After 51 years of independence, Nigerians must look inwards to confront corruption perpetuated by a culture of acceptance
This month, Africa’s most populous country celebrates its 51st independence anniversary. Most Nigerians, though, will tell you there is little to celebrate. The country’s infrastructure is in poor shape, and so is the health system, the education system and the power supply network. Crime is rampant, domestic terrorism is on the rise and the country’s corruption problem is legendary. Name a problem, Nigeria has it.
There are some positives: GDP is expanding at an average of 6% per year in the last decade, and even faster in the last few years. This bodes well for Nigeria’s rapidly growing middle class. But according to the IMF the country’s GDP per capita still ranks it a poor 141 out of 183 countries. This for a country blessed with abundant natural resources like crude oil and natural gas.
I now hear some Nigerians say the British should have ruled for longer until we were “better prepared” for independence. Is South Africa, the country where white rule lasted longest, not the richest and best developed country on the continent, they say. Are they speaking the bitter truth? A knee-jerk yes or no answer would be a mistake.
Nigeria’s first leaders were capable men who set the country on a path of development utilising what resources they had, mainly from agriculture and manufacturing: many hospitals, schools and roads were built in the 1960s. Corruption existed but on a tolerable scale. Then large quantities of oil were discovered. Nigeria enjoyed a boom in the 1970s, reaping instant riches from this natural resource. But that’s also when things started going downhill.
Nigeria’s rulers were mentally unprepared for wealth. This was best revealed by General Yakubu Gowon, military dictator from 1966 to 1975, who once told a foreign reporter that “the only problem Nigeria has is how to spend the money she has“.
Agriculture and manufacturing were neglected and the country became an oil-dependent economy. The economic fundamentals that had ensured the country’s development in the first decade of independence were quickly forgotten. Sharing out the oil cash became the focus of the ruling elite.
Successive governments institutionalised corruption, making it the lifeblood of Nigerian statecraft Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the whole Nigerian society was corrupted in the process.
I attended a wedding in Lagos two years ago. The priest started by urging those present to “recognise the presence” of one of the most corrupt Nigerian politicians, widely believed to have physically eliminated many of his political enemies. Yet a priest was singling him out for recognition because of his wealth and power.
Nigerians have lost their sense of outrage. If you tell them you wished politicians were honest and stopped looting the country, they’ll likely respond by blasting you for wasting their time with such banalities when it is obvious “that will never happen in Nigeria”. “Don’t be a fool. If I ever get the opportunity, I will steal my own portion,” they’ll likely say. How can you build a functioning state if people have such an approach?
“Nigeria needs strong institutions, not strong men,” is an oft-repeated phrase and rightly so. The western world has been able to establish institutions and laws that help keep the darker side of its citizens in check. Bar such institutions, societies turn predatory with the strong quickly gobbling up the weak. South Africa definitely has much stronger national institutions than Nigeria, and although the apartheid system was morally reprehensible and utterly indefensible, the fact is that functioning institutions created then are now serving all South Africans today.
Nigerians need to look inwards and find out what aspects and norms in its society are detrimental to the nation’s progress. Criticism, not of particular individuals, but of questionable cultural norms, is lacking in Nigeria. Without recognising and working on its weaknesses, Nigerian society will never produce functioning institutions.
But corruption is not the only factor keeping the country from progressing: another is the country’s the poor maintenance culture. Erect a new office block in Nigeria today and in a year’s time it will look like it was built a decade ago. So how then can roads, bridges or hospitals built be expected to last?
We often rail against the evils of the slave trade but fail to notice how millions of children are used as so-called “house-helps” in Nigeria. They are de-facto slaves who will never have access to an education and the chance for a better life that would make them productive citizens. They often don’t get paid for their work and are lucky if they are fed properly. Yet society judges this to be acceptable.
Nigeria needs a revolution in its rulers’ approach to governance but it also needs a revolution in the people’s approach to citizenship. Assuming it is acceptable to be dishonest in business dealings simply because “everyone else is doing it” will get Nigeria nowhere; likewise will accepting the rule of the mediocre because “that’s just the way it is”.