It is really rather difficult to sustain a conversation about Nigerian politics without the issue of corruption very quickly making its shameful appearance. Indeed, ‘Corruption in Nigeria’ is an issue that has, alarmingly, been deemed worthy of its own Wikipedia page. My response, in friendly encounters, is often to attempt to have my compatriot see that there is more than one way to look at the influence of corruption in any political society, including Nigeria.
I have spent quite a number of years being thoroughly unconvinced by the argument that corruption in Nigeria is one dimensional. That it exists primarily at the top and then filters down in what would have to be the most linear fashion of any political variable in the entire history of human existence. And that it is the fundamental cause of all that is wrong with Nigeria. By this argument, and in this analysis of the narrow sphere of national politics, corruption would constitute what philosophers call an unmoved mover. In application to corruption, it would mean that corruption affects and explains everything, whilst nothing prior or anterior to it has any effect either on corruption itself or on the things that corruption is held to solitarily influence.
You see why such an understanding of corruption in any political society, and no less in Nigeria, is really very difficult to swallow. This is not to say that I do not understand where those who view corruption in Nigeria in this almost metaphysical light are coming from. Many of those who hold this view of corruption’s influence in Nigeria are Nigerians themselves, and with an indisputably deep love of Nigeria.
The “corruption” that they view, on a daily basis, to affect their lives is the obvious and seemingly indiscriminate fraudulence and crookedness of many of our leaders. Leaders who are so simple-minded as to flaunt their extortion in public – as if intensely corrupt politicians do not exist in other parts of the world. Ours, densely wear their ill-gotten gains around their necks for all who have eyes to see. And such a society that places high levels of worth on showy material wealth is Nigeria becoming, that their unsophisticated racketeering is nearly understandable.
There are street hoodlums who operate with infinitely higher degrees of cleverness than some of Nigeria’s leaders. The difference being the former have often earned their wares in a damn sight more respectable manner than our politicians.
There are others who continue to posit what I think is the illogical and practically untrue understanding of corruption in Nigeria, particularly in foreign academic and policy circles, whose love of the country is highly doubtful. Any response to these can only be a waste of time so far as genuine political development driven by an honest concern goes.
I have no trouble whatsoever superficially agreeing with the former; those who know and love Nigeria. There is no level of Nigerian political leadership at which corruption is not rife. And it is at the state level where the numbers are most highly stacked. Whilst most often focus their critical gaze on national incumbents, it is really at the level of state governorships where the socio-economic effects of corruption can be properly viewed.
From Ayo Fayose, the governor of Ekiti State who is currently embroiled in impeachment proceedings to James Ibori, the disgraced governor of Delta State between 1999 and 2007, the number of state governors involved in corrupt practices would, taken together, make many corrupt politicians at the federal level look nothing short of lazy. Since 1999, 7 state governors have been impeached on a variety of corruption charges. And these are just the ones we were able to legally sanction.
In a federation such as ours, state governments are constitutionally determined to operate semi-autonomously from the federal government. As such, it is alarming that only a handful of our 36 states generate the bulk of their own revenue, which according to the constitution is only to be supplemented by the federal budget and not to be entirely provided for by it. Even a state such as Lagos, which has been highly noted for its internal revenue generating mechanisms still received NGN 168 billion in the 2013 federal allocations, never mind a state like Akwa Ibom which received NGN 260 billion in the same fiscal year.
The problem with this is that federal allocations, unlike internal tax revenue, for example, is a highly unaccountable substance in a country that generates much of its national income from oil. With an extraordinary amount of executive power resting in the office of state governors, it is clear to see the room that is available for malfeasance when GDPs in some states are higher than those of entire countries. A 2010 report by the Lagos Bureau of Statistics estimates the GDP of Lagos State at USD 80.6 billion. This is higher than the GDPs of some states within the United States and higher even than the entire GDPs of Kenya and Ghana respectively.
It is no surprise, therefore, the number of contestants in the state governorship elections that were held on the 11th of April this year, who have come out to contest the election results. Those challenging the disputed results from Nasarawa, Imo State, Abia State, Delta State, and Taraba State, all know the potential stakes are very high indeed. And it would be very easy to conclude, as many do, that if only Nigerian politicians stopped stealing all of our nation’s monetary wealth, all would be well.
And yet, it needs to be understood that corruption is not an unmoved mover. Neither practically, nor metaphysically, is corruption the solitary cause of all of Nigeria’s political and socio-economic ills. Corruption is as much the effect of a poor structural environment in which it is allowed to thrive as it is “the cause”, in a narrow sense, of other dysfunctions that it itself goes on to affect.
What I find especially fascinating about the Nigerian discussion that often surrounds corruption, is just how dishonest it can be. Those who spout on about political crookedness from one side of their mouths will, out of the other, often be adding to its existence. From the upper classes, to the middle and lower classes, nobody is exempt from engaging in day-to-day behaviours that continue to foment an environment in which it makes a great deal of practical sense to be “corrupt.”
That is, I suppose, what marks corruption in Nigeria out from corruption in other countries. There are very few politicians in developed countries that are not as rotten as ours, though they may be a great deal more sophisticated in its operation. The difference is that the average citizen in any one of these countries, does not on a daily basis need to engage in small scale bribery and graft simply to get through the day.
When officials in these countries misbehave, the reaction of citizens is not to say well if he or she is getting their own, then they should be giving me some. It is not unfamiliar for citizens in my great nation to rely fundamentally on corrupt practices by politicians in order to themselves be fed. In other words, there are many cases in Nigeria where the existence of corrupt politicians substitutes the function of the state.
In Nigeria, as in many other societies where clientelism is rife, “corruption” is literally the system that has been created to supplement, or in some spheres to substitute, the absence of the state. Corruption, in many cases, makes up for an ineffective legal system, a non-functioning welfare system, a thoroughly inadequate public health care system, and a lacking national pensions scheme. These are all things that themselves affect the level of corruption one is liable to find in any society. They are structural things, the absence of which inflames corruption. And it is these things that might be said to have an influence not only on corruption but on all those other areas of under development which many stop short in their analysis in blaming solely on corruption.
But, of course, high levels of corruption stymie any attempt to build these very structures. Which is why the inability of governors in many states to refrain from stealing state funds (or at least to engage in it more modestly) and to generate enough of their own internal revenues which are more accountable and more amenable to building these systems more sustainably is also highly problematic. It is a multi-dimensional, multi path relationship.
But any citizen who wishes to be taken seriously in their complaint against corruption in Nigeria must also take very seriously the role that they themselves might be playing in cementing its position in Nigerian daily life. From the easy bribes we pay just to get out of the irritation of arguing with petty officials, to the value we have shamefully grown to place on showing off, which means we do not ask questions of those who, given their circumstances, clearly ought not to be able to afford much of what they flaunt. The refrain from the Nigerian populace can no longer be, “oga, where my own now?” This too, is a two-way street.