successive Nigerian governments have been fighting graft in the same manner since independence.
So are Nigerian leaders mad?
If they are not, why have they been flying the same anti-corruption kite all these years?
Could it boil down to the fact that nobody in Aso Rock villa seat of power has bothered to conduct a simple research into corruption antecedents in Nigeria to realize how the scourge has defeated all the previous leaders who attempted to tame the monster as evidenced by the fact that rather than be eliminated or reduced, corruption has become more entrenched, malignant and hydra-headed like a virus that’s being treated with the wrong antibiotics and as such, became resistant and cancerous?
In the event that any reader thinks that the rhetorical title of this article is rather brash and uncomplimentary, come with me as l go down the memory lane into the annals of Nigerian history to see if at the end of the historical excursion you may not take away the same impression that our leaders may be afflicted by some mental malady which is responsible for their fighting corruption in the same manner continuously and expecting a different result.
For instance, the justification that the likes of major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and co-coup plotters had for toppling the first democratically elected government in Nigeria in 1966 was that corruption had become so embedded and endemic in government and public sector that 10% of public contracts value was being demanded and paid to public officials.
Today, it’s not just 10%, but the entire funds for a project can be totally embezzled if the alleged diversion of $2.1b for arms procurements levelled against Ahmed Dasuki, former national security adviser to ex-President Goodluck Jonathan is anything to go by.
Similarly, several public officials assigned to recover stolen public funds have also been known to re-loot the loot as reflected by the case of Abdulrasheed Maina, the former chairman of Pensions Reform Task Team that allegedly looted billions of naira recovered from pension funds thieves, absconded and later weaved his way back into the civil service until he was recently arrested and re-arraigned.
After the counter-coup of 1967 where it was alleged that the plotters of the 1966 putsch were ‘corrupt’ and ‘fraudulent’ in terms of ethnic bias by assassinating only top military officers from a particular section of the country, and officers of a religious faith while preserving the lives of those from the ethnic stock and faith of the coup leaders, the brigadier Murtala Muhammed-led coup of 1975 was also mainly driven by the crusade against government corruption.
The fiery army general is famous for the mantra: “This government cannot condone Indiscipline” which is a military euphemism for corruption.
That interregnum was followed by the coup led by General Muhammadu Buhari on December 31, 1983 which like the 1966 and 1975 coups was on a mission to dislodge the democratically elected government of Shehu Shagari in the bid to clean the proverbial Augean stable by getting rid of corrupt politicians in the country.
The lbrahim Babangida-led palace coup of 1985 that unseated Buhari’s 18 months spell in office was also launched to cleanse our country of corruption. This time the corruption was not so much of bribery but of the hue of fraud and double standards as reflected by the scandal of 53 suitcases allegedly belonging to the emir of Gwandu, which was illegally allowed into the country during change of Nigerian currency. That’s in addition to the case of an underage child of a member of the ruling military council going on the Muslim religious pilgrimage to Mecca, which was against the law, amongst many infractions.
The fearsome army General Sanni Abacha, who took over the reins of government in 1993 after Babangida stepped aside, did not have an anti-corruption agenda, rather successive governments have recovered billions of dollars stolen and stashed abroad by the late dictator. Similarly, General Abdulsalami Abubakar’s short tenure as interim military head of state 1998 to 1999 had no anti-corruption ideological inclination because it had no time for such luxury.
But the democratically elected government of Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999 was geared towards continuing with the anti-corruption playbook of the past leaders.
The assertion above is underscored by the fact that the Nuhu Ribadu-led Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was basically primed to lead the charge against corruption both in the public and private sectors in the same old style in the checkered history of Nigeria.
Scepticism about the altruistic value of the government’s persistent war on corruption was triggered at that point as cynics were convinced that the fight against graft under the EFCC was not only partisan but weaponised by then president Obasanjo to rein in his opponents across the aisle and also compel fellow party members to tow his line.
Thereafter Umaru Yar’Adua, of blessed memory struggled with the battle against corruption until his sudden passage in 2010 after which Goodluck Jonathan assumed the leadership of our country.
Jonathan struggled to migrate the fight against corruption from the rudimentary level of naming, shaming and jailing which had been the modus operandi of successive governments, to a preventive system via technology without success, until President Muhammadu Buhari returned to Aso Rock villa as a democratically elected president in 2015 and reinvigorated the battle against corruption by reverting to status quo ante.
If at age 59, the war against corruption, (a cankerworm that’s believed to be the bane of Nigeria and the bogey of its socio-economic development) started by the British colonialists in the late 1950s has remained a reoccurring decimal in the agenda of successive governments nearly 60 years after, Nigeria has certainly lost the battle.
So let’s declare a national war on poverty which is the demon that the vast majority of Nigeria’s poor don’t want to be associated with.
For too long Nigeria’s political leaders have been fighting war on corruption without success.
Records reveal that ranging from the pre-independence period, Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first President General of Nigeria, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, first prime minister of Nigeria and Obafemi Awolowo, the premier of western Nigeria, were all investigated and indicted at various times by the British colonialists for corruption.
The scenario above is clear evidence that the war on corruption which was started by the colonialists in the late 1950s has not been won by government, rather the corruption monster that has been bedevilling our country has been having the upper hand as evidenced by the fact that the various successive regimes in Nigeria have made the need to fight against corruption their raison d’être.
Before l’m accused of being a corruption apologist allow me to acquaint you with the anti-corruption record of China, the world’s second-largest economy.
Since 2012 when the current Chinese Premier Xi Jinping assumed power and average of 50 top officials are tried and jailed annually. In some cases, the death penalty was applied.
And there are nearly one million public office holders under investigation in the city of Beijing alone, according to Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in the USA.
Even high ranking military chief, Guo Boxiong, recently committed suicide while being investigated for bribery. That’s in addition to a Communist Party General Secretary and Politburo member, Sun Zhengcai who was also tried and jailed according to a report by a Drake university, USA don, David Skidmore.
If the purpose of the heavy crackdown on graft like the one recently carried out by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohamed Bin Salman, MBS is ostensibly to send the message that nobody is above the law or untouchable, corruption in China has not abated.
Mark Jennings, a Forbes magazine contributor reported that although the Chinese leader is portrayed as having zero tolerance “However, China ranks 77th on Berlin-based nonprofit Transparency International’s 180-country “Corruption Perceptions” scale.
The widely cited index assigned it a low-ish to a mid-range score of 41 last year, barely changed from 39 in 2012 when Xi took office and in every intervening year”
Similarly, Moody’s Investors Service has found that China also falls in the middle of the pack for graft that impairs a country’s “ability and willingness” to repay debt, says the service’s Singapore-based associate managing director Marie Diron.
The record of anti-corruption and its false positive outlook is not different in Nigeria.
We are all witnesses to our country’s slide in the corruption index from about 121 in 1996 to 144 out of 175 least corrupt countries according to Transparency International rating? As if to complement the abysmal corruption rating, our country has taken over from India as the poverty headquarters of the world, according to a survey by World Poverty Clock.
All these woes have befallen Nigerians despite the rigorous fight against graft put up by president Buhari including unwittingly endorsing the branding of Nigerians as ‘ fantastically corrupt’ by ex UK prime minister, David Cameron.
By simple logic, if the fight against corruption that has been waged by colonialists pre Independence and subsequently by our political leaders, post-independence for at least 60 years had been successful it won’t a remain permanent feature and battle cry of leaders till the present time and our country like its former peers like Singapore would be first, not third world. Isn’t it amazing and absurd that both Obasanjo and Buhari fought corruption as military heads of state and still returned after 30 years as democratically elected presidents to fight the same scourge?
A rather odious but curiously pragmatic slogan promoted by the Nigerian Police Force (NPF) some time ago was: ‘lf you don’t trust the police, try the thug’
Following the underpinning logic of the rather nihilistic slogan, since Nigeria has failed abysmally in fighting corruption for so long, why don’t we launch a national war against poverty frontally?
After all, corruption is only one of the many contributors to poverty as there is a slew of other factors that engender it.
So why don’t our leaders take on the poverty demon directly?
One of the measures or policies for mitigating poverty is a robust social safety net.
Presently Nigeria does not seem to have a robust social safety net that could serve as a buffer or cushion for the poor against poverty.
Under lbrahim Babangida’s regime, a social safety initiative, Better Life For Rural Women, was promoted by his wife, Mrs Mariam Babangida of blessed memory.
The women empowerment programme had a profound effect on a critical mass of Nigerians from the grassroots to the top echelon.
More so because it was women-focused and being the gender that is basically responsible for the home front, it was adjudged a resounding success.
Before that program, there was the Jerome Udorji led upwards review of salaries of civil servants tagged ‘Udorji Award’ in 1974 under Yakubu Gowan’s regime which rather than solve the challenge of poverty, exacerbated it as it spiked inflation in the economy.
There was also Petroleum Trust Fund, PTF promulgated under the watch of the military dictator Sanni Abacha and meant to ameliorate the pains from the increase in petroleum pump price. That exercise led by then General Buhari was blighted by large scale corruption.
The current N500 billion special intervention funds set aside by the present government in power for social investment as encapsulated in the Tradermoni, school children feeding, N.Power youths empowerment initiative, statutory transfer of N5,000 to indigent Nigerians schemes, have proven to be less efficacious basically because the motive and implementation have been adjudged not to be altruistic.
As a matter of fact, the current anti-poverty schemes have been dogged by criticisms including a scathing dissing by, First Lady Aisha Buhari who lamented that Tradermoni did not get to her people in Adamawa state, a complaint and grudge also echoed and nursed by a plethora of Nigerians from other states.
Critics, especially from the opposition party also alleged that Tradermoni, under the purview of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s office has been nothing but a vote-buying scheme by the ruling party.
The allegation underscores the belief that the social safety measures which president Buhari copiously mentioned in his Independence Day broadcast as being one of the fulcrum of his administration, has been as unedifying and forlorn as the long futile fight against corruption waged by successive governments going back to the colonial days which is in excess of 60 years.
My candid advice on what should be a practical alternative to the unproductive war on corruption in order to pull a critical mass of Nigerians out of the misery of poverty trap as the Chinese have done is simple:
Let’s declare a national war on poverty in the way that Nigeria’s peer countries at independence in 1960 such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia amongst others did.
We can start by understudying the blueprint of some of these Asian tiger countries.
A good candidate that lends itself to such emulation is Singapore.
The secret of success of that South-East Asian country has been well documented in the critically acclaimed book by it’s former President who is regarded as the ‘father’ of the country, Lee Kuan Yew, titled “From Third To First World: The Story of Singapore: 1965-2000”.
In that book, Nigeria was referenced, sadly not for good, but for the notoriety of our leaders for corruption.
Nevertheless, it has nuggets of wisdom for Nigerian leaders to imbibe and emulate.
Another country that made a successful leap forward from poverty to prosperity in a relatively short span that Nigeria should copy its Standard Operating Procedure, SOP is China.
It is a former Chinese premier, Deng Xiaoping that’s credited with being the architect of Chinese rapid development that famously said that it is through the window that you open for development to come into a country that corruption can also slip in.
Put succinctly, a good leader must learn to deal with both progress and corruption pari passu.
In spite of its largely criticized and generally unsuccessful anti-graft crusade, China has simultaneously pursued its development agenda and as such it has been able to lift over 200m from poverty into prosperity.
It’s difficult to believe that today China is the second-largest economy. But in 1994, inflation in China was 24% and nearly 60% of the population lived on $1.90 a day which basically is the current situation in Nigeria.
China, the East Asian nation and the world’s most populous country achieved the economic leap forward feat through its now highly acclaimed development paradigm known as the Four Modernizations which were first set out by Deng Xiaoping whose mission was to strengthen the fields of agriculture, industry, defence and science & technology.
The Four Modernizations were adopted in 1977, replacing the cultural revolution driven by chairman Mao Zedong whose warped communist policy got the country trapped in poverty for ages.
Remarkably, Nigeria has adopted and is currently implementing aggressive developments in agriculture which is the no 1 amongst the Four Modernizations policy that accelerated the accelerated socio-economic growth of China.
By controlling tariffs, migration, demography, exchange rate, as well as interest rates, even though those policies are not compliant with global best practice, the Chinese leaders, particularly Deng Xiaoping and now Xi Jinping liberated a vast majority of Chinese people estimated to be 1.3b from being peasant farmers to industrialists and great scientists.
Nigeria, home to the largest no of black people in the world ( 200m), can also achieve a similar feat if we all put our hands on the plough and place national interest ahead of ethnicity, religion and any other pre modal sentiments which have shackled our country and is responsible for the nation’s arrested development.
With high-quality input from the respect crop of economists drawn from the academia and the private sector recently inaugurated as members of the Presidential Advisory Council, PAC by president Buhari, l’m optimistic that Nigeria is at the cusp of an economic voyage of discovery.
-Magnus Onyibe, a development strategist, alumnus of Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Massachusetts USA and former commissioner in Delta State cabinet, sent this piece from Lagos.