Some people believe corruption is a way of life in Nigeria. They are absolutely correct. Despite President Muhammadu Buhari’s ongoing pursuit of corrupt public officials and politicians, particularly those who served in the government of former President Goodluck Jonathan, corruption has continued to characterise our way of life. It is at the centre of government business. It is the code word for doing business in private and public sectors. Anyone who can successfully tackle and eliminate or reduce corruption in Nigeria will qualify automatically for a Nobel Prize.
Part of the reasons politicians continue to raid the national treasury with impunity and part of the reasons they hold the nation by the throat is that members of civil society do not want to die for the good of society. In local vernacular, people ask: Who wan die for country? Why, for example, would anyone sacrifice their precious life so that others would live long and benefit from the toil of those who departed prematurely? It is a smart, sound judgment but it is also the kind of argument that people who lack courage are known for.
We continue to hear too many criticisms of political leaders but you won’t find anyone willing to take the first step to commence non-stop, non-violent protest. When you look at what has happened or is happening in other countries, how unarmed citizens rose to challenge their leaders, we admire their courage and their readiness to sacrifice their lives. I am still hearing today the same angry complaints and yells I heard in my youth many years ago about lack of transparency in government, about lack of accountability by political leaders, about high levels of corruption and embezzlement of public funds by national leaders, elected politicians, and senior public officials.
On Saturday, 4 October, 2014, businessman Arthur Eze described Nigerian politicians as morally bankrupt and selfish. He said “our politicians do not care; they are criminals and they are greedy”. There is nothing new in these remarks. We know politicians are self-centred, distastefully dishonest and live larger-than-life and devious lifestyles.
Some people have linked the mischievous conduct of political leaders and the ongoing fraudulent practices to lack of concern by the public. No one seems to care what happens, particularly how political leaders and National Assembly members enrich themselves through all manner of allowances they allocate to themselves (e.g., constituency allowance), how government contracts are inflated or padded and other underhand deals intended to enhance corrupt politicians’ bank accounts.
When civil society fails to check political leaders at national and state levels, we signal to them that their corrupt and crooked practices are acceptable to everyone. When civil society remains apathetic to corrupt enrichment by political leaders, it renounces its moral right to operate as a credible agent of social and political change.
It was former Rivers State governor, Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi, who said Nigerian political leaders continued to amass illegal wealth without self-discipline because civil society had never bothered to take serious action to stop the rot across the nation. That confession was a privileged politician’s shock exposure of how undistinguished and morally bankrupt leaders govern the nation, how they amass illegal wealth at home and open dodgy accounts in foreign countries where they deposit money stolen from national coffers. Not only do political leaders misappropriate national wealth, they also steal public property. Again, everyone shudders but life continues as usual.
Amaechi challenged civil society to rise from a state of reverie to take charge of their present and future life. He said: “You’ve heard that $50bn is missing and you have done nothing about it. In some countries people will go on the street until they return that money… If you don’t take your destiny in your hands, we will go and other leaders will come and continue stealing… If you see a thief and you allow him to be stealing, what have you done? You have stoned nobody; that is why we are stealing…”
Amaechi may not know it but his statements have provided a clear template for corrupt politicians to imitate when they serve in government. He said corruption by politicians had endured in the country because of the nonexistence of a stable and reliable civil society that could protest forcefully against abuses by state officials. Amaechi implied in his comment that a gutless, timorous and spineless civil society will always overlook the criminal activities of irresponsible political leaders, including unbridled corruption, financial irresponsibility, lack of transparency and accountability, wide-ranging abuses of human rights as well as official and unofficial misconduct.
When we hear fascinating stories of how civil societies in other countries wrested political power from incompetent and corrupt leaders, we acknowledge those feats in silence. In 2011, the world watched as civil societies exploded in anger against state officials in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. In Syria, the endless battles by numerous militant and ideological groups to take control of the government have resulted in more warfare and no peace. So far, both government forces and rebel groups have fought themselves to a stalemate.
We celebrate and point to the courage of those who drove the uprisings in Arab North Africa. The uprisings, some people suggest, symbolise the emergence of a culture of democracy and the collapse of dictatorship in those countries. Against the background of the outcomes of the “Arab Spring” in 2011, Amaechi said civil society in Nigeria lacked the strength and the ability of civil societies in North Africa. He also said civil society must rise to defend the rights of citizens, to salvage our destinies from dishonourable politicians, who lack conscience.
You might say Amaechi is the least qualified to preach to us about effective leadership, about transparency and accountability, about honesty in government and about how to hold political leaders to account. In light of his antecedents when he governed Rivers State, it might be proper for Amaechi to look himself up in his bathroom mirror to see the blemishes and allegations that soiled his reputation and the image of the government he led. He could not say he was unaware of the numerous allegations of corruption levelled against his government, even if those allegations remain unproven.
What Amaechi said about lack of guts by Nigeria’s civil society was instructive but not really groundbreaking. Nigeria is known worldwide as a nation of corrupt leaders. This is an ugly but accurate depiction of the country. Every day, people grumble and whinge about the lack of progress on the economic front even though we have a government that was elected on the platform of its promises to institute radical changes in the way we do business, in the way we perceive and treat government property, in the way the country is governed, and in the way political leaders misuse public funds and get away free. So far, people are asking: Where is the change we were promised during the presidential election campaigns in 2015?
Consider this story. The Sun newspaper reported on Thursday, 18 September, 2014, that the former Federal Executive Council (FEC) presided over by President Goodluck Jonathan, reviewed progress on two major roads, namely the Benin-Ore Expressway and the Okene-Benin Expressway. Like magic, the FEC approved a total of N147.4 billion for the completion of the Phase II dualisation of Lokoja-Benin Road Section I, II, III and IV in Kogi State and Edo State, as well as the reconstruction and asphalt overlay of Benin-Ofosu-Ore-Ajebandele-Shagamu dual carriageway Phase IV.
We were informed the contracts would take 36 months to complete. Although there is still some time before the 36 months will expire, regardless of the fact that the government of Goodluck Jonathan was defeated in the 2015 presidential election, no one knows how much the road construction has consumed, how much of the road project has been completed or abandoned, the quality of the roads constructed so far, and the extent to which the roads would survive motor vehicle traffic.
Some people have called for an end to the astonishing problems that have wrecked the image of Nigeria. Unfortunately, the people in the vanguard of such a call actually contributed to the problems we are facing today. Aminu Tambuwal, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, said on Tuesday, 2 July, 2013, that aimless leadership, wide-ranging corruption, raiding of the national treasury, widespread insecurity and the mess that is university education suggested the nation had reached the highest point of despair.
Five months after that call, exactly on Monday, 9 December, 2013, the same Tambuwal made a more vigorous attack on Goodluck Jonathan. He said Jonathan lacked the willpower to deal with enormous cases of corruption across the country. He was probably right. So far, several officials of the Jonathan administration are facing interrogation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). However, one must clarify that interrogation by an anti-corruption agency of government is not evidence the people accused of corrupt practices are guilty of the crime as charged.
At the induction of the elected members of the 8th National Assembly in Abuja in April 2015, Buhari, who was president-elect at the time, outlined the mission of his presidency, which he said would confront innumerable national problems, such as widespread insecurity and insurgency, sharp falls in revenue owing to marked reductions in oil prices, environmental damage in the Niger Delta region, prevalent corruption, unsteady and unreliable supply of electricity, death of many industries in the country, high levels of unemployment and astronomical cost of governance, among other challenges.
Buhari told members of the 8th National Assembly: “I see these development challenges as the mission of my presidency.” More than one year after the pledge, the nation is still waiting for the president to make a positive impact on the economy and the standard of living of citizens. The longer the country waits, the more difficult it will be for citizens to believe excuses from government officials about why things are not working out as promised.