Akinola: Nigeria’s history of corruption
UNTIL President Olusegun Obasanjo began his crusade against corruption via the Anti-Corruption law, “Welcome to the country of corruption” would have been an appropriate inscription at Nigeria’s international airports! The anxiety of airport officials to extort money from those travelling into and out of the country, be they Nigerians or foreigners, was there for all to see. To the corrupt members of the police force, any criminal was welcome provided he paid the price being asked by the officer.
And in the civil service, right from the messenger to the official at the very top, any duty performed was based on what could be extracted from whoever sought their services. In short, corruption pervaded every stratum of Nigerian society. The use of the past tense is not to suggest that Nigeria has now been transformed into a corruption free environment.
Ranging from petty bribery to virtually ordering the Central Bank of Nigeria to siphon money into private bank accounts in overseas countries, corruption takes various forms that only a specialist in the subject will be keen to detail. The usual defence of the small offender is to blame corruption on the extended family system, which puts heavy demands on meagre earnings, but when it comes to the scale of graft by those at the top echelons of government it is nothing but greed. The only reason why Nigeria is underdeveloped and indebted to the IMF is the corruption of the trustees of the national purse. Such corruption has tended to be on the increase with successive governments since independence in 1960.
The prominent politicians of the First Republic (1960-1966) were flamboyant, rode in Pontiacs and Chevrolets, and lived in big houses. Although corruption was not an issue, as regional rivalry and inter-party wrangling were the dominant themes during this era. Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, the man who directed their overthrow, nevertheless described them as “ten-percenters”, i.e., they demanded 10 per cent of the value of contracts they awarded. In fact many politicians, both at the regional and federal levels of government, were indicted by the military administration that eventually took over the reins of government.
The succeeding government headed by Major General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi could be said to have consisted of true professionals who were more accustomed to life in the officers’ mess than the luxury of the outside. Many of the top officers never built houses of their own and were not “permitted” to stay long in office to be tainted with accusations of corruption.
The same could hardly be said of the soldiers who overthrew the Ironsi administration. The civil war (1967-70) and the oil wealth during the Gowon era (July 1966-July 1975) brought a new dimension to official corruption in Nigeria. It was an era of “boom” for soldiers and their surrogates who masqueraded as contractors. While General Yakubu Gowon himself has continued to live a relatively modest life style since being ousted from power (he is said not to have built a house for himself while in office), 10 of his 12 state governors were indicted for corruption and self-enrichment by the Murtala Muhammed-Obasanjo administration.
The Murtala-Obasanjo government (1975-79) deserved to be described as a “corrective” regime as it made frantic efforts to sanitise society by its purge of officials who were either corrupt or unproductive, and its strict adherence to policies and programmes outlined for a return to civilian rule. However, that administration could not be said to be free of corruption accusations or insinuations. Certain individuals were believed to have been enriched through money paid for contracts that were partly performed or not performed at all. Some principal members of the government retired to embark on business ventures that could back up the suggestion that they had used their positions to enrich themselves while in office. For instance, the late Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua emerged from government to become a bank owner and one of the richest Nigerians of his time. Lt.-General Theophilus Danjuma is a wealthy individual, while General Olusegun Obasanjo’s farm at Ota has been described as a village of its own. The late Chief Awolowo referred to Obasanjo’s farm as a “latifundia” in a bitter letter he wrote to the latter which was published by the Nigerian Tribune in December 1979, and it cannot be forgotten that the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti made scurrilous references to the general in the International Thief
Thief (ITT) record.
Be that as it may, Obasanjo faithfully handed over power to an elected government and that stood him in good stead. But the return of democracy in the Shehu Shagari era (1979-83) meant the return of the political termites and the democratisation of corruption. Corruption was witnessed in every level of government, and was not limited to any political party. However, the NPN-controlled executive was the worst offender. The competition by NPN stalwarts to own private jets and outsmart one another in the amount of money stashed in overseas banks was unprecedented. Most Nigerians hailed the overthrow of the politicians of the Second Republic. Their excesses were such that the late Chief J.M. Johnson, a prominent politician in the First Republic, prayed never again to witness democracy in his lifetime.
Senator Arthur Nzeribe, himself a member of the legislature, organised a rally in London in support of the soldiers who had overthrown a civilian government he described as very corrupt. Many of the politicians were consigned into detention by the Buhari-Idiagbon government, and large sums of money recovered from them. An attempt was made to “crate” Umaru Dikko from the United Kingdom to Nigeria to face charges of corruption, of which he was the acknowledged czar.
The incoming administration of Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (1984-85) and his new conquerors of democracy is better remembered for its tyranny and “triple standard” in political decisions than for corruption, although it must be said that the prominent actors some of whom had served under the Murtala-Obasanjo administration, refused to declare their assets publicly on assumption of office. What the era gave to the world of corruption was General Ibrahim Babangida who overthrew his colleagues in a palace coup, and established a government of his own.
The Babangida government (1985-93), it must be emphasised, elevated corruption to an instrument of state policy. General Babangida would seem to have believed that every Nigerian had a price tag on his head. This was described by General Obasanjo as a policy of “settling” opponents. The government enriched its actors and many friends, and General Babangida himself is not doing badly in the life of unexplainable luxury into which he was forced to retire. The culmination of corruption and robbery during the Babangida era was the case of the nation’s windfall from oil during the Gulf crisis – a windfall estimated at about $12 billion – which is yet to be accounted for.
Babangida was the decent operator compared with General Sani Abacha (1993-98) who transformed Nigeria into a family company in which every member was a shareholder. The Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria was accountable to the family, and had to make available whatever sums of money were demanded by any of its members. Revelations have continued to be made of Abacha’s billions in foreign bank accounts, and the wealth of his collaborators is known to many Nigerians.
The sudden death of Abacha is a classic moral lesson about vanity. However, his successor, General Abdusalami Abubakar, would appear to have ignored this lesson. He satisfied his own urge and those of his close associates before leaving office. The Christopher Kolade inquiry set up by President Obasanjo indicted the Abubakar administration in its findings over contract awards and financial transactions that were hastily made between June 1998 and May 1999.
The entry of the civilian politicians, with President Obasanjo’s emphasis on the eradication of corruption, brought succour to an embattled citizenry who had witnessed the worst excesses of authoritarian rule. Elected politicians, unlike military dictators, are accountable to the Nigerian electorate, and that is why democracy must be protected at all costs. The revelations of corruption in the Senate, which resulted in the impeachment of its president (Dr. Chuba Okadigbo) and the resignation of top officers, are sad but encouraging in the sense that the Idris Kuta probe was instituted by the senators themselves. The crusade against corruption at the governmental level must be a continuous process. The crusade has not ceased in Great Britain, one of the oldest democracies of the world. What is significant in Britain is that a case of corruption, once identified, does not go unpunished. The House of Commons continues to reform itself, as evidenced by the rule requiring every member to enter into the register of interests any commitment outside Parliament, even the publication of an article in a newspaper, which brings in a financial reward of more than £500.
To fight corruption in society at large, successive governments must identify policies that seek to eradicate ignorance and poverty. The way to eradicate ignorance is for governments to invest in a system of education which, from primary to university level, teaches the citizenry about their civic and legal rights among other things. As for poverty, governments must provide opportunities for the people and social security for those who are unemployed or unemployable. The crusade against poverty must include improvements in transport, housing and health facilities, so that those on minimum earnings can still live with contentment.
Attempt to give a gift of money to a British youngster, and the 90 per cent probability is that he or she will ask you, “What for”? One can hardly say that about the Nigerian counterpart, and that is why poverty is the very root cause of corruption in society.
• Dr. Akinola lives in Oxford, United Kingdom. This article was first published by the West Africa Magazine in 2002.