Nigeria: The Call for a National War On Poverty

11 October 2019
opinion

Magnus Onyibe argues that the battle against corruption by successive governments has failed

With Nigeria remaining in socio-economic doldrums at age 59, does it not suggest that Africa's most populous country is suffering the malaise of mid life crisis?

By way of comparison, China also celebrated seventy years as a communist country on the same day-October 1 that Nigeria marked her 59th anniversary of independence from Britain.

That means China is only 11 years older than Nigeria in terms of nationhood and independence.

But the East Asian country has grown from being an autarky (like North Korea trading with nobody ) some 30 years ago until it joined WTO in 2001 and became a production factory to the world.

Subsequently, China assumed the position of the world's second largest economy status with an estimated $12 trillion GDP, and it is now on track to becoming the largest economy by global ranking, in less than two decades, when it would have overtaken the USA's economy which is currently the world's largest.

In contrast, Nigeria has degenerated from being a peer to countries like Singapore, Malaysia,Taiwan and South Korea, which it was at par at independence in 1960, to Banana Republic level , in terms of socio-economic standards of living and security of lives and property of citizens.

The unfortunate and depressing descent of Nigerians into a vortex of misery, courtesy of reoccurring visionless leadership of our country is a much bigger malaise than the anti corruption rhetorics of governments from the colonialists to military and democratically elected civilians that have not yielded any modicum of positive dividends since independence some 59 years ago.

There is a common saying that it is only a mad man that does one thing consistently the same way and expect a different outcome. From trend analysis, it is clear to all that successive Nigerian governments have been fighting graft in the same manner since independence.

So are Nigerian leaders mad?

If they are not, why have they been flying the same anti corruption kite all these years?

Could it boil down to the fact that nobody in Aso Rock Villa has bothered to conduct a simple research into corruption antecedents in Nigeria to realize how the scourge has defeated all the previous leaders who attempted to tame the monster as evidenced by the fact that rather than be eliminated or reduced, corruption has become more entrenched, malignant and hydra headed like a virus that's being treated with the wrong antibiotics and as such, became resistant and cancerous?

Going down the memory lane into the annals of Nigerian history, you may take away the same impression that our leaders may be afflicted by some mental malady which is responsible for their fighting corruption in the same manner continuously and expecting a different result.

For instance, the justification that the likes of Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and co-coup plotters had for toppling the first democratically elected government in Nigeria in 1966 was that corruption had become so embedded and endemic in government and public sector that 10% of public contracts value was being demanded and paid to public officials.

Today, it's not just 10%, but the entire funds for a project can be totally embezzled if the alleged diversion of $2.1b for arms procurements leveled against Dasuki, former National Security Adviser to ex-President Goodluck Jonathan is anything to go by.

Similarly, several public officials assigned to recover stolen public funds have also been known to re-loot the loot as reflected by the case of Abdulrasheed Maina, the former chairman of Pensions Reform Task Team that allegedly looted billions of naira recovered from pension fund thieves, absconded and later weaved his way back into the civil service until he was recently arrested and re arraigned.

After the counter coup of 1967 where it was alleged that the plotters of the 1966 putsch were 'corrupt' and 'fraudulent' in terms of ethnic bias by assassinating only top military officers from a particular section of the country, and officers of a religious faith while preserving the lives of those from the ethnic stock and faith of the coup leaders, the Brigadier Murtala Muhammed led coup of 1975 was also mainly driven by the crusade against corruption in government.

The fiery army general is famous for the mantra: "This government can not condone Indiscipline" which is a military euphemism for corruption.

That interregnum was followed by the coup led by General Muhammadu Buhari on December 31, 1983 which like the 1966 and 1975 coups was on a mission to dislodge the democratically elected government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari in the bid to clean the proverbial Augean stable by getting rid of corrupt politicians in the country.

The lbrahim Babangida led palace coup of 1985 that unseated Buhari's 18 months spell in office was also launched to cleanse our country of corruption. This time the corruption was not so much of bribery, but of the hue of fraud and double standards as reflected by the scandal of 53 suit cases allegedly belonging to the Emire of Gwandu which was illegally allowed into the country during change of Nigerian currency. That's in addition to the case of an underage child of a member of the ruling military council going on the Muslim religious pilgrimage to Mecca which was against the law, amongst many infractions.

The fearsome army General Sani Abacha, who took over the reins of govt in 1993 after Babangida stepped aside , did not have anti corruption agenda, rather successive governments had recovered billions of dollars stolen and stashed abroad by the late dictator. Similarly, General Abdulsalam Abubakar's short tenure as interim military head of state 1998 to 1999 had no anti corruption ideological inclination because it had no time for such luxury.

But the democratically elected government of Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999 was geared towards continuing with the anti corruption play book of the past leaders hence it established the Economic and Financial Crimes Commisson (EFCC) to tackle graft shortly after he assumed office.

The assertion above is underscored by the fact that the Nuhu Ribadu led EFCC was basically primed to lead the charge against corruption both in the public and private sectors in the same old style that have always been applied in the checkered history of Nigeria.

Skepticism about the altruistic value of the government's persistent war on corruption was triggered at that point as cynics were convinced that the fight against graft under the EFCC was not only partisan, but weaponized by then President Obasanjo to rein in his opponents across the aisle and also compel fellow party members to tow his line.

Thereafter Umaru Yar'adua, of blessed memory struggled with the battle against corruption until his sudden passage in 2010 after which Goodluck Jonathan assumed the leadership of our country.

Jonathan attempted to migrate the fight against corruption from the rudimentary level of naming, shaming and jailing which had been the modus operandi of successive governments, to a fraud prevention system via technology without success, until President Muhammadu Buhari returned to Aso Rock Villa as a democratically elected president in 2015, and reinvigorated the battle against corruption by reverting to status quo ante.

If at age 59, the war against corruption, (a cankerworm that's believed to be the bane of Nigeria and the bogey of its socioeconomic development) started by the British colonialists in the late 1950s has remained a reoccurring decimal in the agenda of successive governments nearly 60 years after, Nigeria has certainly lost the battle.

So let's declare a national war on poverty which is the demon that the vast majority of Nigeria's poor no longer want to be associated with and cant wait to turn their back against.

Records reveal that ranging from the pre- independence period, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first President General of Nigeria, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, first Prime Minister of Nigeria and Obafemi Awolowo, the Premier of Western Nigeria were all investigated and indicted at various times by the British colonialists for corruption.

The scenario above is clear evidence that the war on corruption which was started by the colonialists in the late 1950s has not been won by government, rather the corruption monster that has been bedeviling our country has been having the upper hand.

Allow me acquaint you with the anti corruption record of China, the world's second largest economy.

Since 2012 when the current Chinese Premier Xi Jinping assumed power an average of 50 top officials have been tried and jailed annually. In some cases the death penalty was applied.

And at a point in time, there were nearly one million public office holders under investigation in the city of Beijing alone, according to Minxin Pei , a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College in the USA.

Even high ranking military chief, Guo Boxiong recently committed suicide while being investigated for bribery. That's in addition to a Communist Party General Secretary and Politburo member, Sun Zhengcai who was also tried and jailed according to a report by a Drake University, USA don, David Skidmore.

If the purpose of the heavy crackdown on graft, like the one recently carried out by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohamed Bin Salman, is ostensibly to send the message that nobody is above the law or untouchable, corruption in China has not abated.

Mark Jennings, a Forbes magazine contributor reported that although the Chinese leader is portrayed as having zero tolerance, "However, China ranks 77th on Berlin-based nonprofit Transparency International's 180-country "Corruption Perceptions" scale.

The widely cited index assigned it a low-ish to mid-range score of 41 last year, barely changed from 39 in 2012 when Xi took office and in every intervening year"

Similarly, Moody's Investors Service has found that China also falls in the middle of the pack for graft that impairs a country's "ability and willingness" to repay debt, says the service's Singapore-based associate Managing Director Marie Diron.

The record of anti corruption and its false positive outlook is not different in Nigeria.

We are all witnesses to our country's slide in the corruption index from about 121 in 1996 to 144 in out of 175 least corrupt countries according to Transparency International's 2018 rating? As if to compliment the abysmal corruption rating, our country has taken over from India as the poverty headquarters of the world, according to survey by World Poverty Clock.

All these woes have befallen Nigerians despite the rigorous fight against graft put up by President Buhari including unwittingly endorsing the branding of Nigerians as 'fantastically corrupt' by ex UK Prime Minister, David Cameron.

By simple logic, if the fight against corruption that has been waged by colonialists pre-pndependence and subsequently by our political leaders, post independence for at least 60 years had been successful, it won't a remain permanent feature and battle cry of politicians when they are seeking office till the present time. If the anti graft had been won by successive governments, our country, like its former peers such as Singapore would be first, not third world.

And isn't it paradoxical and absurd that both Obasanjo and Buhari fought corruption as military heads of state and still returned 30 years after as democratically elected presidents to fight the same scourge?

A rather odious but curiously pragmatic slogan promoted by the Nigerian police Force (NPF) some time ago was: 'lf you don't trust the police, try the thug'

Following the underpinning logic of the rather nihilistic slogan, since Nigeria has failed abysmally in its fight against corruption for so long, why don't we launch a national war against poverty frontally?

After all, corruption is only one of the many contributors to poverty as there are a slew of other factors that engender it.

So why don't our leaders take on the poverty demon directly?

One of the measures or policies for mitigating poverty is well articulated social safety net.

Presently, Nigeria does not seem to have a viable and robust social safety net that could serve as a buffer or cushion for the poor against poverty.

Under lbrahim Babangida's regime, a social safety initiative, Better Life For Rural Women was promoted by his wife, Mrs Mariam Babangida of blessed memory.

The women empowerment program had a profound effect on a critical mass of Nigerians from the grassroots to the top echelon.

More so because it was women focused and being the gender that is basically responsible for the home front, it was adjudged a resounding success.

Before that program, there was the Jerome Udoji led upwards review of salaries of civil servants tagged 'Udoji Award' in 1974 under Yakubu Gowon's regime which rather than solve the challenge of poverty , exacerbated it as it spiked inflation in the economy.

There was also Petroleum Trust Fund, (PTF) promulgated under the watch of the military dictator Sani Abacha and meant to ameliorate the pains from the increase in petroleum pump price. That exercise led by then General Buhari was blighted by large scale corruption.

The current N500 billion special intervention funds set aside by the present government in power for social investment as encapsulated in the Tradermoni, school children feeding, NPower youths empowerment initiative, statutory transfer of N5,000 to indigent Nigerians schemes, have proven to be less efficacious basically because the motive and implementation have been adjudged not to be altruistic.

As a matter of fact, the ongoing anti poverty schemes have been dogged by criticisms including a scathing dissing by First Lady Aisha Buhari who lamented that Tradermoni did not get to her people in Adamawa state, a complaint and grudge also echoed and nursed by a plethora of Nigerians from other states.

Critics, especially from the opposition party also allege that Tradermoni, under the purview of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo's office has been nothing but a vote buying scheme by the ruling party.

The allegation underscores the believe that the social safety measures which President Buhari copiously mentioned in his Independence Day broadcast as being one of the fulcrum of his administration, has been as unedifying and forlorn as the long futile fight against corruption waged by successive governments going back to the colonial days which is in excess of 60 years.

There should be a practical alternative to the unproductive war on corruption in order to pull a critical mass of Nigerians out of the misery of poverty trap as the Chinese has done, is simple:

Let's declare a national war on poverty in the manner that Nigeria's past leaders continuously waged war on corruption. Perhaps that would help us catch up development wise with our peer countries at independence in 1960 such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia amongst others.

We can start by understudying the blue print of some of these Asian tiger countries.

A good candidate that lends itself to such emulation is Singapore.

The secret of success of that south East Asian country has been well documented in the critically acclaimed book by it's former President who is regarded as the 'father of the country , Lee kuan Yew, titled "From Third To First World: The Story of Singapore :1965-2000".

In that book, Nigeria was referenced, sadly not for good, but for the notoriety of our leaders for corruption.

Nevertheless, it has nuggets of wisdom for Nigerian leaders to imbibe and emulate.

Another country that made a successful leap forward from poverty to prosperity in a relatively short span that Nigeria should copy its Standard Operating Procedure, SOP is China.

It is the former Chinese premier, Deng Xiaoping that's credited with being the architect of Chinese rapid development who famously said that it is through the window that you open for development to come into a country that corruption can also slip in through.

Put succinctly, a good leader must learn to deal with both progress via economic development and the associated corruption pari-pasu.

In spite of its largely criticized (owing to its death sentence component) and generally unsuccessful anti graft crusade, China has simultaneously pursued its development agenda and as such it has been able to lift over 200m from poverty into prosperity.

It's difficult to believe that today China is the world's second largest economy. But in 1994, inflation in China was 24% and nearly 60% of the population lived on $1.90 a day which basically is the current situation in Nigeria, more or less.

China, the world's most populous country achieved the feat of economic leap forward through its now highly acclaimed development paradigm known as the Four Modernizations which were first set out by Deng Xiaoping whose mission was to strengthen the fields of agriculture,industry, defense and science & technology.

The Four Modernizations were adopted in 1977, replacing the cultural revolution driven by Chairman Mao whose warped communist policy got the country trapped in poverty for ages.

Remarkably, and thankfully Nigeria has recently adopted and is currently implementing aggressive developments in agriculture which is the No 1 amongst the Four Modernizations policy that accelerated the accelerated the socioeconomic growth of China.

By controlling tariffs, migration, demography, exchange rate, as well as interest rates, even though those policies are not compliant with global best practice, the Chinese leaders, particularly Deng Xiaoping and now Xi Jinping liberated a vast majority of Chinese people estimated to be 1.3b from being peasant farmers to industrialists and great scientists.

Nigeria, home to the largest number of black people in the world ( 200 million), can also achieve a similar feat if we all put our hands on the plough and place national interest ahead of ethnicity, religion and all other sentiments which have shackled our country and is responsible for the nation's arrested development.

With high quality input from the high calibre and respected crop of economists drawn from the academia and the private sector recently inaugurated as members of the Economic Advisory Council, EAC by President Buhari, l'm optimistic that Nigeria is at the cusp of a voyage of economic discovery and recovery.

*Onyibe, a development strategist, alumnus of Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Massachusetts USA and former Commissioner in Delta State writes from Lagos

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