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Corruption, Poverty, And A Billion Naira By Gilbert Alabi Diche

July 16, 2014

Those who downplay the poverty dimension of the Boko Haram insurgency are missing an important point.

Chinua Achebe was a man of extraordinary insight. His perceptions and analysis of the Nigerian situation are so sobering and so accurate that they seem timeless. He twice rejected the national honour, an act that must have required a high level of personal integrity and courage on his part. It might not be out of place to suggest that the Federal Ministry of Education should produce a special edition of his book, The Trouble with Nigeria, to distribute not only to all secondary and tertiary institutions in the country, free of charge, as part of a civics education curriculum, but also to our leaders: legislators, local government chairmen, chief executives of public and private corporations, rectors, provosts, vice-chancellors, governors, and the president himself.

Many of these eminent Nigerians may have read the book already, but it is important for them to read it anew. This slim book does not contain divine truths; far from it. There are no Ten Commandments in it, apart from “Thou shall not steal”; it does not prescribe a 15-year jail term for homosexuals, which was what the collective wisdom of hundreds of our lawmakers could offer the country in session after session of scholarly debates; nor does it insist that female adulterers should be stoned to death. Rather, the book’s central theme is, quite simply, the leadership problem in Nigeria.

Poverty in Ijora Badia, Nigeria

Perhaps if President Goodluck Jonathan had read this book he would have avoided making certain embarrassing public utterances: For example, that Nigerians are not poor since they can own private jets, or that corruption is not a peculiarly Nigerian phenomenon, or that our laws say that you should not be paid a dime if you did not work for one day (a reference to academic staff on strike in tertiary institutions), or gathering an immense retinue of fellow “pilgrims” to accompany him to the Holy Land, at great public expense, although our constitution expressly forbids mixing religion and state. The leadership problem Achebe was complaining about over 30 years ago is still with us. The grounds on which he criticizes Zik, Awolowo, Obasanjo, Shagari and others in The Trouble with Nigeria are precisely the same grounds on which we can today fault Goodluck Jonathan: namely, that the country is terribly corrupt and the leadership, characterized by timidity, venality, personal agendas and pedestrian utterances, cannot set things right. 

Last week, as I sat down with an old friend to discuss the level of material poverty in Nigeria, he suggested that perhaps the best way to approach the topic was to give a sense of proportion to what a billion naira is really worth in Nigeria, since, in Achebe’s memorable phrase, it is now the “prime ambition” of many Nigerian politicians to accumulate. Pursuing this ambition has always been at the expense of the poor, who need a better quality of life. In The Trouble with Nigeria, in which Achebe first uses the above phrase, he tells us that a million is such a fantastic number that, in Igbo folklore, you have to count and count “until your jaws break down”! Today, a state governor would be called a fool if he stole “only” a billion naira before leaving office. My friend told me that in the early 1980s when The Trouble with Nigeria was published, his monthly income, as a fresh university graduate, was about N335 (N4,020  a year); yet this was more than adequate to meet his basic needs, and he even had enough left to assist the extended family as well as to save.

The naira was naira then, as Nigerians would say, exchanging for more than one US dollar. Few politicians would be so audacious as to dream of illegally accumulating billions of naira. No more. The Babangida regime, in order to meet the requirements of the Structural Adjustment Programme demanded by the IMF, brought the naira to its knees from which it has never recovered. Today my friend earns close to N300,000 a month (N3.6 million a year), on which he pays an income tax of approximately 17%, one of the most punitive in the country. His expenses on such necessities as food, housing, fuel, electricity, school fees, entertainment, etc., have gone up so astronomically that he wishes he were living again in the early 1980s with his old salary! Still, my friend enjoys a comparatively comfortable life, outside the reach of most Nigerians. What, then, can a billion naira, stolen by a politician, do for the poor in this country?

A billion is a large number. It would take you approximately 32 years to count, non-stop and synchronously, a billion seconds of time! If you spent N300,000 a month, it would take you about 278 years to exhaust a billion naira! Half a billion naira is N500 million, and one-tenth of that is N50 million, a sum itself so large that with it in a city such as Jos one could build oneself a comfortable four-bedroom flat with a boys quarters and an ample space of green lawn to match. As I write, a billion naira is about $6 million. Pastor E. A. Adeboye built his vast auditorium near Lagos, the largest in the world, at about $46 million (N7.7 billion, according to Wikipedia). His travelling aircraft cost over $28 million (N4.7 billion). How did he mobilize all that money? By the sweat of ordinary people, who felt (and were persuaded) that they needed “spiritual” solutions to their problems.

Only Ivory Coast’s Catholic basilica at Yamoussoukro, itself larger than St. Peter’s at the Vatican, could compare with the auditorium in both cost and grandeur. Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Ivory Coast’s former president, spent over $200 million to complete the church in 1989. And yet both represent a monumental waste of resources, whose sole apparent benefit is that they have entered the Guinness Book of Records, rather than contributing to the material wellbeing of citizens in the respective countries. The same multi-billion-naira Catholic cathedral is being planned for Jos, and again the burden would be substantially borne by ordinary parishioners. God himself would seem to appreciate a billion naira.

The scale of corruption in Nigeria is so huge that we need only cite statistics from various sources to appreciate it. Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perception Index put Nigeria at the 144th position out of a league of 177 countries surveyed.  According to the Tell magazine of 24 October 2011, the following former state governors had been indicted by the EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) for alleged misappropriation of public funds while in office: Abdullahi Adamu, Nasarawa (N15 billion); Joshua Dariye, Plateau (N1.2 billion plus $110,000 plus £20,000); Chimaraoke Nnamani, Enugu (N5.2 billion); Saminu Turaki, Jigawa (N33 billion plus $20 million); Orji Uzor Kalu, Abia (N5.2 billion, with a 107-count charge); Peter Odili, Rivers (N89 billion).

In addition, according to the Weekly Trust of 22 October 2011, Danjuma Goje (Gombe), Aliyu Akwe Doma (Nasarawa), Gbenga Daniel (Ogun), Adebayo Alao-Akala (Oyo), Dimeji Bankole (former Speaker, House of Representatives) and his deputy Bayero Nafada were all indicted by the EFCC for alleged frauds involving billions of naira. According to the National Geographic magazine of November 2013, former Kano State governor Rabiu Kwankwaso is also alleged to have embezzled $7.5 million (about N1.3 billion today) in state funds during his first term in office which ended in 2003. Perhaps the most disturbing case was that of the former Taraba state governor, the Rev. Jolly Tanko Nyame, who, according to Tell cited above, faced “a 41-count charge of stealing, illegal diversion of funds, misappropriation of public funds, inflation of contract sums, criminal breach of trust and bribery to the tune of N1.6 billion.” Although he reportedly promised to return the loot, it is hard to understand how a “man of God” could have embezzled such a staggering sum. 

Unfortunately, the Nigerian legal system virtually guarantees that culprits escape prosecution and conviction; as the Saturday Punch of 22 October 2011 put it, “defense counsel, who know that their clients have terrible cases…resort to all manner of tricks [and trivial technicalities] to frustrate prosecution.” A retired Supreme Court Justice, for example, remarked that Dimeji Bankole’s case was “immoral but not criminal”. It thus seems to pay to steal public funds with impunity. Indeed, some of the former governors indicted above are now serving in the Nigerian Senate or at the ongoing National Conference. I was once reading an article about the American “adversary system” of justice, in which it was stated that although any accused person had the right (and should be allowed) to defend himself as much as possible by a professional lawyer, if a defense lawyer knew for certain that his or her client was guilty of an offense, he/she had the moral obligation to refuse to defend the client.

Apparently this is not so in Nigeria, since money seems to be the overriding concern in defending criminals. Even 0.5% of N1 billion is N50 million. So, if a defense counsel could negotiate this “tiny” percentage with a corrupt governor, and the trial judge could dismiss the case for “lack of evidence” so as to get his own “tiny” percentage of the same stolen billion, then it seems to pay to sell one’s conscience. Paying N100 million in legal fees would enable the governor to go home with N900 million with his dignity undiminished. As the legal scholar H. R. Hargreaves put it, “Justice is not a service freely available to all; it is a lucrative business in the hands of a lucrative profession.”

As the 2015 general elections approach, there is tremendous frenzy in government at all levels to accumulate as much as possible before the time runs out. The billionaire club is a competitive one, and no senior politician would like to be outdone by the others. Since award of contracts seems to afford the easiest conduit through which billions can be siphoned off, governors are busy emphasizing completion of “development projects” while suffocating their workers. Paying “contractors”, many of who are in fact the governors themselves and their cronies, takes priority over workers’ salary. The same frenzy can be found among ministers, lawmakers and local government chairmen. Obsessed with the possibility of becoming a pauper after leaving office, the present government of Akwa Ibom state initiated a bill that has been passed into law allowing a retired governor to draw an annual pension of N200 million, almost N17 million a month! This is scandalous in a state with so many poor people.

Nigeria is not poor, but most Nigerians are. This seeming paradox is the result of the obscenely unequal distribution of the country’s wealth, principally from oil. The United Nations Development Programme’s 2010 Human Development Report put Nigeria’s Human Development Index (HDI) at 0.423, one of the lowest in the world, in the same league as Haiti, Lesotho, Angola, Mali and Malawi.  The “giant of Africa” occupied 142nd out of 169 positions. By contrast, Norway and United Arab Emirates scored an HDI of 0.938 and 0.815, representing the first and 33rd positions respectively. Our life expectancy at birth was put at 48.4 years, compared to 81.0 and 77.7 years for Norway and UAE respectively. Little has improved in these indices since 2011. It is interesting - and perhaps not without a touch of irony - that Dubai, the commercial hub of UAE, is the favourite destination for wealthy Nigerian politicians, who flock there almost every weekend to spend their billions. 

According to the November 2013 issue of the National Geographic magazine, only one percent of Nigerians are rich. With the country’s current population estimated at 170 million, this translates into 1.7 million wealthy Nigerians. Members of this tiny cohort, which President Jonathan used as his measure of a rich Nigeria, are able own private aircraft, travel around the world with their families or girlfriends, live extremely extravagant lives, and occasionally, in a rather expansive mood, organize lavish thanksgiving services in appreciation of “God’s faithfulness.” Meanwhile, two-thirds of the country’s population (over 112 million), according to the magazine, lives “in absolute poverty,” most of them in the North. The average income of this category is less than $2 (N338) per person per day. This leaves rather less than one-third (about 56 million) in what the magazine calls the “educated middle class,” the cohort to which my friend above belongs. “Wealth not siphoned off by corruption,” says the magazine, “benefits mainly the south, fueling resentment in the north.” The following development indices have been adapted from the magazine:

Average number of children per woman and poverty level by geopolitical zone:

Zone 2003 2008 Poverty level, % (2010)

North-East 7.0 7.2 69

North-West 6.7 7.3 70

North-Central 5.7 5.4 60

South-South 4.6 4.7 56

South-East 4.1 4.8 59

South-West 4.1 4.5 50

[Nigeria 5.4 5.7 61]

(Source: National Geographic, November 2013, pp. 98- 99)

GDP per capita (US$)

Region 1998 2011 % change

North 673 1,222 82

South 1,708 3,417 100

[Nigeria 1,190 2,300 100]

(Source: National Geographic, November 2013, p. 98-99)

It is clear from the first table that poverty level tends to correlate rather positively with family size, with the North being the worse off. The second table also portrays the North as an economic laggard, where income growth rate not only lagged behind the South but also behind the country as a whole. Both tables show average figures; since averages are often slippery, we have to be wary. I know a university lecturer in the North (a Muslim) who has four wives and 34 children! At the other extreme, of course, are childless couples. The same goes for per capita income in 2011: most Nigerians earned less than $2,300 (N360,000) a year (or N1,000 a day); indeed, the disparity in wealth is truly enormous: compare the huge multi-billion-dollar fortune of Aliko Dangote with the meagre income of a farmer eking out a living in a rural community. Although Islam and traditional attitudes in the North tend to favour large families resulting from early marriage and multiple wives, it must be remembered that the present national revenue-sharing formula is decidedly tilted against the non-oil-producing states especially in the North and should be revised in a more equitable manner. The current 13% of additional income given to oil-producing states on the basis of derivation seems unfair to other states; perhaps 5% would be more appropriate.

But poverty in the North (as elsewhere in the country) cannot be solved merely by altering the revenue-sharing formula. There have to be significant changes in the region, particularly in the social mindset of the people as well as in the reduction of corruption level. Women’s potential contribution to the economy has been widely recognized worldwide. Therefore, more women in the North should be liberated and allowed to participate actively in the economy rather than being secluded in purdah. Also, the more educated they are, the less likely they are to marry early and have large families. Regarding corruption in the region, it can be argued that were there transparency and accountability in leadership, the enormous resources that politicians literally stole from state coffers would be more than adequate to make life relatively comfortable for most of their populations.

Many local government councils in the North spend less than 30% of their monthly subventions on workers’ salaries, and yet cause considerable hardship to their workers for non-payment of salaries, sometimes for months on end. Where has the remaining 70% gone? The usual answer is that the chairmen are busy embarking on “development projects” to benefit non-workers; but we know that a project that would genuinely cost N50 million to execute would be assigned a N200 million or more price tag; since the subvention cannot take care of this artificially inflated sum, the LGC chairman is compelled to take out a bank “loan” from which he enriches himself and his cronies, sometimes leaving a huge liability to his successor, who leaves behind an even bigger liability, and on and on like that. The same thing happens in some states, where the governors, as it were, bite more than they can chew when it comes to “development projects.” In order to cover up and divert public attention from their corrupt practices, they spend millions in the press to advertise their supposed achievements. In some instances, federal money given to states to assist flood victims had been diverted by unscrupulous governors for the alleged reconstruction of broken infrastructure. Little cash ever reached the real victims. All this unethical behavior is always at the expense of the poor. It should be considered a crime against the poor that a Nigerian senator earns more than the American president.

Poverty is thus endemic in the country because of the greed (and wasteful manners) of our politicians. Take the case of Abdullahi Adamu’s alleged N15 billion misappropriation as an example. Assuming there is an element of truth in this allegation, what could this vast amount, which can build twice Pastor Adeboye’s auditorium, do for the people of Nasarawa State? With a population of only 1,869,377, according to the 2006 national census, spread over 13 LGAs, each person in the state, from the youngest to the oldest, would have received over N8,000; or N64,000 per average household of eight persons, a huge sum in rural Nigeria. Or each LGA would have got more than N1.15 billion, a amount many times their individual monthly subventions. In towns such as Akwanga and Lafia individuals can build themselves a respectable two-bedroom flat at less than N5 million; a billion naira would get 200 civil servants personal houses at that rate. If in his two-term governorship (spanning eight years in office) Governor Adamu were to allocate just N1 billion each year, he would have empowered 1,600 workers to occupy their own houses. With the same amount, each of 10,000 graduates of institutions would have received N100,000 to start business with, thereby reducing unemployment in the state. A billion naira, properly utilized, could build 10 well-equipped 1000-capacity lecture halls at N100 million apiece, decongesting classrooms in the state’s tertiary institutions.

If the average cost of sinking a borehole were N300,000 (a realistic figure), a billion naira could have provided more than 3,300 boreholes (an average of 253 boreholes per LGA or one borehole per 566 persons), thereby easing water problems for the inhabitants as well as reducing the incidence of water-borne diseases. According to the Federal Ministry of Education in conjunction with the Universal Basic Education Commission, Nasarawa State had 449,811 pupils in its primary schools in 2005 when Adamu was still in office. With just a billion naira, each pupil would have gone home with a cash gift of more than N2,000 that year; the N15 billion would have given them over N33,000 each! A billion naira would have entitled nearly 200,000 farmers in the state to a bag of fertilizer each. In short, a billion naira embezzled by a politician in any state could transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens. But the scale of corruption in Nigeria is so great that much of the populace is kept virtually suffocated, making individual self-fulfillment difficult or impossible. Poverty should be declared a crime against humanity. As the former Brazilian football star Pele put it in his autobiography, “Poverty is a curse that depresses the mind, drains the spirit, and poisons life…Poverty is being robbed of self-respect.” J.K. Galbraith said: “Poverty is man’s most powerful and massive affliction. It is the progenitor of much further pain – from hunger and disease on to civil conflict.” Those who downplay the poverty dimension of the Boko Haram insurgency are thus missing an important point.

How can the poor be assisted? There are several ways. I believe that in cases where embezzled public funds have been recovered, direct cash transfers of such funds should be made to poor households, rather than using them for infrastructure development, which invariably is another way of misappropriating the same money. We have enormous numbers of widows struggling to cope with daily life with their children. We have even larger numbers of unemployed youths and disabled people. We have old and sick people to care for. And of course there are those who are genuinely poor for no fault of theirs, those who have been trying all their lives without ever “making it”. We have a moral obligation to help them directly. Academic economists of a capitalist bent may dismiss this approach as a “Father Christmas” sort of solution likely to make people lazy, but I don’t think so. After all, that’s essentially what is being done by the Federal Government in the Niger Delta to pacify the former insurgents as part of an amnesty deal. Each year, billions of non-refundable naira are spent on them.

There is evidence that direct-cash approach has worked elsewhere in the world. Nigerian women are particularly adept at managing family resources, and could transform a little cash into a self-sustaining source of income. In a special report published in The Economist newspaper of 26 October 2013, giving poor households direct cash had a salutary effect on communities in Kenya, Uganda and other countries where it was attempted. In one version of this approach, called “conditional cash transfers” (or CCTs), households are required, for example, to send their children to school or take them to clinics for immunization in return for cash which would not be repaid. This is the method that would probably work best in northern Nigeria, where there appears to be widespread apathy towards formal schooling and opposition in some quarters to the immunization of children. In another version, called “unconditional cash transfers” (or UCTs), championed by a project called Give Directly, to which Google and Facebook are major contributors, there are no strings attached to cash given to the poorest of the poor. Identification of the poor (as in the Kenya experiment) is by means of census data and physical inspection of their dwellings on the ground using GPS and other high-tech equipment. For example, a rudimentary pack of thatched circular huts would indicate a poorer household than a corrugated-iron-roofed rectangular house.

According to The Economist, “Early results are encouraging; giving money away pulls people out of poverty, with or without conditions. Recipients of unconditional cash do not blow it on booze and brothels, as some feared. Households can absorb a surprising amount of cash and put it to good use.” In Malawi, “Girls who got unconditional cash were less likely to get pregnant and more likely to marry later…” Yet virtually all the sources of these experiments came from the developed world. In Nigeria, the preferred option has always been to give “poverty alleviation” loans to the poor, sometimes through the offices of first ladies; but loan administration is expensive and cumbersome; and since nepotism is often at the basis of this system the funds hardly get to the intended target.  The powers of the EFCC should be widened and strengthened to prosecute culprits and recover stolen funds. This would require a special tribunal to try the accused. Extensive use should be made of the declaration of assets’ clause. A public officer who had declared N100 million in total assets but at the end accumulated more than a billion naira should be investigated.

Any part of his/her income found to have been misappropriated should be seized and returned to public coffers for distribution directly to the poor in the form of CCTs or UCTs. After all, state resources embezzled by politicians are often embedded in the annual budgets for the welfare of the people rather than for the material benefit of a tiny clique. Direct cash transfers to the poor would not make them lazy, any more than giving welfare benefits to the unemployed in the UK made them complacent about seeking jobs. Statistics on the poor is not too difficult to compile, given the political will. We must drastically reduce the level of corruption and poverty in this country. Only then can we begin to build a truly just society.

Gilbert Alabi Diche, FRGS

Lecturer in Geography

College of Education, Gindiri

Plateau State


[email protected]