Why Nigeria is corrupt and how a handful of people are fighting it

Editor’s note: Minnesota Public Radio’s Nate Minor is spending two weeks on a reporting fellowship in Nigeria as part of a program to study and become involved in journalism as it is practiced in other countries.

“You need to be a saint not to have experienced it,” I was told here last week.

The “it” is corruption, and the “here” is Nigeria. I was speaking with Eze Onyekpere of the Centre for Social Justice in Abuja, the Sub-Saharan African nation’s capital, as part of a journalism exchange program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists.

Corruption and Nigeria have a long history together. Examples run the gamut from small-time shakedowns to billions of dollars of oil disappearing. Transparency International gives the country a rating of 27/100 and places it toward the top of its list of most corrupt nations on earth. The YouTube video above made big news earlier this month and even lead to the policeman’s termination.

Chinua Achebe, the famous Nigerian author, said Nigerians are corrupt not because they are “different fundamentally from any other people in the world” but “because the system under which they live today makes corruption easy and profitable; they will cease to be corrupt when corruption is made difficult and inconvenient.”

A root cause of corruption goes back to the British colonial government that ruled until the late 1950s, said Babatunde Oluajo, the Zero Corruption Commission’s national secretary. When people stole from their colonial rulers, he said, it was seen as a noble form of resistance. But when Nigeria gained its independence in the early 1960s, those practices continued. Why? Because the Nigerians that took over made no effort to change government to something that served its people.

Remember, the borders of present-day Nigeria were drawn by the British as a nation that had a primary goal of extracting wealth for the homeland. The borders bind together a number of different ethnic groups — Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo being the biggest. Chima Amadi, the executive director of the Independent Service Delivery Monitoring Group, said conflicts between ethnic groups arise when the nation’s economy suffers and people are out of work.

That plays into another major explanation for the pervasiveness of corruption: Where Nigerians place the importance of being Nigerian. From a 2011 study by Australian sociologist Daniel Egiegba Agbiboa: “… the obligation to an ethnic group often overrides obligations of public office, causing civil servants to deviate from established rules proscribing corruption. Big men are therefore expected to use their power to help their kith and kin.”

On the ground, corruption can look ugly. I heard stories this week of families being forced to pay bribes to have coroners take bodies to a church for funeral services. Bribing policeman is an everyday occurrence, as illustrated in the video above. Onyekpere told us that 20-25 percent of the daily production crude oil disappears between the oil wells and the ports where it is exported.

The impact of corruption is hard to understate. From Agbiboa’s study:

…since independence in 1960, Nigeria’s economic performance has been decidedly unimpressive. It is estimated that Nigeria received over US$228 billion from oil exports between 1981 and 1999, and yet the number of Nigerians living in abject poverty—subsisting on less than $1 a day—more than doubled between 1970 and 2000, and the proportion of the population living in poverty rose from 36 to 70% over the same period.

But citizens are fighting back. Amadi, from the Independent Service Delivery Monitoring Group says a measure passed in 2011, the Freedom of Information law, is helping shed light on government institutions that have been operating in the dark for decades. “Our freedom of information act is one of the best in the world,” he said.

How exactly that works is still being worked out. A newspaper columnist last year called for every citizen to file freedom of information requests to pressure the government, but a judge ruled that the call to action placed an unreasonable burden on public workers.

The awarding of government contracts to private firms is another area ripe for change. Seember Nyager, at the Public and Private Development Centre, says government officials rigging who gets a contract “all boils down to secrecy.” The freedom of information law has greatly improved the public procurement process, she said.

Onyekpere, at the Centre for Social Justice, works to fight more blatant misuse of public funds. His organization analyzes government budget proposals to highlight what it believes are extravagant costs. One government official he visited recently, he said, had one laptop on his desk and two more in boxes nearby. “One for 2011 and one for 2012,” he said.

So will corruption be a thing of the past anytime soon? If it is, Onyekpere says it will happen from the ground up. “The revolution comes from below,” he said. “If you benefit from the system, why change it?”

Technology may play a part in that. The fired policeman was caught on video, something that would’ve been highly unlikely before cellphones became common. Taking pictures of policemen and military here has always been a bad idea. But since the incident went viral, police are even more vigilant.

Nigeria is the largest country in Africa by population (160 million), but most live in poverty. Still, it’s a regional powerhouse and has huge potential — if it can solve some of its corruption issues.

Find more photographs and dispatches from Nigeria on Nate Minor’s website.