Resolute anti-corruption war and radical re-orientation: Keys to reclaiming Nigeria

By Esther Ogundipe

“There is something else wrong … on earth…; I have seen servants ride on horses while princes walk like servants on foot” – *Ecclesiastes 10:5, 7.*

This is the Nigerian riddle. A country endowed with phenomenal human and natural resources, with the potential to match the greatest and the best countries in the world, yet remaining enslaved to the have-nots!

Nigeria is a nation destined for greatness. It is blessed with uncommon human and natural endowments. It is humanly rich, not only in number, but in content. Nigerians are endowed with awesome creativity and intelligence. They are go-getters. This rich human resource is complemented by a rich array of natural resources that makes many countries envy. Unfortunately, Nigeria has frittered away these assets. According to late Obadiah Mailafia, there are great, mediocre or failed nations. He should have added “potentially great” nations.

Nigeria fits this last description, but it has remained stuck in the utopia of ‘potential greatness’, since independence. It continues to drift, beset by myriad troubles: insecurity, economic mismanagement, moral decadence, ethnic conflicts, among other ills. Regress replaces progress. The palpable optimism and firebrand patriotism of the 1970s have given way to nihilism and self-appropriation. “To your tents O Israel!” has become the unsung ‘anthem’ of the nation. Late Professor Dora Akunyuli’s national re-branding project “Good People Great Nation” remains suspended.

Nigeria, a country widely acknowledged as potentially great and incontestable leader of Africa, has remained stuck in underdevelopment and identity crisis since its independence from the British, in 1960. Nigeria, by default or design, was meant to lead Africa. From independence, the country has flaunted its ego as the backbone of Africa. Its voice resonated across the globe, defending Africa’s interest. Nigeria was on the same political and developmental trajectory with Malaysia, South Korea and even the historically great China. The country stood tall among her peers and made Africa proud. This nascent Republic basked in the aura of a widely acknowledged potentially great future. That potential remains acknowledged till today. A European analyst in Geneva School of Security Policy (GSCP) in 2017, placed Nigeria in the same class with Germany and few others. South Africa was absent on that table.

Post-independence Nigeria was pleasantly blessed with petrol and other precious minerals across a wide expanse of the federation. Its human capital also grew in numbers and prowess within a short space of time. As Nigeria’s soil is richly endowed, so also is the Nigerian mind. Nigerians rank as the most pragmatic, creative, self-confident and imaginative in Africa. They prove their mettle at home and their exploits dot the landscape of their host countries, especially in the West. They are a force to reckon with in the host states. Of course, the Nigerian restless spirit, which could not find adequate space for positive expression at home, found route for exploits abroad.

Many of the immigrants engage in acts that tarnish the image of the country in their host countries. Such illegal acts, plus the growing moral and financial corruption at home, have earned Nigeria the epithet: “The fraud and poverty capital of the world”. Unfortunately, its leaders seem unmoved and unabashed. They continue to loot state resources and hide them in safe havens abroad, or launder at home into ‘genuine’ businesses. They would always blame the West for the African calamity and ignore the African culpability.

Military interventions in governance was no better. Rather, it undermined the little progress made in the 1960s even as democratic governance has benefited only few – mainly the political class and their acolytes, who self-appropriate state power and resources. Hence, instead of the country to actualize its much touted greatness, it slipped into reversal. Its case keeps worsening with each new administration. Years of widespread insecurity and unrelenting assault by insurgents, growing ethnic chauvinism, mutual distrust and near economic collapse, have placed the country close to a tipping point. It is titillating, therefore, that the new administration of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu has offered fresh hope of recovery and emplacement of Nigeria where it deserves among the comity of nations. Nigerians are awaiting a clear-cut strategy – within its eight-point agenda – to achieve that lofty goal.

Without prejudice to his chosen strategy, it is important to acknowledge that Nigeria’s case requires root-and-branch treatment. Permit me to call it Nigeria’s malady, which fits into this Yoruba adage: “Won ni amukun, eru e wo, o ni ti oke le n wo, e e wo ti sale”. (A crippled retorted to onlookers, pointing to the wobbled load on his head. He asked them to look at his bowed legs that made the load to bend). The biblical saying “if the foundation be faulty, what can the righteous do? is also apt. This represents the Nigerian case, whose foundation was laid by the British. They unilaterally conjoined several disparate ethnic and cultural entities, largely motivated by enlightened self-interest with little or no local input and little consideration for the future well-being of the country. The initiative also lacked effective cohesion-strategy and national integration policy.

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The consequence was a post-independence ‘Babel’ – nation without any sense of nationhood – built on mutual suspicion without cohesion. Nigeria became like the ‘Tower of Babel’, which progress has been halted by the confusion of ethnicity. Nation building became a sour experiment. Ethnically-framed coups, civil war, ‘pseudo’ democratic governance, have since defined the Nigerian project. The situation has aggravated over the years. This faulty start and endogenous forces, laid the foundation for the phenomenal corruption and ethnic nationalism that have evolved into untame-nable monsters that pose existential threat to the country.

Corruption in Nigeria has two faces and are mutually reinforcing. These are moral and financial corruption. The socio-political degeneration over the years produced mostly morally deficient, incompetent or self-centred leaders who embraced and still embrace state power as means of self-enrichment. Morally bankrupt leadership in turn has produced a highly immoral society that celebrates perfidy and misnomers. Financial corruption, hitherto relatively minimal, has turned full circle. Indiscriminate forced retirements of several civil servants in 1976 aggravated the corruption problem as it eroded patriotism and selfless service, and produced dishonest accomplices of corrupt political leaders.

Nigerian politicians, in their desperation to gain and sustain power, weaponized ethnic and religious differences to entrench division and mutual distrust among Nigerians. A divided nation fits well into their agenda of perpetual ruler-ship and subjugation of the masses. Their philosophy is ‘divide and rule’. They lack the moral capital found in leaders that have led their nations to greatness. They reproduce and reinforce decadence in society. Nigerians mirror their leaders and vice versa. Some of these leaders and their apologists believe that change starts with ordinary Nigerians. They refuse to embrace and model the change themselves. Invariably, the Nigerian system has been value-stripped. There are no institutional safeguards, either, whereas there are fundamental elements that undergird the building of a nation. Late Malaifa Obadiah (of blessed memory) depicts one of such values as historical memory and national pride. Great nations like the United States, China, Great Britain, France, Japan, Singapore and others were roused to greatness by a combination of these elements and good leadership. Essentially, exploitation of human capital accounts for their success than natural resources.

Someone recently said, “No matter how good a government we have, Nigeria is never going to become a productive nation as long as her citizens are stuck with [their] vices”. I disagree. The quality of leadership is germane to the success of any human organism be it family, organization, or nation. Great nations have been launched to greatness by virile, visionary, and exemplary leadership. The Bible says: Strike the shepherd and the sheep shall be scattered. A good leader says: Follow me and learn from me. Christ said: “For their sake I sanctified myself, that they might be sanctified.” God’s concept of leadership is self-giving and sacrificial. It is an onerous responsibility. Great leaders are motivated by the legacy they would leave behind for future generations, and their names engrained in the sands of time. They are mindful of the impact of their characters and conduct on the led. They are weaned from filthy lucre. The United States, China, Singapore, to name a few, are examples of nations nurtured to greatness or progress by selfless leaders.

Conceited leaders are a curse on any nation. Hence, Nigeria’s effort at development and greatness has been an antithesis, due to poor leadership. Abnormalities have become the norm. Lawlessness pervade the entire landscape. Leaders are more lawless than the led. They break laws at will. They parade their ill-gotten wealth like fashions fiesta. They manipulate and use Nigerians as cannon folders for selfish ends. They are bad models. The society mirrors their character. It is a vicious circle anyway. A decadent society produces bad leaders. Some Nigerians would retort at an honest rebuke or correction: “The police are law breakers, the military are the same, our leaders violate rules, why can’t I do it?” Cultural mores which hitherto define most of Nigeria have been jettisoned. Nigeria is suffering from identity crisis and poor leadership. It is caught up between colonial values and home grown norms.

In addition to good leadership, cultural values undergird the greatness of any nation. Nations that rose from ashes to greatness in contemporary times have re-asserted their national identity. China and Japan are examples of success without blind Westernization. Ethnic differences are downplayed or well managed in progressive nations. Rwanda has expunged ethnic identity from its political and social register. Western influence has also reduced. The United Arab Emirates’ seven emirates successfully merged into one. Highly visionary and progressive-minded leader led her to greatness. Even at the continental level, the European Union has forged a sense of European-ness and oneness among Europeans across its member-countries. It has greatly enhanced the integration of its disparate states, promoting common good. Nigeria needs a national integration strategy and policy. Samora Machel, late Mozambican President said: “For the nation to grow, the tribe must die.”

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Unfortunately, Nigerians have imbibed warped cultural values that makes progress difficult. They generally indulge in power and wealth display, enslaved by unbridled greed and selfish acquisition. Wealth, power and position are substituted for character and integrity. An average Nigerian regards cheating as smartness. It smacks of stupidity, so he reasons, to forgo opportunity to make easy money -though fraudulently- in addition to his/her legitimate entitlement, either in public office or private business.

Leaders operate a conquest mindset. They loathe simple lifestyles. They enjoy an aura of superiority, class, exclusiveness and hegemony. They consider it demeaning to live modestly. Should they, how then would they be ‘worshiped’ by the ‘commoners’? Someone recently quipped: “Nigeria is jinxed…” Why? Because at the height of Nigeria’s descent into the pit of ‘customized’ poverty, as at September 2023, the Kano State Governor had amassed nearly 200 aides and advisers, in a state brimming with “Almajiri” (beggarly) children. Nigerians and Africans generally lack the Western/liberal mentality of horizontal growth, either. They subjugate than uplift their subordinates. Healthy competition is not encouraged. Talents are killed. Initiatives are stifled. They would rather patronize ‘whites’ and their products even if they are inferior to their kins’. Whereas Singapore copied best practices from other countries to develop, and jettisoned unhelpful ones, Nigerian leaders are ever quick to imbibe and lecture Nigerians on certain foreign practices that suit their personal or class interests rather than the country’s. They ignore those that do not tend to their tastes.

Inferiority complex to ‘whites’ and love of foreign products. ‘White’ people, even from third world countries like Lebanon and Philippines, enjoy more respect and access to places and public officials in Nigeria than Nigerians. A Nigerian Minister will gladly honour an invitation to an event organized by a lowly ranked officer in a Western embassy in Nigeria and despise a far more senior Nigerian officer. Other countries, conversely, take pride in their own people and products. South Korea celebrates its national pride through this slogan: “Anything we don’t produce, we don’t need.”

Nigerians’ misguided orientation has engendered the belief that material wealth is a measure of someone’s worth. In addition, Nigerians hang all socio-economic problems on the government. Citizens’ contribution, community service and Corporate Social Responsibility are grossly lacking. Nigerians are excessively deferential to supposed superiors, especially political and religious leaders, even when they fraudulently access or misuse power.

Other misnomers include over- emphasis on paper qualification than practical skill, and politics-is-money mentality. An average Nigerian is also a serial law breaker. Both the leader and the led disregard and flagrantly violate laws. Law-compliants are treated as misfits. Carefree wastage, destruction and theft of public properties, lack of value on human lives, nonchalant attitude to safety concerns, leading to unnecessary loss of lives and properties, are all societal misnomers, which Nigerians have normalised. Some of these vices are exported across the world. Nigerians rank as one of the most lawless globally. That is why the country is treated with utmost contempt by many countries including in Africa.

Nigeria must address the two fundamental factors responsible for its woes, if it is to change the negative narratives around it and actualize its long delayed potential. These are issues of nationhood and restoration of moral values. Realising these goals would require rejigging the structures and institutions of governance, to reconstruct the state and re-orientate the minds of Nigerians.

In 1987, the late sage, Obafemi Awolowo said: “When we raise ourselves to the level of intellectual recognition, economic and technological freedom, they will take us seriously, as they now take Japan seriously”. The salient question is: what did Japan do to earn global respect? What catapulted Singapore to its elevated position? How about Rwanda – though paled by its sit-tight leadership – in Africa? What kind of orientation helped to rejig and refocus these nations? It was good leadership, most importantly.

Singapore, a country of 6 million people (2023 figure), separated from Malaysia in 1956. It had no natural resources. It was potentially a failed state. Yet it evolved from a Third World country in 1959 to a First World in 2000, with a GDP increased 56 times from $1,310 in 1960 to $73,167 in 2016. Unemployment rate reduced from 14% to 2.1 % in 2016. What undergirds its transformation? It was pragmatic leadership, effective bureaucracy, effective anti-corruption policy and practise, merit and skilled-based system.

Meritocracy defines Singapore in every area, as against Nigeria’s instituted and timeless quota system and primordial ethnic patronage – “legislated discrimination” as someone calls it. Singaporean leaders were sickened by the deep-rooted corruption in their country and region. They doggedly took on the gauntlet. The result is there for all to see. Jon. S.T. Quah says: “We need good men to have good government. However good the system of government, bad leadership remains a bane.”

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Nigeria is blessed with all the resources that make nations great. The missing item is good leadership. Nigeria needs good leaders to harness the rich array of resources the country is blessed with. Exemplary actions in leaders inspire enthusiasm in the followers. One cannot give what he does not have. Only tested and trusted leaders, men of integrity and role models, can successfully re-orient Nigerians. There is a saying: “Life speaks more than thousand words.”

The moral standing of the President and other strategic leaders is crucial to a successful national reorientation and fight against corruption. He is the point man. In the temporary absence of functional institutions like in developed climes, he holds the ace to a successful fight against the menace. In his book The People’s Republic, Awolowo enunciated the qualities of a good leader: strong intellect, self-discipline, skill in art of governance, empathy and love for the ruled. These qualities would elevate Nigeria and earn it a place of honour among other nations.

Now this yawning worry: Does the present political leadership in Nigeria possess the moral candour to confront the ills that torment the nation? Where is the political latitude to extricate Nigeria from foreign manipulation and destructive influence? The riddle remains to be solved. However, extant realities suggest that Nigeria’s illness needs more than remedial treatment. For the nation to end its unending drift and make progress, there is need to reinvent the wheels. The first step is to return the country to full federalism or allow stakeholders to forge a new direction. The iron-cast mindset of some Nigerians is most troubling and lamentable. They view everything from the prism of region and religion. And sadly enough, these ethno-religious die-hards – especially the political leaders – are super hypocrites who treat their people like Joseph Stalin’s proverbial chickens.

Institutional role is also crucial. Democracy is enabled by functional institutions which act as unbiased umpires in state administration. Unfortunately, the National Orientation Agency, mandated to value-orientate Nigerians and create synergy between the government and the governed, and to enhance social stability and development, has grossly under-performed. It lacks independence, pragmatic and visionary leadership. It needs revamping if it must perform optimally; otherwise, it should be dissolved and its mandate re-assigned to an independent body that has the latitude to checkmate lawlessness and positively re-orientate Nigerians and its leaders.

Its revamping would require the legislature to confer independence and autonomy to enable it optimize its potential and build lasting values. There is also need for legislative actions to compliment mental reorientation. Policies and laws that promote discrimination among Nigerians must be jettisoned. Constitutional provisions that promote one religion above another should be removed. Nigerians generally need to be re-orientated to imbibe national rather than ethnic or selfish mind-set. They should be persuaded that the benefits of a well-functioning country would percolate to them and future generations.

Nigeria may also need to revisit its first national anthem and rework it into its instrument of governance or implement it in spirit if not in letters. “…Though tribe and tongue may differ, in brotherhood we stand….” This is where to start, knowing that the entrenched corruption in the system is exacerbated by identitarian politics and primordial governance, loss of societal values, and a lack of national identity and cohesion.

The country should celebrate character instead of material status. reward honesty, hard work and competence, and promote merit as the bedrock of effective societal governance. It should assert the worth of the African man, and jettison inferiority complex towards non–blacks. “Anything-foreign- is better- than-local” mindset of Nigerians needs to be changed. Successful countries cherish their heritages and endowments and package them for outside attraction. Social managers, should inculcate in Nigerians, positive values of successful countries, and integrate them with laudable African values.

Human rights and other non-governmental organizations including well-reputed Diaspora Nigerians have a role to play in rebuilding the country. They should sensitize Nigerians on their rights and duties. In August 2023, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi said that Nigerians are easily intimidated by their leaders. By implication, the citizens should take the gauntlet and enforce change peacefully if the government fails to set the pace of change in the country.

Invariably, if political leadership fails to lead the fight for change, civil society organisations and progressive minded persons and institutions should take the lead. We need to invent and emplace mechanisms for sound leadership-selection process, and explore means to develop role modelling strategy, to convert the misled youths, who are the future asset of the nation.

Esther Ogundipe
Public Affairs Analyst writes from Abuja

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