by Chude Jideonwo
There is something curious that you might have noticed. Something as strange as it is weird. And it should worry you.
We don’t appear to know who ‘spoilt’ Nigeria.
‘Spoilt’ of course is the colloquial shorthand for all that ails our nation – corruption, poor leadership, stillbirth policy, diving quality of life, and gaping income inequality.
We complain about these things everyday. We moan and point fingers, bitter over the legacy handed to generations that are yet unable to bear them. We are frustrated because the smattering of best efforts don’t appear to lead us anywhere. The foundation is destroyed.
So we know that Nigeria is ‘spoilt’.
But who exactly ‘spoilt’ the country?
It turns out; no one ever takes responsibility for the state of our nation.
Let’s start from the beginning.
The quartet of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ahmadu Bello, Obafemi Awolowo and Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa, not alone, who altogether led the team that secured Nigeria’s political independence and ensuring economic decline already escaped responsibility for our state of affairs.
These days it is impolitic to state certain ‘imperfections’ about these legends, as it were. That in 1943, the Saduana of Sokoto was accused by his cousin Alhaji Abubakar Saddique of misappropriating tax revenue as District Head of Gussau. That Dr. Azikiwe was accused of corruption in 1962 and a panel was set up by the chief whip of his party to investigate the misapplication of 2 million pounds under his watch as premier, a cloud under which he never emerged.
And of course, famously, that the great Obafemi Awolowo was, also in 1962, accused of diverting the funds of the Western Region’s government to his political party, conduct apparently confirmed by the Justice George Coker panel of inquiry.
“Before independence, there have been cases of official misuse of resources for personal enrichment (Storey, 1953),” notes a paper by University of Lagos professor of history, Michael Ogbeidi. “Over the years, Nigeria has seen its wealth withered with little to show in living conditions of the citizens. The First Republic under the leadership of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister, and Nnamdi Azikwe, the President, was marked by widespread corruption. Government officials looted public funds with impunity. Federal Representative and Ministers flaunted their wealth with reckless abandon. In fact, it appeared there were no men of good character in the political leadership of the First Republic. Politically, the thinking of the First Republic Nigerian leadership class was based on politics for material gain; making money and living well.”
He is talking about Nigeria’s “founding fathers”.
Instead of being held responsible for the parts that they have played, that they must have played, (since 1 plus 1 is equal to two) just after independence, in laying the foundations of a squandered promise, in addition to the Civil War that their actions precipitated, they are dealt with as benevolent fathers that bestowed the beauty of this nation unto us – a legacy one must assume the country is proud of since it celebrates them so urgently.
And Yakubu Gowon? The one who took after them? This is the president from under whom Nigeria’s oil boon began, where many historians can track the beginnings of our institutional waste and who oversaw a civil war the country has yet to recover from. He does not take responsibility for the state of the nation.
Shehu Shagari was 5-time minister from independence in 1960 – 1970 before he became president in 1979. His government was defined by corruption, and it is to him that we owe the pleasure of the Ajaokuta Steel Black Hole which he spent hundreds of millions in dollars on – with the raw material of rumoured kickbacks.
His programme to encourage mechanical machines in farming was hijacked by friends of the government who were retired military officers, and by the time oil prices began to fall in 1981, , the center could no longer hold.
“It was claimed that over $16 billion in oil revenues were lost between 1979 and 1983 during the reign of President Shehu Shagari. It became quite common, for federal buildings to mysteriously go up in flames, most especially just before the onset of ordered audits of government accounts, making it impossible to discover written evidence of embezzlement and fraud. No politician symbolised the graft and avarice under Shagari’s government more than his combative Transport Minister, Alhaji Umaru Dikko, who was alleged to have mismanaged about N4 billion of public fund meant for the importation of rice.”
Failure heavy enough that when General Muhammadu Buhari took over in a coup on December 31, 1983, the nation breathed a sigh of relief. Shagari was released from detention for personal corruption in 1986, and banned from politics for life.
Has he ever taken responsibility for anything, yet?
Then, of course, there was the legendary Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, under whose government Nigeria’s made leaps and bounds in corruption, ruining our reputation in narcotics trade and advanced economic fraud and whose government oversaw the disappearance of the $12.4b (or less, but certainly billions of dollars, based on the thorough Pius Okigbo Commission Report) from what we now call the Gulf War Windfall of 1991.
“If anything, corruption reached an alarming rate and became institutionalized during Babangida’s regime,” Ogbeidi reports. “Leaders found guilty by tribunals under the Murtala Mohammed and Mohammadu Buhari regimes found their way back to public life and recovered their seized properties.
“According to Maduagwu: Not only did the regime encourage corruption by pardoning corrupt officials convicted by his predecessors and returning their seized properties, the regime officially sanctioned corruption in the country and made it difficult to apply the only potent measures, long prison terms and seizure of ill-gotten wealth, for fighting corruption in Nigeria in the future.”
Asked, in 2015, how he built his mansion in Minna, Babangida told the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (so that the irony can be complete), that it was generous, benevolent people who will remain unnamed that built it, of course.
“I know what my friends spent. No, my friends contributed,” he said, because we are all fools and reason is dead. “They were friends before we came into government and friends while I was in government. I started building it in 1991, took two to three years so that by the time I finished, I would have a house to sleep in.”
More than once you must have heard Babangida bemoan the state of the nation, complain about the collapse of morals and enjoin Nigerians to work hard and believe in the country,
We have really suffered.
“If what I read in the newspapers is currently what is happening then I think we were angels (in my government),” he said, without falling off his chair and hitting his head on the floor from shame. “My government was able to identify corruption-prone areas and checked them. If you remember in this country, there were things they call essential commodities. These are also sources of corruption. You go and buy ‘omo’ or food or whatever it is and we got government to take its hands off such activities. Let people use their own brains, hands and labour, nobody has to do it for them. I am proud to say that was much more effective. I give you an example; in a year I was making less than $7billion in oil revenue. In the same period, there are governments that are making $200billion to $300billion.”
Not even a dollar of responsibility taken, despite holding leadership of this country for the longest, his irresponsibility costing us the results of a free and fair election and plunging us into half a decade of pure Abacha-rian madness.
Babangida too does not know who spoilt Nigeria.
Olusegun Obasanjo, who oversaw the democratic transition that led Nigeria into Shagari, apart from playing his own questionable part in the carnage against the citizens of Biafra, and whose grand gestures as temporary president in the 70s did not translate into positivity for nation, would also say he is not part of those that spoilt Nigeria.
Then he returned to leadership and (though I consider him the most impressive Nigerian leader in my lifetime) left the country at the end, deliberately, in chaos – first by the damaging desire for an unconstitutional third term in office and then by arrogantly inflicting on all of us a sick man who transferred his illness to the nation’s soul and rolled back the small inches of progress we had made.
He too, who has led Nigeria twice – for almost a decade in total – would claim that he bears no responsibility for the state of our nation.
Not to speak of Muhammadu Buhari. He could previously claim, and indeed that claim held currency for 20 years, that he (much like the canonized Murtala Mohammed) spent too little time in office to be assessed responsible.
But on his second coming, we have had two years to interrogate his capacity and his legacy, two years during which we have seen fortunes decline, and citizens lose hope, without the cushion of leadership that inspires.
Even as he sits in the office and holds the ultimate responsibility for the state of affairs as I write, even he is not taking responsibility.
Buhari (whose candidacy I vigorously supported as, vastly, the better of our two options in 2015) points to everyone but himself. He points to all of those who held the office before him, he points to the government of Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, he points to the opposition that won’t give him breathing space, he points to civil servants working hard to sabotage him, and he points to that most significant of Nigerian bad guys: ‘the system’.
It is not just our ex-presidents that have this affliction.
You see your friends whose fathers and mothers led this country at the highest levels, even those whose names have been demonstrably involved in corruption or at least negligence, and even they complain about the state of Nigeria.
They insist on presenting themselves as decent, reasonable people who had no part, magically, in the Nigeria that we have today.
Ask them who we should blame, and they point at others: ‘them’, ‘they’.
Who are these ‘they’?
The faceless ‘they’ who always stand against change. You’ve heard every government speak about them, this unnamed powerful, omnipresent people who frustrate every good intention of the government but are never held accountable; these indeterminate group of people who sit like gremlins in Aso Rock and take over the brains and hearts of those who lead. Every president has pointed to them as the problem with the country.
Those indeterminate ‘they’ are so resolute that they were even there fighting against Diezani Alison-Madueke, despite her consolidation of oil administration power, the distribution of the wealth across questionable characters, and the ostentatious display that allegedly powered the obscene spend of the 2015 elections.
But despite all of the circumstantial dodginess, even our former oil minister says she was also victim of this indeterminate set of people who keep spoiling Nigeria – people who she, like those many innocents before her, did not name, did not shame, and did not hold accountable.
Of course, there is Jonathan, whose presidency accelerated an atmosphere of permissiveness and corruption, ceded large swaths of Nigeria to terrorists and lost 276 girls under his watch for which he yet has shown no remorse, at all. The less about him to be honest, the better for us all.
Ask the good doctor for who spoilt Nigeria – and he and his triumphal supporters who insist on crying over the spilt milk of a man who deserved to be voted out, will take no ounce of responsibility. No hoots give. If you don’t like it, they appear to say to us, go and die.
The truth is that Nigeria has been an unfortunate (‘oloriburuku’ as the Yoruba excellently would put it) country.
We have been a desperately unfortunate country for so many years, the unfortunateness springing from our classless, clueless successive set of leaders.
And lest the point is lost in subtlety and euphemism: they are the people that spoilt Nigeria.
The question really is simple: if our succession of leaders were so sterling, so high achieving, and so distinguished – then how exactly did our country collapse?
The so-called founding fathers, the super permanent secretaries, every single person who has been president of this country, a vast majority of ministers and commissioners, governors and local government chairmen, and the dirty pack of colluding traditional rulers. Heads of parastatals, and members of boards, business leaders who have benefited from ungodly monopolies and the oppression of an unprotected competition, those who helped politicians funnel and launder illegal monies that they then deployed to set up banks, insurance companies and a hodge-podge of now ‘respectable businesses’, defense chiefs who allowed our arsenal to be depleted and outdated, putting all our lives at risk, each and every one of the inspector generals of police as far as we cannot find anyone whose legacy stands apart or possesses a highlight, who ruined the country if not them?
It’s time for us to have the clarity of intent and purpose to say to them, especially now – you did this; you caused this, take some responsibility for heaven’s sake.
On the first of January this year, I was invited alongside a respected academic and a former defense chief to the Nigerian Television Authority to speak about ‘Making Nigeria Great Again’.
This tragedy – of our unfortunateness – was again on display.
Every word this military chief (one of our points men in the fight against Boko Haram) uttered was grounded in vapidity. His responses to questions were devoid of reflection, strategy, or philosophy. He simply didn’t have anything useful to say.
And I panicked: This is the man who has been making decisions for our country? This is the man we trusted to keep us safe? This is the mind that informed the president?
“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership,” Chinua Achebe already informed us. “There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.”
Think about it: if all the leaders of our journalism from the past were credible and competent, then who holds responsibility for the decay in our journalism? Who ruined the Nigerian Television Authority and made it a carcass of the greatness we are told that it once had? If all the people who ran businesses in Nigeria in the past were heroes and visionaries with the capacity for transformative ideas, then, please, sorry, where are their businesses? If all the leaders in our health sector had been such healthy, sterling examples of wisdom and brilliance, then please who is responsible for the state of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital or that of the University College Hospital?
These guys have a lot of experience, but as political economist, Pat Utomi has said, it is bad experience. It is the experience that comes from simply existing and being rather than from achieving, excelling and improving.
They are the ones who mouth the inanity about Nigeria’s “strength in diversity” and that its “unity is non-negotiable” as if all of us have not been living in this same country since 1960 and seeing that if there is one thing that we have always had, it is certainly not strength.
The people who have led us have not been the best of us. Veterans only of bureaucracy and form, their experience is useless, their relevance is overstated, and their capacity is, at best, questionable.
To be sure, we have seen evidence of brilliance in Nigeria. We have witnessed citizens build the creative industries into a system to be admired. We have seen young people recreate the music industry and push its significance across a global market. We have seen technology innovators recreate an entire system from scratch.
We have seen brilliance in politics too; Anambra’s Peter Obi and Lagos’s Babatunde Fashola being two contemporary examples, as well as the sterling system of succession that Lagos has modelled.
Unfortunately – as will be the same if my generation doesn’t significantly reboot Nigeria and set it on the path to truly transformative growth (and we still have an abundance of time to make this right) – it will be fine for the next generation to look at them; to look at us, and to say that for the most part, we were failures, and we bear responsibility for the state of our p nation.
It will be fine for them to look back at the long past of Nigeria’s desolate history and for them to curse the darkness, thoroughly.
Yes I know that come 2019, because of the terrible fault lines of democracy, we may yet be so unfortunate that one of these will yet be the only option for president of Nigeria – because, where are the alternatives on the scene today? And it will sadly fall to us, agan, to perform a civic duty and support the least of the bad options.
But at least let us be clear that we are drinking gutter water, and not coconut juice.
What is the reason it is so important to correctly locate the provenance of Nigeria’s problems?
- a) So that the responsible party approaches its duties to make amends with sobriety and perspective.
- b) So that a new generation leaders understands the urgent need to unlearn from the past and to be discriminatory on the conventions and traditions it chooses to perpetuate.
“Permanent secretaries, diplomats, vice chancellors have been here over the past two days telling us about how government can work for the people,” I said in a speech February 2016 at the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy, to an audience of these ex-leaders. “We have spent the past days hearing these leaders tell us what to do, when they had ample opportunity to show us what to do – an did not do so.
“One wonders as a generation if we have a lot to learn from these people, or if indeed we have so much to un-learn.
“Do you guys really have anything to teach us? Who were the permanent secretaries who stole billions in the 70s, the soldiers who ruined Nigerian in the 90s, the ministers who stole us blind after 2000? Are they the same ones still talking to us today? If things were so great in those days, then how did Nigeria get to this sorry stage where corruption was once only a cankerworm, but now has gone viral?
“There are too many billionaires whom we don’t know how they made their billions and too many politicians who used to win with landslides that disappeared when card readers emerged.
“We must be honest in noting where you people have failed and where you presented insurmountable obstacles for our generation: gerontocracy that didn’t exist in 1956, a collapsed education system, institutions that were interrupted and then declined, a lack of authentic moral fibre and no workable models of businesses that succeed or governance that works for the people.”
Of course these vestiges of the past can still be part of building the future – that, after all, is a model we have seen work in many places across the world. But, first, they have to repent.
Based on what we have seen over the past 16 years, and what we are looking at today, first they must have the humility to take responsibility for the part that they have played in bringing us to this sorry state – and then to commit to making amends.
Either that or, as my people used to say in Ijeshatedo where I grew up: abeg make them comot, make we for see road pass.
*Jideonwo is co-founder and managing partner of RED (www.redafrica.xyz), which brands including Y!/YNaija.com and governance communication firm, StateCraft Inc. Office of the Citizen (OOTC) is his latest essay series.