Nigeria is not lucky enough to blame corruption for all its problems. That would be too easy. A country as multidimensional as ours cannot blame every single problem on corruption. Despite the dominance of the corruption narrative, it is clear that our obsession with corruption comes at a hefty price, a price we should consider whether or not is worth paying.
At first, it all seems to make sense, a lot of sense. 'If Nigeria does not kill corruption, corruption will kill Nigeria'. This is the basis on which many successful Nigerian politicians have built their careers. One of the reasons this corruption narrative works so well is that the polity plays the perfect muse. Whenever citizens get close to any meaningful conversation about policy, administration, or the economy, we are reminded to focus on corruption. It is almost as if nothing else matters but 'anti'-corruption. The smokescreen it creates is so compelling and distracting that other issues are temporarily halted to focus on corruption.
This is very unfortunate.
Recently, the Rivers State Governor gave an interview talking about his state, and inevitably, his predecessor. Typically, allegations of corruption and looting of state funds dominated the conversation. This pattern occurs whenever politicians appear in the media. What is discernable is that there are always enough allegations of corruption to raise in the press that they rarely ever have to discuss policy or any other meaningful topic.
Our politicians are lucky to live in such a corrupt country.
The War on Corruption
"You will no longer need to be ashamed to be Nigerians. Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand ten percent."
If this war on corruption seems familiar, it is because we have been fighting it since 1966. Anti-corruption was the justification for the first military coup, in the words of Major Patrick Nzeogwu. The irony is that most other military leaders who did not offer to 'discipline' Nigeria, offered to wage war on corruption instead.
Despite the consistent failure rate, we fell for it again in 2015. Or at least, most of us did. President Buhari rode all the way to Aso Rock on his promise to fight corruption. He pledged to clean up the government, eradicate corruption, and tackle insecurity. In retrospect, we should have focused as much on his economic plans as his anti-corruption intentions. We are still paying the price for that oversight.
Admittedly, asking Nigerians to focus on economics is a tall order. Anti-corruption is such a vote-winner with Nigerians that it can save any political campaign. The secret is to appear less corrupt, or more determined to fight corruption, than your opponent. Here lies Nigerian populism. Nigerians will elect a man based on his integrity and the fact that he does not 'steal'. It simply does not matter what else his manifesto says because corruption is king.
Unfortunately, the citizens bear the cost of such a one-dimensional approach. What worsens the situation is that corruption is not a low hanging fruit. Any politician elected through the traditional Nigerian political machine will find himself surrounded by corrupt politicians waiting to join him or stop him. If he genuinely fights corruption, he will inadvertently fight himself. If he does not fight corruption, he will still fight himself.
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
In fairness, it is not illogical for Nigerians to think corruption is the only issue that matters. Chatham House estimates that close to $400 billion was misappropriated from Nigeria’s public accounts from 1960 to 1999. Illicit financial flows from the country between 2005 and 2014 are estimated to have totalled some $180 billion. Corruption is a big economic issue, and big issues command big crowds. Big crowds help politicians win elections. It makes sense.
But the real issue is that we sometimes treat corruption like it is our only problem. It is just one. It may be the biggest, but it is just one. In fact, Chinua Achebe hits the nail on the head when he argues that the average Nigerian is likely to be found at a point in social space with limited opportunities for corruption as we understand the word. Even with the spread of petty corruption and a penchant for graft in nearly all facets of Nigerian life, the dominant, and arguably most harmful kind of corruption is in public affairs. This kind of corruption requires power, the type of power that the average Nigerian does not possess.
So how should Nigerians assess corruption in public affairs?
The answer is simple; it is part of a bigger puzzle. In our case, Nigeria's puzzle is made up of many other issues. An absentee President is one. A secession threat is another. A humanitarian crisis is a third. No matter how diligently the EFCC raids Ikoyi this month, they will not solve these issues. Greater countries have defeated corruption, yet encounter other crises. The United Kingdom for example, in all its past glory, is facing a political crisis it has not seen in years. The United States, with its self-proclaimed superiority, appears to be dealing dirty with Russia.
This is not to say that Nigerians should forget all about anti-corruption. That is not the point. Fighting corruption will and should always be a part of any meaningful plan to make Nigeria 'great'. But we cannot continue to focus on corruption at the expense of other significant issues. We have tried this sole focus on corruption long enough. It has not worked. So why not pivot? After all, 'if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got'.