ABUJA, Nigeria — Nigeria is famously a land of contradictions, and nowhere is that more clear than in the contrast between its enormous wealth and its stunning levels of poverty. Virtually everyone here would say while the gap between potential and reality has many explanations, one factor towers above them all: Corruption.
It’s an issue about which the country’s Catholic leadership has been especially outspoken over the years.
Despite the fact that Nigeria is Africa’s leading producer of oil and has vast deposits of minerals such coal, bitumen, and iron ore, UN statistics say that 76 percent of the country’s 183 million people live in poverty. The average life expectancy here is only 54, which is a full 20 years lower than Brazil, another emerging economic power from the developing world.
Virtually everyone here believes that the country’s failures have a great deal to do with chronic looting of public resources on a scale that almost defies belief. Although the list is never ending, here are a few well-known examples:
- An average of 250,000 barrels of crude oil simply disappear from Nigerian pipelines every day, representing a loss of $11 million per day or $4 billion in revenue per year.
- There are so many fake or unregistered SIM cards circulating in Nigeria that the national telecommunications authority recently decreed that any number not used for 48 hours will be canceled, leaving Nigerians on vacation or simply out of touch for a couple of days fuming.
- Nigeria closed its national airline in 2005 due to chronic mismanagement, and before that it was infamous for delays and mechanical problems. In one celebrated case, in 2003 a passenger on a round-trip flight to New York-Abuja had to lend the airline $5,000 to pay the plane’s fuel bill after a 24-hour delay at JFK.
- Despite having a population of 183 million, there are only 16 million cars in Nigeria, of which 12 million are uninsured but carrying fake insurance certificates. They’ll hold up, however, if one is willing to bribe police or the military manning the un-ending series of checkpoints along the country’s roads.
As far back as 1998, when Nigeria was still under a military government, the Catholic bishops composed a prayer against corruption to be recited by every Catholic in the country.
The “Prayer against Bribery and Corruption in Nigeria” thanks God for the country’s human and natural resources. It reads:
We are deeply sorry for the wrong use of these your gifts and blessing through act of injustice, bribery and corruption, as a result of which many of our people are hungry, sick ignorant and defenseless.
Presidential elections in March, which marked the return to the power of Muhammadu Buhari, have given many Nigerians reason to believe that the tide is turning. Buhari, a retired military chief, had ruled the country from 1983 to 1985, and is famous for his personally modest lifestyle.
It was the first time in Africa’s recent history that an incumbent president, in this case Goodluck Jonathan, lost an election and accepted defeat. Most observers believe Buhari prevailed above all because of his anti-corruption stance.
“In the few months he’s been in office, you see people talking about morality, corruption, and so on, and this is something new,” said Catholic Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos. “I see from his body language that he is determined, and I don’t want to doubt him.”
Kaigama, more than many local bishops in Nigeria, has to rely on the president’s success. His diocese is located in the northern state of Plateau, one of the areas most affected by Boko Haram.
The bishops have reiterated their anti-corruption stand so many times over the years that even Kaigama, the president of the conference, confessed in an Aug. 25 interview that he’d lost count and had to ask a seminarian recently to go through it all.
For instance, in a 2012 statement they said that politics in the country is perceived by those in authority as a “self-serving pursuit, opportunity for easy money and prestige, [rather] than as a genuine service for the good of all.”
They also complained of a lack of thorough investigation of allegations of corruption.
“To eradicate corruption, graver responsibility falls on those in public life whose acts of public administration ought to be regulated by due process and the rule of law,” the statement read.
Bishop Matthew Kukah of the northern diocese of Sokoto believes that the problem of corruption goes beyond a flawed political class.
Kukah was recently involved in a controversy when some Nigerians accused him of attempting to block a corruption probe against Jonathan, the deeply unpopular former president, perhaps because he is a fellow Christian.
Kukah says he worries about the faith Nigerians have in Buhari — not because he doesn’t trust the president, but because there’s a tendency to look for scapegoats rather than tackling the systemic problems.
“Everyone is talking about [Buhari] as if he was Jesus Christ, the Messiah, but even if he is, he must save you from sins that you can make,” Kukah said.
“You’re never going to find Nigerians saying they are unanimously against corruption … They would say they’re against others being corrupt,” he said.
In an interview for the 2009 book “The Future Church,” Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, the national capital, also said it’s more complicated than having a handful of politicians taking full responsibility.
He argues that corruption can’t be resolved exclusively at home, but depends also on reforming Western practices.
“The kind of corruption we have now was never possible when everything depended upon the tribe,” he argued. “African corruption would not have been possible without the cooperation of the very people who are now complaining about it!”
While it remains to be seen if the new regime under Buhari will succeed in ending a scourge that’s defied the best efforts of previous administrations, which have also come into office pledging reform, one thing’s certain – the Catholic bishops will be watching.
“He’s said it,” Kukah said, referring to Buhari’s pledge of change, “and now I can hold him accountable for it.”