As Nigerian Poverty and Corruption Soar, Nigeria Must Divorce State from Enterprise to Restore Public Trust

Nigeria once again made headlines this past week with reports from its National Bureau of Statistics that poverty in the country is on the rise. Reuters reports that “the percentage of Nigerians living in absolute poverty — those who can afford only the bare essentials of food, shelter and clothing — rose to 60.9% in 2010, compared with 54.7% in 2004.” This revelation highlights an oversight of my previous analysis of Nigeria’s troubles while at the same time, corroborating its central point; the major problem facing the Nigerian state is a deficit of trust and bold steps must be taken to address it.

My previous PolicyMic discussion of Nigeria’s political crisis may have unduly focused only on state elements and the governing elite. However, with reports of increasing poverty amidst nominal economic growth, it is clear that Nigeria’s business elite has also, in no small way, exacerbated the deficit of trust. It boggles the mind that the same country that has produced the wealthiest person of African descent, Aliko Dangote, also has the majority of its population barely getting by. Inequality certainly isn’t unique to Nigeria. However, in Nigeria it seems to contribute to the deficit of trust that is weakening the foundation of the state. This is because, all too often, it is nearly impossible to distinguish between the mega rich business elite and the governing elite. Too often, they are one and the same.

For instance, former head of state General Ibrahim Babangida, the former junta leader and head of state, who originally awarded many of the fuel import contracts, is deeply involved in oil bunkering. Similarly, former national security adviser General Aliyu Muhammad is also widely perceived to be involved in bunkering and is reported to have close ties to the energy company Vitol. Both were candidates for president in last year’s elections. These are just two examples of individuals who have managed to blur the lines between governance and business for personal enrichment at the expense of the majority of the Nigerian people. Whether or not accusations of collusion with government leveled against wealthy businessmen are true, the fact remains that big business and corrupt government are perceived to be deeply intertwined. This was underscored during the Occupy Nigeria protests when Mike Adenuga, owner of telecom giant Globacom and Africa’s fifth richest man, ostensibly a private businessman, found himself the target of angry protests who identified him as part of the corrupt governing structure that has caused their hardships.

As a part of measures aimed at remedying the deficit of trust in the state, Nigeria will also need to take bold steps to achieve a true separation of state and enterprise. A good first step is the recent appointment of Nuhu Ribadu as chair of the new Task Force on Petroleum Revenue. As the head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), he led a brave anti-corruption campaign that resulted in 275 successful convictions of corruption cases (compared to 0 before 2003) and a modest but meaningful rise in Nigeria’s score on score on Transparency International’s Corruption Index, before being forced into exile by reactionary elements in the government opposed to his anti-corruption drive. To help him achieve similar results as head of the Task Force on Petroleum Revenue, he will need to be given clear authority and greater independence of action (the Task Force currently lacks a legal mandate and reports directly to the minister of petroleum). Ribadu’s former colleague, Ibrahim Lamorde, has also been appointed the head of the EFCC. Together, they form a team that if well equipped, can begin the important work of reforming the state of business in Nigeria and separating it from the business of the state.

As I argued last week, Nigeria is at a crossroads and the time may be ripe to undertake bold reforms which may be necessary to reverse the erosion of the social contract that underlies the numerous problems facing the Nigerian state. There are those that would oppose this. President Goodluck Jonathan will be faced with pressure not to rock the boat, to continue to make concessions to the business elite and slow the anti-corruption drives. However, given recent upheavals in the country, this is not the time for business as usual. As much as the Occupy Nigeria protests underscored the deficit of trust between the government and the people, in a sense, they also made it clear that the Nigerian people would be receptive to a government that is ready to take radical steps to reestablish this trust. Failure to take advantage of this opportunity would be criminal.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Kwaku Osei

Kwaku was born and raised in Accra, Ghana and recently completed a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science and French at Yale University. He is currently pursuing an M. Phil. in International Relations at the University of Cambridge and plans to pursue a career in law after that. He previously interned at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ghana and the Institute for Policy Studies in DC, advocating for a change in U.S. foreign policy to Africa. His interests include peace and security, development and foreign policy particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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