A few days ago, I was on the phone with a dear friend and, in our usual fashion, before long, the conversation steered towards the state of the country. After speaking about the previous articles I have written so far in this column, I gave him a run-down of what I planned to talk about next, which was the decay of the system and tracing it as far back as pre-Independence. My dear friend had once been a part of this debacle during his time as one of the ‘super’ permanent secretaries (as they were commonly known) under the Yakubu Gowon administration, so I knew he meant well when he said that, if I wanted people to read the article, I shouldn’t mention corruption. He advised that I make our situation seem like a curse so that the traditional and religious institutions will have things to do by evoking the spirits behind the curse. It was a joke, which we laughed over, but the words lingered on in my mind.
Hence, the choice of this week’s column: are we cursed or just corrupt? Never mind the comments by the former Prime Minister of Britain about Nigeria being “fantastically corrupt.” We can’t possibly be described as such when we are yet to even agree on the scope of corruption: can we classify theft as corruption? Nepotism? Our past President attempted to explain corruption to us when he announced that “stealing is not corruption,” but that explanation didn’t go down too well with many people. Therefore, the definition of corruption in the Nigerian context remains elusive.
Unlike corruption, curses are things we seem to be more familiar with, wielding them as a defensive or offensive weapon against our enemies. We saw this in action just a few weeks ago when, His Royal Highness, the Oba of Benin, publicly placed a curse on human traffickers and those assisting them, in response to the continued exposure of illegal migration and human trafficking in Edo State. With media reports of mysterious deaths and diseases following the curse, some seem to believe in its ability to bring around the desired improvement in curbing the menace. While we hope that is the case, it is best we don’t hold our breath just yet, since we live in a country where snakes and monkeys cart away millions.
As we debate the possibility of a cursed or corrupt nation, it is necessary to trace the country’s downward spiral from a booming economy with a currency that rivaled the dollar to one that is constantly at the mercy of unstable exchange rates, international aid and foreign investors.
In our usual culture of keeping quiet and acting like nothing happened, we have failed to demand answers from key people over the failure of our industries. 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. That 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 have gone into the building and the refurbishing of these refineries.
Consequently, the nation has become a major refined product importer with very negative implications for its economy. In fact, it has been revealed that Nigeria’s refining capacity is one of the smallest compared to its peers.
There have been many talks on reviving the refineries, all to no avail. The most recent move by the Federal Government in addressing the issue was to consider a policy whereby multinational oil and gas firms operating in the country would be compelled to build refineries in Nigeria. This might just be the best solution since we have proven unable to do it ourselves.
Another industry we ran down and are now struggling to revive is the steel industry. This is an industry that was to be the backbone of our nation as it could serve as a stimulus to national development and an economic boost to the industrial growth of any country.
The idea of having a steel industry was conceived in 1958 by the federal government. For the most part of the 1960s, the federal government invited and received proposals from foreign firms, including those from the UK, U.S, Germany, and Canada, most of these being on the feasibility of establishing steel complexes. At first, the efforts of the government did not yield significant positive result because they were based on the use of iron deposits in Agbaja and Udi, which were later found to be unsuitable for direct reduction.
However, by 1973, suitable iron ore deposit was discovered in Itakpe, Ajabanoko and Oshokoshoko all in the region around Kabba-Okene-Lokoja-Koton Karfe axis, now in Kogi State. This was great news at that time and looked to be the beginning of Nigeria’s industrial revolution.
The discovery led to the establishment of the Ajaokuta Steel Company, which consumed close to $10 billion at 98 percent completion but, along the way, before we could celebrate its completion, the project was halted. Decades later, we are still yet to own a thriving steel plant.
If operational, the Ajaokuta steel has the capacity to become a major producer of industrial machinery, auto-electrical spare-parts, shipbuilding, railways, and carriages. The steel plant has the capacity to provide direct employment for 10,000 technical staff and indirect employment for about 500,000 for unskilled upstream and downstream employment if it is in operation.
There was also the case of our river basin authorities that would have revolutionised the agricultural industry. Six river basin authorities were built for the supply of potable drinking water and irrigation. The irrigation was also to promote two seasonal cropping in the year, which would bring about food security in most of the dryland regions that have lost their capacity. This, however, didn’t happen and the communities that were made to settle around the Chad and river basin authorities were left stranded. Still, most Nigerians do not have access to potable water.
Another industry we once had at optimum capacity was the paper industry. In the 1960s and 1970s, the federal government established three pulp and paper mills, namely Nigeria Paper Mill Limited, in Jebba, Kwara; the Nigeria Newsprint Manufacturing Company Limited, in Oku-Iboku, Akwa-Ibom; and the Nigeria National Paper Manufacturing Limited, in Ogun state. Two of the mills – NPM and NNMC – performed well in the 1980s, which faded out paper importation during this period. Unfortunately, bad management, corruption, and other factors did not benefit the industry in the long run.
It is believed that the nation is losing about N180 billion from the non-performance of the three paper mills. Their non-performance also means that jobs that should have been created are lost to other countries. According to an article in The Nation newspaper, this is also worsened by the fact that the federal government spends N50 billion on the importation of paper annually.
Then there were the vehicle assembly plants, of which we had six in the 1960s. The plants were going to enable Nigerian companies to produce vehicles in the country as done in other parts of the world, which in turn would create jobs and boost the economy. The blueprint establishing the plants encouraged or mandated the assembly plants to bring about reducing their importation of parts to about 40 percent after 15 years so as to allow the local secondary industries to develop.
Another former glory was our three major public institutions that cut across different sectors, in transportation, we had the Nigeria Railway Corporation, in telecommunications, there was the Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL) and in aviation, Nigeria Airways. These three institutions were the biggest employers of labour, employing millions of Nigerians across the whole nation. In an era when countries were expanding their infrastructure to be more sustainable and durable, we were losing ours. Now, as they enjoy the fruits of their labour, we work hard so we can afford to travel to these countries and spend our hard-earned income under the cover of vacations/holidays and tourism.
The mind-boggling fact is that, when combined, these failed industries have the potential to provide over 10 million jobs across the federation, which would go a long way in alleviating poverty.
Globally, evidence abounds in literature confirming a strong nexus between corruption and infrastructural decay. It is very glaring from the simple analysis of the facts before us that it is not an absolute lack of funds that has caused infrastructural decay but outright mismanagement of these funds that is principally responsible for the level of infrastructural decay in Nigeria.
Up till 2011, Nigeria remained among the top 10 leading countries on corruption, according to Transparency International. But as supporters of Nigeria being cursed have pointed out, Nigeria is not the only corrupt nation in the world. In fact, they are quick to opine that many developed nations have corrupt leaders too but have managed to still prosper.
If they are right, how do we then break this curse or is our imminent doom inevitable? I choose to disagree as, in my over 80 years on earth, I have been lucky to see life from different spectrums and one thing holds true, a corrupt system can only produce its own kind. Until we start holding people accountable for their failures and stop blaming unseen forces, our problems will be far from over.
Learning from our past mistakes, misconducts, and corrupt practices is paramount. There is no point starting afresh if we don’t know why we never succeeded before. Except, of course, we are cursed – then what we would need are our committed custodians of spiritual powers to join forces and break the Nigerian curse.