The Art of Complicating Simple Things By 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.
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