Ayobami Egunyomi is a Franklin Williams intern for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC. She received her BA in International Relations from Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. She is a native of Nigeria.
Earlier this month, the governor of Imo state, Rochas Okorocha, appointed his sister as the “Commissioner for Happiness,” a portfolio he just created, presumably to ensure his sister is able to partake in eating “the national cake” (have access to the country’s oil wealth). This move brings that vast oil wealth, as well as the country’s endemic corruption and nepotism to the obvious glare of Nigerians. More recently, the citizens also witnessed the profligacy and waste common in the Nigerian government when the vice presidential quarters allocated seventeen million naira (about forty-seven thousand dollars) to cutlery in the proposed 2018 national budget. This is one of the many inflated and outrageous items in the proposed budget. Amidst all these, about 112 million Nigerians (67 percent of the population) live below the poverty line. Elite profligacy in the face of impoverished citizens underscores the core problem facing Nigeria—corruption.
Like wildfire, corruption has spread through every sector of the country and most Nigerians would unflinchingly agree that corruption begets the plethora of problems the country faces today. The menace of corruption in Nigeria is one that different government administrations have publicly recognized and tried to tackle against. The past military regimes of Nigeria claimed to overthrow the civilian government in order to curb corruption, though these governments were seen as more corrupt than the civilian governments that succeeded it. In fact, the last military head of state, General Sani Abacha, was so corrupt that even nineteen years after his death, Nigeria is still recovering millions of dollars of his loot from Swiss banks. The anti-corruption rhetoric continues to this day under the current democratic system of government in Nigeria. Under his administration, President Olusegun Obasanjo established the Economic Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to crackdown on corrupt politicians. Most recently, Nigeria elected its current president, Muhammadu Buhari, largely based on his promise to tackle corruption.
Unfortunately, these administrations were unable to eradicate, or even significantly curb, corruption. Consequently, the average Nigerian has come to expect that bribery and nepotism will trump meritocracy, and so they participate in it to preserve their own self-interest. Yet, when it comes to who is to blame for corruption, they still believe that they are blameless and that the only corrupt ones are the people in charge. To alleviate the high level of corruption in the country, the first step is for Nigerians to realize that no political elite, government institution, or president can effectively curb corruption alone unless the average Nigerian participates. In the words of a Nigerian friend of mine: "Nigeria is not corrupt, Nigerians are corrupt." This means that dislodging corruption’s hold over Nigeria starts with dislodging its hold on the Nigerian mentality, forcing people to revolt against the status quo and to demand better of themselves first and others second. Changes to law and institutions will come later, but it starts with people. Unless Nigerians choose to stop participating in and enabling corruption, the country will not move forward.