Simon Kolawole: Corruption And The Nigerian Project

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What is corruption? Ask a typical Nigerian, and the response is likely to be “government officials stealing our money”. This definition effectively shields the lecturer who forces students to buy his books before they can pass his course; the journalist who demands money to write a story; the company executive who awards contracts to himself through fronts; NGOs and activists who falsify their accounts to their donors; lawyers who prepare and seal fraudulent deals; etc. Everybody is oiling the corruption chain in their own humble way. I have always argued, and will never stop arguing, that people don’t become corrupt the day they join government. The grooming process starts from their childhood. They practise corruption in bits and pieces until they get into position of access. Look at this: is it the market woman who falsifies scales that will suddenly become upright when she becomes a council chairman or commissioner?

Transparency International defines corruption as “an abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. My interest today is public sector corruption which is universally acknowledged as the major obstacle to our development. There is a consistent reference to how much we make from oil and how the people are still living in poverty because of corruption. This backwardness is evident in the kilometres of bad roads, the state of public schools, the unhealthy hospitals, the communities without safe water, the power cuts, the population of out-of-school children, infant and maternal mortality, and several other indicators. If our common wealth were judiciously managed, we would not be where we are today. That’s a fact.

The business of government corruption has two faces: small-to-medium scale and large scale. The small-to-medium scale officers usually demand some coins to move your file from desk to desk, like in renewing vehicle licence or processing land application. The large-scale operators are the big hitters who do their graft business in millions and billions. They are mostly at the top of the ladder, with approving power. There are also “market forces” – the demand and supply sides. Sometimes, it is the officials that demand; other times, we supply even before we are asked for a bribe, believing that this is how government business works. The end result is that we run a society full of short-cuts, where those who can’t turn on a car engine are already in possession of driving licences. And so it goes.

Why are government officials corrupt? There are broadly two motivating factors: poverty and greed. There are those who are corrupt because they are poor. There is no way their salaries can pay their bills. The other side is greed. Those ones have conquered poverty. They are no longer worried about bills. But they want to stuff as much as possible in their pockets, perhaps afraid that one day, they would no longer have the kind of access they currently enjoy. Poverty also gives way to greed. As people rise up the ladder in public office, they find themselves in positions to conduct big-ticket stealing. Having been mentored over time and seen how their superiors lined their pockets, they too quickly move in to grab and grub. And so it goes.

Large-scale corruption, meanwhile, is seen as the major cause of the mangled Nigerian project. The millions and millions and billions and billions that disappear from our treasury on a daily basis continue to hurt the prospect of a prosperous Nigeria. Large-scale corruption manifests in two major forms: outright looting and inflation of contracts or costs (there are many other forms, of course). Outright stealing is the looting of public resources without any attempt to execute projects. The money is simply stolen. Some bad roads we drive on have actually been built, according to government records. The fund is stolen 100 per cent. Also, it is very easy to steal recurrent budgets, especially consumables, as the evidence to nail the perpetrators can be easily manipulated. A classic example of outright looting is the pension funds scam running into billions of naira.

Inflation of contracts (or costs) also grievously hurts the development process. The cost of a bridge that would ordinarily be N200 million may be inflated to N2 billion. It means what should build 10 bridges and accelerate the development process has been “spent” on only one bridge! What could construct 200km of roads would be spent on just 20km. So the infrastructural development process is slowed down. However, many may argue that inflation of contracts is still better than outright stealing. If you build a bridge for N200million and claim it cost N2 billion, at least we can see the bridge and use it. You can’t steal the bridge! You could have stolen the entire N2 billion without building any bridge. But, let’s be clear about this, corruption is corruption. There is always a price to pay.

While all forms of corruption hurt us terribly – private or public sector, small scale or large scale, outright looting or inflation of costs – the most damaging to the progress of Nigeria, in my opinion, is outright looting. Inflation of contracts is also damaging but it is in degrees. There is moderate inflation and there is hyperinflation. When you inflate a N1 billion contract to N1.2 billion, you can be described as a “moderate thief”.  But what about inflating it to N10 billion? That is the most commonplace variant in Nigeria. Hyperinflation of contracts is as damaging as outright looting. They are, in fact, two sides of the same coin! That is why even if crude oil sells for $1000 a barrel today, we would still have little to show for it. There are too many checkpoints! The greed is insane.

Until we tone down hyperinflation of contracts and checkmate outright looting at all levels of government, the Nigerian project will continue to be slow and stunted. It would be like pouring drums of water into a basket. I agree that even without corruption, Nigeria will not develop if we don’t have competent people ruling over us. However, I believe we have enough competent hands in government. But insane greed is getting the better part of them. That is why Nigeria is like this.


And Four Other Things…

It’s over a week now that President Goodluck Jonathan discovered the rot at Police College, Ikeja, first-hand. I thought by now heads would have rolled. I would not be disappointed, though, if no heads rolled. We are used to such things in this clime. Every year, we prepare budgets running into trillions of naira, presumably to make Nigeria a better place. If these funds were actually spent on the items listed in the budget, Nigeria would not be where it is now. While there are many ways of fighting corruption and incompetence, it wouldn’t hurt to make scapegoats of those who are caught first-hand.

Should Nigeria have sent troops to Mali to fight the insurgents? Of course, yes. There are no questions about that. Allow those guys to take over Mali and kiss peace goodbye in the sub-region, even the continent, even the Middle East. Al-Qaeda will have a new operational base in Africa from where they can begin to launch their so-called Islamisation campaign, with Nigeria being the primary target. The attack on a truck conveying our Mali-bound soldiers in Kogi State should be a final confirmation that the sympathisers of these insurgents are everywhere. How on earth they knew the destination of the soldiers is anybody’s guess.

Anyone still in doubt as to our priorities in this country should go to the University of Abuja. Shut down since November last year after a students’ protest over accreditation of courses, the campus has now become a refugee camp following a communal clash in nearby villages. Cattle have taken over the campus, where we are supposed to be training the leaders of tomorrow. Who came up with this bizarre idea? Why didn’t they move the refugees to Aso Rock or National Assembly complex and build tents for them there? When are we going to start taking ourselves seriously in Nigeria?

The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) has disowned a report attributed to it which rated Sokoto as the poorest state in Nigeria. The state government had let all hell loose, claiming it was “political”, asking its lawyer to write NBS. Goodness me! If I were the governor, the report would be a tool for me to accelerate the development of the state. I would use it to demand more from the federation account on the basis of “need”, and appeal to international organisations for support to fight poverty. Lee Kwan Yew still wanted Singapore classified as poor long after they had developed, in order to get more concessions!


This article was first published in ThisDay.

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