Nigeria’s is a fascinating story of a corrupt country without a single corrupt person. In late September 2006, Nuhu Ribadu, the pioneer chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), told Nigerian senators that the agency had dossiers implicating numerous top political officials in 31 out of Nigeria’s 36 states.
The surprise was that any state was exempt. A mere cursory look at Nigeria suffices to conclude that here’s a land run by contemptible thieves with puny minds. There’s a clear inverse relationship between the country’s considerable earnings and its depth of destitution, infrastructural backwardness, and environmental blight.
Nine years after Mr. Ribadu’s address to a plenary session of the Senate, the EFCC’s record of prosecution and conviction of prominent political figures remains, simply, dismal. It’s as if the thieves manage, somehow, to be invisible.
No former Nigerian military dictator or their uniformed cohorts ever fiddled with a kobo of public funds. Never mind that they live in obscene splendor, often boast a private jet or two, and sit, it seems, on a bottomless pile of cash. We’re supposed to allow that it’s all the fruit of their extraordinary industry and preternatural intelligence.
In his wisdom, President Muhammadu Buhari has decided that his cabinet would not be diverse enough if it did not include a fair contingent of men under indictment for corruption, or subject to active investigation. For that matter, the president’s party had magnanimously presented to the people of Kogi State a governorship candidate whose first run in the post was punctuated by an EFCC indictment.
Amazing things happen in Nigeria. We must count among the amazements this phenomenon: Nigeria is a “thiefless” zone, yet one in which—miraculously—billions of dollars find ways of disappearing into some black hole.
In the last two weeks, two prominent members of former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration have told us, in effect, that they never filched a kobo of Nigeria’s money. From her perch in London, former Petroleum Minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke, told publisher Dele Momodu that she didn’t steal Nigeria’s money. More recently, former National Security Advisor, Sambo Dasuki, ridiculed the Buhari administration’s allegation that he steered $2 billion meant to buy weapons for Nigeria’s anti-terrorism fight into his personal pocket. Every single dollar budgeted for weaponry, Mr. Dasuki declared, was used for that purpose.
It’s not that I doubt what he and the former Petroleum Minister have said in their defense, only that I am frustrated beyond words. I mean, if nobody is stealing a thing in Nigeria, then where the heck does the money go? Accused former or serving government officials will say it’s not their job, but I’d appreciate it if some of them would be kind enough to step forward and say, “I didn’t steal, but Mr. X or Ms. Y did.” I’d even settle for a phrase less direct, more delicate: “I know I didn’t steal, but why don’t you ask Mr. X or Ms. Y.”
Former President Jonathan famously propounded the idea that stealing wasn’t corruption. I’d like to hear some of his associates declare, “I’m not corrupt—ask GEJ; I merely stole a few hundred million dollars.”
I hope the lighthearted mode of these meditations does not overshadow the profound gravity of the subject. Corruption anywhere is no joking matter. In Nigeria, it is a corrosive agent, misshaping every aspect of Nigerians’ lives, rendering their present grotesque, their future grim.
Two weeks ago, I received an email from Charles Majomi, a Nigerian based in the UK. He entitled it, “Great is the thing that knows itself.” His words brought home, in a cogent and moving manner, the palpable, if hardly examined, costs of corruption. I asked his permission to share his words with my readers. Here goes:
“The adage with which I titled this email is not an unfamiliar one to students of Eastern philosophy. It expresses a truism that is relevant in the Nigerian context because the problem of corruption is one rooted in lack of self-awareness and the self-respect that results from that.
“A drunkard stumbles around making a fool of himself because he is blissfully unaware of his surroundings, or the judgments and condemnations being heaped upon him by onlookers. So are Nigeria’s corrupt politicians drunk with the intoxication of money derived from their corrupt practices are unaware of themselves as national and international actors.
“Ensconced within their bizarre world, they are shielded from ‘knowledge of self’ by the armies of sycophantic opportunists who shower them with unearned accolades and praise their buffoonery to no end. Within their bizarre world they lavish themselves with the trappings of wealth suited to the likes of men like Bill Gates who had built their fortunes over a lifetime of hard work. So removed from reality are they that they forget why they were elected to political office in the first place, they forget who they were or where they came from—they live and operate in the land of cuckoo.
“We have heard all the stories about corruption, we have been lectured, incessantly, on the mechanisms, the opaque structures, the collusions, the offshore accounts, the undeclared assets, the front men, the unfulfilled contracts etc, etc,…but what about the consequences? At the heart of these outrages are tragic consequences: the child genius that will never know his/her potential; the doctors that will never be; the road accidents that should never have been; the suicides, the murders, the frauds…in fact the whole plethora of human tragedies that were and are a direct consequence of these corrupt drunkards.
“Maybe, just maybe, focusing on the ample tragedies that occur in the daily lives of ordinary Nigerians, as a direct result of these ‘leaders,’ is a sure way of placing the proverbial ‘mirror’ in their front, so they can truly appreciate (for all to see) the bloated, disfigured drunken monsters that they have become.
“I had the pleasure of meeting you in London. I believe that you would be doing a service to Nigerians by focusing more on their plight, as a causal consequence of the looting, rather than on the daily and increasingly perfunctory thieving activities of these guys…We know what they are doing, what is less known is the collective and personalized fallout of their actions.”
I couldn’t have stated it more eloquently.
Okey Ndibe novelist, political columnist, and essayist. He teaches fiction and African literature at Trinity College in Hartford, USA. He is the author of the novels, Arrows of Rain and Foreign Gods Inc. He tweets from @okeyndibe.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.