When approaching the evolution of corruption in Nigerian national life – and the modes in which Nigerians frame and discuss it – it is advisable to arm yourself with the word, “around.” That word has peculiar usages of indeterminacy which enables the English language to carry the weight of the exaggerated dimensions of Nigerian reality.
The Nigerian does not meet you at Ikeja mall; he meets you around Ikeja mall.
The Nigerian does not meet you at 4 o’clock; he meets you around 4 o’clock.
The Nigerian state and the people cannot tell the world precisely how much the country has lost to thieving politicians and corrupt government officials in the last one and a half years, straddling the dying months of the administration of former President Jonathan and the opening months of the administration of President Buhari.
Nigeria’s favorite word, “around”, has come in handy in establishing a rough idea of the benumbing scale of a corruption drama which largely accounts for the fall of the immediate past administration and has also played a significant role in colouring public perception of the new administration.
It all started “around” the end of the 2013 fiscal year when Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, then Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, wrote a much publicized letter to President Goodluck Jonathan, notifying him of a $20 billion shortfall in the accounting books of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. Translation: $20 billion had vanished from the Nigerian treasury without a trace.
This news led to a firestorm which dominated much of 2014, pitching the CBN Governor against the President (who felt that his administration had been targeted), Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, the then Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, and Diezani Alison-Madueke, then Minister of Petroleum. In the ensuing war of words, the CBN Governor revised the missing figures a few times while those at the receiving end of his allegations initially denied flat out that any funds were missing before gradually owning up to funds improperly accounted for in the accounting procedure.
Unable to determine exactly how much was missing or improperly accounted for, the Nigerian people and her government went about things the Nigerian way – around! Depending on who was talking or writing, around $20 billion was missing; around $15 billion was missing; around $10 billion was missing. The National Assembly and other institutions of state set up inquiries ‘around’ each of these figures at varying times.
President Jonathan lost the election. Enter President Buhari and his change mantra pegged on a promise to confront corruption head-on. With a new government in town, the anti-corruption institutions of state, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the Code of Conduct Tribunal, and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ostensibly received a boost. A narrative developed that President’s Buhari’s “body language” had begun to provide a fillip for the work of these national agencies.
The consequence was a rash of arrests and arraignments of past and serving officials of state – and in some instances their spouses. The wife of the current Senate President was arrested and arraigned before her husband was charged with allegations of corruption and fraudulent asset declaration. The arraignment of the Senate President overlapped with a certain vigour with which certain officials of the pension’s board were being prosecuted for a monumental pension scam. The common denominator of these rash of scams and arraignments was the ever-changing figures bandied around simultaneously in naira and dollars: around X dollars or around X naira had been misappropriated by the accused.
Of all the recent corruption scams and scandals, nothing has come close to the scale of the recent revelations about the theft of massive sums of money voted for the purchase of arms to equip the Nigerian Army in the fight against Boko Haram. In what is now nationally known as Dasukigate, the National Security Adviser to President Jonathan, Sambo Dasuki, personalized arms funds and became a distributor of slush funds to favored friends and servicers of President Jonathan’s administration. The revelations are still ongoing and, as with all things Nigerians, the figures are indeterminate. Depending on who you are reading, Dasuki stole and shared with prominent Nigerians around $3 billion or around $2 billion of funds meant to fight terrorism.
The Abacha loot, recently returned to Nigerian authorities by the Swiss government has also been subject to Nigeria’s cultural abhorrence of precision. Ever since the funds were released to Nigeria, conflicting figures of how much Nigeria received have saturated the airwaves: around $500 million, around $600 million.
Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, the former finance Minister who received and administered the funds on behalf of Nigeria, has not helped matters. The figures she received – and how it was spent – have been changing and shifting depending on whether she is addressing audiences in Washington or Nigeria. Even Google has found a way to cope with the befuddling and imprecise figures of Nigerian corruption. If you consult her, Google simply gives you entries ranging from $500 million to $ 5 billion. The idea being that you are welcome to name any figure within that range and preface it with “around” in accordance with the practice in Nigeria.
Despite the deluge of indeterminate or, even, undeterminable figures that have been rolling out of Nigeria’s corruption industry in recent months, it is pertinent to note that the Nigerian authorities have not been known to have successfully prosecuted any high-profile corruption case. The much-touted anti-corruption war is still largely characterized by celebrity arrests and arraignments followed by a predictable pattern of bungled prosecution by the Nigerian government. Not even President Buhari’s reputation as a no-nonsense anti-corruption fighter has been able to sufficiently galvanize the nation he leads into a collective, transcendental desire to confront the incubus of corruption.
There are factors responsible for this, chief among which is the fact that everything in Nigeria is massively overdetermined by bitter ethnic and religious divisions. These divisions which have led to national calamities such as a civil war, coups, and counter-coups make consensus over straightforward issues of ethics and morality impossible in the Nigerian equation. ‘A thief is a thief’ would be a simple straightforward axiom anywhere except in Nigeria. In Nigeria, one man’s thief is another man’s chief, depending on religion and ethnicity.
Put, differently, the politics of theft is far more important than the fact of theft in Nigeria. No matter the amount involved, the ethnicity and the religion of the accused is what the Nigerian is instinctively programmed to determine before anything else. The question – did he steal? – is secondary to – is he Yoruba, Igbo, or Hausa? Is he Muslim or Christian? What is his political affiliation?
The politics of theft makes national consensus about what is theft and what is corruption impossible. This has made it impossible for President Buhari to mobilize Nigerians across all the country’s fault lines behind his stated goal of confronting corruption. However, he has not helped matters in terms of what is necessary to solidify national confidence in his anti-corruption efforts. There has been a marked failure to understand the power of symbolic confidence-building gestures.
President Buhari and his deputy literally had to be dragged kicking and screaming to fulfil their electoral promise of openly declaring their assets. Nigeria boasts eleven jets in her presidential fleet, making it one of the biggest presidential fleets in the world.
During the electoral campaign season, President Buhari agreed with the Nigerian people that it is morally reprehensible for Nigeria to maintain eleven Presidential jets and condemned his predecessor for ostentation and irresponsibility. Nearly a year into his own administration, President Buhari seems to have discovered the joys of owning a fleet of nearly a dozen jumbo jets and all talk of disposing of them have been brushed under the carpet. Vice-President Osinbajo, who had been the loudest in the anti-corruption decibel of the administration, did not see the contradiction in going to publicly support a gubernatorial candidate who had been indicted by the anti-corruption agency of his own administration.
In essence, despite the enormous goodwill enjoyed by the current administration in Nigeria and despite a number of commendable steps taken thus far in kick-starting the anti-corruption war, the administration has been short on symbolic confidence-building measures that could potentially rally the people around the need to confront corruption.
There have been allegations of political lopsidedness in the anti-corruption effort of President Buhari. That, however, is of no moment. Given the severity of Nigeria’s ethnic, religious, and political divisions, nobody can fight corruption without having to deal with such allegations of lopsidedness, very often marketed by those who have lost out in the yam sharing bazaar that is the business of modern statehood in Nigeria.
Consequently, the Buhari administration needs not be fazed by charges of lopsidedness so long as she remains fair and just in the anti-corruption war. What needs to be done is to increase confidence-building measures by President Buhari and his team. It may also not be a bad idea to start looking into the possibility of institutions of state and public officials being more precise in the announcement of corruption figures. This, sadly, may be a tall order in a country that has never been able to accurately count the number of citizens she has.
What is the population of Nigeria?
Depending on who you ask or which institution of state is announcing population figures, there are around 160 million to 180 million Nigerians!