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Countering the Narrative of Political Corruption as the Main Damaging Obstacle to Nigeria’s Economic Development

By Chambers Umezulike

Political corruption amongst other factors was used to justify the Nigeria’s first military coup in 1966 by its plotters. Consequently, under General Yakubu Gowon, there were accusations of corruption against his cabinet ministers and Military Governors. This also provided justification for Gown’s dispose through the country’s third military coup. Amidst the early 80s fall in oil prices and the resultant economic recession under President Shehu Shagari, the military hit again through a coup that led to Muhammadu Buhari becoming Head of State. Preponderate political corruption in Shagari’s government was again the nucleus of the coup’s justification. It is also widely believed that political corruption reached its acme during the regimes of Ibrahim Babangida, who allowed corruption to metastasize and Sani Abacha, who privatized the state by appropriating national treasury to himself and family members. Since the return of democracy in 1999, even with the establishment of anti-corruption agencies, political corruption has continued to proliferate in enormity, with several cases indicting national, state, national assembly and local government leaders/officials, as well as other public office holders and heads of law enforcement agencies, the military etc. In certitude, between 1960 till date, about US$400 billion is accounted to have been siphoned by corrupt government officials in the country, a figure which is way less than the unaccounted and undocumented economic sabotage.

Paradoxically, for a country rich in abundant mineral resources, Nigeria is still extensively encumbered with several elements of development crisis encompassing oil dependency and vulnerability; weak manufacturing sector; increasing poverty rate; poor ranking in quality health services, standard of living; infrastructural and industrialization deficit; as well as high youth unemployment rate and income inequality. In addition, the country has one of the least human development rankings. At the same time, the country’s former economic comparators such as Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore etc. have all outpaced her developmentally. In investigating explanations to such divergent economic outcome, political corruption has always been cited by the citizenry as the main damaging obstacle to the country’s development. This is an explanation you are certain of getting from an average Nigerian on why there is a shortage in electricity, why there is an absence of good road infrastructure, hospitals, schools, jobs etc. In furtherance, some Nigerian leaders ascended power chorusing the rhetoric of deracinating the menace. In very recent times, one of the most shocking narratives is that corruption was solely responsible for Nigeria’s topical economic recession. This has been reproduced by Nigeria’s high-profiled academics and previous/current public office holders.

But come to think of it, is political corruption really the major factor responsible for Nigeria’s development crisis and resource-curse? I simply quite disagree and will term such explanation a pedestrian answer to why Nigeria hasn’t been able to develop, at the pace of her former economic comparators. There are many factors that are weightier than political corruption in explaining Nigeria’s poor developmental pace. First, the exposure-deficit of most Nigerian leaders to the key elements of neo classical counter revolution and macroeconomics, especially the failure to identify with these elements earlier on. It is of importance to note that while our former economic comparators in East Asia were busy courting foreign investors aggressively and providing an enabling environment for businesses to thrive, focusing on privatization and radically pursuing an export led industrialization agenda, Nigeria was doing exactly the opposite. Not until the Structural Adjustment Reforms, that Nigeria focused on nationalization and import substitution. A clear instance is Gowon’s Indigenization Decree of 1972 which declared many sectors of the Nigerian economy off-limits to all foreign investments, scaring away investors and making the Nigerian bureaucracy more ineffective.

Secondly, is the cheap political will to develop Nigeria from the political leadership and lack of visioning by these same set of pococurante and parish-pump leaders. Contemporary country case studies have shown that development hugely depends on the resolve of a country’s political elite or statesmen. In Singapore, a three-decade transposition from a third to first world was possible through the political elite who the founding father, Lee Kuan Yew referred to as the ‘Old Guard.’ They resolved to make the country work, despite being from divergent races and backgrounds. They were all part of the Yew’s government and held critical positions. The same goes with China where the country’s political elite led by Deng resolved to make China prosper economically, post Maoism, and pursued national developmental interests against chicken-shit private ones. Indonesia has same instance under Suharto’s government, where the political elite gave all economic powers to the Berkeley Mafia to rigorously fasten the country’s development. In these countries, one could see a certain political elite that made strong commitments through plans and visioning, in a coordinated fashion to make sure the country develops. Nigeria has never had a generation of political elite that had the resolve to make her work. Bet it, corruption would not have seen the light of the day if Nigeria’s political elite ever wanted her to develop beyond picayune personal interests. In addition, Nigeria’s military leadership failed to maximize the gains of authoritarianism during the Cold War in lubricating the country’s development. This was also exactly what East Asian authoritarian leaderships maximized.

Thirdly is policy crisis due to illogical capacity stimulation among leaders. Nigeria as a country has churned out several policies, plans, programs and strategies in her quest toward development. Some of them include the first four five-year National Development Plans, Indigenisation Decree, Green Revolution Program, Economic Stabilisation Program, Operation Feed the Nation, Structural Adjustment Program, Rolling Plan, Guided Deregulation, Vision 2010, Transformation Agenda, Vision 2020 etc. While some of the challenges were policy inconsistency and reversal, as well as poor prioritization in many instances, Nigeria’s main problem is the inability to clinically implement these policies. Policy implementation in the country has been affected by poor governance, cheap political commitment, weak institutions, lack of sufficient financial and human resources, as well as poor monitoring and evaluation regimes for these policies.

In addition, the Dutch disease seems ad rem in explaining Nigeria’s situation as there has been a decline in the competitiveness of other economic sectors because of primary export dependence (oil resource). Taxation of citizens and companies has become less effective, weakening social contract between the people and the government. Oil rents have also made the Nigerian government less innovative. There are no incentives for the country’s states to grow wealth because the federal constitution was designed to share crude rents. The central feeding bottle design has further made governors of these states exceedingly docile and uncreative since all they just have to do is to sit and wait for financial allocations from Abuja.

Furthermore, is the population explosion. What is more saddening is that there is lack of clear-cut policies by the Nigerian government to leverage on the large population size. While the country’s large population should be an advantage in terms of a human resource muscle, it has become a great disadvantage as successive governments have failed to plan on how to take care of such a large population. So, the country has had a poor GDP chasing a large population, hence a poor per capita index; and there are contracted efforts to lure investors using the population which could serve as a market source and availability of skilled cheap labour.

Against the optics of political corruption being the main constraint to Nigeria’s development, it is imperative to note that there is political corruption in almost every society in the world. While Indonesia was developing in the 70s and 80s, it was competing with Nigeria on corruption neck to neck. Suharto who was Indonesia’s President for three decades during this time, was lustrated by Transparency International as the most corrupt leader in modern history, since he allegedly embezzled an estimate of $15–35 billion during his rule. However, for most of his presidency, Indonesia experienced quality economic growth and industrialization, dramatically improving education, health, and living standards. In Brazil, while Lula da Silva recorded immense achievements in poverty reduction (lifted 20 million people out of poverty), economic growth and significantly raised living standards, with the percentage of Brazilian middle class rising from 37% to 50%, his administration was plagued by corruption scandals. There are further country examples such as this.

Conclusively, momentous indigenization and deep tribal polarization have complicated a systematic resolution that will address the first five points elementrified above. The cryptic lines of ethnic integration continue to go deep and unlikely to cease in years to come, thus creating a barrier for openness and integrated development. The major challenge to Nigeria’s development is not political corruption but a lack of direction. At the same time, efforts to reduce corruption in the country should move away from media gyrations of recovery and non-recovery of funds and moving past public office holders up and down to open government clinical implementation, institutional reforms, sharpening the investigative mechanisms of anti-corruption institutions, digitization of avenues of revenues remittances and public service delivery, and most importantly, the adequate political will from the political leadership to deal with the menace.

Chambers Umezulike is a Development Expert, Researcher and Writer. He is currently a programme manager and lead researcher at Connected Development. He has a Masters in International Studies, Economic Governance, and Development from the University of Nairobi, Kenya; and aspires to be a PhD candidate in a renowned institution of higher learning. He has written 3 books including “Leadership, Policy and Economic Development in Nigeria and Singapore; a Comparative (1960 – 1990).” He also has 2 papers on learned academic journals, with a considerable number of articles on an avalanche of Africa’s political and socio-economic issues on several online platforms and offline newspapers.

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