- Political CorruptionNigeria's Perennial Struggle
As Nigeria wends its way toward its third attempt at democracy in as many decades, it confronts daunting challenges: persistent ethnic and regional tensions, growing religious conflict, shallow political institutions, an assertive military and secret police establishment, a deeply depressed economy, and a cynical and increasingly despairing populace. No problem, however, is more intractable and more threatening to the future of Nigerian democracy than political corruption.
Few students of modern Nigeria would gainsay Chinua Achebe's claim that political corruption has grown more "bold and ravenous" with each succeeding regime.1 During the last decade of colonial rule, as the scope of the state expanded and an indigenous political elite achieved power, bribery, nepotism, embezzlement, and extortion became rampant. In these final preindependence years, and under the First Republic (1960-66), state contracts and loan programs were systematically milked to enrich elected officials and their cronies at both the regional and federal levels. Although the First Republic fell mostly because of ethnic and regional conflict, growing public disgust with corruption-and with politicians as a class-also played a role.
In the late 1960s, the onset of the Biafran civil war and major oil production coincided with a marked increase in the scale of corruption. Under the administration of General Yakubu Gowon (1966-75), military governors, federal ministers, and others closely associated with the regime flaunted scandalous wealth. The oil boom of 1973-74 more than tripled government revenue virtually overnight, giving dramatic boosts to [End Page 73] corruption, ostentatious display, and sheer waste. A commission of inquiry, appointed by General Murtala Muhammed after he assumed power in an August 1975 coup, convicted ten of the country's twelve military governors of diverting funds totaling over $20 million.
The popular Murtala, a vigorous reformist, was assassinated on 13 February 1976. His successor, General Olusegun Obasanjo, hewed faithfully to Murtala's timetable for a return to civilian, democratic government. The Second Republic began with many important institutional innovations, including a 19-state federal system, a ban on ethnic parties, and provisions requiring the government to "reflect the federal character of Nigeria" in major appointments and the distribution of resources. The National Party of Nigeria (NPN), which took power in October 1979, reflected the spirit of the new republic. The NPN was a broad, multiethnic (albeit northern-dominated) party, devoid of ideology and preoccupied with the business of distributing Nigeria's resources.
Distribute resources the NPN did: to its ministers, party officials, supporters, contributors, and business allies, in a staggering outpouring of public wealth that peaked with the second oil boom in 1979-80. The boom rapidly doubled government revenue to $24 billion, but corruption and a plunge in oil prices bankrupted the country within three years. Of course, the NPN was not the only offender, even though it was the most brazen. The other four parties, each of which controlled at least two state governments, were also implicated in extensive wrongdoing. Corruption had become truly systemic, the standard practice of the politicians from every political party and ethnic group, crippling the functioning of almost every state.
Directly and indirectly, this systemic corruption generated enough popular disaffection to undermine the legitimacy of the Second Republic. In addition to the demoralizing and seemingly endless trail of scandals and exposés, there was the sheer economic drain caused by so much fraud and mismanagement. State governments became unable to pay teachers and civil servants or to purchase drugs for hospitals, and many services (including schools) were shut down by strikes. The growing disparity between the opulence of the elite and the misery of the average household compounded the problem, as did the widespread violence associated with party politics. As the 1983 elections approached, political thuggery reached frightening proportions, leaving some cities virtual ghost towns on the first day of voting. Massive electoral rigging by the ruling party triggered riots that left more than 100 people dead and over $100 million worth of property destroyed. Although the Second Republic briefly staggered on, its fate had been sealed. On the last night of 1983, the military struck to popular rejoicing.
Generals Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon took...