Of corruption, billion and trillion naira
I was a student when, in 1980 or thereabout, Prof. Ayodele Awojobi, of the blessed memory, was moving round Nigerian universities to explain the meaning of what constituted a billion naira or a billion dollars. It was at a time when the word ‘billion’ was still meaningless in the dictionary of Nigerians and the erudite Professor who knew its meaning was in pain when he heard that there was an alleged missing $2.8bn Nigeria’s oil money. The money was allegedly missing during the era of the military regime that handed over to the then newly democratic government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari.
Awojobi spent his resources going from one university to another explaining the magnitude of the loss but the interest of most students was to see the man, Awojobi, who had been giving military governments some nightmare as an anti-corruption crusader. It was not the message he came to deliver and so there was no popular uprising that would occur in a saner country. If it was true that the $2.8bn actually got missing, those who became billionaires from it were unable to announce their arrival in the Billionaires’ Club as did the late Pa Adisa Akinloye, who rumour had it, celebrated his first billion in 1982 with a champagne! He was neither an industrialist, a manufacturer nor a man with immense commercial ventures, but a politician who, like people in his class, lived on peoples’ common wealth.
Since then, Nigeria has produced many billionaires from the political class that no politician or even productive person can brag about being a billionaire in Nigeria. The present magnitude of stealing, fraud or corruption as a general term indicates that the rat race is towards the first politician to celebrate entry into the ‘trillionnaire’ group! Or, how can we explain the rationale for ‘Mr. Integrity’, Farouk Lawan, allegedly demanding $3m or N480m at the rate of N160 to $1, from one (or each) of the oil importers! If just 15 of them paid up that same amount, he would have collected over N7.2bn without dropping a sweat. Though, that is very far from N1tn, it is just one of the avenues to get there. Considering some other probes that have been lined up, it should not be difficult to get to the trillion mark before half of the tenure of this Seventh legislative period which spans just four years.
The question is what can anyone do with one billion or a trillion naira? Let us go into simple arithmetic. A million is one thousand in one thousand times. That is, when you count one thousand, then you thereafter count that one thousand in another one thousand to get to a million. You then start counting million in one thousand times to get to a billion and a billion in one thousand times to get to a trillion. That was what Awojobi was trying to put us through but we did not get the point. In a more practical way, we can say that if a civil servant is paid minimum wage of N18,000 per month, how many years will it take him to hit the one billion mark? It will take him 4,629.6 years or many generations of his children. Looking at it from another angle is to say that one billion naira will employ almost 4,630 persons for one year at N18,000 per month or N216,000 per annum.
A professor at the bar of the salary scale earns about N6,000,000 per annum, if no tax is deducted. This is probably the weekend allowance of a federal legislature, hence many people with doctorate degrees who should be in class teaching future generations of Nigerians are more interested in politics or in the public service which has also become a source of easy money. One billion naira will pay the salary of about 166 professors for one year! No university has such number of professors on ground at the same time.
Alternatively, if money is used to provide public health centres or five blocks of classrooms in some local government areas at the universal cost (not Nigerian cost) of N5m per PHC or such classroom, approximately 200 of such buildings will be put up, engaging a lot of Nigerians as site workers and on a minimum pay of N18,000 per month. And, our politicians don’t steal one billion but billions. You can imagine what a trillion, which is one billion in one thousand times can do for the nation as a whole.
Whether it is the minimum paid workers or the maximum paid professors, or putting up of buildings, wealth is created for the nation and with multiplier effects in terms of employment and further income generation as the money earned is spent or happiness is created in the locality where the PHC or schools are constructed. Whereas stolen money is either kept idle vaults without multiplier effects on the economy or laundered abroad to generate income somewhere else. In most cases, the thieves exchange the stolen naira into hard currency and transfer (or carry) them abroad in oversized suitcases. As it were, Lawan (if it is true) did not want to go through the hassles of exchanging naira for dollars, hence the demand for the hard currency.
Sometimes I wonder whether these kleptocrats know when they hit the billion mark or know the implications of what such money can do for the country if allowed to create wealth. Definitely, they know the transformation it could do in their lives and that of their children and probably the damage it could do to their names when caught. But politicians and thieves are optimists. They can never imagine losing election or caught pant down.
Nigeria is where politics is not for the poor. If you are popular because you have been interacting with the grass roots for long, you will still need a godfather with money to win an election. Titles in churches and mosques are not purchased with pea nuts, same for chieftaincy titles. Even honorary doctorate degrees in universities are for fund raising or fine bara. It is a matter of looking for one or two credible people locally or abroad to join the targeted money bags to give the occasion some semblance of credibility. You must be loaded with cash, not cheque or cash-less and be ready to part with bulk of the cash. Money has assumed the role of a god deserving of worship in this country.
The pressure from the followers on leaders to acquire wealth by all means coterminous with the gullibility of the leaders to steal by all means in order to become a reference point in the community or society at large. Nigeria is the worse for it. The magnitude of corruption this day clearly indicates that President Goodluck Jonathan’s Transformation Agenda is not for economic development of the nation but economic empowerment of the people in power and their protégées. The gods are definitely not to blame. The problems are with us and not in our stars (apology to the literary gurus).
Many are disappointed in Lawan. Some of us still ask whether it could be true that he engaged in what they alleged he did. His look is innocent and his voice is laden with boldness and integrity as if that is his middle name. But you cannot deceive God who sees and knows the inner recess of everyone. In fact, one is now compelled to see every legislator as a thief just as the revelations in the Pension scam portray public servants as kleptocrats with brazen desire to kill the nation and run away to other countries where they can settle down to enjoy their loot.
And talking of deceiving God reminds one of the general practice in Nigeria. One has travelled to a number of countries in the world and it is only in Nigeria that people proclaim God in loud speakers as if the angels are deaf. Such proclamation ought to put our cases or prayers in the front burner of God’s programme for humanity. With the calamity that is befalling our nation in terms of bad leadership, grand corruption, insecurity, food insecurity, kidnapping and the like, it is clear that God does not play games with dirty people.
Whom can we trust with our commonwealth now? The Executive is reported filthy with full payment for uncompleted contracts; the oversight functions by the legislature connote blackmailing and arm-twisting for personal aggrandizement; the functions of the technocrats are to technically enrich themselves at the expense of the general development of the nation and the role of industrialists and businessmen is to make huge profit through production or sale of fake or sub-standard goods and exploitation of workers. All this kill the spirit of patriotism which invariably foster insecurity and more insecurity. This cannot lead to political emancipation and economic development. Is this the democracy we craved for? Can democracy survive under this kleptocratic siege? And looking back, the military is worse! Here is a nation in a quagmire and can we be so helpless?
•Prof. Tella wrote in from Department of Economics, Banking and Finance, Babcock University, Ilishan-Remo, Ogun State, via email@example.com 08056130186