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Corruption, thy name is Nigeria

by Sirocco Sun Jun 26th, 2005 at 01:55:33 PM EST

Nigeria's anti-corruption commission has compiled some astounding figures, The Telegraph reports:

The scale of the task facing Tony Blair in his drive to help Africa was laid bare yesterday when it emerged that Nigeria's past rulers stole or misused 220 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.


Corruption on such a scale was made possible by the country's possession of 35 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. That allowed a succession of military rulers to line their pockets and deposit their gains mainly in western banks.

Gen Sani Abacha, the late military dictator, stole between 1 billion and 3 billion during his five-year rule.

A closer look at the Nigerian culture of corruption below.

Even by the standards of African tyrants, Abacha was special. Taking power in 1993, he modeled his rule on Mobutu, the Congolese dictator who inspired the notion of kleptocracy (the rule by thieves). His hoarding of astronomical sums into overseas accounts was so shameless as to disgust even his predecessor General Ibrahim Babangida - 'Nigeria's Idi Amin.' Had he not succumbed to a heart attack in the arms of two Indian prostitutes on June 8, 1998, Abacha might still have been plundering the world's 9th most populous country, which harbors 1/7 of Africa's population. Happily, however, this 'Coup from Heaven' - surely among the more fortunate effects of Viagra - led to the election of Olusegun Obasanjo, a civil war hero and born-again Christian with a past as a fairly benevolent dictator.

A cautious optimism has now taken hold in a country ruled by generals for nearly two-thirds of the 45 years since independence. Time and time again, military dictatorships have seized power by coup, quashed all opposition, pillaged the Treasury, squandered the spoils on absurd largesse, and placated Western critics by signing harsh austerity agreements. Typically starting out by pledging economic reform and routing of corruption, they would proceed to do the opposite. They also tended to legitimate themselves by what has been called a 'Permanent Transition' to democratic civilian rule.

Obasanjo, who took office in May 1999, earned his trust 20 years earlier by actually stepping aside for such rule. Even more uniquely, he has made fighting corruption a top priority in deed as well as word. Yet the task is daunting; for the behavior is a way of life from village to National Assembly in a nation which last year was rated as the third most corrupt in the world.

As The Telegraph notes, the petroleum curse is key. The oil revenue flowing since the mid-70s has transformed Nigeria, and mostly for the worse. Lonely Planet's Africa on a Shoestring, 8th edition, sums it up:

[U]nbridled and often ill-considered 'development'... has taken place, particularly in the cities, fuelled by what appeared to be an endless source of oil money. As a result, many Nigerian cities are sprawling, congested and as ugly as sin. Problems such as overcrowding, pollution, noise, traffic chaos, a soaring crime rate and the inadequacy of public utilities combine to make most urban centres hellholes. (675)

LagosbusparkOutside of said hellholes, agriculture has been neglected and in some areas - like the Ogoni Territory in the Niger Delta, championing which got Ken Saro-Wiwa hanged in 1995 - ruined by pollution. This further boosts urbanization as people seek to the cities for a taste of the wealth so eagerly displayed by the nouveaux riches. A get-rich-quick mentality has entrenched itself at the expense of traditional values. No doubt this helps explain Nigeria's most dubious claim to fame: the '419 Scam' industry responsible for much of the money transfers to the region.

Society, in brief, has become a hierarchy defined by access to material riches. If anywhere near the top, you steal because you can. That, of course, impoverishes the majority near the bottom, who steal because they must - and because, if the government can do it, why not they?

Related to this dog-eats-dog culture is an ethos whereby it is not merely foolish but positively immoral for an official not to grease his pockets and - in theory, anyway - let it trickle down to kith and kin. There is a culture of tolerance for embezzlement by members of own ethnicity. When, as is usual, mere crumbs reach the hometown folks, it is bad form to criticize 'one's own' who have 'made good': Doing so would amount to cleaning ethnic linen in public.

A weak sense of national identity feeds the problem. With its 133 million citizens and somewhere between 250 and 400 ethnic groups, Nigeria is Africa's answer to Indonesia and India, but much less of a nation-state than either. In part this is because the Brits, who in 1914 established the country by cobbling together some of their possessions, governed by divide-and-rule. They also favored the Christian south over the predominantly Muslim north, leaving a legacy of resentment in the latter. Most of the military juntas were rooted in the northern Hausa-Fulani people and imposed distributive schemes designed to benefit the north. Adding to the quandary, the oil is located in the south.

ObasanjoThis is the landscape which President Obasanjo, reelected in a probably fraudulent 2003 poll, must negotiate if serious about increasing transparency. So far things look moderately well: Guarded by a new constitution, a civil society and a vibrant public sphere have begun to blossom. Considerable media attention is awarded claims of shoddy deals, of which the National Assembly is widely perceived to have plenty.

Such openness about what used to be matters of course is itself quite a step ahead. Meanwhile, however, high oil prices are floating the economy, filling the coffers with more wealth to be distributed one way or another. And that may become Obasanjo's greatest challenge. Lao Tze councels in the Dao De Jing that an Emperor, to discourage theft, should ensure that there is nothing to steal. The advice may appear somewhat radical, but in light of the Nigerian experience it does make a certain sense.

The link between oil and corruption is, however, almost universal. Remarked Peter Eigen, the Chairman of Transparency International, upon the release of its 2004 report:

[O]il-rich Angola, Azerbaijan, Chad, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, Venezuela and Yemen all have extremely low scores [i.e., high corruption]. In these countries, the oil sector is plagued by revenues vanishing into the pockets of western oil executives, middlemen and local officials.

Extreme though Nigeria may be, it is not unique.

See also my recent story on that topic:


I suppose that my more recent "oil curse" post about Russia would apply here as well.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sun Jun 26th, 2005 at 03:25:01 PM EST
Yeah, sure. Forgot to reference it.

The world's northernmost desert wind.
by Sirocco (sirocco2005ATgmail.com) on Sun Jun 26th, 2005 at 03:53:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks -- this is just amazing.  I had no idea that it could be this bad.  
by msdove on Sun Jun 26th, 2005 at 04:18:20 PM EST
Excellent post Sirocco, thanks.  It is cringe-making I should think for any white Westerner to hear -- again -- about the permanent political damage done by the colonialists in their divide et impera mode.  One ethnic conflict after another in Africa, one civil war after another, appears to have been triggered or exacerbated by the imperialist meddling of the previous century and a half or more.  Truly "the evil that men do lives after them."

It's also interesting (and logical) that corruption follows lootable resource wealth.  Stuff that can be stripmined -- fossil fuels, diamonds, tropical hardwoods, fish, game, ivory -- is a different form of wealth from, say, agricultural productivity which requires patient labour over a long term and offers a modest, realistic return.  Resources like fossil fuel are "just lying around" waiting for any bandit to grab as much as they can and turn a quick megaprofit.  Perhaps the corruption and criminal culture are an inevitable byproduct of the type of resource -- the resource lends itself to robbery, extortion, and other forms of dishonesty?

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sun Jun 26th, 2005 at 08:54:26 PM EST
Definitely thanks for posting a Diary on Nigeria.. I am continually shocked and amazed that the western press act like Nigeria almost doesn't even exist... despite the fact that it is a HUGE country with a HUGE footprint on African affairs (without Nigeria there is almost no AU or ECOWAS for instance).

The other key issue is, if the corrupt leaders of Nigeria are selling oil and ruining their country by doing so, then who is buying it?  Hmm? And what responsibility do the consumer nations have?

Nigeria is stretched to the seams with corruption and inter-ethnic and inter-religious tensions.  It already put down one major civil war in our lifetime.  Some parts of the north are home to the most radifcal Muslim fundamentalists on the planet.  If any single African country deserved to be monitored and discussed in the western press on a daily basis, Nigeria is it.

Which btw, I've read that one in 5 Africans live in Nigeria rather than one in 7.  Either way, it's a gigantic country, yet mostly all I ever read about is Sudan or Zimbabwe.

Thanks again for this Diary!


Night and day you can find me Flogging the Simian

by soj on Sun Jun 26th, 2005 at 10:45:34 PM EST
Titled, "A noose, not a bracelet", is a thought provoking article that touches on Nigeria, while talking about the bigger issue: the multi-national corporations taking all the wealth out of Africa.
Here's the link:


"With all this noblesse oblige focused on saving Africa from its misery, it seems like a good time to remember someone else who tried to make poverty history: Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was killed ten years ago this November by the Nigerian government, along with eight other Ogoni activists, sentenced to death by hanging. Their crime was daring to insist that Nigeria was not poor at all but rich, and that it was political decisions made in the interests of Western multinational corporations that kept its people in desperate poverty. Saro-Wiwa gave his life to the idea that the vast oil wealth of the Niger Delta must leave behind more than polluted rivers, charred farmland, rancid air and crumbling schools. He asked not for charity, pity or "relief" but for justice."
- Naomi Klein

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia

by whataboutbob on Mon Jun 27th, 2005 at 12:36:16 AM EST
One person took 2-3 billion pounds!!. A trust fund for every citizen could be started for every Nigerian could be created (let alone with the other billions in oil)...there should be no poverty in that country. So sad...

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 01:23:36 AM EST

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