Awakening the Sleeping Giant: Making Nigeria Work Again (IV) by George Ayittey

Posted: July 3, 2012 in POLITICS
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The Surge of Corruption

The absence of a Constitution and the lack of rule of law permitted the growth of an inimical culture of corruption. By 1989 corruption had penetrated virtually every agency in the public sector. Virtually every agency in the public sector was riddled with corruption. West Africa reported, “The Nigerian Ports Authority has failed to account for the sum of N4.6 million provided by the federal government in 1987 to pay the salary arrears of dockworkers” (July 31-Aug 6, 1989; p. 1266). Chief Olu Falae, secretary to the federal military government, announced after a debt verification exercise that “over N30 billion (or $4.5 billion) of Nigeria’s external debt was discovered to be `fraudulent and spurious’” (West Africa, Sept 25-Oct 1, 1990; p. 1614). According to Washington Post (July 21, 1992), “corruption robbed Nigeria’s economy of an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion each year” (p. A16). “An audit task force appointed by the Nigerian Government said on 1 November 1996 that it had discovered 28,000 `ghost workers’ on the state payroll . . . “The `ghost workers’ are either fake, retired or dead persons whose names remain on the payroll for fraudulent officials to claim their wages” (African News Weekly, 11-17 November 1996, 17). Revenue collectors are notoriously corrupt, pocketing part of tax proceeds, waiving taxes if they receive large enough bribes.

Those at the top were themselves hopelessly corrupt. The Babangida regime did not account for the $10 billion in oil windfall occasioned by the Gulf War in January 1991. When the Lagos correspondent of the Financial Times, William Keeling, charged a misuse of this bonanza in August 1991, he was promptly deported from Nigeria with less than 24 hours notice. But this allegation was confirmed by a report presented by Pius Okigbo, chairman of the panel on The Reform and Reorganization of the Central Bank of Nigeria. The report, presented to Gen. Sani Abacha on Sept 27, 1994, noted:

“Nigeria’s military rulers squandered more than $12 billion of oil revenue without proper accounting between 1988 and June 1994. The money had been placed in special accounts set up in 1988 for special projects and to receive a windfall of oil revenue from the Gulf War. But Pius Okigbo called the handling of the accounts “a gross abuse of public trust.” He said $21.2 billion — more than a third of the country’s total foreign debt — was spent in less than 6 years on “what could neither be adjudged genuine high priority nor truly regenerative investment. Neither the president nor the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria account to anyone for these massive extra-budgetary expenditures,” Okigbo said (African News Weekly, Oct 14, 1994; p.3).

“Government contracts in Nigeria, say international businessmen, are among the most expensive in the world `mainly because of excessive margins built into such contracts for personal interests.’ Those personal interests can be seen attending expensive schools in Britain, or parked outside plush government villas: a Maserati or Lamborghini is quite normal for an army chief” (The Economist, 21 August 1993; Survey, 5).

It is important to remember that, during this period, no one was following any rules. The government showed no restraint on its profligacy. Civil servants endlessly invented rules in order to extort a bribe. Files would disappear and instantly “found” upon the payment of a bribe. Every government position was lucrative and could be exploited for private gain. Almost every public official was on the take. Said Anthony Ebeh in African News Weekly (May 27, 1994):

“A major cause of our problems in Nigeria is that our leaders have a primitive concept of public office. Public office in civilized societies, including some non-Western nations, is seen as a way to provide selfless service to one’s nation. It is a way to give back to one’s country. Public office is cherished and respected. Public office holders are generally accountable to the people they serve. However, in the Nigerian context, public office is seen as a huge opportunity to enrich self and kindred. This explains why Nigeria is now one of the poorest nations in the world. In Nigeria, public office is seen as a means to acquire wealth and personal aggrandizement. By all standards, this concept of public office is primitive (p.7).

Unsubstantiated rumors were rife about corruption and illicit enrichment by President Babangida and other members of the government. These rumors led Uchendu Egbezor to suggest that “a panel be set up to investigate the accounts of the President of Nigeria, Vice Admiral Augustus Aikhomu, and other members of the AFRC” (West Africa, July 31Aug 6, 1989; p. 1264). In April 1989 the Christian Association of Nigeria revealed that more than 3,000 Nigerians held Swiss bank accounts and that Nigerians were near the top of the list of Third World patrons of Swiss banks (West Africa, April 10-16, 1989; p. 570). As if to confirm this, Chief Olu Falae, secretary to the federal military government, announced after a debt verification exercise that “over N30 billion (or $4.5 billion) of Nigeria’s external debt was discovered to be `fraudulent and spurious’” (West Africa, Sept 25-Oct 1, 1990; p. 1614). In other words, it was added on, and payments went into the pockets and overseas bank accounts of corrupt officials. Indeed, the Lagos National Concord (Aug 16, 1990) reported that the staggering sum of $32 billion owned by Nigerians in foreign bank accounts was equivalent to Nigeria’s huge foreign debt.

Most Nigerians trace the root of corruption to the decades of military governments that ruled Nigeria before Obasanjo’s election in 1999. The treasury, flush with money from some of the world’s most productive oil fields, became a personal bank account for a succession of generals. The rot oozed down to lawmakers, governors and judges. Civil servants, who in some cases went months or years without receiving their salaries, collected what they could by selling their services.

Between 1970 and the early 2004, more than $450 billion in oil money flowed into Nigerian government coffers, which simply vanished into private pockets. Nigerians are now asking what happened to the “oil money.” The situation deteriorated so rapidly that Nigeria often ranked as the most corrupt nation and the scam capital of the world. According to Chief Eke Urum-Eke, an ex-major of the Biafran war and exiled in New York, “The only two flourishing business in Nigeria today are the business of government and the business of smuggling. Smuggling is not for self-respecting individuals, however lucrative it may be. Therefore the only avenue open for our leaders to maintaining their known lifestyle is the business of government — pen-based robbery and signature abuse by those inside, and fraudulent contracts for those outside, government. And for them to get any of these fraudulent contracts, state or federal, they must sing Abacha’s tune” (Nigerian Times International, 16-31 January 1996, 8).

The September 1996 issues of Nigeria’s news magazines, Tell and This Week, screamed about “How [Military] Administrators Plundered the States.” Ike Nwosu, the ex-administrator of Abia State, “spent some 16.875 million naira ($214,000) on himself between March 1995 and March 1996″ (African News Weekly, 28 October – 3 November 1996, 17. Then a 27 September 1994 audit (The Okigbo Report) revealed that a total of $12.4 billion — more than a third of Nigeria’s foreign debt — was squandered by its military rulers between 1988 and 1994. Pius Okigbo fled the country after handing in the report.

Indeed, within two weeks the death of General Sani Abacha, local newspapers reported that, his wife, Maryam was seeking “seeking political asylum in a Middle East country thought to be Lebanon,” according to the Nigerian Democratic Movement. She was reputed to have inherited “the vast fortunes of her husband estimated at $5 billion including an oil refinery in Brazil and had contracted a private security outfit to guard the family, whilst she assesses the situation.”

Following Abacha’s timely and mysterious death in June 1998, elections were held by his successor, General Abdulsalam Abubakar. Upon assuming power on May 29, 1999, President Obasanjo found the country ungovernable. A near government paralysis resulted from wrangling over distribution of power between the executive and the legislative. For 18 months (Feb 1999 to August 2000), Nigeria’s 109 senators and 360 representatives passed just five pieces of legislation, including a budget that was held up for five months. Immediately upon taking office, the legislators voted for themselves hefty allowances, including a 5 billion naira ($50 million) furniture allowances for their official residences and offices. The impeached ex-chairman of the Senate from President Obasanjo’s own People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Chuba Okadigbo, was the most predatory:

“As Senate President, he controlled 24 official vehicles but ordered 8 more at a cost of $290,000. He was also found to have spent $225,000 on garden furniture for his government house, $340,000 on furniture for the house itself ($120,000 over the authorized budget); bought without authority a massive electricity generator whose price he had inflated to $135,000; and accepted a secret payment of $208,000 from public funds, whose purpose included the purchase of `Christmas gifts’” (New African,, Sept 2000; p.9).

More than $1.3 billion of Abacha’s loot was believed to have been siphoned through London banks; one popular British bank alone was reported to have handled more than $170 million of funds suspected to have been looted from the Nigerian treasury by Abacha’s military regime. The Abacha family and associates area argued that they had an immunity deal from General Abdulsalam Abubakr’s transitional regime that briefly ruled Nigeria after Abacha’s sudden death on June 8, 1998 before Obasanjo came to power on May 29, 1999. The family and associates said General Abubakr’s government had agreed that if they returned “some money” (and they duly returned $750 million), they would be given immunity from criminal prosecutions. In May 1999, General Abubakr’s regime acknowledged that some money had been returned. Since then, more Abacha-associated accounts have been discovered in 19 Western banks, but the Abacha family still insist that the deal with General Abubakr’s government must stand. They have subsequently gone to court in Britain to stop the British government from handing over the results of its investigation into the morney to the Nigerian and Swiss authorities” (New African, Nov 2001; p.10).

Upon assuming office, President Obasanjo vowed to recover the loot of former head of state, General Abacha. He established the Corruption Practices and Other Related Offences Commission. Much public fanfare was made of the sum of about $709 million and another ₤144 million recovered from the Abachas and his henchmen. But, alas, this recovered loot itself was quickly re-looted. The Senate Public Accounts Committee found only $6.8 million and ₤2.8 million of the recovered booty in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) (The Post Express (July 10, 2000). Uti Akpan, a textiles trader in Lagos was not impressed: “What baffles me is that even the money recovered from Abacha has been stolen. If you recover money from a thief and you go back and steal the money, it means you are worse than the thief” (The New York Times, Aug 30, 2000; p.A10).

In May 2000, Jack Blum, a partner of Lobel Norins and Lamont, experts in transparency and corruption, testifying before the US House of Representatives Sub-committee on Domestic and International Monetary Policy, Jack Blum, revealed that “From independence to the present time, past leaders in Nigeria have either stolen or misappropriated state funds estimated at N400 billion ($40 billion . . . The amount also involved funds received on behalf of the country by key government officials as international assistance, loans from international financial institutions, kick backs to government officials involved in purchasing and special arrangements for currency conversion. The amount includes misappropriated oil revenue emanating from international oil deals between Nigeria and her customers abroad. ‘The amounts which were taken were so large that they have become embarrassing and destabilizing. Theft has disrupted the economies of major countries such as Nigeria, Mexico and Indonesia,” Blum added (Post Express, June 1, 2000; web posted).

According to David Blair of London Telegraph (June 25, 2005):

“Nigeria’s past rulers stole or misused £220 billion ($412 billion). That is as much as all the western aid given to Africa in almost four decades. The looting of Africa’s most populous country amounted to a sum equivalent to 300 years of British aid for the continent. Former leader Gen Sani Abacha stole between £1bn and £3bn. The figures were compiled by Nigeria’s anti-corruption commission.

Nigeria’s rulers pocketed the equivalent of six Marshall Plans. After that mass theft, two thirds of the country’s 130 million people – one in seven of the total African population – lived in abject poverty, a third was illiterate and 40 per cent had no safe water supply. With more people and more natural resources than any other African country, Nigeria is the key to the continent’s success.”

Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, the chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, set up three years ago, said that £220 billion ($412 billion) was “squandered” between independence from Britain in 1960 and the return of civilian rule in 1999. “We cannot be accurate down to the last figure but that is our projection,” Osita Nwajah, a commission spokesman (Telegraph, June 25, 2005). The stolen fortune tallies almost exactly with the £220 billion of western aid given to Africa between 1960 and 1997. That amounted to six times the American help given to post-war Europe under the Marshall Plan.

Collapse of Infrastructure

Infrastructure decayed and crumbled rapidly during years of military rule in Nigeria. Roads, schools, and telecommunications systems were in shambles Empty bookstore shelves greeted visitors to university campuses. Many school buildings showed obvious signs of decay and disintegration. Most buildings had not even seen a coat of paint since the colonialists departed. The quality of education deteriorated sharply. Nigeria’s 38-school university system, for example, was in ruins. Students could not get books. Nor could professors do research. Ahmadu Bello University was one such facility in a dilapidated state. Dormitories were overcrowded, laboratories lacked chemicals to perform experiments, and some buildings were collapsing.

When the vice-chancellor of a major Nigerian university wanted to resign, he called a press conference. As Linus U. J. Thomas-Ogboji, a Nigerian scholar based in Asheville, described it: “His reasons for abandoning the job were a pathetic commentary on the putrid demise of a once-promising nation: admission and grades were being sold openly; dormitories for adolescent females had become brothels; threats of death and mayhem by gangs were rife on a campus that had gone without electricity or running water for years” (African News Weekly, 26 May 1995, 6).

In most places in Nigeria, telephones did not work; they “bit back.” Electricity and water supplies were sporadic. What are called roads were often passageways truncated by crevasses large enough to swallow a truck. Hospitals lacked food and medical supplies. Doctors even had difficulty finding paper on which to write prescriptions. Often patients were requested to bring their own blankets and bandages. Communicable diseases such as yellow fever, malaria, and cholera — once believed vanquished — reappeared with a vengeance.

In the cities, many banged-up and unrepaired vehicles moved sideways in a crablike manner. Even government buildings reached advanced stages of dilapidation. Broken window panes abound while offices reeked of mold, rust, and dust. Civil servants, and even diplomats, went for months without pay. One Nigerian civil servant at the Ministry of Works in Lagos, George Adeleye, “died from exhaustion while waiting for hours to collect monthly wages of 1,500 naira ($20)” (African News Weekly, Sept 16-22, 1996, 26). “He complained that he had not eaten for two days as he was without money,” said one of his colleagues.

On 5 March 1995, Nigeria’s radical lawyer and human rights activist Gani Fawehinmi launched the National Conscience Party (NCP) in defiance of General Sani Abacha’s ban on the formation of political parties. Thousands of NCP members and supporters then staged a mass rally in Lagos, chanted anti-Abacha slogans, and handed out leaflets denouncing the state of the nation. The leaflets cited among other things, the lack of food, transportation, health facilities, electricity and no free press. Trigger-happy soldiers immediately sprang into action, arresting some of the protesters. Police had to borrow Fawehinmi’s vehicles to convey the accused to court. When Lagos State acquired 400 vehicles for its anti-crime outfit, Rapid Response Squad (RRS), 104 of the vehicles were stolen by soldiers running the operation (P.M. News 26 July, 1999).


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