At the time some of us were born, this great country looked well-positioned to rub shoulders with the world’s economic giants in less than a decade. With an estimated average population growth rate of about 2.5 per cent in the late 60s and early 70s, and the discovery of oil in Oloibiri, Niger Delta, in 1956, many super brains of Nigerian origin returned to the country. They were excited that this once-battered nation, where citizens were bundled out in droves to toil in slavery for the growth of the then terrorist nations, was on a solid footing to forge a remarkable resurgence.
Ambitious citizens would have thought that, with the exit of British powers, Nigerian leaders stepping in to replace the colonial masters would rule the country to suit the common purpose of utilising the nation’s abundant natural and human resources for sustained economic growth. To the discerning, a Nigerian-driven leadership was all the country needed to end the ignoble era of governance for calculated external benefits. How wrong we were.
In 1960, Nigeria’s poverty rate, when total population was about 50 million, was 15 per cent. Then, only about 7.5 million Nigerians lived below the poverty line. The race was therefore to ensure that more than half of these people moved above the line in less than a decade. Unfortunately, rather than exploit the country’s population and resource advantage to achieve the Nigeria of our dreams, our leaders allowed poverty to deepen with improved resources.
The result is that Nigeria is going into six decades of existence with about 61 per cent of its 170 million population under the poverty line! At Independence, Nigeria’s unemployment rate was in the range of 1.5%, mainly among primary and secondary school leavers. But today, at about 24 per cent unemployment rate, approximately 80 per cent of Nigerian youths are unemployed, according to the Central Bank of Nigeria. What a shame!
No matter how well we massage our egos as the biggest economy in Africa, the major stumbling block in the way of inclusive growth – misplaced leadership priority – had been identified by patriots even at independence. Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka had said in one of his writings that he could perceive the “smell and reactionary sperm” of Nigeria’s first generation of leaders during the early meetings he had with them in Britain and France.
In her piece, “Wole Soyinka: Lamenting Nigeria’s Peculiar Mess”, a London-based journalist and critic, Maya Jaggi, quoted Soyinka to have said, “Within five minutes, I knew that we were in serious trouble…it was clear they were more concerned with the mechanisms of stepping into the shoes of the departing colonial masters, enjoying the same privileges, inserting themselves in that axial position toward the rest of the community. I saw the most naked and brutal signs of alienation of the ruler from the ruled, from the very first crop. And I realised the enemy within was going to be far more problematic than the external, easily recognised enemy.”
Alas, that “enemy within” has indeed proved more problematic over the years, as evidenced by the mindboggling revelations thrown up in the $2 billion arms procurement scandal involving the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan. The monstrous figures being mentioned in the imbroglio that is set to consume political heavyweights, in a country where able-bodied, ‘A’ class brains are wallowing in poverty, give flesh to skeletal opinions of damning thievery in Nigeria’s corridors of power.
The can of worms that has been spilled suggests nothing other than utter disrepect for this nation and its citizens by leaders entrusted with collective wealth. It also reveals, painfully, that our stunted growth has, over the years, been erroneously linked more to palpable economic anomalies as against large-scale looting of public funds, which has left the poor majority poorer.
Little wonder, experts still cling to Tim Harford’s analysis of why poor countries remain poor whenever there is an opportunity to say it as it is in the case of corruption in Nigeria. In his book, ‘The Undercover Economist’, Harford, an English economist and journalist, said, “Development specialists always try to help poor countries get richer by improving primary education and public infrastructure. But as sensible as this approach looks, it is misguided as it focuses only on a minute fraction of the problem.”
Thieving leadership, he pointed out, was a bigger problem than decaying infrastructure and parlous education system. Nothing seems to give more weight to Harford’s position than the realisation that the Nigerian Army were being killed in scores, owing to the lack of weapons to confront a dreaded common enemy. Yet, available funds meant for arms procurement were being hungrily diverted in an apparent last-minute rush to secure the future in the face of political uncertainties.
We may decide to paint a devil a saint by swallowing reported details of how $2 billion public funds grew wings between Jonathan’s National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, and other fingered cohorts. But the misappropriation of the sum of $322 million (about N64.14 billion), in what now appears to be a re-looting of the looted funds recovered from the late Head of State, Sani Abacha, is a case many Nigerians would want to follow to bed.
With Okonjo-Iweala’s controversial account of how the funds were disbursed, and the sordid revelation of how Shuaibu Salisu, a former finance director in the NSA’s Office collected $47 million cash in 11 suitcases from the Central Bank of Nigeria, among others, Nigerians can only fasten their seat belts in preparation for the rough landing to be expected in this peculiar mess.
The direction of the case in weeks to come will, however, determine the sincerity of the Muhammadu Buhari administration’s touted resolve to deal with the hydra-headed monster called corruption in Nigeria.