According to Oxfam International’s ‘Inequality In Nigeria, Exploring the Drivers,’ a report published last week, the combined wealth of Nigeria’s five richest citizens, nearly $30 billion, can end extreme poverty in the country.
Exploring the vast and deepening chasm between the country’s rich and her poor, the report said the benefits of the nation's economic growth has been seized by a minor sliver of the nation’s population, to the detriment of the ordinary Nigerians.
But in a country in which over 112 million (67% of the population, according to the latest poverty report of Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics) live in poverty, exactly how rich is the richest?
According to Oxfam, Nigeria's richest man earns 8,000 times more in one day than a poor Nigerian spends on basic needs in an entire year. And if he acquired not one penny more, he would need all of 42 years to exhaust his fortune if he spent as much as $1m per day.
Oxfam is right, and wrong.
It is not wrong in its analyses; it is conservative even in its numbers. For instance, Nigeria’s wealthiest five are worth closer to $40bn than to $30bn. Not only is our “wealth” structured differently than Forbes can understand, those numbers relate largely to Nigerians who have investments.
But the message is clear.
Among others, Oxfam attributes the instability in the Northeastern part of the country to this economic inequality. Public office holders, it said, stole an astonishing $20trillion from the public purse between 1960 and 2005.
That means the kleptocrats ripped the Nigerian people off by over $444bn per year during that period, just before the inauguration of the stealing-is-not-corruption era.
Oxfam is wrong because its argument does not go far enough. The ordinary Nigerian is not poor simply because of public officers who have looted the commonwealth for nearly two generations. There are other countries that have suffered corruption, but which still advanced economically.
The Nigeria case is different because the public officer believes the ordinary Nigerian is stupid and does not deserve the same life as he does. He thinks of governance as a favour to the public for which he should serve himself. Not ‘serve himself first,’ but serve himself, period. Nobody hates the Nigerian poor more than the Nigerian public officer.
A good example is the National Assembly, where legislators who do not even have constituency offices pay themselves the most infamous salaries and allowances on earth.
In the executive branch, including the civil service, public funds and property are routinely cornered by well-placed officers who wind up owning tomes of real estate, automobiles and businesses. Hundreds of government cars are cleverly converted into personal possessions.
Think about it: there are about five of Nigeria’s diplomatic community properties in dispute in the Washington, DC area alone: why? In New York, nobody lives in the United Nations ambassador’s residence as do other Permanent Representatives. Ours somehow buy new ones as they please; one of those, a $10m waterfront residence in Harrison, was quietly sold off for only $750,000 about 10 years ago.
Our public servant is a public master. He believes his office is to be used as he pleases, and is offended to hear such words and phrases as accountability, transparency, human rights, or social justice.
In the main, they are self-centred, grabby, grasping kleptocrats who have taken so much they do not know how much they own, and do not know how to stop. “Money-sharing”—of government funds not only by privileged officials but by private sector speculators as well—has become a national sport.
It is in this connection that the Oxfam report says that Nigeria’s poor have failed to benefit from Nigeria's wealth, citing the excessive influence of big business and some wealthy elite in government and policy making.
In a related report published last week in Abuja, Transparency International Defence And Security underscored how Nigeria’s political elites have exploited the country’s military for many years to steal billions of dollars, taking advantage of the excessive secrecy of the country’s defence budget.
All of which explains why, as the “wealthy” buy private jets as well mansions in a dozen cities around the world every year, we have no funds left to build infrastructure, to give the Nigerian mother safe delivery of her baby, or to guarantee potable water.
And, of course, such services as education and health are given pittance. We barely have classrooms, and nobody speaks of libraries. The police live in an unholy alliance with kidnappers and armed robbers, leaving unemployment and insecurity to roam our streets.
Speaking of private jets, the Oxfam report arrived in the same week that wealthy Nigerians stormed Minna for the wedding of a daughter of former Nigeria leader Ibrahim Babangida. Reporters said they arrived in about 30 jets, some others in police and Air Force equipment.
It is worth recalling that upon taking office, President Muhammadu Buhari repeatedly lambasted the preceding government, which he accused of spending billions in a widely-abused process. Speaking at the House of Representatives in December 2015, for instance, he pledged to re-organize, retrain and re-equip the military. Well, part of that glittering new equipment is apparently now being used to attend private weddings.
But in a country where the same people have ensured we have no roads, it is the only way the “wealthy,” most of whom produce nothing, can travel. The government maintains the airports for them.
But also last week, Minister of Finance Kemi Adeosun took the microphone at a public event to speak about why Nigeria must borrow to fund the budget, and not rely on recovered loot.
“It takes a long time to recover this looted money,” she explained. “Take a look at the Abacha loot, it has been with the Swiss government for 20 years and yet we still don’t have it back.”
As I have documented several times, this is nonsense. While there is still a lot of money out there for which the government must fight, billions of dollars have been returned to us by some countries, especially Switzerland. The real question is: where is that money? A federal court has ordered Mrs. Adeosun’s government to publish a full record, an order it continues to ignore, thereby protecting the corrupt.
This tendency, to ignore the demand of transparency to which the Buhari government pledged itself, is far worse than the $20trn lost to corruption in those 45 years.
It is the ultimate betrayal of Nigeria’s poor, and evidence that the cure has become worse than the disease. People who should be in jail are making the law. The patients are running the pharmacy.
It is interesting that the $30b argument Oxfam makes parallels the $30b over three years that the Buhari government wants to borrow. The difference is that there is no evidence the current government is different from the one it replaced, and that it will not simply multiply the volume of uncompleted projects that litter the Nigeria landscape.
In other words, what we need is not the wealth of the five richest, but the heart of a true patriot and leader. If Nigeria had the true commitment of her leadership, she will be one the world’s top five economies in five years.