Nigeria’s Scourge Is a Corrupting Constitution & Not Corruption Per Se

An Editorial Opinion

In the past half-century, those who have aspired to lead Nigeria, both as civilian or military rulers, had fingered corruption as the principal object for their leadership intervention. Suffice it to say that corrupt practices have steadily been on the increase in the country’s political economy with no indication of leveling off, not to mention decline by any measurable parameter. The premier military intervention of January 1966 was inspired partly by corrupt politicians of the era who were accused by the young army officers of demanding 10% from potential government contractors as personal bribes before signing off on the deal. Ten percent of contracts’ worth loomed so large in those days. Today, politicians and bureaucrats demand a whole lot more as upfront bribes from whoever hope to successfully bid for government contracts. Between 1966 and now, many of the country’s leaders and would-be leaders have promised Nigerians that corruption would be a thing of the past as soon as they got into the driver seat. The latest of such pledges was during the 2015 general elections that brought President Buhari and his ruling party, the APC, into power. Well, without beating around the bush, one can boldly say that corruption in governance has grown wings since the incumbent administration came into power.

So, what’s the problem with corruption, one might ask? How come corruption is so easy to identify, but almost impossible to cure in Nigeria? Not to worry. Let’s first consider the dilemma of a young man who complained about being incapacitated by a fever which he could not get rid of after trying for some days. He had switched back-and-forth between Tylenol (panadol) and Motrin (ibuprofen), the popular antipyretics that are usually available over-the-counter in Nigeria, but no relief was forthcoming. Noticing that he was getting weaker with each bout of fever, the young man mustered what it would take to go and see his primary-care doctor.

The doctor examined the young man and everything appeared okay. So, he opted to take a sample of his patient’s blood to examine under the microscope in the backroom of the doctor’s office. The doctor soon returned to the consulting room with a smile on his face. “Young man, you have malaria”, exclaimed the doctor with a sigh of relief. “Your blood is full of malaria parasites and that’s the cause of your recurrent bouts of fever and the associated feeling of weakness and fatigue”, muttered the doctor as he sat on his seat with a pen in hand. Treatment to clear the young man’s blood of malaria parasites was prescribed. The next day, the debilitated patient’s febrile episodes vanished, his appetite returned and within a few hours, he quickly bounced back to his normal self.

Corruption is like fever; both are mere symptoms of an underlying disease. Like the fever, corruption is not restricted to only a specified location called Nigeria. Corrupt practices are rampant even in advanced democracies and industrialized economies. There once was a time when it was believed that the government of Italy was being hijacked by elements of the Sicilian mafia. The government of the Russian Republic is said to be controlled by the so-called oligarchs who straddle over the former superpower’s economic system like Colossus. Even in the United States, corrupt practices within the corridors of power, both at the state and national levels, are taken for granted. Corrupt practices require two important things – opportunity and greed instinct. Exploiting unorthodox options or even the use of illegal means to get ahead of the competition is a ubiquitous human foible. Societies worldwide try to checkmate corruption, especially in government, preemptively. Fighting corruption after it has already eaten deep into the fabric of society, as has been the case in Nigeria in the last few decades, is an uphill battle which is often doomed with failure unless pursued through a revolution.

Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution as Enabler of Corruption

Since it is understood that corruption is merely a symptom, the underlying pathology which causes this malfeasance in today’s Nigeria is the justly maligned 1999 Constitution. Perhaps, the most bothersome aspects of this constitution are the way it was derived and of course, the contents. As a legal document, people’s trust in the constitution is very crucial for it to be seen to serve the interest of the citizenry. Without the trust of the country’s constituents, the document shall end up not worth the paper on which it is written. The 1999 Constitution is nothing more than a compilation of past military decrees and edicts promulgated by Nigeria’s preceding autocratic rulers since 1966. The last of military dictators who ruled Nigeria, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, collated all the past decrees and edicts into a booklet which he then named the “1999 Constitution”. He proceeded to put the said “constitution” into force by the issuance of Decree No 24 of 1999. To make the document to resemble a real democratic constitution, the compilation’s cover page was emblazoned with a preamble that starts with “We the people…”. The wonder of the millennium was that Nigeria’s political elite agreed, at all, to rely on this imposed contraption as the legal framework on which the 4th Republic’s democracy should be predicated.

Even more bewildering are the contents of the imposed 1999 Constitution. In one fell swoop, all the arbitrary tinkering with the country’s geopolitical structure and associated dictates emanating from the preceding self-made and self-styled military autocrats were instantaneously given a stamp of approval and permanence. In this document is included the obnoxious Land Use Decree of 1978 which was renamed the Land Use Act, for example. Permanence and the imprimatur of legality were singlehandedly accorded to the decades-long distortions and transfiguration of the Federation of Nigeria (at Independence of 1960) into a 36-state unitary nation-state ruled from the Abuja Capital Territory.

A Nigerian Federation that thrived economically with five constitutions during the 1st Republic (Northern, Eastern, Western & Midwest Regions as well as the Federal Government had their own constitutions) was instantly transmogrified into a “Federal Government” that operates with only the imposed 1999 Constitution. Before things fell apart, it required the regional governments in Benin, Kaduna, Ibadan and Enugu to come together, on a routine basis, to agree on how to fund the Federal Government based in Lagos Federal Territory. Today, all constituents of Nigeria must crawl, with food bowls in hand, to Abuja monthly for monetary allocations to enable them to survive for just the next 30 days or so.

Between 1967 & 1996, the military strongmen ruling over Nigeria arbitrarily transformed 1st Republic’s 4-region federal democracy into a 36-state unitary nation state.

Other obnoxious features of the 1999 Constitution include the so-called “federal character clause” and the quota system. The healthy rivalry that existed during the 1st Republic’s federal constitution inspired the spirit of competition among the regional governments to produce more revenue in order to spur their local development priorities as decided by the region’s political leadership. Western Nigeria, for example, chose to expend the revenue derived from increased cocoa production to make elementary-school education widely available to all inhabitants of the region. Eastern Nigeria, on its own part, highlighted industrial manufacturing and agricultural settlements as means to increase staple food supply and export revenue. The same thing applied to the Northern and Midwest Regions. The competitive spirit manifested in national development has now been replaced with the assured guarantee of the so-called “national cake” shared as stipulated by the duo of quota system and federal character. The 68-item Federal Exclusive Legislative List created by the 1999 Constitution is a deliberate retardant to stop the pursuit of regional and subnational development endeavors as a veritable alternative option for all constituents nationwide.

How Corruption is Enabled by the 1999 Constitution

Corruption entails the use of unorthodox means to get what one has not worked for and therefore, does not merit. Corruption does not only negate competition but also it encourages lassitude and decline in productivity. Some would prefer to blame the discovery of large quantities of crude petroleum deposits in Southern Nigeria as the sole cause of the rapid decline in the productivity of the populace since the post-civil-war era. They proceed to blame the sudden availability of huge amounts of foreign-exchange income through export of crude petroleum as the reason why the average Nigerian’s interest in the culture of competition through heightened productivity suddenly disappeared. Not so, José.

The average Nigerian hardly contributes anything at all toward the emergent petroleum industry on which the citizenry has learned to rely upon exclusively for its survival and future development. The field exploration, exploitation through drilling, transportation through pipelines, export via the high seas and even the actual sale of the exported products are all in hands of the expatriate crew who own and service the multinational oil companies that operate in Nigeria. The Nigerian people, through the Abuja-based unitary government, come into the equation only after the sales’ proceeds have been deposited into the overseas bank accounts in countries that purchased the crude oil or natural gas. It is only at this juncture that the country’s elite corps wake up and start drifting to Abuja for their own cut of the so-called national cake.

As specified in the 1999 Constitution, it is the state governors’ chore to go to Abuja to collect the monthly allocations due to their respective jurisdictions. Now, here comes in the bogeyman, corruption, into the mix. Some bureaucrats sitting in their air-conditioned offices in Abuja pull out the stipulations of the 1999 Constitution’s commands on revenue sharing in order to decide who get what and when. Some of these obviously very powerful pen-pushers in Abuja may adroitly demand their own cut from the handout before they would sign off the big checks going to all the nooks and crannies of Nigeria every month. What are due to the states are routinely handed over to the governors or their surrogates to do as they please. As shown by many antecedents, monetary allocations made to states are regarded as the private funds of whoever are at the helm at the state capitals. The 1999 Constitution stipulates, in no unclear terms, that whoever are elected presidents or governors are not subject to any inquiries, probes or prosecution while in office. Instances abound nationwide where the governors simply stash the monthly allocations in their back pockets without even bothering to pay basic salaries to the impoverished employees in their states.

Even when the governor’s term in office expires, the 1999 Constitution makes it possible for the corrupt state governors to still avoid any accountability. The former governors finagle themselves into the Nigerian Senate where the umbrella of protection is still very much functional in shielding members of the hallowed Upper Legislative House from all scrutiny. That’s not all. Past governors can also make sure that they are in the good books of whoever are in control at the Aso Rock Villa and of course, the top leadership echelon of the political party in power. Recent defection to the ruling party, after the pledge of obeisance to the controller-in-chief of the DSS and EFCC, has allegedly conferred reasonable immunity to the former governor of Akwa Ibom state from being asked to provide any accountability for the billions of dollars that went through him during his eight-year stint at the State House, Uyo, for example.

So, Whither the Fight Against Corruption?

There is an Igbo metaphor that doubts the commonsense in carrying an ululu (a wild rodent) in the same sachet in which the melon seeds being sowed in the farm are carried. The 1999 Constitution guarantees a permanent place for these metaphorical melon-loving rodents inside the same sachets that contain the monthly allocations provided, on behalf of the long-suffering Nigerians, through their states’ chief executives. Corruption in Abuja and state capitals can never be addressed in any meaningful way unless the legal framework (1999 Constitution), which over-centralizes control of the nation’s resources in one location and at same time throws an umbrella of protection to frustrate accountability, is abrogated and replaced with a new one written by Nigeria’s constituents as is the case in a democracy.

Let nobody be deceived again into believing that there is a supposed grand design to fight and eliminate corruption in Nigeria’s social fabric. As long as the legal framework which enables corruption (a. k. a. the 1999 Constitution) is not first abrogated and then replaced with a new truly federal constitution written by “We the people…”, the voice of the real owners of the geopolitical space called Nigeria shall never be heard or reckoned with.

The universal culture of corruption cannot be unique to Nigeria and Nigerians. Corrupt practices abound elsewhere worldwide, even in countries that are considered to be stable, democratic and developed economically. Corruption is effectively checkmated in those climes by the creation of legal frameworks (constitutions) that constantly and reliably exact accountability from whoever are responsible for handling and managing public funds at all times and without undue exceptions. President Buhari failed to deliver on his 2015 campaign pledge to rid Nigeria of corruption as soon as he assumed office, not because he lost the will to do so, but because the government he heads is still predicated on the 1999 Constitution – a legal framework that guarantees that corruption in society shall endure eternally as long as it is allowed to exist.

The Editorial Staff
September 7, 2018