By Ochereome Nnanna
ABUJA is possibly the most corrupt capital on earth. That is my own layman’s conclusion in view of the unending torrents of news about mind-bending looting of the public treasury coming out of Nigeria’s seat of power. If I am wrong, please correct me. Write in. Share with me and I will publish it.
Tell me if there is any other capital city in the world where civil servants entrusted with the pension contributions of old and ageing workers (most of them low and medium income earners in the police, the armed forces and the general proletariat) steal with so much remorselessness?
The money was taken from their pockets with the promise that it will be invested and when they retire they will have something to live on till their dying day. Lo, the same civil servants who are supposed to carry out this mandate choose to take billions out of this money and stock in their private homes. Their homes become warehouses and the money of the poor becomes the “goods”!
Tell me another national capital where a clerk sees N32 billion parked in his account from public treasury and he does nothing. Tell me where else government budgets N250 billion for fuel subsidy, tells the public it actually spent N1.3 trillion only for a probe to discover it actually spent N2.6 trillion. And no one resigns or is sent to jail! No need to go on about the tons of sleaze being daily disclosed by one probe after the other. I am yet to see a governmental ministry, agency or department in Abuja that has been probed and found above board. There probably is none.
Triumvirate of evil
Upon reflection it just struck me that the cancerous magnitude of growth in corruption owes to several predisposing factors. These are: oil money, our constitution and the Abuja factor. These I call the triumvirate of evil created by the rapacious and puny-minded military class (especially during the General Ibrahim Babangida and General Sani Abacha regimes). All three are interlinked. Oil money is easy money. It flows freely out of the bowels of the land and sea of Niger Delta. Foreign companies mine the oil and pay whatever they like to our federal government. Every year it comes to billions of dollars.
In order to have access to it whether in or out of office, the Nigerian military rulers created a constitution that ensures the money comes directly into federal purse for them to share out to the states, local councils, friends, relations and associates just as they liked. Nobody who belongs to this charmed little circle needs worry about raising revenue from other sources. Oil money will come.
When the seat of the federal government was in Lagos, there was corruption, but it was only in the realm of “ten per cent” bribes given to public officers. By 1984 when Major General Muhammadu Buhari overthrew the civilians his “messianic” regime was anchored on two wars (a) war against corruption and (b) war against indiscipline. Politicians and top public officers were arrested, arraigned and most were convicted. The late Abubakar Rimi, for example, got over 300 years in jail term. The Lagos Press made corrupt government officers uncomfortable. The Press was easily backed up by the army of radical students, human and social rights activists, Labour unions and the powerful propaganda machine of the Awoists to hound suspects. As a result, one coup followed the other, even though they were all plotted by factions of northern elite then in control of the Nigerian Army.
After the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) riots of 1986-1989 and the Orkar coup of April 1990, General Ibrahim Babangida decided he had had enough. Lagos had become too dangerous a city for his type of government to live in. Latching onto the windfall occasioned by the 1991 Gulf War between America and Iraq over the latter’s invasion of Kuwait, Babangida squandered over 12.4 billion US Dollars, much of which was used to hasten the development of Abuja. On December 10th 1992 Babangida moved into uncompleted Aso Villa. Thus was born a city from where corruption now holds the entire country hostage.
Two uncommon capabilities
Abuja has demonstrated two uncommon capabilities. Number one, it has proved the ideal place to nurture enduring democracy. Staging a coup there will not be a tea party as it used to be in Lagos. Because of this apparent coup-proof capability, Abuja has also become impervious to public opinion and Media disclosures. Since the seat of power moved there, even the students, who used to shake the most dictatorial military regimes with demonstrations, have lost that power. If anything, most students union executives are now struggling for prime positions in the payroll of politicians and the ruling political party. Student leaders are now looking for well placed individuals to give awards, just as university authorities are also scouting for rich, powerful and well-employed people to give honorary doctorate degrees in exchange for financial and material gratification.
The second capability of Abuja is that it has become a major predisposing factor of corruption for its residents. There is corruption everywhere in Nigeria, no doubt. But the typical Abuja dweller is a hungry shark when it comes to money matters. If a typical Abuja dweller asks you to send in a proposal that will make money once he gets hold of it he will shut the door on your face and use his/her position to go make the money himself or herself. If he asks you to submit your application for a job he will divert the job to someone else closer to him.
The situation that predisposes Abuja dwellers to this kind of behaviour is understandable. This is the city where the oil money of the country is shared. Government accounts for over 90 per cent of the money that finds its ways into people’s pockets. Unlike Lagos, there are no meaningful productive industries or large markets where directly imported goods are stocked for sale. In Lagos and other cities, before you steal money at your disposal you have to reckon that it is someone’s hard-earned money and he will likely gun for your head. But the money at the disposal of the government official in Abuja comes from oil. “Oil money is no one’s money”. When people steal money belonging to pensioners, they do so with the mentality that guides the theft of oil money. Any large pool of money is for the taking. After all, an Abuja dweller must pay his rents. And what rents!
Abuja, to me, is not an exemplary city, and no offence is intended for its victimised residents. It is a city that has no place or regard for the lower classes and those who have no links to centres where the oil money is shared. It is a city where a person of unbending integrity may not last long within the four developed precincts of the Municipality.
Curing Abuja of corrupting influences
There are three ways of curing Abuja of corrupting influences. So long as it remains the centre for the sharing of oil money this problem will remain. For as long as the city remains without productive industries and markets such as obtainable in Aba, Onitsha, Lagos and Kano, thus infusing the people’s hard-earned money into the system, civil servants and politicians will continue to steal without compunction or deterrence. It is probably not desirable that the Municipal areas be cluttered with industries and markets. With time, however, industrialisation and large markets will catch up with the peripheral districts such as Mararaba, Abaji, Karu, Gwagwalada and so on. Until then, easy-to-steal oil money will continue to be the sole funds at the fingertips of public officers.
Finally, the long-trumpeted idea of decentralisation of powers in the constitution will be required to sanitise the city. Money from the extractive industries should not come directly to the seat of any true federal government. Rather, what should come are mainly funds from taxation and royalties. Oil producing parts of the country should retain the rent revenue and pay taxes to the federal government. Solid mineral producing areas should also hold their revenues and pay taxes to the centre. And so should agriculture derived revenue.
By the time every part of the country knows how much it contributes to the federal purse, public funds will no longer be treated as today’s “free” oil money. There will be greater economic activities at the localities and fewer people will see the need to go to Abuja and hang around thieving public officials for crumbs. People who pay taxes are usually interested in how the money is spent and will devise means of holding public officers accountable.
For as long as we leave Abuja the way it was created by the military, it will continue to be the world’s corruption capital. Very soon, Nigerians will lose interest when the National Assembly carries out probes, since it is obvious that the more we probe the more they loot. Even when some of the money is recovered it is soon re-looted. After all, it is an Abuja-dwelling Nigerian that will be given custody of the recovered funds.
We can still save our capital city and give its dwellers the opportunity to recover their humanity. Let’s start now.