John O. Ifediora ** @ifediora_john

Early Diasporan experience            

There is something about one’s country of origin that keeps tugging at the heart. The memories and experiences that defined one’s early existence are difficult to jettison even as the terminal stages of longevity approaches with horrifying speed. Nigerians living abroad are not immune to this uniquely primordial instinct, and it may be the case that this instinct is particularly more pronounced amongst Nigerians. This sentiment is not misplaced because observational evidence abounds to adduce positive testimony as readily seen from yearly migration of Nigerians to their land of birth in the months of November and December.

These returnees, albeit for only weeks at a time, are not tourists for nobody with functional faculties go to Nigeria for tourism ….the roads are death traps, there is no regular supply of in-door running water, the noise and air pollution from diesel generators are unhealthy but necessary to power electrical appliances (Nigerians go for weeks without electricity from the national grid), medical facilities are either non-existent or too primitive to be salutary to good health. But these abnormalities aside, Nigerians still go home to visit their loved ones and reconnect to the cultural sensibilities that gave sustenance to their formative years and continue to guide their sense of being. The millions of dollars in yearly remittances to relatives furnish further evidence of the grip and strength of this unrelenting primordial instinct to remain connected but not to stay in their land of birth. This tortured relationship between Nigerians in the diaspora and the country they call home is of recent origin. A reasoned narrative will afford a rationale.

Prior to Nigeria’s independence in 1960 from Britain, and extending to the late 1970s, brilliant Nigerians to whom providence lent a benevolent hand through government sponsorships went to the best universities in the United States and the United Kingdom to acquire superior education in disciplines essential to the development of Nigeria. Many took advantage of this opportunity, and many returned home to augment available human capital that spurred the growth of the middle class or senior civil servants in local parlance. This process accounted for the sustained  growth of Nigeria’s middle class that is indispensable to  economic development; the growth of the middle class in all major economies affords both tangible and ephemeral evidence to its catalytic properties. Nigerians, then, did what was expected of them; they returned home, found a welcoming environment in which to ply their acquired skills, and were handsomely remunerated. Many went on to elevate the productivity of institutions of higher learning in the country, but most deployed their talents in the public sector as junior and senior civil servants and managed the affairs of the governed. Social and economic development in Nigeria took off on a trajectory that infused enthusiasm and rightfully imbued in Nigerians a sense of pride and unmistakable desire to return home to be part of the Nigerian experiment. That was then.

Marooned abroad

Beginning in the late 1970s, the unthinkable happened. Educated Nigerians abroad who were accustomed to being recruited directly from Nigeria saw this effort wane, and in quick succession stopped. Graduate students abroad who were on government scholarships received letters in unequivocal instructions that funding for their education was no longer accessible; they were, as it were, marooned in the high seas that separated them from their home country and the foreign countries where they sought advanced human capital not available in their native country. Those who could continued their education, albeit sporadically, through generous support from their sympathetic host institutions, most returned to Nigeria without completing their studies, others simply stayed and labored away as taxi drivers, and manual laborers.

From the 1980s onwards, this trend perpetuated itself and defined the experiences of Nigerians going abroad to study; they acquired advanced degrees in various disciplines but found themselves stranded abroad because Nigeria was no longer receptive to what they had to offer to the country’s development needs, and their host countries were not particularly happy to have them compete with their citizens for a finite supply of job opportunities. Very few found job security in academic institutions abroad and excelled, much fewer legitimately acquired foreign citizenships and found employment in public and private sectors at compromised compensations hardly reflective of their skill sets, but most of them worked slavishly in menial jobs such as caregivers, factory workers, and taxi drivers. Those unwilling to exert themselves found refuge in criminal activities that have earned all Nigerians abroad a sordid reputation they cannot shed. This is the current reality for many Nigerians in the diaspora.

But to what do we productively ascribe this reversal of fortunes for Nigerians who, with good intentions, traveled abroad to acquire superior education and hoped to return home to accelerate development efforts in Nigeria? The answers may have complex tentacles, but the impact of their combined effect is not hidden or difficult to discern even by the most casual and disinterested observer. A good starting point must be from the birth of the nation at independence.

Nigeria as an extractive colony

When the British ran the affairs of Nigerians before they grudgingly gave up administrative and muscular control of the country at independence, Britain saw Nigeria as an extractive colony from whence inputs and financial resources vital to the British economy were flagrantly lifted. This is the nature of extractive colonization, and Britain practiced it to perfection by sending bright Nigerians to their best institutions of higher learning (Oxford, Cambridge) to first acquire relevant education in the art of public administration, and then returned to Nigeria as trained natives adept at extractive managerial practices and creative accounting. The compensation and the privileges that came with such elevated status helped create Nigeria’s middle class, and since Nigeria was still under civil and military subjugation, Nigerian civil servants had no reason to object to the deployment of their acquired talents to advance the interests of the British; they were the lucky few. The returnees with conscientious and nationalistic impulses were numerically insignificant to make a difference to the end result of their collective professional effort. The exodus of resources from Nigeria to Britain was not unidirectional; the British re-invested some of the extracted resources in administrative institutions and transportation infrastructures conducive to the principal objective.

The birth of bureaucratic corruption and graft in Nigeria

At independence Nigerians who had ran the affairs of Nigeria as subordinates to their British taskmasters inherited a well-oiled governance mechanism that siphoned over 60% of realized domestic revenue to Britain annually. Independence only made a stylized difference in kind and beneficiaries but not in substance; Nigerian civil servants, now fully in charge of the affairs of the country, continued the practice of extraction but this time the extracted wealth went to their private bank accounts in Britain, Nigeria, and elsewhere. Nigerian civil servants continued to regard revenues going into government coffers as legitimate targets of extraction in accord with their professional training and practice and failed to realize they were in point of practical reality stealing from themselves and destroying the nation’s important foundations for growth. They essentially stole the economic welfare of all Nigerians for decades to come. Their successors simply followed the established path of debauchery to an economically unsustainable state that defines Nigeria’s current reality. This is the genesis of bureaucratic corruption in Nigeria.

Nigeria’s tropical gangsters

Beginning in the mid 1980s and continuing to the present day, Nigerian civil servants, specifically heads of states, state governors, heads of ministries and federal parastatals deliberately mismanaged and misallocated the country’s financial resources. Through graft and outright theft, billions of dollars were moved from the country to foreign bank accounts operated either directly by Nigerian officials or by their surrogates. The exact figures are almost impossible to ascertain but empty government coffers where the funds were lifted adduce convincing evidence of the crime scene, and approximations of what was taken. The unfortunate irony is that the stolen funds not only deprive Nigerians of essential development infrastructure, but they end up in economies that do not need them to sustain their economies’ development trajectory (The US, UK, South Africa, and UAE do not need stolen funds from Nigeria to develop their respective economies). But these are the popular destinations of Nigeria’s lost billions. A few exemplars of the rotten acts Nigerian officials habitually engage to depopulate their country’s official revenue accounts will either horrify or amaze an accomplished criminal.

In less than six months in 2022, the following was reported by Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, an incoming state governor, and the press:

The newly elected Executive Governor of Osun State, Ademola Adeleke, delivered a speech at a meeting of Osun State Traditional Rulers on December 15th, 2022 at Osogbo, the Osun State Capital. In his speech he declared that the out-going governor of the state, Mr. Oyetola, used the state’s resources to secure over N331 billion in loans, most of which he obtained from various banks after he lost his re-election to remain in office. When he left office the state government’s coffers were left bare, and no information on how the loans were spent or the repayment schedule was made available to the in-coming governor (Adeleke, 2022).

Other charged variety of graft that occurred in Nigeria in 2022 (as reported by the EFCC, the Punch, the Daily Post, and ICIR, Nigeria):

  1. On May 16, 2022 the Accountant General of Nigeria, Ahmed Idris, was arrested by the EFCC  for misappropriating N80 billion through bogus consultancies and other illegal activities using proxies, family members and close associates.

Screenshot of EFCC statement on the arrest of Accountant General of the Federation, Ahmed Idris, on an N80 billion fraud charge.

  1. A former governor of Anambra State, Willie Obiano, was arrested on his way out of the country in March 2022 for allegedly diverting Anambra State funds to personal use.
  2. A former governor of Zamfara State, Abdulaziz Yari,was also arrested in May 2022 for allegedly benefiting to the tune of N22bn from the N80bn sum the AGF was accused of diverting.
  3. On the list of high-profile arrests made by the EFCC is the Accountant General of Oyo State, Gafar Bello. The EFCC picked Bello up in March 2022 over a N9bn money laundering scheme.
  4. An APC (the current ruling political party) chieftain, Bolarinwa Oluwasegun, was also arrested by the EFCC in May, 2022 for allegedly faking the identity of an Army general to defraud unsuspecting citizens to the tune of $270 million.
  5. Lastly, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Patricia Etteh, was arrested on May 17, 2022 by the EFCC for alleged fraudulent handling of N130m solar street light project in Akwa Ibom State.

Past atrocities of fraud and money laundering by Nigerian officials are too numerous and numbing to detain us here, exemplars include a former Minister of petroleum, Diezani-Madueke, who forfeited $153 million in financial instruments and $80 million worth of real estate to the EFCC, and over $4 billion recovered by the Nigerian government in foreign banks operated by the late dictator, Sani Abacha (The Telegraph, 2019). Between the mid 1980s to 1999 alone, Nigeria lost over $100 billion through money laundering in foreign banks (Bakre, 2020).

It is within this context that one must begin to unravel the complexities of modern Nigeria…a basket-case of an economy, the multitudes that seek to leave the country for security and economic reasons, and those in the diaspora who only return home permanently as corpses for burial. The Nigerian landscape is now dotted with white or brownish sepulchers that house the remains of its citizen-returnees who are now completely useless, not even as fertilizers, to the development of their country.

The loss of Diasporan financial assets sent home to re-energize the economy

Beginning in the 1960s to the late 1970s, Nigerians who left for studies abroad were habituated to a mind-set of eventual return to their native country. This admirable disposition was an acquired trait cultivated in their formative years in Nigeria by observing the behavior of those who went before them and returned to assume responsible positions in the country. To prepare and sustain their productivity at home upon return, most took reasonable steps to build modest homes in their native states or in any of the commercial centers of the country. Few succeeded in this endeavor, but the vast majority of them lost all their hard-earned savings to mismanagement and fraud perpetrated by familial relations or trusted friends.

The heaviest losses involved funds saved or borrowed to establish professional or business establishments in the country. The losses could have been minimized but for the inescapable impulse to seek presumably safer avenues to achieve the same objective, but invariably the new effort yields no different outcome. Out of funds and in debt, they ultimately abandon investment schemes in Nigeria. Once again, the Nigerian “diasporan” is victimized by inhabitants of a country recently habituated to pious fraud, greed, and unsustainable emulative consumption habits. The direct and associated impact on the Nigerian economy by the near cessation of diasporan investment is incalculable but provides one of the explanatory variables that yield reasons for Nigeria’s inability to attract direct foreign investment in magnitudes reflective of its natural endowments and sub-continental importance.

A real sense of animated geo-physical suspension

In both subliminal and corporal sensibilities, the Nigerian diaspora is trapped in an undercurrent that deprives it a sense of belonging. To what nation should allegiance be paid? Most in this community cannot return to their land of birth to stay because the country has been rendered unlivable by a confluence of bad possibilities, and neither can they call their adopted countries their homeland since the true natives do not regard them as such (their status of naturalized citizens notwithstanding). The Nigerian diasporan is essentially a nation-less socio-economic refugee. He partakes in the cultural and democratic processes of his adopted country but the process is mechanical and the experience affords him no real sense of value, importance or meaning. His entire being is still held captive by his land of birth that is both inaccessible and unreceptive to what he has to offer. This is the tragedy of the Nigerian diaspora.

But all is not lost…

Nigeria is currently a failed state largely because Nigerians at home and abroad neglected their civic duties. As is true with anything of value and worthwhile, time, resources, and careful guidance must be deployed to nurture and protect. By failing to pay close attention to what their putative leaders were doing with the affairs of the country and holding them accountable for mismanagement and outright theft of the nation’s resources, the current state of affairs in the country was all too predictable. The deliberate looting of vital resources could have been arrested early on if commensurate criminal and civil sanctions were judiciously exercised by reasonably functional social institutions. A course correction is still possible but only if Nigeria can be sustained as a unitary geo-political entity and its citizens willing to claim it as their own.

A first-step corrective measure is for Nigerians at home and abroad to seek out, and document all financial transactions and real estate acquisitions by all public office holders while in office and out of office, and report such findings to the EFCC in Nigeria, the US Department of Justice (for assets in the US), the financial crimes division of London Metropolitan Police (for assets in the UK), and other similarly established institutions abroad with investigative and prosecutorial powers. All Nigerian office holders are forbidden from operating foreign bank accounts, but this injunction has not had the expected deterrent effect because the average Nigerian mistakenly believes that all office holders are “entitled” to be rich by virtue of being a public servant. Nigerians must now treat all office holders as civil servants put in place to serve the needs of the electorate. They serve at the pleasure of the country’s citizenry, thus as public employees they cannot and should not have private access to public resources. The mantra of “See something, say something” is an effective “antibody” to bureaucratic corruption that has rubbed all Nigerians of their birthrights.

*Photo credit: Premium Times.

**John O. Ifediora is Professor of economics emeritus, University of Wisconsin System, and President of the Council on African Security and Development.