President Buhari’s drive is laudable but he has to tackle the underlying causes of corruption
In Nigeria, there is a hashtag doing the rounds: #BringBackCorruption. A tongue-in-cheek repudiation of the anti-corruption drive being spearheaded by President Muhammadu Buhari, the campaign nevertheless reflects real anger at rising hardship.
Never mind that the main culprit of Nigeria’s woes is the price of oil: at $40 a barrel, a big comedown for a mono-commodity state whose cronies, schemers and skimmers have grown accustomed to the $100-a-barrel lifestyle. Not a few Nigerians, even those too poor and too removed from power to leech off the petro-economy, are blaming Mr Buhari’s war on graft for their misfortune.
“With corruption a bag of pure water was N80. Without corruption a bag of pure water is N150 #BringBackCorruption”, goes a typical refrain. Another highlights one company’s efforts to wring more profit from a shrivelling market. “Titus Sardine started with 4 fishes, it reduced to 3. Now it’s 2. In years to come, you’ll open Sardine and see ‘Try Again, No fish this time’ #BringBackCorruption.”
Mr Buhari has indeed made the pursuit of corruption, along with the fight against Boko Haram terrorists, his biggest priority, though the link with rising prices or diminishing fish portions is not entirely obvious. Despite there being little if any direct correlation, many say that a whole system once lubricated by under-the-table money has simply seized up.
Mr Buhari, a retired general, ran the country in the early 1980s after seizing power the old-fashioned way — in a military coup. He also railed against the endemic corruption that made Nigeria notorious, even in Africa. Whatever traction he gained during two years of military rule was quickly lost. Levels of state theft reached vertiginous heights under subsequent leaders.
Now, after his surprise win in last year’s election, Mr Buhari is having another go. Under his direction, state prosecutors have gone after several high-ranking members of the previous administration of Goodluck Jonathan, though the former president, who had the grace to quit office when electors booted him out, is assumed to be safe from prosecution.
Results have been mixed. The trial of Sambo Dasuki, a former national security adviser, has run into trouble over alleged procedural irregularities, blamed by some on Mr Buhari’s military instincts and his impatience with the niceties of the law. Mr Dasuki is accused of helping to “divert” about $2.1bn meant to have been deployed in fighting Boko Haram.
Recent attacks on power stations and oil and gas pipelines have been blamed on saboteurs angered by Mr Buhari’s crackdown on nefarious activities. As lights flicker off and private generators cough into action, some Nigerians have taken to muttering: “When you fight corruption, corruption fights back.”
Champagne importers and car dealers, too, are complaining that officials are not spending like they used to. “There’s not enough money flowing around because everything was being financed by corruption,” says Mohammed Garuba, head of asset management at CardinalStone, a Lagos-based financial institution.
Mr Buhari’s drive is laudable. It is, however, unlikely to work. He is right to end the culture of impunity by going after big offenders. But unless he can tackle the underlying causes of corruption, the victims of his campaign will be seen as arbitrary and his victories fleeting.
So what are the causes? Central are the opportunities presented to a parasitic coterie of middlemen, gatekeepers, rationers, arbitrageurs, licensers and fixers. They trade in scarcity, much of it of their own devising. They can get you anything, from business permits to oil blocks — if the price is right. In such a rentier system, the disincentives to actually make anything are huge. Mr Buhari has complained with only mild exaggeration that Nigeria cannot even produce toothpicks.
To tackle the root cause of corruption, Nigeria needs to purge rent-seeking opportunities. Nowhere are these more evident than in the oil industry. Nigeria is the largest petroleum producer in Africa. Its output of 2m barrels a day is controlled by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, a many-tentacled entity which — and you can almost see the flashing red warning sign — both regulates and participates in the oil business. The NNPC dabbles in exploration, distribution and refining, though the latter mostly consists of exporting raw crude and importing refined products at scandalous prices.
The NNPC is a case study in how to sacrifice national interest to personal gain. The auditor-general recently found that it had failed to remit $16bn to the Treasury in 2014 alone. Amazingly, in oil-abundant Nigeria, most people have no electricity. One does not have to be a market fundamentalist to conclude that the NNPC needs shrinking to as small a size as possible, where zero is the optimal number.
Few doubt Mr Buhari’s sincerity in taking on corruption. Yet punishing individual wrongdoers will not be enough. Unless he can devise coherent strategies to squeeze graft from the system, it will return with a vengeance once he has gone. Then the advocates of #BringBackCorruption will have got their way. It will, though, be a cause for anything but celebration.