By Owei Lakemfa
WHEN the Human and Environmental Development Agenda, HEDA, requested me on March 21 to deliver a paper on corruption, I asked myself how did Nigeria degenerate to this state? Degenerate to the level where then British Prime Minister, David Cameron in his May 10, 2016 briefing of Queen Elizabeth II said: “We’ve got some leaders of some fantastically corrupt countries coming to Britain… Nigeria and Afghanistan, possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world”.
Corruption has existed in human conduct since early times, but Nigeria did not know corruption in its present form until British colonialists introduced it; part of the colonial policy was to corrupt the emergent elite as a way of compromising them. When the British mercenary, Frederick Lugard was Colonial Governor-General of Northern Nigeria, he argued that the Native Authority funds should be made accessible to the colonised elite who will dip their hands in the tilt and be entrapped for British manipulation.
The oldest case of corruption I know was in 1943 when the Sardauna, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello who was in charge of the Sokoto Province administering 47 districts, was tried by Sultan Siddiq Abubakar III for allegedly misappropriating cattle tax (Jangali) and sentenced him to one year in prison. This could have been a set up or a fulfilment of Lugard’s strategy of luring the colonised elite into corruption. Whatever the case, the British colonialists who were in the know of the trial and sentence, came to Ahmadu Bello’s rescue by establishing a Magistrate Court to which it encouraged the Sardauna to appeal. It was unheard of in those days to appeal the judgement of the Sultan. Bode Thomas was the Sardauna’s lawyer and the latter was freed. It is not surprising that Ahmadu Bello never forgot this ‘kind’ gesture of the colonialists, and was their ally until his death.
Still on corruption and colonialists, the 1952-53 Nigeria Census conducted by the British, was so compromised that it was not useful. A former British colonial officer, Harold Smith claimed that he and some British officers were instructed to rig the Nigerian elections in the 1950s in favour of particular political parties.
The General Murtala Mohammed government in 1975 also encouraged the institutionalisation of corruption when it purged the public service, judiciary and the armed forces irrespective of the guilt or innocence of the affected. This led to a high sense of job insecurity and corruption in the system.
Also, the Buhari/Idiagbon regime from 1984-85, punished, almost in equal measure, corrupt politicians and those like Adekunle Ajasin who were not found guilty of corruption.
Foreign donors in the late 1980s and 1990s were engaged in the massive corruption of the Nigeria Civil Society Organisations, CSOs. The then leading CSO (names withheld) was so drenched in foreign funds deliberately targeted at it, that it split and then multiplied in amoeba-like divisions. In the 1990s, I was National Treasurer of a leading CSO (names withheld) which battled the military, defended political prisoners and fought for student rights. We did this purely on voluntary basis and funded all our activities. We were suspicious of foreign donors and refused to apply. Then an official of the National Endowment for Democracy, NED, Mr. L. D visited us in Lagos introducing the organisation as a baby of the United States Congress dedicated to promoting democracy and human rights abroad. He claimed that NED in Washington had been following our activities and had decided to give us an annual $50,000 grant and that we did not need to carry out any new activity. Some of us argued that it was a Greek gift. Others said they agreed but that since we know the Americans were trying to compromise us, we would know how to handle them. The latter won, but we agreed to save the money, invest and buy property for the organisation. However, with the dollar flow, our elections became quite contentious and fractious. A few of us left the organisation immediately while others dug in. At a point, contending factions in the CSO physically battled themselves employing the services of the police and armed street militia. It turned out that the NED was actually a Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, project to subvert popular democracy and compromise patriotic or anti-imperialist organisations. NED had been established in 1983 under then CIA Director, William Casey. It had scored hits in Nigeria, corrupting CSOs. Generally, foreign donors compromise recipients. Since they are necessary, we should fund CSOs from our country’s Budget.
Many workers are also compromised by being paid peanuts. For instance, the National Minimum Wage which is N18,000 ($50 monthly) is grossly insufficient for the worker’s individual needs. Yet, he is expected to feed, clothe, educate and provide shelter and healthcare for his family. This encourages the culture of wage payment across the table and collecting the balance under the table. This is not considered as bribery but “Family Support”!
In Europe, the worker looks forward to retirement, while in Nigeria, the average worker sees approaching retirement as a death sentence as he may not be paid his entitlements for years and become destitute. Corruption in the Public Sector is worsened by the nation-wide phenomenon of unpaid wages, some for two years! These have led to the corruption of the otherwise, righteous.
Our ‘democracy’ is mainly what I characterise as “The Corruption of Politics and the Politics of Corruption.” As a rule, Local Government elections are swept by the ruling state party while in some state elections, victory goes to the most corrupt. The phenomenon of underage voting and voters’ inducement are not seen by most as corruption.
The ‘Running Cost’ of each Distinguished Senator (apart from his salaries and allowances) which stands at N13.5 million monthly, is nothing but a metaphor for corruption. We also suffer from intra- and inter-agency rivalries amongst institutions that should help us fight corruption.
Yet, we can effectively fight corruption if we can punish the corrupt. If corruption is unprofitable as in China where the corrupt can lose everything. If we learn from China to adequately provide for public officers and bar those from the directorate level and their families from private business so they will not explain away sudden wealth. If we make public institutions like the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, accountable to the people rather than claiming immunity from public scrutiny. Above all, we must provide the basic needs of our people; there can be no right to starvation or homelessness. Generally, if society understands that corruption impoverishes, under-develops and kills, then we would have waves of humanity whistle-blowing and not a trickle of whistleblowers. In conclusion, we need to build a New Nigeria where sovereignty will belong to the people and the people believe in their country.