Nigeria The Underperformer: The dangerous mix of corruption and poverty, by Walter Carrington

Oct. 27, 2013

A former United States ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Walter Carrington, speaks on the challenges of corruption in Nigeria and the mismatch between growth and poverty as it relates to the much touted VISION 202020.   He admonishes Nigerians to rise and harness the plethora of potentials in the country for the common good while not leaving behind the womenfolk. 

I am transported to a time some sixty years ago, when I too, was an eager student about to graduate into an uncertain world. The Second World War had recently ended and the Cold War, pitting the United States and Western Europe against international communism, had even more recently begun. There was genuine fear that, with both sides possessing nuclear bombs, a deliberate or accidental launching of one of these weapons might start an unbreakable chain of retaliatory actions which would result in the annihilation of most of the world’s population.  That was the world that I left university to enter.   But there was a more optimistic world yearning to be born.  The First World War had led to the break up of defeated Germany’s African empire.  There were many here on the Continent and in the Diaspora who believed that the Second World War had so weakened the victorious allies and emboldened their colonial subjects that the time for African liberation could not be far off. How fortunate I was that, when I was just a fortnight further along my life’s journey than most of you are on this day, I made my first visit to the continent of my ancestors.  Two weeks after receiving my first university degree in 1952, at a convocation such as this, I was on my way to Senegal as one of eight American delegates to an international youth and student conference which was to be held in its capitol, Dakar.  There I met many young people who in less than a decade would join with older freedom fighters to haul down the British Union Jack and the French Tri-coleur from their government buildings and replace them with the flags of their newly independent countries.  Some of you may have noticed that I did not mention another major colonial power – Belgium.  The delegation from their largest colony, the Congo, included but one African. Congolese until 1954 were allowed to receive no more than a basic primary education unless they were studying for the priesthood.  As a result, at    independence in 1960, there were only 17 university graduates in a country with a population of 13 million. That’s fewer than the number of you sitting in any one of the rows before me today.

That first trip to Africa was to change the direction of my life. Before I was 30 years old I had traveled twice to Africa at a time when few members of my generation in America had been here even once.  My second trip was to Nigeria leading a group of students on a program called the Experiment in International Living. It occurred the year before Nigeria’s Independence. We traveled throughout the country living with Nigerian families in Lagos and Ibadan in the West; Enugu and Port Harcourt in the East; and Kano and Kaduna in the North. Regrettably, Ilorin was not a part of our itinerary. That trip tightened the hold Africa had on me which I had first felt at that youth conference in Dakar.  I embraced the opportunity offered to me by administration of John F. Kennedy to help set up the Peace Corps in Africa.  I would spend the next six years living in Sierra Leone, Tunisia and Senegal and then most of the following four years traveling from Washington to towns and villages throughout the continent overseeing the work of development being carried out by a dedicated group of young Americans.

1960, when Nigeria and most of West Africa became independent from British and French rule, was the beginning of a decade of great expectations.  I remember coming back to Africa in 1961 to establish the first Peace Corps program in Sierra Leone.  What great hopes there were that West Africa would become the model for the rest of the continent.   East and Southern Africa had been held back by their white settler populations from achieving independence peacefully.  I remember that I used to jest that every country in West Africa should have an image of a mosquito emblazoned on their new flags. For it was that malaria bearing insect which had caused this region to be christened as the “White Man’s Grave” driving Europeans to search for greener, healthier pastures on the other side of the continent in which to settle down with their families.

Much has changed in Africa from those days of my youth more than half a century ago, but so much more needs to be done.  The end of colonialism brought about governments of the people; each country’s first elections brought about government by the people, although in too many cases not for long, as authoritarian presidents for life and military dictators took over.  The return of democracy once again gave Africans the right to decide by whom they would be governed and for how long.  But elections, even when free and fair, rarely brought about governments that were for the people.  Rather they tended to be for the elites; for the rich and those who hoped to become rich through government contacts and contracts.


Walter Carrington

Throughout Africa we hear slogans such as “African Renaissance” and “Africa Rising.” On this day of celebration for you graduates and your families I suppose that I should be upbeat and commemorate a bright new Africa into which you are about to emerge. But to do this would, I fear, only contribute to a sense of complacency about the condition of the overwhelming majority, not only of your fellow country men, but also of all who live on this continent. No, I would rather instill in you a sense of urgency. For this is not just a day of celebration but also of preparation.  In order for you to do your part in making this world a better place you must understand the world that awaits you.

First of all I ask you to ponder a perplexing paradox.  Africa is the world’s richest continent in terms of natural resources and yet by all measurements developed by the United Nations its peoples are the poorest.  In terms of education, health, and most standards of living they lag behind the rest of mankind.  Why, oh why, should this be so?  A few Africans may indeed be rising but too many others are falling.  The old maxim that the rich get rich and the poor get poorer seems all too true as the gap between Africa and the rest of the world grows ever wider.

The latest Human Development Index of the United Nation Development Program better known as the UNDP was released in March of this year and lists the world’s 46 lowest ranked countries.   37 of them are in sub Saharan Africa.  All of the bottom 26 are African with the single exception of Afghanistan. All rate lower even than Haiti.  Out of 187 countries surveyed, oil producing Nigeria is ranked 153, the lowest, by far, of any non African member of OPEC. Indeed, with the exception of Angola (which ranks 5 places higher than Nigeria) all other members, including war ravished Iraq (107), are included in the ranks of the more developed.   Your neighbor, Niger, at 187 has the dubious distinction of coming in last.

The UNDP’s Index, in arriving at its rankings, surveys life expectancy, mean and expected years of schooling, gross national income per capita, standards of living, quality of life, and child welfare.  What it does not disaggregate is the status of women about which I will have more to say later.

An earlier UN report in 2007 predicted that in little more than a year from now, in the year 2015, nearly a third of the world’s impoverished will be black Africans.  This would be a significant increase from one fifth fraction which was the case in 1990.

The proponents of the Africa Rising thesis point to the significant economic growth experienced by some countries on the continent during a time of economic retraction in much of the developed world.  Growth indeed there was although often from a rather low base.  Nigeria’s was impressively a little above 6 and a half percent. But how much was this a case of growth without concomitant development?   According to the latest IMF estimates Nigeria has the second largest economy on the sub continent with a GDP or gross domestic product of 270 billion US dollars behind only South Africa whose GDP is 375 billion.  Thus Nigeria, the 7th largest country in the world by population, has only the 40th largest economy by GDP.  It is overly dependent on an oil and gas sector which provides 70% of its federal revenue, but is the source of a much smaller percentage of jobs than agriculture which employs 70% of the country’s labor force.  But Nigeria suffers, as do so many other highly endowed extractive natural resource countries, from what economists label as the “Dutch disease” whereby other sectors of the economy such as agriculture and manufacturing are relatively ignored.

At Independence in 1960 Nigeria’s annual agricultural crop yields were higher than those of Indonesia and Malaysia. Today they have dwindled to half as much.  The fact that Nigeria’s current yield per hectare is less than 50 percent of that of comparable developing countries dramatically demonstrates how much Nigeria has abandoned its once promising agricultural sector. Until Nigeria is able to rely less on capital intensive sectors of the economy and more on labor intensive ones it will be difficult to see how it will meet its ambitious goals to make the country one of the world’s twenty most important economies.  Diversification is urgently needed to make the economy less vulnerable to downswings in petroleum prices. Even when oil prices were historically high the national unemployment rate, instead of falling, rose from 21percent in 2010 to 24 percent in 2011.  As the African Development Bank report pointed out, Nigeria’s recent economic growth has been mainly driven by the non oil sector because of high consumer demand.  The cruel irony is that whatever Nigeria and others in Africa might do to improve their economies their efforts in the short run could be undone by a renewed global financial crisis.  As I was writing this there was still much uncertainty over the consequences that might ensue if the United States failed to meet its international debt obligations.   Thus this continent remains at the mercy of a world financial order over which it has little or no influence.

File photo: Unemployed youths at Alausa, Ikeja

File photo: Unemployed youths at Alausa, Ikeja

Those of you who will be earning a university degree this week are among the most privileged of your generation.  Over twenty million young people between the ages of 15 to 35 are unemployed.  An overwhelming number of them do not have the education you have received. They are part of a burgeoning army of unemployed even as the economy is growing.

You however will become a valued part of Nigeria’s unmatched pool of human resources. No country on this continent has historically had such a richness of human capital. Unfortunately, during the days of military dictatorships so many of your best and brightest fled abroad. Students overstayed their visas and professionals remained abroad, so reluctant were they to return home.  As a result over 3 million Nigerians live and work in the United States and Canada to say nothing of the large numbers in the United Kingdom. They everywhere excel in their contributions to all sectors of our society.  I have said many times to American audiences that I regard Nigerians as the most accomplished immigrant group in the United States. What made  Nigeria the country that I looked up to for so long was the fact that  it produced some of the most educated, most talented black people to be found anywhere on earth.

My country and others around the world profit from Nigeria’s greatest export – her accomplished people.  I often ask Nigerians who are legally in the U.S. why they remain.

The two major impediments to going back which they cite are their fears of the omni presence of corruption and the growing absence of security. They cringe whenever they hear Nigeria belittled on television comedies because of 4 1 9 schemes.   They have so much to contribute to their homeland and ways must be found to create the environment which will invite them to return and reverse the brain drain which does so much damage to the body politic.
A cure must be found for the corrosive cancer of corruption. I congratulate you, Vice-Chancellor Ambali, for the University’s Anti-Corruption and Monitoring Unit.  Your address on the Occasion of the Public Presentation of the ACTU Handbook two months ago is one of the best that I have read.  With your indulgence I would like to repeat a few of your words which cannot be heard too often.
As we all know, corruption is the most terrible monster that confronts Nigeria but we must all work hard to tame this monster. In other words, I am certain that virtually all the problems associated with governance would be removed if we can all summon the courage to tackle corruption and banish it from our activities. Development doesn’t have a bigger enemy than corruption and the development of Nigeria is hinged on ridding our polity and politics from corruption and corrupt practices.
I salute this university’s motto of character and learning – probitas doctrina. It is an axiom fit for a whole nation to adopt.    But I regret to say that I have seen too many good people of high character yield after putting up a good fight.  Which is why efforts must be redoubled to create an environment in which character and virtue are rewarded and not scorned.    Now, I know from my Sunday School days that being faced with temptation can be good, for if you can resist it you will be that much stronger.  But let us not put too much temptation in their path.  All of you, old and young alike, have a duty to do all you can to make the society in which these students and those who come after them matriculate is a society in which getting rich quickly is no longer a cherished goal; in which corruption is to be shunned and not envied; a society in which freedom and democracy flourish.

Earlier I mentioned the role of women. They are estimated to carry on about 70% of economic activity in Africa but they own but a paltry two percent of the land and are woefully under employed in the formal work force. And they are, in so many other ways, continually discriminated against.  They remain victims of ancient patriarchal customs.
Half of your generation are women as, of course, are 50 percent of all Nigerians. Yet their participation in the workforce is extremely low. Only 33 percent of Nigerians who are employed in the formal sector are women.  No nation can long endure and prosper which wastes the talents of so many of their citizens.  President Jonathan has done better than any of his predecessors in bringing women into the top ranks of his government.  A third of the members of his cabinet are women and he has appointed the first female Chief Justice.  Yet, too much of the old sexist culture remains in the country.  It is an anchor holding back its progress.  Women’s family inheritance rights in too many states remain subordinate to those of their brothers even if the boys are younger than them. Too often they are sexually harassed on the job.  No task will define the moral fiber of your generation more than your willingness to be committed to do as young people around the world are doing – rejecting sexism and seeing that women in law and custom enjoy equal rights to dignity and opportunity. No nation can prosper utilizing manpower alone. The freeing up of women’s power is essential to progress.

Nigeria has been too long an underperformer on the world stage.  It has ceded to South Africa the pride of place as Africa’s leading spokesman.  When the G-8 or other gatherings of the world’s most powerful nations occur it is more often to Johannesburg that they call than to Abuja on those all too rare times when they seek an African perspective.  In its second century as more than a geographic entity, Nigeria, must at last realize its full potential.  Even now, as woefully neglected as it has been, its manufacturing sector produces a large proportion of West Africa’s goods and services. What it has done for the region it can certainly in the years ahead do for the entire continent. You are indeed the giant of Africa.  Your population of close to 170 million dwarfs all others. You are, by far, the continent’s largest and most appealing market. Surely Nigeria can raise the future amount of its exports to members of the African Union beyond its current level of 11 percent.   Africa’s success is crucial to Nigeria’s own. Even if it accomplishes all of its 2020 goals by 2050 it will find it difficult to long prosper as an oasis in a desert of impoverished countries.  It will become the attraction for massive illegal immigration as has the United States to its poorer neighbors to the South or has Europe to the peoples of the poorer countries of Africa, India, Pakistan, and the Caribbean. That is why it is in Nigeria’s enlightened self interest to be concerned as much about the plight of its neighbors as it is of its own.  Those are the responsibilities that the members of the club of the world’s most powerful nations which Nigeria wishes to join must shoulder.

Nigeria has the potential to be in fact the giant of Africa which it has always thought itself to be.   Its agricultural output is already second to none on the continent and 25th in the world. By making it more of a priority Nigeria could become a major player on the world’s commodities market. It must refine at home more of its 37 billion proven barrels of oil which is the world’s sixth largest reserve of crude oil. Its 187 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas is the eighth largest gas deposit in the world. Its flaring must be stopped and the gas harnessed to meet the country’s mounting energy needs. The pipelines carrying oil and liquefied natural gas must be better protected for both ecological and economic reasons

The second century must be dedicated to diversifying this economy away from its overdependence on oil and to adding value to Nigeria’s treasure trove of the other natural resources lying beneath its soil. This can be done by sending not raw materials abroad but rather enhancing their value at home through a revitalized manufacturing sector, which refines and finishes the more than thirty different minerals lying beneath the nation’s soil.
The question must now be asked, why is Africa’s most endowed country, which earns $57 billion dollars a year in oil revenues not yet able to solve its persistent problems of electric power and infrastructure?   The African Development Bank report has summed it up thusly:

“After decades of neglect, infrastructure in Nigeria is in a dilapidated state. The ranking of overall infrastructure is very close to the worst rank in Africa. Power supply is erratic, roads are in a state of disrepair, and the railway infrastructure is in a poor state. The erratic supply of electricity has continued to plague every aspect of the economy and it is viewed by the Federal Government of Nigeria as the bedrock of the country’s future growth, if addressed.  Billions of dollars have been spent on the power sector by various administrations but without success because of mismanagement and implementation problems. However, with the political will to tackle mismanagement in the infrastructure sector and the desire to find a solution to the infrastructure problem in the country, there have been some improvements in the state of infrastructure in the country.”

President Goodluck Jonathan at famous Wall Street on Monday, September 23, 2013, closing the bell of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE)

File: President Goodluck Jonathan at the famous Wall Street on Monday, September 23, 2013, closing the bell of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE)

Let me turn now to the great moral shame of our time – the persistence of poverty.  Towards its elimination the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank promulgated in 1999 a Poverty Reduction Strategy Program (PRSP). Those two agencies have over the years ruffled nationalist feathers in a number of developing countries because of the austerity and conditionality requirements which they have imposed. Nigeria has not filed a PSRP progress report since 2007.  It has enacted instead its Transformation Agenda 2011-2015     It is imperative that poverty reduction be a major goal of the agenda and not a marginalized one as it appears to have been so often in the past in too many countries. If not, then progress will be limited and the plight of the poor will become even more hopeless.  One of the most important challenges your generation faces is to find ways to address continuing inequality so that all Nigerians are able to benefit from economic growth.

One hundred years before I first came to Nigeria in 1959, on the eve of your Independence, one of my heroes, the father of Black Nationalism, Martin Delany, in 1859 on the eve of the American Civil War came to these shores in search of a homeland for the enslaved sons and daughters of Africa held in captivity in America. He wished to see a great state built in Africa.  As he put it: “a nation, to whom all the world must pay commercial tribute.”      Sailing aboard a ship owned by three African merchants he arrived in Abeokuta.  His one-year stay resulted in the signing of treaties with western Egba Chiefs giving American blacks the right to settle in their areas. The agreements were never followed up because the Civil War broke out just as Delany returned to America.  He served as a medical doctor in Abraham Lincoln’s army which ended slavery and resulted in blacks becoming citizens of the United States.

I speak to you now, on the eve of Nigeria’s second century and in the twilight of my years, as more than an in-law who first came to Africa as a student in search of my heritage and returned four decades later to find my destiny in my lovely wife – Arese.

I speak to you young people as an octogenarian optimistic enough   to believe that I will still be around to see Nigeria become the fulfillment of Delany’s dream of a great African state to whom the world must pay tribute.
Yours is the pivot generation. One that can and must turn Nigeria around as mine and the one that followed changed America forever.  Nigeria is calling you.  Heed her call so that in the words of your National Anthem ‘The labors of your heroes past shall not have been in vain.”

Being extracts from the UNILORIN Convocation Lecture, ON THE DAWN OF NIGERIA’S SECOND CENTURY: CHALLENGES TO A NEW GENERATION, by WALTER C. CARRINGTON, O.F.R., former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, delivered last Monday

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