Mission impossible: Fighting corruption in Nigeria

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When the white men crossed the sea to our lands, they came over bearings gifts for the sole purpose of making the inhabitants more welcoming and susceptible to their plans for world domination and resource control. The gifts were meant to clear the path for them and so it did for the most part. I have always seen this as a different kind of corruption – an imported kind that made its way into Africa by the colonial masters. Now at this point, I should state that giving gifts on their part was not an innovation as it followed our existing traditional way of presenting gifts to people of higher social status when we visit them. Ours, however, was as a sign of respect not a tool of manipulation.

This system of giving gifts continued well into colonial rule, as many benefited from it, mostly in the upper class, with the likes of permanent secretaries, kings and queens. The gifts also trickled down to the middle class: the police, customs, judiciary system and so on. Although for the middle class, the colonial masters kept a sharp eye on them to ensure that things remained under control by quickly fishing out those living above their income. A way of saying ‘be corrupt but not too corrupt,’ so the upper class can be better fed.

A keen look at Africa’s history will show that the administrative corruption that is ubiquitous on the continent is actually ‘an alien culture’. Pre-colonial Africa had a system founded on strong ethical values usually rooted in spirituality, but with the end result of ensuring social justice and compliance.

Among the Yoruba of western Nigeria, we had the Oyo-mesi, which was the king-making body that served as a check against the abuse of power by the Alaafin (the Oba) or the king of Oyo. The Alaafin was constrained to rule with caution and respect for his subjects. When he was proven to have engaged in acts like gross miscarriage of justice for personal gains, the Oyo-mesi would present the king with an empty calabash or parrot’s eggs as a sign that he must commit suicide, since, according to tradition, he could not be deposed.

In the Igbo acephalous society, the absence of any singular form of authority placed leadership with the people. Titled chiefs sat together to address the more difficult issues of governance, and there is a saying among the Igbo that a “titled man does not lie.”

If one wanted to hear the truth or to be granted pristine justice according to the prevailing standards, she or he only needed to get the impeccable body of titled men to hear the case in question.

All these systems were eventually corrupted and destroyed by the colonialists. Giving gifts to titled chiefs, Alaafins, etc, with promises of more in favour of these leaders getting their people to do the white man’s bidding began the downward spiral of effective systems and justice that has become the norm in our nation and most of Africa.  Colonialism introduced systemic corruption on a grand scale across much of sub-Saharan Africa.  The end result is what is rampant across Africa today: conspicuous consumption, absence of loyalty to the state, oppressive and corrupt state institutions, to mention a few.

At first, even though the practice was there, it did not extend to the private sector but when the British colonial masters gave up control; other foreigners like the Egyptians, Lebanese, Chinese, Middle Easterners and Central Europeans came with their own brand of corruption that effectively converted a country like Nigeria into a “fantastically corrupt nation,” as told by David Cameron.

I recall clearly that during that colonial control, there was something called the 10 percentile, which simply meant that when contracts or jobs were awarded, 10 per cent of the profit and not more would be set aside for top government officials. These top government officials in those days where then known as 10 percentile because that was how they got their wealth.

I would like to share a story that happened many years back during a negotiation process that a big foreign firm which my company was hoping to work with on the project was involved in. It was a massive contract and a top manager form the company was in the country handling the negotiation process. They had done a number of projects in Nigeria so were familiar with some of the workings of our government officials. Due to the nature of the contract, this company was in negotiations with three different levels of government institutions. At each meeting with one level of government, this manager, who happened to be a good friend of mine, would be asked if he made any provisions for them.

To this, he always assured the government officials that he’d made a 10 per cent provision for them. He had mentioned this 10 percent provision to all three levels of government involved in the negotiation. When the time came for the first down-payment to be made, it was discovered that each institution wanted 10 per cent fully and not a part of the 10 per cent, which he had expected to share among the three levels. When my friend found out that he had to pay 30 per cent to the three institutions from their revenue, he had a heart attack as he realised that, if he collected the money and didn’t pay the 30 per cent, his project was in trouble. He died not too long afterwards and the contract never saw the light of day.

With the 10 per cent being bad enough, things got worse. With the combination of the new brand of corruption being brought in by all the above mentioned nationals, there was no more limit on the ‘tithe’ or ‘kick back.’ We started going as far as looting the treasury. The end results were that:

i.) The hospitals meant to be built were never built, turning all of us into sick Nigerians, mentally and physically.

ii.) The educational institutions were no longer funded so while we got some form of education, there was no learning.

iii.) Infrastructures were no longer built and those that were eventually built were done badly, making it difficult to address the issue of poverty alleviation.

In the 1980s, with four refineries and its status as a leading oil and gas producer, Nigeria had the capacity to process refined commercial crude oil for domestic consumption and export. This was expected. But that has not been the case for many years as a result of the poor state of the refineries despite the billions of naira that has gone into the building and the refurbishing of these refineries.

We are also so carried away by the prospect of power-sharing, a philosophy that in my opinion has only led Nigeria to where it is now. A country where no one works for its collective good, which tends to benefit everyone, but are only focused on their numerous enclaves or on self. This only brings about another bout of corruption and disjointed development.

The biggest threat to our country’s emergence and development over the past few decades has been due to our inability to fight corruption particularly now that corruption is fighting back and almost defeating all the attempts that have been made by previous government.

For over 50 years, the different governments that have ruled, be it military or civilian, have vowed to stamp out corruption from the system, knowing very well the damage being done to the nation and its citizens. These governments have ended up being overwhelmed by the fight and in most cases giving up the fight, accepting defeat and becoming part of it by default. So, there goes the saying that, if you cannot beat them, join them. For goodness sake, therefore, let these politicians, either in agbada or uniform, look for another slogan and stop fooling the nation/Nigerians, because the slogan fight against corruption has been immensely overused.

I would like to use this opportunity to thank the readers of this article. It is your comments, critiques and suggestions that have taken this column from where we started over a year ago to where it is now. Even though it was not my initial plan to come this far because of my age, I am motivated to keep going. I have also put together a wonderful team of contributors from across the country and abroad that will continue to write for as long as the publisher continues to have space for us and may go beyond me.

It is our collective responsibility to work for a better nation. It is my hope that, someday, we will eventually start to get it right.

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