A time of grave social and economic tension is a time to again examine the role corruption has played in shaping the opportunities available for Nigerians, especially the middle and working class and the poor.Nigeria, a country with great income inequality and a predominantly young population, is ravaged by internecine conflicts, from creeks of the Niger Delta through to the semi-arid region of Maiduguri. Millions worry about their ability to earn a decent livelihood and while most display extraordinary resilience, there is an underlying rumble of discontent, that can easily result in the destructive behaviour that tears countries to pieces.
Nigeria is blessed with an abundance of natural resources, especially the crude oil that has been the great source of energy powering the global economy for the last 60 years. The export of crude has generated hundreds of billions of dollar yet the country’s stock of fixed infrastructure is extremely substandard and good jobs are hard to find. The country is constantly rated low on the UN Development Index and high in ratings of corruption. Corruption is so pervasive, that it has become a culture and in all its forms, is the accepted practice for getting things done. The country is paying a high price as corruption reduces the efficiency of resource allocations and greatly degrades returns to the capital investments that should be the basis of economic competitiveness and job creation.
Each time a corrupt act occurs, the country stagnates in a way that may not be readily discernible to the actors but in a manner that unravels the moral fabric of the country, devalues its institutions and rules, and corrodes national values. However, the most alarming fact is the continued inability of the government to confront corruption, an inability that is based on complicity, implicit ignorance of the impact of corruption, plain selfishness and lack of will and courage to tackle the scourge. Nigeria will not become a great country until corruption is eradicated and the longer government tarries in actually fighting corruption, the greater the gap between the capability of the country to create jobs and actual job creation will be. This is compounded by the fact that crude oil is not only a declining resources, the demand for the commodity is slowly ebbing away. In essence, the effects of lack of investment in quality public education, infrastructure that has occurred over the last 30 years may be a condition that will be impossible to reverse unless there is an urgent drive to truly deal with corruption.
Government officials like to say that “corruption is fighting back” leaving one to wonder why corruption is not fighting back and winning in any advanced country or the major emerging economies. In fact, these countries understand the corrosiveness of corruption and make the identification and aggressive push back against the menace a primary responsibility. The statement is clearly meant as a defense for an inability to tackle corruption effectively, a condition that should be unacceptable to all Nigerians. That a government that controls the judiciary, the police and the financial system cannot effectively check corruption rewards the corrupt and points towards a disdain for ordinary Nigerians.
Nigeria is a country where the extent of corruption, suggest that at least one top government official should be convicted for illegal enrichment each day, yet that is not the case. The lack of prosecution and convictions, demonstrates a lack of will to tackle the scourge. Statements from government officials, suggests reducing current incidences of corruption through administrative practices centered on making it difficult for current corruption to occur, in the public sector is the key strategy. That is surely the wrong strategy, as global best practices clearly show that the best deterrent is active investigation, prosecution and stiff sentences, regardless of who the accused person is.
Giving a lack of will for prosecuting a real war on corruption, incentives designed to compel the corrupt to bring back and invest their stolen loot in the economy is a tolerable alternative, as long as failure to comply, results in a full crackdown on the corrupt individual. The prevailing belief is that the federal government has a good picture, of those that are complicit but assuming that is not the case and in support if it is, the federal government should assemble a team of forensics experts to review all contracts – without any statute of limitation – and to work with the financial system, local and overseas, and foreign governments, institutions and partners to compile a comprehensive list of the corrupt and their ill-gotten assets.
Implementation will require creating a window of a few years to bring money back without penalty and conversations and agreements with the corrupt that the full might and power of the EFCC and the judiciary will be unleashed if stolen money is not thus repatriated and invested in the economy. It will require the creation of a special anti-corruption court system that reduces the ability of lawyers to delay trials and with full power to sentence the corrupt in accordance with the laws that specify the amount of jail time an individual will serve for stealing the country’s treasure. The effect of the incentive will include tremendous capital inflows into the country, stimulating investment in the many attractive business opportunities in the country. It will also begin to take the country back to the dominant values of hard work and disdain rather than admiration for the corrupt. It will ensure that upcoming generation of leaders and workers place a premium on the making Nigeria great and will begin to erode the corruption culture. It will also impact the attractiveness of the country to foreign direct investment. Nigeria saw the impact of low level corruption on job creation and development in the 1970s. This was a golden era when Nigerian skilled workers built refineries, infrastructure for power generation, transmission and distribution, as well landline telecommunication system. Seaports were built and expanded, cars and buses were assembled, great networks of roads were built, paper mills and petrochemical plants were constructed and Nigeria was well on the way to becoming a strong middle income country.
Returning to anything close to that level of real development and growth requires tackling the scourge of corruption with great courage and policy vision. The outcome will massive job creation and significant reduction in the incidence of terrorism, kidnapping, armed robbery, deadly clashes between herdsmen and farmers, trans-Sahara flight to Europe and slavery in Libya and the many grave social issues that now assail the country. The alternative is a continued deterioration in the trustworthiness of public officials and increasing room for anarchy. A government that fails to tackle corruption, with all its power, authority and might, is simply fostering the slow growth that a country of 180 million people don’t need and the attendant negative outcomes.
• Ijose is policy analyst based in the United States of America.
Source: Guardian NG