The Art of Complicating Simple Things By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe
Okey Ndibe

Last week, at a book party in Atlanta, Georgia I had an interesting conversation with another Nigerian about (what else?) the perplexities of Nigeria. The other man had just returned to the US after he and his family spent two years in Nigeria. He’d given up a well-remunerated job on Wall Street and relocated to Nigeria, determined to make a conscientious effort to lend his expertise (he’s a Harvard-trained lawyer) to the expansion and entrenchment of human rights in Nigeria.

After a series of man-made obstacles were put in his way, he reluctantly gave up and came back to the US.
This is no place to go into the details of the frustrations this man faced. But his story reminded me of another Nigerian friend’s illumining perspective. According to this friend, Nigerians – especially public officials – are geniuses in the art of complicating things that ought to be rather simple. And we have a concomitant flair for simplifying things that should be extremely complex.
The massive fuel subsidy scam offers an example of Nigerians’ capacity for complicating the simple. Last year, the Nigerian government squandered close to N2 trillion in fraudulent payments to a handful of fuel importers. These highly connected rogue marketers over-inflated their invoices for imported fuel and often claimed multiple payments for the same shipment. Thanks to the importers’ nefarious schemes (and the collusion of bureaucrats), Nigeria spent several times more than the N245 billion originally budgeted for subsidy payments.
Catching these unconscionable plunderers should be a fairly simple task. After all, there’s a registry for international maritime traffic. That registry discloses the movement of registered vessels in international waters, complete with their freight. If a fuel marketer claims that a fuel-laden ship arrived at a Nigerian port on any given day, Nigerian authorities should quite easily verify whether the importer’s claims are true.
Besides, refineries around the world keep impeccable records of their export sales. In effect, the Nigerian police or some other agency should be able to establish where and when marketers bought fuel, and when the ship left for or arrived in Nigeria.
Nigeria boasts many educated and knowledgeable people. Why, then, allow the payment of scandalous subsidies based on obscenely bloated invoices? I’d hazard that it’s because powerful interests have recreated Nigeria into a space where corruption is the default mode of operation. A perverse form of “natural” selection informs the recruitment of the political and top bureaucratic class. A certain moral shamelessness and stomach for knavery are prized in the men and women selected for enthronement in high political offices.
Fuel importers did not fool the Nigerian system; rather, the system fertilized the fuel subsidy scam. If anybody, from President Goodluck Jonathan down to the custom official at the wharfs, were interested in scrutinizing the invoices, it would take just a minute or two to cotton up to the importers’ expensive, criminal game.
In many countries, the embezzlement of public funds by government officials is a highly difficult, complex art. In Nigeria, it’s the simplest of things. For any Nigerian president, governor, commissioner or local government chairman, there are many easy ways of stealing public funds. In a way, they simply take whatever is within sight – and much that isn’t.
Everywhere in the world, governments use budgets as tools for setting developmental targets and measuring accomplishments. In Nigeria, budgets serve an altogether different purpose: a ritual divorced from development but driven by a desire to steal and steal more. There’s little or no interface between what the (usually) long, bombastic budgets say and what state, local or federal governments attempt to do. For the most part, Nigerian budgets are meant to be quickly forgotten as the various layers of the state machinery carry on with the primary task of plundering the treasury.  
A few weeks ago, the Internet was abuzz with a specimen from Oyo State of the kind of bewildering decisions that Nigerian public officials make. In a state beset by devastating underdevelopment in every sector, the Oyo government decided that it made sense to fly the wives of its legislators to London. The junket was given what the government believed to be a noble varnish; the women were in London to undergo training on how to best support their legislator husbands!
As excuses go, this one was breathtaking and stunning. Was this trip included in the state budget, and did the legislators think it was an excellent way to invest highly scarce funds? What manner of support, exactly, did the women learn to lend to their husbands? If the state had indeed discerned the existence of a crisis arising from the incapacity of legislators’ wives to properly “support” their husbands, was there nobody in all of Oyo State who could have imparted the requisite training? Are the wives of British legislators offered the same treatment? And have British wives ever descended on Oyo to undergo this process of improvement?
Who decided that some British “trainers” sufficiently grasped the state’s cultural and political peculiarities to undertake the task of teaching these women their duties by their lawmaking spouses? Did this alleged training – but, in reality, jamboree – make social, cultural or political sense? If the state governor were running his own business, would he spend his hard-earned cash to send the wives of his management staff to London for a clearly spurious training? In other words, did the whole charade make financial sense?
Quite recently, I got a telephone call from a US-based professor who, like me, hails from Anambra State. He asked if I had seen a Youtube video titled “Horrible State of Public Schools in Anambra”. I had. It’s a wrenching video, a veritable portrait of the way in which innocent children in Anambra and other states in Nigeria are consigned to an environment so harsh and brutal that no meaningful learning can take place – period! The man then implored me to donate some cash to an “education” mission he and others were about to make to our state.
I explained my principled objection to such missions. Each year, Anambra and other states read budgets in which princely sums are set aside for the rehabilitation of schools. Yet, from year to year, these schools remain stuck in their tattered shape – and often come across as worsening.
For me, there’s something deeply disturbing about gathering books thrown away or discarded by American, British or Canadian children and libraries – and dumping them on Nigerian students. That habit is bound to foster in young Nigerians the idea that they are serfs in the world; that they are not deserving of the best their country can offer. In my book, that’s plain unjust and wrong.
One is willing to concede that those who spend time and energy gathering up the rejects of Euro-American students and libraries for Nigerian kids mean well. Even so, I’d argue that the loftier mission is to pressure Nigerian local government officials, governors and the federal government to exhibit greater transparency. We should focus on forcing Nigerian public officials to be less irresponsible, to steal less. That achieved, Nigeria will have more than enough cash to meet the promissory notes that drip from their budgets – from developing a healthcare system to building world-class roads. And the country won’t have much trouble meeting one of its most significant obligations: to offer the soundest quality of education to its youth.  
Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe

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Well if the federal govnenmret was so concerned about creatin better lives for the people why don't they start by slashing their salaries and allocations by 50% and see if dat wud not go a long way.they just want to punish the masses because even if fuel price is placed at 200 its not goin to affect dem in bottomline is dat they really don't care how we survive.they r talkin about amenities but I would like to know what they use our tax for and the funds allocated to each states.corruption is just too much in dis country and if we are to move forward we need to tackle corruption first.

thought-provoking, inspiring

Very well written article. Thoughtful and insightful. It is good to know that we still have Nigerians who have mastered the art of good writing. Regarding the content, the dilemma is that the usual solutions don't work in Nigeria. May God grant us a visionary leader who will effectively make things work in Nigeria, without being assassinated.

I like your intelligent

I like your intelligent responses that reflect a thorough understanding of the problems and the article. I love your sentence, "Okey is not the president and you can't expect him to write bullet points of everything that needs to be done." Funny!

The way Jonathan handles this

The way Jonathan handles this subsidy scam will determine if he will escape his wife's inadvertent prediction/prophesy.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

That would also mean chaos with only escape route for the Nigerian Grand corruption corporation.

@ tompolo

This type of writeup is called sensitization. It wakes the uninformed from their slumber. Then the north African 'magic' will follow. So many suggestions of doing simple things simply and complex things with tested and verifiable solutions. We can never get things right in this contraption called our country until we have a leader who enerstly and honestly lives above board, without being bugged down by party considerations, irrespective of political party leaning. We can not manufacture such a leader. He evolves from the system, emerges at the right time.

@tompolo: I think you need to

@tompolo: I think you need to reread the article again before you make your comment. He clearly mentioned some solutions on the problems he listed. On the fuel subsidy issue, he clearly stated interalia...Besides, refineries around the world keep impeccable records of their export sales........ bottom line: we don't need useless committee from the house to make special investigation. If people were doing their jobs, this would have been caught without special investigation hence the headline of the whole article..the art of complicating simple things. thank you sir.
Okay is not the president and you can't expect him to write articles with bullet points of everything that needs to be done. What has GEJ government done with other advice provided by other Nigerians?
We all have different parts to play and educating the public is an important one. Don't be too haste to condemn....see the good in what he's trying to get across.

Nigerians love complexity and adore conflict

Nigerians cherish complexity and adore conflict. It’s one hell of a place. The dignity of life and that of being human is forever lost and meaningless in today's Nigeria. It’s going to take some sort of divine intervention to revamp and restore it.

I agree. We make simple

I agree. We make simple things look complex, and complex things so simple. For instance, the long tortous journey of subsidy probe by the House of Reps is unnecessary. By the appropriation act, GEJ was supposed to spend about N268b on fuel subsidy but ended up spending N2.1tr. Simply ask him to explain and justify failing which he will face the obvious consequences. If this simple route was taken, the man will simply route out the subsidy thieves without further prompting. Now we decided on the long tortious route, we are confronted with the case of 'two fighting'.

the art of complicating simple things

Thanks immensely for your patriotic write ups prof okey.i remember your expose on Gov. ibori and you were maligned by prof Dara.You have been vindicated and the shame is on Prof.Dara and his cohorts.Most nigerians are corrupt be it politicians;ACN,PDP etc or religious leaders.This cankerworm has been the problem of our great country.The country will be a paradise if the level of corruption is abated.

We can no longer be hoodwinked

Nigerians are watching with kin interest d unfolding scenarios of d subsidy scam , jonathan should also knw dat we can no longer be hoodwinked cos dey have exhausted dia lies & tricks, its eithers he chooses b/w his cabal of kleptomaniacs or d plundered masses.

Solution is simple

It still surprises me to see nigerians asking what the solution to our problems are.

Just kick the PDP out of power and we shall see wonders. A party of dogs and babboons is better than the rogues in the PDP

when ll dis pity party end?

well written article.problems clearly articulated but no solution offered. In d face of great injustice and brutal ponder of our collective resources by a few,we d majority ve choosen to do nothing but bemoan our fate in an endless pity party.d catalogue of our woes is just too lengthy for d minds comprehension,d inpunity of our leaders defiles all human logic,pls expect soon mothers of legislators from another state soon in london on training too cos we like to copy cat RUBBISH. On d issue of used books or brand new,pls dont bother cos our kids are no longer a young girl why should i waste my energy reading and at d end wont get employment when i can simply look 4 one baba and marry,then start junketing round d globe for imaginary trainings with allocation of land in choice areas plus an honoary employment position dat is pensionable.WHAT A SAD COUNTRY...

How to stop them?

If he writes about how to stop them, he would be called an "enemy of state" by the government and could be invited by the SSS again. Abeg! leave the man alone ooo. There are too much problems to solve in Nigeria. Fraud is No. 1. The country is upside-down like the upside-down cake.

I sahre your view!

You could not have analysed the situation better. The misery yet unravels is then reason why our people are so cowardly and reluctant about physically doing something to change the situation.

Last year I concluded not to sit back and watch any longer, so I started writing articles on accountability and transparency. Hoping the youths will someday grow some balls, and armed with the awareness brought to them by people like us , living in an organized society, will demand their rights whether by truce or by force.

May that day come soon but till then, let's continue in our campaign against corruption.


There is no political will to smoke out the subsidy thieves,our victory as usual will lie on the inability of the corrupt cabal to erase facts on the ground.The international maritime records cannot be altered by the thieves and thier collaborators in high places so lets watch as they try to fool themselves.

Noooo!! Prof. Okey

“For me, there’s something deeply disturbing about gathering books thrown away or discarded by American, British or Canadian children and libraries – and dumping them on Nigerian students. That habit is bound to foster in young Nigerians the idea that they are serfs in the world; that they are not deserving of the best their country can offer. In my book, that’s plain unjust and wrong”
Noooo Okey. Was your first car a brand new car? Old, used, refurbished books please felas, send them home. Those used books are better than no books at-all. If brand new books is the key to success in school how come IBB children are not engineers, surgeons etc. Nigerians do not feel any serfs and undeserving bcos they studied with old, used books. That kind of thinking, trust me, na oyibo psychological problem. Real naija boys and girls, the okonkwos, no shaking.

. . . Write about how to stop them & not about the decay

Dear Prof Okey, of all you have written, only one sentence makes sense to me. ". . .We should focus on forcing Nigerian public officials to be less irresponsible, to steal less." - The question is: How do we make them to focus on stealing less? This is where all of you columnist, writers, commentators etc have failed. In fact, all of us have.

Why not write and suggest how to stop these people instead of writing about the decay which we all already know exist? If the Egyptians , Libyans and Algerians kept writing, they will still be writing till this day. Please, I beg you, begin to brainstorm on how the common man can stop these demon possessed Nigerian public officials, I mean Jonathan, Ngozi, Mark, Abati, almost all the Governors etc

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