“A federal budget of barely $20bn a year works out at less than $120 per Nigerian per year assuming a population of 180 million people. …in Egypt, the national budget for 2020 is $106bn for 98 million people, which works out at roughly $1,000 per Egyptian per year. And yes, Egypt is also a very corrupt country – but the type of corrupt country that announced a new capital city development in 2015 and has already built out more than 30% of it in just 5 years”.
A heavily populated African city once had an upscale suburb close to the port that slowly deteriorated due to this proximity over the decades, eventually turning into a hollowed out husk of its former glory, littered with discarded containers, trailer carcasses, terrible roads and once-stately abandoned mansions. It was a true disaster story in every sense. And then the story changed – rapidly so.
In the space of a few months, a massive urban investment programme from the government funneled billions into the suburb, revamping its infrastructure, cleaning it up and beautifying it to a high quality standard. What was responsible for this? A new no-nonsense administration keeping the promises in its electoral manifesto? A government revenue windfall that it didn’t know what to do with? An inexplicable freak occurrence?
None of the above. It was actually corruption. Corruption did it.
Not just any old “embezzle government money and spend it on a house in London” corruption, mind you. It was a useful type of corruption that in addition to the greed and self interest of the politicians involved, also included a genuine urban regeneration plan drawn up by experts and executed by professionals. The 25 billion or so invested in regeneration came from a consortium of bankers and contractors and politicians reinvesting their loot. The various “investors” got more than double their money back through the appreciation of the prices of property purchased just before the regeneration plan was announced, through companies that provided excellent services for the new city etc. The neighbourhood got its groove back, businesses and residents moved back in, and everyone was happy – all thanks to “transformational corruption.”
Needless to say, all similarities to actual events and places is purely coincidental of course.
‘Corruption’ is going Nowhere – Get over it
During the cold war era when South Korean children still went to bed in Seoul and Incheon fearing the very real possibility of waking up to an invasion from Kim Il Sung and his North Korean army, the American bureaucrats in charge of turning South Korea into a thriving capitalist buffer against communism in Asia had a strange approach. They were aware that a number of South Korean officials in charge of awarding or executing infrastructure contracts often took kickbacks, sometimes adding up to about 20 percent of the total project cost. But despite that fact that these officials were effectively stealing American taxpayers’ money, the Americans chose to let it go.
According to multiple accounts from US military and diplomatic personnel who had the inside scoop on America’s Korea policy at the time, the idea was that regardless of such skimming, the contracts in question were actually being executed at a high level of quality and the overall goal of building South Korea into a trillion dollar capitalist economy was moving along well. In exchange for the greater strategic goal of suppressing any potential military or ideological expansion of communism in Asia using South Korea as a handy capitalist success story and a military staging point, the Yanks were prepared to overlook a sticky finger here and there, even though they were well aware of who said fingers belonged to and how much American money stuck to them.
Nigeria as a country has a major problem applying similar thinking to its own economic problems. That sort of brutally rational thinking laced with realpolitik and focused on the bigger picture is exactly the sort of thing we do not do here. If those American generals were Nigerians, instead of sacrificing the 20 percent to win the fight in a crucial cold war theatre, they would instead have thrown a giant tantrum about it and potentially handed Kim Il Sung a disastrous propaganda victory. The Americans understood that the moral victory and emotional purity that comes with “fighting corruption” rings very hollow when juxtaposed with a potential battlefield loss with real economic and political consequences.
I believe that instead of throwing a never-ending national tantrum about the people who allegedly are “stealing our money” or fighting each other to get a “share” of said illicit wealth, Nigeria’s government and people should instead be focused on how to incentivise development and economic growth using that very greed and self-interest. What, are we better than the Americans?
Head West – The American Solution
Once upon a time, the geographical entity now known as the United States of America was nothing more than a few European settler colonies and Native American settlements scattered across the vast North American continent. At this time, one could either make a name for oneself by striking gold or by becoming a wealthy farmer, both of which were activities dependent on the richness of the land. Necessarily, this meant that owning land was a key economic lever that one’s generational prospects in the New World could effectively depend on. This also meant that landholders looked to non-landholders like someone driving a Range Rover Sport looks to those blokes who wash car windshields in traffic without being asked.
The thing though, was that instead of swarming around the metaphorical Range Rover to get their ‘share’ of the landholding largesse, the cultural programming of the non-landholding men drove them to do something else entirely. Rather than fight for an increased share of the existing land-based economy which they had little foothold in beyond offering their labour, the message was always this – “Head west, young man. Always head west and you shall find opportunity there.” The reasoning was that instead of staying in one place and fighting each other for a share of the economic pie that would effectively shrink as the population went up (sound familiar?) young ambitious men should head out into the untamed Wild West and try to find their fortune via a successful land claim.
Given that this is 2020 of course, nobody would seriously suggest now that simply “heading west,” which often involved shedding liberal amounts of Native American blood and stealing their land is either realistic or desirable. Putting aside the various moving parts in the story
however, the key takeaway from the eventual success story of what we now know as the USA is that expanding the pie is always a better option than fighting an unwinnable war to end corruption and unfairness, which are as human as sex and war. The societies that provided the manpower that colonised the continental United States had spent centuries sharing a cramped European continent and fighting each other in a series of pointless forever wars. Once they headed west to the New World, that all changed.
I have pointed this out elsewhere but it bears repeating that Nigeria is a very poor country that would still be among the world’s poorest places even if it was run at 100% efficiency with the existing income levels it has. A federal budget of barely $20bn a year works out at less than $120 per Nigerian per year assuming a population of 180 million people. For reference, just 3 borders northeast of us in Egypt, the national budget for 2020 is $106bn for 98 million people, which works out at roughly $1,000 per Egyptian per year. And yes, Egypt is also a very corrupt country – but the type of corrupt country that announced a new capital city development in 2015 and has already built out more than 30% of it in just 5 years.
See the point now?
I believe that instead of spending our lifetimes fighting a futile war of attrition against our moral demons and trying to rid Nigeria of “corruption”, a more constructive use of our limited time on earth would be to harness whatever existing desires manifest as corruption and use them to metaphorically head west. That way we can redirect our energies away from conflict while at the same time reducing our poverty.
I will end my argument here while I await my fate.