The very popular opinion is that Nigeria’s greatest challenge is corruption and that when it is effectively checked the nation’s development will progress more rapidly. Indeed the current APC led federal government of President Mohamadu Buhari (PMB) anchored its “change” campaign on three thematic areas namely – corruption, security and the economy. In fact for the administration, corruption is the foundation of the problem. This is the thinking of most Nigerians and indeed foreigners. Nigerians have the unenviable reputation world- wide as being corrupt people. The recent labeling of the country as being “fantastically corrupt” by the immediate past British Prime Minister Mr. David Cameron comes to mind.
It is true of course that corruption has become endemic in the Nigerian national life. It is pervasive and has permeated all facets of society and not just the public sector. But is corruption the problem with Nigeria or is it a symptom of a deeper national malaise?
In considering this question a number of real life scenarios come to mind. First, while I lived in Lagos I participated actively in my neighborhood Residents Association, the Onikan Residents Association. These types of associations are very popular in residential areas in Lagos. All the residents of Onikan in Lagos Island were members of this Association. We contributed money to provide common services in the neighborhood such as security in particular, waste disposal and sanitation sometimes electricity and water.
The executive committee of the Association consisted of Nigerians. The Executive Committee never mismanaged the money contributed by members. In fact they usually strived very hard to justify the confidence their neighbors had reposed in them. At the monthly meetings they gave full and detailed account of their activities and how monies were expended on projects. If for any reason they failed to give account, the members demanded it of them. Everyone who aspired to the Executive Committee aspired to provide service and never to enrich himself or herself with the money of the Association. The members also always strived to select the most reputable of their neighbors to lead the Executive Committee. Wherever there was a case of mismanagement or embezzlement which was very rare, the members sanctioned whoever was responsible. In fact if a case of theft of the money of the Association was established against any Executive member, such a member would likely be ostracized from the neighborhood!
Contrast this scenario with what happens at for example the Lagos Island Local Government. The citizens of Lagos Island including Onikan residents actually expect the Chairman of the Local Government Council to enrich himself from the funds of the Council. The more successfully he does so the more he is acclaimed as successful by the citizens. An aspirant to the office of Chairman of Council actually expects to enrich himself and his family members and cronies from that office. The occupant of that office will usually be invited to be the chief launcher at occasions and functions of family, friends, churches and other civil societies. People will say “it his turn to chop” and hail him for being “lucky”! Yet if the Local Government Council functioned properly, associations like the Onikan Residents Association will be redundant or even unnecessary.
Secondly, I come from Ugep in Yakurr Local Government Council of Cross River State. It is a large town that has anecdotally been referred to as “the largest native village in West Africa”. One reputation of the town among many is that it is a town that has grown from or as a result of very strong communal cooperative effort. The town had a community development association known as “Ugep Union” (later Ugep Development Council). All able bodied and working men and women were expected to belong to and contribute to this association. The proceeds were then used to undertake developmental projects in the town including training students in schools.
I recall the pride in my father’s voice when he told me what this association accomplished for the town – the Ugep Community Secondary Grammar School, the Girls School, the now General hospital in Ugep, pipe borne water, scholarships and so on. It was a matter of personal pride and a sign of responsibility and accomplishment to be a contributor to this fund and so enforcement was usually not necessary. Those who did not contribute or tried to dodge this responsibility were looked down upon as failures and unsuccessful people.
The association had an executive committee which managed the money and made sure it was appropriately utilized for its purpose. There was no question of embezzling the funds. If you tried it and were still alive after that, you would be ostracized from the town and your family stigmatized forever. The most reputable people in the town were usually selected to be members of the executive committee.
The Federal Government in the course of time then created “Ugep Local Government Area”. This Local Government Area included Ugep Town and other surrounding communities. The irony was that anyone who was elected Chairman of the Local Government Council was expected by the community to enrich himself as much as possible from that office. In fact if he did not, his kinsmen will call on him very early in the morning to query him! He was considered as “lucky” to occupy the office and so it was “his turn to chop”. I couldn’t hide my shock when a relative of mine was measuring the successful Local Government Chairmen by the size and quality of their private houses which they built when they became chairmen. The bigger your private house, the more “successful” you were adjudged to be. A particular Local Government Chairman who was unable to build a house for himself after serving as Chairman is till date the laughing stock of the town and the local example of a failure!
Nobody takes pride in paying taxes or levies to the Local Government Council. In fact the least tax you paid the smarter you were. Only second class citizens paid tax. The real “sons of the soil” cannot pay tax! They are too well connected to do so!
The third scenario that comes to mind is the situation with the national football teams of the country. Whenever any national football team is playing everyone in the country cheers the team to victory. Nobody cares or minds where the individual players come from. In fact there has never been any cry of “ethnic marginalization” when it comes to the national football teams neither has the principle of “federal character” ever applied. The only criterion that is important to Nigerians is that a member of the team can play well. So why do the forms of corruption such as nepotism, tribalism, religious bigotry not apply to the national football teams? I will say that it is because Nigerians for some reason have appropriated football as their sport! The game comes so naturally to Nigerians of all extractions and the personal love for this game is what is reflected on a national scale!
There are many societies, clubs, associations, communities, private institutions run by Nigerians where they exhibit very high standards of professionalism skill and care, very high ethical standards of accountability, probity, discipline, commitment to service, honesty and integrity. It is just that these qualities are not popularly exhibited in the public services. They are not exhibited in government. The question is why?
I am persuaded by the instances I have recalled above that Nigerians are not corrupt by nature. In my view, Nigerians are fiercely loyal and committed to themselves, their families and friends, their communities and associations, to their own things to which they have developed a sense of ownership and belonging. They are honest, loyal and committed to those things which they consider “their own”. They are committed, loyal and honest to their businesses, their families, their ethnic communities or tribes, their social and religious organizations and so on. But they are not committed, loyal and honest when it comes to government.
I believe that Nigerians lack an intrinsic sense of “ownership” of government as it is in Nigeria today hence that sense of disloyalty. There is the sense at the back of the mind of the average Nigerian that government is an “alien” institution that does not belong to them. It appears that government lacks that beneficial social connection, that cultural and traditional connection or affinity with the Nigerian people that can inspire in the ordinary Nigerian a sense of loyalty and commitment to government or a sense of “ownership” of government such as may be inspired by the ethnic community of the Nigerian or his personal business or social club or association.
I hold the opinion that what manifests as corruption in all its variants in contemporary Nigerian national life are symptoms of the absence of a “Nigerian national spirit” in the average Nigerian and this is why he/she does not see government as “his/her own”. The mindset of most Nigerians is one of “government business is nobody’s business” and because it is “nobody’s business” nobody cares about it. In my view, this mindset is the root cause of corruption in Nigeria in the scale in which it is in today.
In the scenario I described earlier about my hometown, our people were and are still inspired by the sense of their being from Ugep and the desire to improve “their community”. They have confidence in their traditional system of administration of the town which is autochthonous to them and protects and provides for them and allows them to express themselves and fulfill their aspirations. They came together and created a structure for themselves which they understood and for their own benefit. They came together united by that spirit of being “Ugep people” to do something to better their community and because it is “their own” they are fiercely loyal to it and would protect it tenaciously.
While this “communal” or “ethnic national spirit” exists among Nigerians in relation to their various ethnic groups, it does not exist in a “Nigerian” sense hence my position about the absence of a “Nigerian national spirit”. People see themselves as Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo, Ijaw, Bini, Nupe, Efik/Ibibio, Tiv etc. “Nigeria” is an alien construct which they found themselves in through no cause or choice of theirs and so when they engage with it, the engagement is exploitative for their personal benefit, those of their friends and the benefit of their ethnic groups! “What did he do for his people?” is a popular refrain in judging public office holders in Nigeria.
In my view, this is the fundamental problem with Nigeria and indeed many African countries. The challenge of leadership and nation building today is to create this national spirit in Nigerian national life, to create a sense of a “Nigerian nationhood” in the mind of the ordinary Nigerian.
In discussing this subject with some family and friends I have had several differing opinions on the subject. Some hold the opinion that corruption exists in the scale it does in Nigeria because of the failure of government to enforce the laws relating to corruption in the country. Some advocate for orientation and reorientation among the citizenry to deal with the problem. I agree with these prescriptions but the thrust of my argument is that these prescriptions will only work in circumstances where the people themselves see government as an institution which belongs to them and they are willing to protect it!
My argument is that the Nigerian state along with the government that maintains it has been constructed in such a way that it is disconnected to the people and so the people will never seriously enforce any laws to curb corruption and no amount of orientation or reorientation will make the people feel loyal to a government or nation to which they feel no beneficial connection. In my view creating a national spirit is necessary to make the people take ownership of government and it is when the people take ownership and claim government as their own that the laws relating to curbing corruption will be faithfully implemented in order to protect “what belongs to them”.
We are witnesses to what is currently going on with the Buhari Administrations’ efforts to “fight” corruption in Nigeria today. PMB is viewed as “wicked” for catching people who have stolen! “Is he a saint?” “Is it his money?” are questions which I have heard people ask! By blocking easy access to government “free” funds he is seen as a wicked man who has made things “hard”!
The defense of those who have been caught stealing is that they are not the only ones who stole but that their fellow thieves are in the PMB government and therefore their arrest and prosecution is “biased”!! These people are supported by many ethnic and socio-cultural organizations and groups, civil society organizations as well as Religious and Traditional Rulers!! PMB himself is in a very serious dilemma, if he locks up everyone who has stolen from the government, he stands the risk of finding himself without a government to preside over!! He stands the risk of having no supporters!
I think you can liken the situation in Nigeria today to that of a house with a room full of rats. No matter how many rat traps you buy and put in place to catch and kill the rats, the rats will still swarm the room so long as the food which they want to eat is still kept within their reach in that room. The best way to deal with the rats is to first clean out the room and take away the food that attracts them or preserve it properly. When they cannot reach what it is they want, they will leave. Then you can buy the rat traps and set them for the very die hard ones who will still dare to come in to search for what else they can destroy.
What I am saying is that when we structure the country and the government in such a way as to foster a national spirit and the peoples that make up Nigeria take ownership of it, we then eliminate the root cause of corruption. After that the laws against corruption can faithfully be implemented as they will then have the moral force of the will of the people backing their enforcement. Creating a national spirit will ensure that corruption becomes the exception and not the rule in public life as is the case in other climes.
Wilfred Usani, lawyer and one-time Special Adviser on Tourism in the Liyel Imoke administration, wrote in from Calabar.
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