Home Opinion Rotimi Bello: Are Nigerian elites smooth criminals?

Rotimi Bello: Are Nigerian elites smooth criminals?


By Rotimi Bello

Nigeria, as a state, has faced numerous challenges on its path to development. Among these challenges, the actions of political and economic elites have often come under scrutiny. The recent statement credited to honourable Rotimi Amaechi at ‘The Niche Annual Lecture held at Lagos State on Friday, October 27, 2003, lamenting as reported by the Sahara Reporters that “unlike Ghana, Kenya nationals, Nigerians tolerate bad leaders; they say don’t worry, it is only four years”, everyone keeps mute and life continues as usual, believing that ‘tough times never last but tough people do’ as was rightly written by Robert Schuler as consolation to trudge on with vicissitude of life since our successive rulers at both Federal, State, and Local Government have betrayed the social contract they signed with the Nigerians in all spere of lives. While I totally agreed with his submission that Nigerians tolerate their leaders to the point of death, However, our political experience has shown that no amount of radical arms revolution, be it military or civilian-induced, could address our diverse political inclinations. We are all victims of the military revolutionary intervention; the ripple effect of the 1966 coup is evergreen and still echoing in our rational thought and national discourse. It is an interesting conversation laze with mixed feelings that refuse to die.

For twenty-four years, the Rivers State indigenes and Nigerians endured and tolerated Rotimi Amaechi’s political metamorphoses as Speaker of the River State House of Assembly for eight years, Executive Governor of River’s State for eight years, and Federal Minister of Transport for eight years. Amaechi, however, admitted that none of them who participated in governance could claim to be saints or not to have stolen. By virtue of his statement and admittance of stealing public money, one is tempted to label them as “smooth criminals,” but it is important to recognize that the situation is far more complex. This article aims to explore the actions of Nigeria’s political and economic elites, shedding light on both their negative and positive contributions to the nation.

In a recent paper by Femi Falana SAN, titled “Catalogue of Corruption in Nigeria: How Corruption under the PDP became a Child’s Play under the APC”, the exposition therein dented the image of President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) beyond repairable. Knowing the level of atrocities committed by those he employed to assist him in running the government, in his last hour in office, he categorically told them that nobody should refer to him when they are called to give an account of their stewardship by the incoming government. Such is the level of corruption under his fiddle eye shadow.

One cannot deny the presence of corruption and exploitation within Nigeria’s elite circles. Cases of embezzlement, bribery, and abuse of power have tarnished the country’s reputation and hindered its progress. This behavior has resulted in the misappropriation of public funds, inadequate infrastructure, and a growing wealth gap. These actions undoubtedly paint a grim picture of some Nigerian elites’ moral compass. From the federal to the state level, where governors are the emperor, and the local government level, where chairpersons are just mere political stooges, the stories are the same. It is large-scale, unmitigated looting and corruption. It is harrowing that traditional rulers and religious leaders celebrate corruption and looting indirectly by praying or conferring their so-called illustrious sons and daughters with chieftaincy titles. Even our ivory towers are not left out in this frenzy.

There are no saints among them from those who established a proxy companies to generate taxes or services, to the one who invested state money on his family business or a business where he has interest; or those who sold public properties to themselves and their friends and finally turned around to claim ignorance, apologising and pretending to be sorry about their sordid past; and those who borrowed money from banks with inclination not to pay back the loans; or those who used their offices to award themselves license to operate private universities while still in power; or those who smartly double cross the business bidding of his friend to upend him; or those whose personal project has been surreptitiously finance with federal government money and a host of others who ditched their hand into public money to linen their pockets, or those who sponsored terrorism against State for political advantage. The lists are legion, and they cut across all the strata of the Nigerian elites. They are what Michael Jackson, of blessed memory, called the “smooth criminals”.

One of the key challenges in Nigeria’s political and economic landscape has been the lack of accountability among its elites. The absence of proper checks and balances has allowed for the perpetuation of corrupt practices and the misuse of power. This has not only eroded trust in the system but also hindered the nation’s overall development. The cancerous element of corruption has spread beyond the fulcrum and spectrum of elites’ circles to all nooks and crannies of the Nigerian system. Even the youth, as the custodians of the future generation, are eminently warming up and waiting patiently for their own turn to loot as well.  

Myriad cases of financial misappropriation were reported in the last administration in various sectors of the economy. A snake was reportedly claimed to have swallowed $100,000 meant to be remitted to Nigeria’s examination board in Benue State. The former Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Babachir Lawal, was “enmeshed in a N544 million-naira grass-cutting scandal,” according to the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR). Also, ICIR chronicled the alleged involvement of former Accountant-General of the Federation Ahmed Idris in ₦170 billion fraud, and when he was charged to court, he sought “a plea bargain”. The ex-JAMB registrar, Dibu Ojerinde, was reported to face trial for ₦5 billion in fraud. Aside from this, there are hundreds of other cases involving many high-ranking individuals across the country, including the present Senate President and past governors. The former Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Godwin Emefiele, is alleged to have been involved in financial fleecing with some kitchen cabinets of PMB. Retrospectively, Chief Ebenezer Obey, a Juju maestro, sang in one of his evergreen albums, praising “Jinadu” but indirectly referring to Nigerian elites, that “Iri teri Igun lefi nta Igun lofa” literally means that “the common appearance of vultures makes it an object of ridicule and disdain in the sight of everyone”. Figuratively, Obey meant that “Nigeria is a lawless country, hence the elites do what they like unchecked.”

While negative examples dominate the discourse so far, it is important to acknowledge the positive contributions made by some Nigerian elites. Many entrepreneurs and business leaders have played a crucial role in driving economic growth and job creation. Their investments and initiatives have spurred innovation, increased productivity, and expanded market opportunities, contributing to the overall development of the country. People like Aliko Dangote, Femi Otedola, Jim Ovia, Tony Elumelu, Mike Adenuga, Dr. Afe Babalola, Abdul Samad, Chief Innocent Chukwuma Nwala, the manufacturer of Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing Company Limited (IVM), Ade Ogundeyin, Founder/CEO of Proforce Limited, a leading defense company and maker of military equipment and defense systems, and thousands of entrepreneurs, old and young, in different sectors of the Nigerian economy. Even in the public sector, very few Nigerians stand above board; among them are Prof. Ishaq Oloyede, the current JAMB Registrar, and Nuhu Ribadu, the former EFCC chairman and current National Security Adviser.

Beyond economic contributions, some Nigerian elites have also demonstrated a commitment to social causes through philanthropic endeavors. Funding education, healthcare, and community development initiatives, they have sought to address pressing social issues and uplift marginalized communities. These efforts, though not widespread, have made a tangible impact on the lives of many Nigerians. It is important to recognize that not all Nigerian elites fall into the category of “smooth criminals.” Numerous individuals within the political and economic spheres, like Olisa Agbakoba, Femi Falana, Prof. Wole Soyinka, and BishopMost Rev. Matthew Hassan Kukah, are working tirelessly to bring about positive change. They advocate for good governance, transparency, and accountability. These agents of change play a crucial role in challenging the status quo and reshaping Nigeria’s future. Some of them were serially jailed and maltreated by past military governments.

While it is easy to generalize and label all Nigerian political and economic elites as “smooth criminals,” it is crucial to approach the topic from a nuanced perspective. Yes, corruption and exploitation have undoubtedly plagued the nation, hindered progress, and exacerbated socioeconomic inequalities. However, it is equally important to acknowledge the positive contributions made by some elites in driving economic growth, entrepreneurship, and philanthropy. To foster a better future for Nigeria, it is imperative to address the root causes of corruption, strengthen institutions, and promote a culture of accountability. By doing so, the nation can create an environment that encourages ethical leadership, responsible governance, and inclusive economic growth. James Comey, a former FBI director, stated in his book titled “A Higher Loyalty Truth, Lies, and Leadership” that ‘ethical leaders choose a higher loyalty to those core values over their own personal gain’. What I observed from people’s utterances, I may be wrong, is that all Nigerians want the country to work ethically towards a prosperous and equitable future. Now is the time for PBAT and his tightly knit coterie of executive powerbrokers to display their Midas touch.

*Rotimi S. Bello, a public commentator, writes from Canada.