There are many problems that are putting unbearable pressure on Nigerians and Nigeria. Officials who were elected to govern, including those who were assigned specific tasks to help to engineer solutions to national development challenges, have either flopped, abdicated their responsibility, or used the opportunity to defraud the country.
For 60 years, Nigeria experimented with different modes of government. During that period, nothing worked. Military dictators marched onto the scene, applied coercion, frog-marched everyone, introduced the so-called War Against Indiscipline (WAI), and attempted an agricultural revolution. All the half-baked ideas failed. There is a world of difference between intimidating citizens through the barrel of the gun and using persuasive arguments to gain public support.
During their tenure, military dictators regaled us with tales of their strict anti-corruption policy that was designed ingeniously to enrich themselves and impoverish everyone else.
Then came democracy. Elected Presidents invented fanciful anti-corruption campaign taglines that impressed a few people but yielded nothing. For years, elections in Nigeria took on the character of bloody warfare. Rather than allow people to vote peacefully according to their conscience, politicians showed a preference for violence, for bullying, and for terrorising voters with weapons of war. To understand when elections are on, all you have to do is listen to sporadic gunshots emanating from polling stations.
All these have prompted the question: When would Nigerians take election as a free, fair, and transparent contest in which the best candidates with the best programmes and the best persuasive skills are endorsed through the ballot box?
Unfortunately, neither military dictators nor elected Presidents did anything significant to improve the socioeconomic conditions of ordinary people. For six decades, citizens watched their welfare decline, their security and safety weakened, and the lives of their beloved ones brutally terminated by criminals and agents of the state.
This hostile environment and deceptive leadership contributed to reasons why civil society feels miserable and sceptical of the existing political system. It is the reason why everyone feels hung up rather than happy with political leaders. Someone said Nigeria is a work-in-progress. That is a fitting description. At no time in history do we all feel more deprived, more deceived, more abandoned, and more helpless than we have felt over the past 15 years. At no time has everyone been weighed down by economic hardships, healthcare problems, and uncertainties about the future.
Why are officials of government elected or appointed to govern in the interest of the public appear keen to hold the country down, to embezzle our commonwealth, and to convert government property to their personal assets?
Do we have political leaders with a deep sense of responsibility and a clear sense of where the country should be going? Does our political system require radical reforms? Is the system flawed? Are we a law-abiding people or a crooked people with an entitlement culture? Is the judiciary corrupt? Do we have an unequivocal foreign policy or an ambiguous policy that is mocked at inter-governmental meetings, workshops, and conferences?
In the past two decades and more, there have been unresolved corruption scandals that still trouble our sense of right and wrong behaviour. Consider the national fury over the scandal named properly by the media as Dasuki-gate. For years, the case dominated national discourse. There were questions about how far it would go, and what the outcomes might be. The case exposed the disgraceful activities of the good and the bad, the high and the low, the poor and the rich, religious men and women, irreverent men and women, political impostors, fly-by-night image makers, and just about anybody with interest in government business.
Part of the problems that have held Nigeria down for many years is that there are too many enemies within. How do you deal with people who reside in such a complicated country? There are many stories of sharp practices in Nigeria that need to be brought up to date. Unfortunately, journalists see no value in following up systematically on news stories they reported previously. It was this lack of follow-up that prompted Alhaji Alade Odunewu, venerated as the grandfather of Nigerian print journalism, to denounce the failure of journalists to investigate stories that were reported in the past. His criticism came during his 80th birthday anniversary lecture on December 13, 2005.
In the lecture, Alhaji Odunewu said: “No persistent follow-up to stories. For example, while the Department of Customs uses the media to publicise the arrest of smugglers, the media do not follow up by asking questions: where are the seized goods? Where are the culprits? Also, the police use the media to publicise the arrest of highway robbers, but very little is known of what happened to the culprits after that.”
The scandals that emerged in the second decade of the 21st century over the mysterious embezzlement of police pension fund and the oil subsidy swindle deserve an update. In March 2012, Abdulrasheed Maina, chairperson of the task force on pension reform, shocked the nation when he revealed that a syndicate comprising the permanent secretary in a federal ministry and other senior officials had been stealing pension funds and thereby defrauding the Federal Government of over N3 billion every month. That revelation showed just how the privileged class defraud the poor and the nation.
Maina, a man with a lot of baggage on his head, also mentioned how N28 billion that belonged to the police pension fund was lodged in an unidentified bank account while N15 billion was spent on the purchase of grandiose property by some people in the pension unit of the Office of the Head of Service. Maina also said more than 44,000 workers who retired between 1968 and 1975 were denied their pension benefits.
As the fraud in the police pension funds was attracting sustained public criticisms, the oil subsidy scandal also received the critical attention of some high-profile people such as Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and Pastor Tunde Bakare. Soyinka said the oil subsidy scandal provided an authentic ground for Nigerians to protest publicly against corruption, insisting that “the level of thievery in the country is not unrelated to the level of violence we witness today.” Soyinka said at a press conference in Lagos on April 30, 2012, that everyone “must be prepared to march and halt the trend of corruption.”
Despite these calls, nothing has happened. We are good at yelling at suspected corrupt officials but weak at taking action. Many people have identified weak leadership as the main problem that has held Nigeria back since independence. Along with that must be added a weak civil society.
When a sleepy civil society looks up to leaders and sees no role models, when people look to leaders to practise what they preach but see the leaders violate the basic principles of their sermon, everyone gets the message that we are in a country with no rules, no laws, no enforcers and, strangely, no criminals.
To fight corruption effectively in Nigeria, every government must commit to prosecute decisively and impassively public officers who are accused of corruption. It is the government’s obligation to move public debate on corruption from the platform of speech-making to the podium of practical action. The problem remains: Who will watch the watchdog?