Nigeria: Anatomy of a Feckless State, By Larry Diamond

Because Nigeria has largely squandered staggering natural resource wealth and human potential over more than half a century of independence, there is a chronic tendency here and abroad to see its national prospect as nearly hopeless. But Nigeria is not condemned to suffer endemic corruption, waste, ineptitude, and insecurity.

These are the products of deficient institutions and a culture that has grown up around them. People make institutions. People produce and reproduce cultural norms and expectations. And people can change them.

I was interested to discover that Governor Tinubu and I are of the same generation, born a few months apart. Around the time he first visited the United States I first visited Nigeria.

At similar points in our lives, though from very different perspectives, we have seen the promise of democracy in Nigeria swell and recede. We have seen the military come and go from government. We saw the Second Republic gasp for breath and then collapse under the weight of unchecked political greed and staggering fraud in the 1983 elections.

We have seen military rule bring this country to nearly total ruin, and along the way, arrest and imprison the man elected, under its very auspices in 1993, with a broad popular mandate to fix the mess. We saw that man, M.K.O. Abiola, die needlessly and almost certainly avoidably in prison. We both then watched from outside Nigeria while the worst tyrant in Nigerian history, General Sani Abacha, took plunder and abuse of power to unimaginable depths.

At this time of growing disaffection with the performance of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, it is important that all Nigerians—even young Nigerians who have no memory of those days of dread and depravity—appreciate this lesson of their own history, and that of other countries: However troubled the national situation may become, however scandalous or inept may be the performance of elected government, there is no hope of reform or renewal under military rule.

The core problem of Nigeria today is the chronic deficit of honest and effective governance. We have learned in Nigeria, and in Pakistan, and in Thailand, and in so many other countries around the world: There is no military shortcut to governance reform.

The challenge lies with the civilian institutions and actors of democracy: parties, politicians, legislators, judges, civil servants, and civil society. Like all other elements of the Nigerian state, security institutions—the military, police, intelligence—are in need of reform and modernization, including significant investment in training and equipment for the challenges they confront. But it is the civilian political actors who must summon the will, the strategy, the resources, and the credibility to lead this process.

Like most Nigerians, I am worried about the future of constitutional government in this country. I have been asked to speak about the challenge posed to democracy by poverty and terrorism in Nigeria. But the core problem in Nigeria is not one of poverty. Neither is it one of terrorism.

These are manifestations of a deeper and more diffuse malignancy: bad governance. Governance that is not addressing the central policy challenges of the country. Governance that has produced a weak and feckless state.

Governance that is not producing an effective response to the growing challenge of terrorism, and that many Nigerians believe lacks the will to do so.

Governance that cannot distinguish between the public trust and the private treasury.   Governance that has seen, by some estimates, public officials and their co-conspirators steal and waste hundreds of billions of dollars of the country’s wealth over the last several decades.

The phenomenon of Boko Haram and the violent, nihilistic rampage it has been on represent only one symptom of the problem, and it is not an unfamiliar one in Nigeria.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s another violent religious millenarian movement, led by Maitatsine and emerging out of the very same northeastern state from which Boko Haram has sprung, wrought havoc on the north, leading to several thousand deaths.

When I was teaching at Bayero University, Kano, in the last year of the Second Republic, I was struck by the depth of inequality and poverty, and the hunger of ordinary talakawa not just for jobs, services, and basic goods, but most of all, for simple justice.   That is the hope that the People’s Redemption Party, founded by Mallam Aminu Kano, represented. It was at the heart of the polarizing struggle that led to the impeachment and removal of Governor Balarabe Musa in Kaduna State.

And toward the end of the Second Republic, in the 1983 national elections, even some of the more technocratic and progressive elements of the northern establishment had come to see the need to rein in the feeding frenzy of corruption under the ruling party, the NPN, and deliver better governance.

This is why elements of that group took what was for them the difficult step of forging an alliance with the principal opposition presidential candidate, Obafemi Awolowo, giving him his vice-presidential candidate.

After spending a year in Nigeria teaching and researching in 1982-83, two things had become clear to me as the national elections approached in August of 1983. The first was the desperate need for better governance, and for fair and honest elections to bring them about.

Second, related to this, was my sense that, even after the death of Mohammed Marwa (Maitatsine) in 1980 and then the bloody clashes with and suppression of the Yan Tatsine movement in the following years, the North was going to erupt again into some kind of violent insurrection, mobilizing the symbols and rhetoric of radical Islam, if there was not progress toward development, social justice, and thus more accountable and purposeful governance.

I cannot emphasize enough how important free and fair elections are to the struggle for peaceful reform. As the Second Republic was completing its first term in 1983, the country was falling apart. The landscape was littered with abandoned construction projects—buildings, roads, water projects, anything on which a politically connected contractor could collect a mobilization fee and leave the work behind.

Clinics were without drugs, schools were without teachers and supplies, and the national electric power authority, NEPA, had long since been nicknamed “Never Expect Power Again”. There were pervasive shortages of essential commodities like rice and fuel because of hoarding, profiteering, and smuggling by venal politicians and middlemen.

Nigerians were fed up. They looked to the 1983 elections as their last hope for change. What they got instead over five weeks was a grotesque, escalating cascade of electoral highway robbery. This was fraud on a wholesale level, with not only all the established tricks of ballot box stuffing and hijacking, but the purchase of electoral officers, the capture of counting operations, and in many instances, the pure invention of election “results.”[ii]

No one can know what the outcome of an honest election would have been in 1983, but I believe it is very unlikely that the NPN ticket met the constitutional requirements for a first-ballot victory.

As election-day neared, there was a groundswell of support for Chief Awolowo, even in parts of the North. The country appeared on the brink of a historic breakthrough.   Had there been a run-off election, I believe Chief Awolowo would have won. Electoral alternation could have provided the opportunity for a turn toward reform and better governance.

Surely it would have signaled to Nigerians that civilian constitutional rule was capable of punishing gross abuse of power—in other words, that civilian rule was democratic and could hold elected officials accountable.

At a minimum, the ruling party would have suffered severe setbacks in all of the other national and state elections. Instead, after the gigantic, brazen electoral fraud, Nigerians concluded that the system was rotten and political change was not possible through peaceful, constitutional means.

If there had been an honest and fair election in 1983, I do not believe there would have been a military coup. The country could have been spared the scarring 15-year detour of authoritarianism, assassination, fear, and corruption on a Pharoahnic, Mobutu-like scale.

Indeed, if there had been an honest election in 1964, it is likely that the chronic instability of the First Republic could have begun to be corrected through peaceful, legitimate means. Then, Nigeria could have avoided the first military coup in January 1966, and the tragic counter-coup and slide to civil war that followed.

Think of how different Nigeria’s modern history would have been if it could simply have held free and fair elections. Compare Nigeria for a moment with another former British colony that is also a complex agglomeration of peoples, cultures, and languages: India.

India has a huge number of problems, and it has seen a disturbing acceleration of corruption over the last decade. There is no question that corruption and inefficiency have retarded economic growth and human development in India. But India has a serious state, and it has constructed a formidably honest and efficient apparatus for administering elections.

The result has been 67 years of continuous civilian rule, and a record of stable, federal democracy interrupted only briefly by Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule. Just last month, the ruling party, the Indian National Congress, got thrashed in parliamentary elections. Its electoral alliance went from 37% of the vote in 2009 to 19 percent last month.

As a result, the Congress Party lost nearly 80% of the seats it held in parliament. So thoroughly routed was this party of India’s founding leaders that it did not even win ten percent of the seats, and thus cannot constitute an official opposition in parliament.

By contrast, the opposition BJP, which promised better and more decisive governance, won an outright majority in parliament—the first time this has happened in 30 years.

Indian voters took up the one most precious instrument that their democracy gives them—even when all else fails—the vote, and they exacted their vengeance against venal, arrogant, complacent governance.

Two-thirds of India’s 800 million plus eligible voters turned out to vote—the highest percentage in Indian history, and the largest number of voters in any national election in the history of the world.

The next time that an incumbent Nigerian government begs for understanding of substandard electoral administration because of the difficulty of running elections in a poor, complex, and populous country like Nigeria, I hope someone will ask: How is it that India is able to produce clean and competitive elections over nearly a million polling stations, across a terrain even more challenging and diverse than Nigeria’s, when Nigeria cannot do so for an electorate less then a fifth the size?

There are serious concerns about India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, who is alleged to have abided or even encouraged anti-Muslim rioting in his state of Gujarat in 2002, during which at least 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed.

Many Indian observers worry that even if Modi governs more respectfully toward religious minorities, he is an autocratic personality who demands sycophantic obedience from his subordinates and is likely to wind up abusing executive power. But India has strong judicial and civic institutions that are likely to restrain this abuse.

Moreover, Modi has delivered spirited economic growth and relatively clean governance in Gujarat state, and Indian voters have clearly signaled that that is what they want.

As a result of elections functioning honestly to achieve political accountability, India is likely to get much needed policy reform, significantly more effective governance, and dramatic acceleration of economic growth.

That is precisely what did not happen here in Nigeria in 1964 and 1983. And it is precisely what many Nigerians have felt for some time their own country is in mounting need of. It is noteworthy that several opposition parties have succeeded in unifying under the banner of the new All Progressives Congress, promising to make the 2015 elections the most competitive of the Fourth Republic.

These coming elections will thus represent a historically crucial test of the electoral process in Nigeria, and it is vitally important to political stability in Nigeria that they be credible, free, and fair.

Corruption and The Curse of Oil

There is another simple and profound difference between Nigeria and India. Nigeria has huge oil reserves. Fortunately for India, it does not. Thus, it has had to develop agriculture, industry, and services in order to grow the economy organically. And the government has had to tax the people in order to get the revenue it needs to operate and deliver public services. Public taxation in India is about 17 percent of GDP.

That proportion will probably need to grow significantly, perhaps by half again, if India is to move up the ladder of public services and productivity and achieve more rapid development. But this 17 percent is the same level as China, and in absolute terms it represents a huge mobilization of individual income for public purposes. In Nigeria (and Angola) only about 6 percent of GDP is captured by the state in taxes. The reason of course is oil.

We know what happens when a government gets most of its revenue and an economy most of its wealth from oil rents. It is the long sad story of Nigeria over the last half century, which is only beginning to change. The structure of production becomes distorted. Agriculture withers. Manufacturing is retarded because investment pours mainly into the easy money of the oil sector, and most individuals with ambition and entrepreneurial gifts channel them into politics, government contracting, and government services, not the creation of real business enterprises.

Corruption booms, because the money is there for the taking—unimaginable amounts of it—and it is not really anyone’s money anyway, it is just spewing up from the ground. Indeed, if it is not really anyone’s money, why bother waiting for it to enter the national accounts and then have to figure out a way to hide it, embezzle it, misappropriate it, or leverage it for bribery. Just lease a tanker, drive it up to the offshore well, and sell the stolen oil straightaway on international markets.

I have no way of knowing whether the estimates are true that up to ten percent of Nigeria’s oil income is disappearing in this way before it even enters the books. But few independent observers doubt that a very large proportion of the vast wealth, up to a trillion dollars, that Nigeria has earned or should have earned from its oil production has been lost, stolen or squandered.

It goes without saying that something is seriously wrong when the Governor of the Central Bank finds that during an 18-month period between January 2012 and July 2013 Nigeria failed to repatriate three-quarters of the roughly $65 billion it presumably earned from oil sales. Add to this the findings of the Farouk Lawan Committee, which exposed a fuel subsidy scam costing Nigeria some $7 billion, the work of Nuhu Ribadu and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, and so many other reports and revelations not just in recent years but over the tragic history of oil wealth in Nigeria, and it is hard to dismiss the assertion of former World Bank Vice President and former Minister Oby Ezekwesli that some $400 billion of the Nigeria’s oil revenue has been stolen or misspent since its independence.

As one of the most astute foreign scholars of Nigeria, Peter Lewis, recently observed to me, “In the last decade, the government has been hemorrhaging the resources from Nigeria’s second oil boom. Not even the electricity program that is supposed to be part of the government’s “transformation agenda” can move ahead.”

It is just not credible for defenders of the current order to dismiss all these allegations as partisan or “unproven”. They form a pattern of documentation of embezzlement, mismanagement and misappropriation of public funds that is shocking in scale, irrefutable in essence, and devastating in impact.

Certainly Nigerians perceive that corruption is out of control. In the recent Global Corruption Barometer, 78 percent of Nigerians—one of the largest proportions in the world—said corruption is a significant problem in the country. 72% felt it had increased substantially in the last two years. 75% said the government was doing little to combat it. 94% perceived political parties as corrupt or extremely corrupt (and about the same percentage the police as well). These percentages are backed up by expert ratings, such as those done by the World Bank, which rank the quality of governance in Nigeria in the bottom quartile of all the world’s countries.

This scale of corruption has serious consequences for development and human wellbeing.   To understand this, let us look at one simple statistic—the percentage of children under five years old who die every year. And let us compare Nigeria and Ghana. Four decades ago, in the wake of the first oil boom, Nigeria was a much wealthier country than Ghana. Its per capita income was about 40 percent higher than Ghana’s.[iv] Since the darkest days of military rule and partial state collapse in Ghana, that country has moved forward to develop democracy and lift up state capacity and performance. Nigeria has not. As a result, Ghana has significantly improved its rankings on the quality of governance, while Nigeria’s have remained miserable. In control of corruption, Ghana is now in the 56th percentile worldwide, Nigeria is in the 11th percentile. On Rule of law, Ghana is in the 50th percentile. Nigeria is in the bottom 10 percent. Here are the other percentile rankings, on a scale from 0 to 100:

State effectiveness: Ghana 52, Nigeria 16.

Voice and accountability: Ghana 60, Nigeria 27

Regulatory quality: Ghana 56, Nigeria 25.

As a consequence of all of this, Ghana ranks in the 50th percentile in terms of political stability, and Nigeria is in the third percentile, down in the neighborhood of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the DRC. And this was before Boko Haram abducted some 276 schoolgirls in Chibok a few weeks ago as part of its latest and most ruthless rampage. Given these data, how surprised should we be that order is disintegrating in a part of Nigeria’s territory, with repeated bombings as well in and around the capital city?

Now let us look at under age five mortality rates. Ghana has reduced this grim statistic since 1980 by 57%; Nigeria by only 42%. Today about 7.2% of Ghanaian children under age five die each year—a horrible statistic, but much better than the Nigerian rate, which is 12.4%. Nigeria has the ninth worst child death rate in the world, of the 196 countries for which UNICEF presents data.

The difference between Nigeria and Ghana is the difference between one out of 14 kids dying a year versus one of out eight. UNICEF estimates that 827,000 Nigerian children under age five died in 2012, about one of every eight such deaths in the entire world. Now imagine for a moment that Nigeria had Ghana’s under-five mortality rate of 7.2 percent. The number of Nigeria’s child deaths in 2012 would have been about 347,000 fewer. Multiply that figure, or some large portion of it, by however many years you wish to go back in time, and the number of children who have died because Nigeria’s child death rate is larger than Ghana’s runs well into the millions.

In the last decade alone, it has surely been over two million, probably over three million Nigerian children. That is many more deaths than in the Nigerian civil war. It is more than three times as many deaths as in the Rwandan genocide, and comparable to the number of Cambodians murdered by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

These were children, who had their whole lives ahead of them. It is hard to see what can possibly account for the difference in child death rates between Nigeria and Ghana except the demonstrably worse governance in Nigeria.

Allow me to quote again from your former Education Minister, Oby Ezekwesili:

By conservative estimate, our country has earned more than $600 billion in the last five decades and yet can only boast of a United Nations Human Development Index score of .4 out of 1, proximate to that of Chad, and [a] maternal mortality rate similar to that of Afghanistan! Nothing reveals the depth of our failures [more] than such performance indicators, considering the vastly greater possibilities that we have been bestowed.

53 years after independence, an estimated half of Nigerian adults are illiterate, 70 percent lack access to improved sanitation facilities, a quarter of all children are underweight, and over a third of them are not being immunized.

Who will be held accountable for these developmental failures, and for the roughly three million children who would not have died if Nigeria’s Fourth Republic had managed to improve the quality of governance—not to the level of Sweden, just to the level of Ghana? When political leaders murder a million of their own people, we call it genocide. We do not have a term for the crime that is inflicted when egregious corruption and mismanagement cause the needless death of three million children over an extended period of time.

When more than 200 school children are abducted from their school dormitories by a terrorist organization, outrage comes easily, and justifiably. We know the names and faces of those girls. Where are recorded the names and faces of the 347,000 children under five years old who died last year but would still be alive if Nigeria had—I repeat—merely decent governance?

The current moment begs another question: If the Nigerian state, with all its natural wealth, cannot ensure that its children are given decent levels of social and economic security—education, immunization, and nutrition—how can it ensure that they have physical security? Why should anyone expect the army and police to show greater purpose, efficacy, and selflessness than other segments of the state and the body politic? Bad governance is like cancer; it is malignant—it spreads throughout the body. And cultural norms are set from the top, as people watch not what their leaders say, but what they do. This is why President Shehu Shagari’s declaration of an “ethical revolution” during the Second Republic was so unserious. What is the point of appealing to the public for better ethics when government and politics are riddled with pervasive, unchecked greed?

One of the oldest aphorisms about governance, which many cultures claim to have originated, is this: The fish rots from the head down. As Chinua Achebe eloquently noted in his essay, The Trouble with Nigeria, “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else.”

Leadership sets the tone. Some thirty years ago, when I was writing about the failure of the First Nigerian Republic, a phrase kept ringing in my ears. It was prompted by years of corruption and repression, and then the blatant rigging of the October 1965 Western Regional election, which plunged the region into violent rebellion against the government of Premier Samuel Akintola. I wrote about that period:

Looters and highway robbers were aware that their behavior differed only in its openness from that of the politicians. Said one young man as he threatened to ignite a car he had stopped on the highway, “Akintola has had his share. Now we want ours.”

When most leaders of politics and government are seen as scoundrels and thieves, ordinary people tend to behave in kind, because they do not trust their fellow citizens to behave any differently, and they do not want to be the lone fool who obeys the formal rules. That is not the kind of social, legal and moral foundation on which a country can build democracy, development, or peace and stability.

The Link to Terrorism and Insecurity

In the absence of very serious and far-reaching governance reform, the problem of Boko Haram’s murderous violence in the north is not any more amenable to termination than is the problem of piracy and criminality in the Niger Delta area. There is no purely security solution to either of these security challenges. Each emerges as a twisted response to a situation of pervasive corruption, injustice, distrust, moral decay, and state weakness. And each appears to be intertwined with struggles for political power in complex, opaque, and volatile ways.

It is not merely social scientists that have stressed the significant social, economic, and political roots of terrorist violence, across a wide range of national situations, of which Nigeria is only one. In April 2012, the then National Security Advisor to the President, the late retired general Andrew Owoye Azaze, made a similar point in a public speech, stressing that the mobilization of force alone against Boko Haram could not work, and that Nigeria could not achieve security without broad-based development:

It is not enough for us to have a problem in 2009 and you send soldiers to stop the situation, then tomorrow you drive everybody underground. You must look at what structures you need to put in place to address the problem holistically. There are economic problems in the North, which are not the exclusive prerogative of the Northerners. We must solve our problems as a country.

It is also important to stress another lesson of comparative experience in countering insurgences: By further victimizing many innocent people, human rights violations by state security forces enlarge support for the insurgency.

In and outside Nigeria, there is growing concern over the climate of impunity for state security forces who are responsible for, to quote the latest annual report of Human Rights Watch, “indiscriminate arrest, detention, torture, and extra-judicial killing of those suspected to be supporters or members” of Boko Haram.

What Is to Be Done

I don’t think many Nigerians needed the suffering and shame that Boko Haram has inflicted on this country to see that the situation is desperate and is not amenable to platitudes and faint-hearted solutions. Intellectual honesty can only point in the direction of comprehensive and far-reaching policy responses. When corruption has brought a country down to the bottom three percent in the world in terms of political stability, it’s time to think outside the box.

I want to suggest six reform responses. I don’t presume that these are the only ones, and I realize that some of these are definitely “outside the box.” Nigeria has to do multiple radical and unconventional things if it is going to climb out of the deep trough in which it has been stuck for half a century.

The place to begin is with elections. Two key requirements for clean elections are effective and neutral administration, and comprehensive transparency. On the first, some progress has been made, but there are serious concerns about whether the country’s electoral administration is up to the coming challenge in 2015. There is at least on respect in which the recent Ekiti election does not inspire confidence. You cannot have the police and the military blocking the supporters (not to mention fellow governors) of one party from moving about a state and campaigning, and call that a fully free and fair election. Democratic elections require a level playing field. That must mean freedom to campaign. And it must mean strict neutrality of all the instruments of state security.

I think there is something to be learned from the experience of India in institutionalizing the extraordinary power, independence, and administrative capacity of the Election Commission of India. The position of the Chief Election Commissioner is one of the most crucial and respected in India, equivalent in stature to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and it has been held by some of India’s most highly accomplished and talented career civil servants. Why not call one of them in to advise on elections here, or even to sit as an advisory member of the INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission)?

It is vitally important that the INEC vigorously advance its work, with the broad assistance of civil society and the Nigerian media, to educate Nigerians about the coming elections and strongly encourage them to register to vote. An election can only be as good as the electoral register, and it takes many months to ensure that the register of voters is as accurate, up to date, and inclusive as possible. It helps that we are in a new era now technologically, where biometric tools of voter identification can help to root out fraudulent inflation of the electoral register. But those tools, as well, must be applied in a rigorously neutral and transparent way. Every step in preparing the election must be open to scrutiny.

Second, there is a clear and unimpeachable gold standard for monitoring the fairness of elections. Neutral monitors in civil society must have the freedom and resources to conduct a parallel vote tabulation (PVT). The technology for this is well established, and Nigerian civil society organizations are well experienced in this task. In previous recent elections, their parallel counts have not (to my knowledge) dramatically diverged from the official percentage tally of the vote. Nigeria must have neutral and credible judicial processes available should the parallel vote tabulation in2015 clearly indicate a different electoral outcome than the officially declared one.

Third, there is a need to advance internal democracy within Nigerian political parties. There is a growing recognition internationally that you cannot have a quality democracy unless there are adequate procedures for transparency, accountability, constitutionalism, and democratic procedures within political parties. This must include democratic means for the selection of candidates so that they become accountable to the voters more than to party leaders and “godfathers.”

Fourth is the need to reform and modernize the state security apparatus. The military, police, and intelligence must be trained and equipped to wage the security response with the proper tools and strategy, and to target the use of force carefully and effectively. They must also be instructed and monitored to avoid needless civilian casualties, and they must be held accountable for violations of law and procedure. But reports of recent confrontations between Nigerian security forces and Boko Haram suggest that the former have often been significantly outgunned and outmaneuvered.

It is the responsibility of civilian political leadership in the executive and legislative branches to work with the military and oversee the military to ensure it has the necessary weapons and other tools. International security cooperation is also needed to track and confront the shadowy movements of arms and money across borders.

Fifth, the laws on paper against bribery, corruption, and conflict of interest are reasonably good in principle, but they have huge weaknesses in enforcement that must be repaired. Corruption is like water seeping into the ground; it will find any crack or crevice and make use of it. The only way to fight it is with a system of horizontal accountability that is vigorous, comprehensive, independent, and interlocking.

A critical, indispensable condition for successful enforcement is transparency. What good is it for public officials to declare their assets if those declarations are not made publicly available? The Code of Conduct Bureau has never had the staffing, the manpower, the energy, and probably the will to vigorously investigate the veracity of all of these declarations. It needs the public’s help. And it needs the help of the international community. By law, all assets declarations should be made available online for public scrutiny. And since Nigerian law forbids the President, Vice-President, Governors, and federal and state legislators from operating foreign bank accounts, why not require them to sign, along with the Code of Conduct, a legal declaration foregoing any right of privacy or any claim to ownership of any foreign bank accounts that may bear their name.

This still leaves open the question of accounts owned by their spouses and children, another loophole that would need to be addressed. They should also be asked to forswear ownership and invite surrender of any real property or other assets, foreign or domestic, that are discovered to be in their names, which they have not listed on their assets declaration.

In the early 1990s, when I was researching the problem of corruption in Nigeria and the total inefficacy of the Code of Conduct Bureau at that time, it became clear to me that little sustainable progress in controlling corruption would be made unless politicians knew that the public, and the international financial system, would be mobilized against them if they accumulated vast wealth in office and then tried to hide it. It took me a long time to get a Nigerian politician to engage me in an honest conversation on the subject, but finally I found one. When I explained why I thought it was essential to make the assets declarations public, he agreed with the logic of my argument, but said it would be impossible, because: “If the people ever found out how much wealth the politicians have, there would be a revolution in this country.”

Maybe it is time to declare a financial amnesty: Account for what you have, bring your money back home, hand over the bulk of it, and you will not be prosecuted. Maybe the only way to begin is by following the maxim of the leading anti-corruption scholar, Robert Klitgaard, that you must “fry big fish” if you are serious about controlling corruption. But that requires a serious and independent anti-corruption apparatus. And that in turn means hard thinking about how to insulate these bodies from partisan political control and other forms of subversion.

Nigeria needs to do some creative, hard thinking about how to appoint the members of crucial agencies of horizontal accountability—such as the Code of Conduct Bureau, the INEC, the Federal Judicial Service Commission and possibly some of the other bodies enumerated in article 153 of the Constitution. If the country gets a president seriously committed to good governance and political reform, then it works fine to have the president appoint and the Senate confirm the chairmen and members of these bodies. But constitutions should be designed to protect against the worst leaders, not to empower the best. Is there a way to involve civil society in the selection of these crucial positions to ensure that they are independent and vigorous personalities, dedicated to the role envisioned in the Constitution? Would the power of appointment to these bodies be better vested with the Supreme Court or some other body?

If you want to think radically, here is a sixth possible policy reform. Give some of the oil money directly back to the people. There is growing international interest in the idea of “oil to cash,” essentially the “Alaska model,” wherein the state directly gives some of the oil revenue back to each individual citizen. With the growth of mobile phone access and mobile banking, this is a much more feasible approach in Africa than it would have been even a few years ago. And technology will make it increasingly feasible.

Nigeria may be too populous a country to distribute revenue to everyone, but cash payments could at least be targeted on the poorest of the poor, as India is doing with income supplements. Some allege that the poor would waste the money on impulsive spending. But, can the poor really do a worse job than Nigerian politicians have done over the last several decades? If, as was reported in the recent Ekiti elections, Nigeria’s voters are going to demand that candidates for office pay attention to the “infrastructure of the stomach,”  maybe the state should do that directly and then let the voters decide who can best deliver development.

I would like to conclude with one final appeal. And it is addressed to my own country and to Europe, as much as to Nigeria. Whatever the total amount of money that successive generations of Nigerian politicians have embezzled and looted, some significant portion of it—probably well over $100 billion—sits outside Nigeria today in identifiable liquid and fixed assets: bank accounts, stocks, property, and other investments and luxury wealth.

We cannot bring back to life the millions of Nigerian children who have died needlessly because their government leaders were more concerned about accumulating personal wealth than ensuring that their country’s children had clean water, decent roads, adequate food, comprehensive vaccinations, and effective education. But when the time is right, when Nigeria has a government that is serious about controlling corruption, we can help bring back as much of this stolen wealth as possible. And we can work with Nigerian government officials and civil society to help build the systems of accountability to minimize this hemorrhage of public resources in the future.

Like many people around the world, I have been deeply moved by the international campaign with the hashtag “#bringbackourgirls”. But let us use this opportunity to mobilize not only for these more than 200 abducted girls, but for the more than 2 million Nigerian girls who have died before their fifth birthday just in the last decade. I would hope in the years to come that a similar level of international outrage and commitment can be mobilized behind a broader and more transformative campaign, led by Nigerians but eliciting unprecedented international partnership:   #bring back our money.

Professor Larry Diamond is a political sociologist at Stanford University in the United States. He is also Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy. He gave this excerpted lecture under the title The Governance Predicament:Poverty, Terrorism and Democracy at Freedom House, Lagos.


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