Published on 9 Mar 2015

Grand theft Nigeria: why corruption looms over this month’s elections

Two huge issues loom large over Nigeria’s hard-fought presidential election this month: Boko Haram and corruption. Of the two, the breathtaking scale of official corruption is blighting the lives of more Nigerians than even the deadly insurgency.

A former Nigerian government minister has claimed that his civil servants offered him a 20 per cent slice off his department’s multi-billion dollar budget, assuring him they could bury their tracks. Their expectation, he said, was that they too would be rewarded with a generous tranche of the loot.

The senior politician, who cannot be named for his own safety, alleged that he had been approached shortly after his appointment to cabinet, while staying in a hotel on a high-profile foreign trip. He told Channel 4 News that he refused the offer, telling his civil servants that he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

“The scale of corruption by this country’s political elite is breaking people,” he said. “Some see it as the dispensing of patronage, so they can survive. But let’s say it straight. It is theft. Theft with a sense of entitlement.”

“Nigeria,” he added, “is a country where you can disappear an elephant into the pocket of a shirt.”

Byword for corruption?

A couple of days later, I was interviewing Nigeria’s flamboyant finance minister. Inevitably, before long, our conversation homed in on the C-word. “Your country has become a byword for corruption,” I said.

“I reject this completely!” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, shouted indignantly at me across the six-foot gap between our two armchairs in her ministerial office, strewn with photographs of herself with world leaders past and present.

“This country has a tendency for people to throw out wild numbers and because of the perception of corruption, people believe a lot of this. Nigeria is not a lawless country where you just lob accusations.”

Dr Ngozi, who earned her doctorate from MIT and who has spent years as a managing director of the World Bank, has a street named after her in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. Half way along it, there’s a slum called Utako, whose residents live hand-to-mouth. Few have jobs; the rat-infested, malarial shanty lacks all basic services.

“The masses are suffering because of the greediness of our leaders,” said Stanley, a man in his late 20s, and one of the millions of Nigerians who do actually believe the “wild numbers” but are powerless in their poverty to hold their leaders to account.

“They are so corrupt don’t care about the masses,” he said. “All they care about is how to embezzle our money. If you look around this place, there is no sanitation, no water, no electricity. They don’t live in this environment.”

Licence to loot

Nigeria now ranks as Africa’s largest economy, powered by vast oil reserves. Average incomes have doubled since 2010, yet a third of Nigeria’s people live on less than one pound a day.

For decades, it has been alleged that corrupt politicians were skimming huge sums off the national oil revenues – hundreds of billions of dollars according to the UN. Most of Nigeria’s 500 languages don’t even have words for “million”, let alone “billion”, but people know the score. Power is perceived as the licence to loot.

Until last year, these “wild numbers” were indeed just “thrown around,” as the finance minister put it. Then, finally, a whistle-blower emerged who put some flesh on the bones. The numbers were indeed wild. But he came with some pedigree. The Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria was no ordinary whistle-blower.

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Dr Lamido Sanusi being interviewed by Jonathan Miller

Dr Lamido Sanusi, who had been awarded “Central Banker of the Year 2010” by the Financial Times Banker magazine (an award which cited his “radical anti-corruption” campaign) discovered what he figured was a US$20-bn black hole in Nigeria’s national finances.

He wrote to President Goodluck Jonathan, detailing the mechanisms by which be believed an astronomical fraud had been committed. He calculated that over the course of a year and a half, a billion dollars a month had been siphoned off national oil revenues. These “leakages” were, Dr Sanusi told the president, “unsustainable”.

For his trouble, the president first suspended, then fired him, accusing his central bank governor of “financial recklessness”.

Last month, Dr Sanusi, a blue-blooded descendent of the Kano royal line, was reincarnated as the northern kingdom’s new emir. He swapped his pin-striped suit for flowing robes and a turban. Sitting in his throne room the day after his coronation (pictured below), HRH Muhammad Sanusi II told Channel 4 News exactly how he believed the alleged fraud had been perpetrated. He sticks by all his allegations.

“At the heart of the problem, to my mind,” he said, “is that the entire political system is held hostage by a small group of vested interests.”

His was an almost identical assessment to that offered by Stanley in the slum on Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Street, where most people I spoke to knew all about the former central bank governor’s staggering allegations. But Dr Ngozi herself dismisses his claim. “It just so happens that on this that he was not correct,” she said. Last year, she claimed more than US$10bn was “missing”.

The Nigerian government commissioned an independent “forensic audit” to determine the truth, but has chosen only to publish edited highlights of the final report – and many Nigerians still smell a rat.

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Systemic alienation

Nigeria ranks 136th out of 175 countries surveyed for Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index – which measures how corrupt a country’s public sector is perceived to be. Obiageli Ezekwesili is Transparency’s co-founder. She too has served with the World Bank – as its vice-president for Africa – and as a Nigerian government minister.

“There is nothing cultural about corruption in African societies. What has happened is that the is an alienation of the systems and institutions of governance from the people,” she said. “So when you see elite greed manifested in grand corruption, perpetrated over time, it is simply that nobody has made the link to the fact that government owes us something.”

Oby Ezekwesili remains optimistic about Nigeria, despite its politicians’ winner-takes-all approach. “Give this country about a decade and a half, it won’t be the same. You know, when citizens awaken to the power of the office of the citizen, no society remains the same.”

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24 reader comments

  1. adedoyin.akanbi says:

    Thanks a lot for this brilliant write up. The civil service in Nigeria both at the federal and state levels is another axis of evil. Unfortunately less emphasis is laid on this. The culture of corruption spins from this end. Top civil servants open the boxes of corruption to new political and military appointees. They introduce them loopholes in the systems regarding how to inflate budget for their ministry. What to bribe the parliamentarians to facilitate approval of budget, then start to divide the allocation amongst themselves within the ministry, with little or nothing left to carry out what the budget was approved for. It is a common knowledge that most civil servants live far well above their income, especially at the federal level. Where are the extras coming from. Loads of them have chains of businesses and properties and other investments which
    their entire life salaries can not buy. That’s why every one wants to work at the federal level. Now in Nigeria, it’s only the Cabal who could get slots for their children and girlfriends at the federal civil service. Civil service is the spring board corruption at the federal level in Nigeria. Nigerians know these officials live above their salaries, drive cars well above their means. I have not heard many people talk about it as we do to politicians. Civil servants cover the evil tracks of politicians so that they too would not be exposed. A civil servant at the state level demanded a 20% bribe from me just last month to release my accumulated pension. I was crying beginning her to accept 10%. She didn’t budge. To worsen it the bribe was to be paid upfront before iam handed the cheque. For days I could not sleep. I reported her to the Secretary of the board. I was told she had been reported many times for demanding bribe from pensioners. She is still on her sit but I got my cheque without the bribe.

  2. jonathan says:

    Your report is as one sided as it comes, considering the fact that the same Minister for Finance was the one that engineered Nigeria’s campaign to be alleviated from International Debt. You just in a stroke of the pen showed deep disgusting disposition, as when I also watched you live your comments sounded as if you had a personal take on the matter.

    Every street in London, bears peoples names, why is her own different. You are just out to give a negative news and have not succeeded.

    I would also want to run though all your reports to check out what you have to say about the role of same Sanusi, who had been the CBN governor in three quarter of the Military regimes that plundered the Nigerian economy. Buhari jettisoned a full democracy with his cohorts and because of agreements, he is now becoming a saint? Was he not chairman of PTF for over 7 years? Did he appear for questioning over the PTF accounts?

    Have you personally visited any of the Christian families, who these men have killed to also know how they feel about their losses? Did you visit the South South and the South east zones to know how they feel? Why end up only in the North?

    For a Channel as respectable as yours, pls do not drag it to the mud, as even your camera were being urged to ‘come on’ by the installation team of the Emir,which was quiet obvious..pls edit that final part of the clip as it looked very unprofessional.

    Corruption in Govt is an age old story..Sir Hunt and Gowon will agree with me on this: https://markcurtis.wordpress.com/2007/02/13/nigeriabiafra-1967-70/

  3. umolu says:

    The North that you ,the British seek to protect and cover is the epicenter of corruption in Nigeria.The most corrupt leaders that Nigeria have had came from the north.

  4. Mohammed says:

    It is a shame that populace of the-so-called giant of Africa is in perpetual ruins and a state of utter POVERTY which is a distant cry from the actual oil-rich money of the Nigerian state enjoyed by the less than 5% in the circle of governance. Isnt it laughable that the Government at centre celebrates Transformation to mean introduction of two mundane train coaches when even South Africa or Dubai is launching SPEED Trains? Or is it the less than 4,000 megawats of electricity for a population of 170million people? Shame Nigeria! Greed and Corruption renders Nigeria a FAILED STATE..where nothing, absolutely nothing works!
    Above all..while we have terrible leaders, we have got the cowards followers who continue to die in silence pretending all will be good someday…

  5. Ibraheem Aruna says:

    He is the most educated Nigerian privileged to be elected, a minority within a minority, an example of Nigeria`s social progression, a civilian apart from Sheu Shagari. He has now acted worse than the half educated soldiers of fortune we had being used to in the past. He abused his position and refused among other declarations to declare his assets. He emphasized ethnicity and amplified religious differences. Mr president is indeed regret of enormous proposition.

  6. Sang Nkhwazi says:

    Its the same story across Africa. There are many problems http://africanpatriot.net/africa/stocktaking-24-pressing-problems-impeding-africas-economic-development/ , but this one is one of the worst.

  7. Tayo Adejumo says:

    Hello Mr Miller, very Nice articulate Documentary could see you did a lot of traveling while here, now in my opinion the average Nigerian live on more than a pound only our own value of a pound is different. Take for a example, what I will buy with £100 in England will probably fill a trolley or almost, but that same £100 which equivalents to N33,000 now won’t do as much. Our country is money orientated, we are been ripped off in every way, imagine where unlimited data actually finishes, telecommunications, you keeping buying top up, the Government that’s suppose to check don’t care because they get it free, it doesn’t affect them. Electricicity the NEPA won’t give you a prepaid meter because it’s almost impossible for them to rip you off that way.
    In Conclusion, in Nigeria, you are your own Government, you provide health, electricity, water, employment, food for yourself by yourself. With all this resources we have I have no share, I am a citizen of a country who has no file or details about me. Except what’s on my passport.
    Thank you for coming to Nigeria.

  8. agude says:

    The corruption transcends all levels of governance, from the local govt area to the state and the federal ministries. Right now there is practically nothing going on. It is a shame

  9. Ibraheem Aruna says:

    Mr Umolu, I am tired of writers, commentators blaming the British for everything bad that happens to Nigeria. The British brought a democratic system which they did not tell you was perfect, and an administration which they expected you to modify to meet your country’s needs. At least they did not leave you with any level of corruption current propulsion. So the half baked soldiers of fortune from the North amassed wealth, is that a justification for a man of the current president`s calibre to encourage it. The country is today more corrupt, more religiously divided, more ethnic than it had ever been.

  10. Biodun says:

    It is very clear that this author is thoroughly biased against Nigeria and is maliciously using this platform to spread his bias to the world.

  11. Kayode says:

    The author has a skewed perception of Nigeria. Yes, corruption is an issue but it is being blown out of proportion. You cannot call a nation a byword for corruption simply because of the few people who are giving the rest a bad name. Where is the place of fairness and balance?

  12. Bala Ahmed Tafida says:

    All well said. Now the way forward.From the top or from the bottom?

  13. Jeff says:

    Corruption rich country

  14. Segun Adegoke says:

    What you British people should know is that you are the main cause of the present Nigerian predicament. I blame you guys because you know the north is largely uneducated and largely uncivilised but you guys choose to hand over power to them at independence. Now you open your mouth loud and criticise a performing regime. poor you!

    1. Ibraheem Aruna says:

      Ordinarily Mr Adegoke, I would have allowed this matter to rest. You know in your heart that Mr President is way below par in performance and delivery. If you insist then list for me what his achievements have been an I shall list for you his anomalies apart from the much touted corruption. You made a comment about what brought the Labour party down, your assertion to put it mildly is laced with factual inaccuracy. Corruption did not bring the Labour government down. The British People wanted change for ineffective policies as was shown in that election, so balanced that it created a hung parliament necessitating a coalition government. Rightly the Liberal Democrats had to form a government with the party with the most parliamentarians in parliament which was the Conservative party. Face it Mr Jonathan had been a huge embarrassment. A fair election will be hard to achieve in Nigeria better still, it difficult to market a bad product.

  15. Segun Adegoke says:

    You talk about corruption as if it were m,anufactured by the Jonathan administration. I put it to you that your government is as corrupt as ours. let’s take some examples. What led to the collapse of Tony Blair and Godon Browns Labour regime? Don’t be a kettle calling the pot black

  16. Daniel Osondu says:

    Lamido, the so called whistle blower can’t proudly defend what he said. He said it then because he wanted to be partisan. Now he is saying otherwise. The western world is not even helping us they are aiding the corruption through their vague partnership to siphon our money and resources away.

  17. Ogunbade says:

    Thank God for people like Madam Ngozi who have stood up to face the challenge of corruption in Nigeria. She has indeed set up systems to check corruption in our public offices. We need more people like her.

  18. Muh'd Bello says:

    For me I will prefer we leave politics out of this matter. I say this because outsiders may not be able to see the complexity of Nigerian politics. For instance you talk about Oby Ezekwezili as though she were a saint on the Chibok girls saga. Let me ask you a simple question: If Ezekwezili loved the Chibok girls and the Chibok people so much why has she not visited the community since the crises started?

  19. abuya says:

    please which of the utako, is been referred to. i’ve lived there before; Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala street is one of many most developed environment in the FCT with all basic infrastructure. i guess the writer never visited utako. trying to portray utako village as utako to me is cheap exaggeration to make the Country look bad by all means. please get your facts together. @millerca

  20. Naij says:

    Sentiment apart, Nigeria is a corrupt and lawless Country though I’m not happy to say this but the truth most be told! Meanwhile the Western World are not helping matter at all, all the looted money from Africa are kept in foreign Countries.
    The so called developed Country only come to the aid of country where they can benefit from.
    It’s quite a pity that Nigerian past and present leaders put the masses in this kind of mess!.
    May God help us all.

  21. anon says:

    gone, not not gone forever perhaps? if something has been stolen then it should be returned, so it should be possible to return every penny stolen from this country. it will just require the will to do it, such things might well happen

  22. Xxavier Abdul says:

    I would like to contribute to what to this debate going on, brought on by Mr Miller’s piece, and with particular consideration for the views of Ibraheem Aruna, Umolu, and Segun Adegoke.

    For the first time in Nigeria’s democracy, Nigeria was fortunate to have university graduates as Presidents, Umar Yar’adua, and now Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. It’s true that corruption didnt start with them. They inherited a kleptocratic political system, dilapidated infrastructure, and a monumentally embarrassing unemployment indices.

    Now my point: No one put a gun to your head and say ‘be president or die’. If you aspire for leadership, and you promise the electorate that you can deliver results, and the electorate votes you in, then you must keep your word. A leader leads by example, inspires, motivates, and delivers solutions. Mr President, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, in my mind, has failed Nigerians.

    Nothing can work when corruption is present. Whatever transformation you want to do, as long as there is corruption, nothing will work. Ministries, Agencies, NEPA/PHCN, Schools, Railway, NNPC, they will all fail, with corrupt leaders presiding over their affairs. INEC succeeded by over 70% passmark because of the quality of the man, Jega. NAFDAC succeeded because of the quality of the woman, Dora. BOI succeeded because of the quality of the woman, Evelyn.

    For not declaring his assets, for saying stealing is not corruption; for giving national pardons to indicted politicians; for looking the other way when his attention is being called to the issues that affect the lives of the masses, GEJ needs to do a serious soul search.

    When trillions of naira get stolen, I think of hundreds of thousands of Nigerians that die a needless death every year, malnourshed children, travellers that die and pregnant women that lose their babies due to bad roads; unemployable graduates due to outdated, ill-equipped and dilapidated schools; Diseases due to lack of drinking water; stress, ill-health and poverty due to lack of electricity… The list is endless.

    Millions die in silent frustration, hopelessness and despair because they grow old, unable to achieve their dreams and aspirations. What they could have done in a period of 1, 2, or 3 years may take you upto 15, 20, 25years or maybe never.

    Think of the ripple effects of corruption, and you will get my drift.

  23. Hugo Little says:

    Thanks for the post. We need to stand together to face the challenges on corruption. Corruption can create a great catastrophe for the entire public both economically and socially. We really need to think on it.

Comments are closed.