Rooting Out Nigeria’s Corruption Requires Facing Hard Truths



By Kristi Pelzel

A destabilized and crisis-ridden Nigeria negatively impacts foreign business, international security, and the entire region’s stability from a foreign partnership perspective. Security, governance, and regional leadership are partnership priorities for all countries doing business in and with Nigeria – but are they really?

The strategic geographic location, trade, and rich resources motivate foreign organizations to overlook the facts.

Nigeria ranks 157 out of 189 countries according to the 2018 Human Development Index – a UN tool that measures achievements in human development. With more people living in extreme poverty than India, having the highest number of out-of-school children globally, and failure to build and maintain basic infrastructure, overlooking these problems for personal gain can backfire on companies and countries soon.

The increasingly transparent spotlight on corruption, broadcast to the world from everyday citizens across digital media and from global celebrities has started a movement that doesn’t seem to be stoppable. It began as an #EndSARS protest to deactivate a rogue police unit and has now allowed citizens to open up conversations about the real issue – corruption.

Although we think about corruption from the million, billion, and trillion-dollar embezzlement level, stemming from presidents, politicians, and private citizens, the truth of the issue might surprise you.

A look at corruption from the top down

Did an alleged corrupt natural gas contract rob Nigeria of US$9.6 billion? (Transparency International 2020)

As billions of dollars move through the country in the name of “development,” “security,” “education,” and “health,” when will the people handing out the cheques realize that when the money finally reaches the intended beneficiary, they might receive 10 to 15% of the original funds which do not result in the achieving the goal?

The truth is they do realize this.

Multilateral organizations receive inflated reports with a few glossy pictures, and the project is closed, most often because everyone involved in the project is skimming and so there are no witnesses to the pay-offs and kickbacks that took place. This means that most countries and development organizations have chosen to accept corruption for the trade-off of doing business and for benefiting their own country and organizational goals.

“Italian prosecutors have called for executives at Royal Dutch Shell and Italy’s Eni to face jail time over alleged corruption in a $1.3bn (£1bn) oil deal in Nigeria” (Jillian Ambrose Energy correspondent, 2020). These companies stand accused of knowingly paying bribes and kickbacks to secure part of an oilfield estimated to hold billions of barrels of oil, a deal worth $1.3 billion. This is one example of dozens of fraud schemes involving private, development, and government organizations working in Nigeria.

Accountability from the top down is necessary, starting with those writing the cheques.

A look at corruption from the bottom up

To gain perspective, I spoke to three people who summarized the idea that ‘it is up to the citizens to find a way to organize and mobilize for a sustainable future and answer hard truths about themselves as individuals in Nigerian society.’

An American of Igbo extraction, Dr. Ezi Mecha, described the #EndSARS movement as an opening, not a tipping point. “I’m glad Nigeria’s youth are now emboldened to demand their human rights, especially in an organized way; however, if the youths do not articulate the real issues of corruption in Nigeria and continue the conversations, they will be back to zero. The tipping point will only happen if the conversations keep happening. If people go back home and there are no changes, it could be worse next time.” Her contribution to continued dialogue will be to host discussions and forums from the U.S. to give others a platform to speak, encouraging youths to look at history, every angle of the situation and refrain from blaming a single problem or one person, but the system.

As I learned from a Communications Researcher, the problems themself are not the issue; the causes of the problems are the issues. Communal clashes, banditry, insurgency, irregular migration, and insecurity have set the country back, but not so much as systemic and cultural corruption that is more or less ‘the norm’.

Corruption is at the family level. The family is the smallest unit of any society. Brothers are stealing from brothers, sisters from sisters, and employees from employers. If you want to get very honest about corruption, it is funneled from the family level all the way to the very topmost broad spectrum of the Nigerian society,” Evelyn Dan Epelle spoke on the self-reflection required to tackle corruption, having grown up in Nigeria and lived through these truths.

If I wanted to build a house in Abuja, for example, and I gave a family member money, it would not be shocking to me if the family member made a deal with the landowner to charge me more, in order to profit from the deal without my knowledge. I am speaking about family-level corruption here. It’s the very root of the issue that at the smallest unit of the society, corruption exists – and this lowest point is the very heart of the issue.

Chief Maxwell Ibe said, “The country cannot turn to the land of no consequence.” Chief Ibe leaned toward a two-part solution where both citizens and government are spotlighted. He says that the top three issues in the country are; (1) Corruption (2) Corruption and (3) Corruption.

Does Nigeria want to change? 

No country is without corruption. Despite these intriguing insights on corruption in Nigeria, it is interesting to find that Nigeria does not have the most astonishing level of corruption on the planet. According to a 2019 Ranker Report, 36 other countries are considered ‘more corrupt’ than Nigeria – but this is no excuse to relax.

Suppose nothing changes, and companies like Shell keep willingly supplying pay-offs to do business in the country, Nigeria can surly expect slow growth, with frequent civil disputes driven by disorganized groups of disgruntled residents that vocalize displeasure and then fizzle out.

Transparency and accountability should start with each of us and then extend to those placed in power. People in power are the same people who come from families, churches, and schools just like us, and if they’re already grounded in accountability, they’ll carry that over to bigger roles.

What we can expect in the future are blockchain solutions, digital mobilization, and hackers.

The National Blockchain Adoption Strategy is the roadmap for how blockchain can change the trust paradigm. Its adoption and how it integrates with other emerging technologies is yet to be determined. Increased access to broadband and digital devices will continue to support the mobilization of small fractured groups to launch global campaigns for international support. International Hacktivists are already working towards forced transparency which will most likely hold people and governments accountable by exposing private or classified information.

As these events and hard truths play out, only time will tell if Nigeria can steer itself in the right direction to lead the continent by example, bringing everyone around them up.

Kristi Pelzel is an international communications consultant and advisor working across U.S. and African markets. Her industry experience spans 10 years in broadcast, digital, and social media communication. Kristi holds a B.A. from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco, California, and an M.A. from Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.


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