Home column - Friday Portraits of corrupt Nigerian politicians (1), By Isaac N. Obasi

Portraits of corrupt Nigerian politicians (1), By Isaac N. Obasi


Nigerian politicians are generally regarded as corrupt perhaps with few exceptions. Many are, however, corrupt not because they are inherently so, but simply because the system (e.g. political process) under which they emerge, is inherently corrupted. The system is so bad that even when an honest person gets appointed or elected into a political position, he or she would also (with high probability) become corrupt in a short period of time. The simple fact is that Nigeria’s political culture of corruption does not allow many honest persons to maintain their integrity while in office. 

Unfortunately, this is the system under which the two dominant political parties namely the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and All Progressives Congress (APC) have operated at different times since the emergence of democratic rule in 1999. And instead of changing it, the operators in both parties have even deepened the corruption in the system. One example is how over the years, ‘monetisation of politics’ (in Ghana-Must-Go bags in naira) during the early years (i.e. 2000-2003) of the democratic dispensation graduated into ‘dollarisation of politics’ openly in 2022. Be that as it may, the portraits of the present corrupt Nigerian politicians (preponderantly found in the two political parties), demonstrate clearly that the system is in urgent need of liberation and redemption. 

In fact, this is a system that is now in need of a new political culture of engagement and operation. But since the corrupt politicians were not born but were rather made by the system, it means that a new political culture of operation, can be created in place of this prevailing one. However, before this can be discussed (perhaps at another time), it is important to understand how a corrupt Nigerian politician is made. The portraits of corrupt Nigerian politicians can begin at the different stages of the political recruitment process namely (a) appointment of a new person into political position (e.g. commissioner, director-general, chief executive officer/managing director of a parastatal, chairman of a board, executive vice chairman of an agency, vice-chancellor, rector, provost, etc); (b) election as political party delegate, local government councilor, local government chairman; Member, State House of Assembly; Member, House of Representatives, Member of the Senate, Vice-President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria); and (c) second term governor aspiring to go the Senate, serving senator aspiring to be a governor, former governor/senator who wants to move back to Senate once again, etc.

 In this instalment, we present the portrait of a person appointed into political position for the first time, and who ends up being re-socialized with new values, norms and expectations that promote corruption.

The creation of a corrupt Nigerian politician works in a very simple but nevertheless complex way. For purpose of illustration, let us take the case of one honest, innocent or naïve Mr. X, (it could as well be a Mrs., or Dr., or Prof. etc), who is offered a political appointment. As soon as he gets into position, he is quickly and deceitfully re-socialised into new norms and expectations that encourage corrupt practices. Let’s quickly point out that some Nigerians reject these new norms and expectations, some others, however, helplessly accept or tolerate them, but many appear to accept them as given or as a dominant/normal way of life. The deceitful re-socialisation of Mr. X starts and operates this way: When Mr. X settles down in office, he is quickly advised by subordinates (i.e. very senior public officials who disguise their corrupt intention) that this is how things are done here (regardless of what the law, rules, regulations, policies) say. As one former political appointee confessed, some of these senior officials would even advise the likes of Mr. X for instance that ‘this is what the law says, but that as Oga, you have discretion’ to get around it.

It is important to point out that the deceptive plan is to get Mr. X on their corruption side by creating the impression that they can ‘help him to help himself’ (i.e. corruptly enrich himself) if he is pliable. Some would go to the extent of making him to realise that he might end up poorer after leaving office or after occupying such a big position if he ‘fails to help himself’. (Please note that Mr. X must be an extra-ordinary strong moral person to resist the temptation). By the time one knows it, Mr. X has already completed his re-socialisation process into corrupt practices in the public governance system. 

And one of the major reasons why Mr. X will succumb to the new corrupt way of life is the demand on him by those who appointed him. Many of such political masters/godfathers demand monetary returns for facilitating or making the appointment. We note that it is practically difficult these days for a person to get an appointment without such relationship taking place. However, there are exceptions. For example, some people have enjoyed a chain of goodwill that gets them into high political positions as a result of their demonstrated competence in the discharge of their professional duties as public officials. Some others may simply get appointed on grounds of nepotism or cronyism. In such cases, the ‘appointer’ may not require the appointee to bring monetary returns.  

The second major reason why Mr. X would easily succumb is the amount of social pressure (or unreasonable expectations) on him from family members, kinsmen and women, friends, in-laws, members of the society who suddenly recognise him as important person in their midst, etc. And based on these, Mr. X would begin to reason that there is no way he would meet up with such expectations without additional public funds outside his legitimate earnings. 

The third major reason why Mr. X would succumb is that suddenly, after perceiving himself (rightly or wrongly) as acquiring a rising political profile, he would now see his present office as opportunity for accumulating resources, and as a springboard for moving to higher political positions. This last reason has become dominant in recent years as many people who are occupying what they consider as lower political positions would want to move to higher political positions. The aspiration for higher office, therefore, is one of the factors driving corruption among political office holders.

This third reason together with the first account for why the likes of Mr. X would join the group of corrupt politicians who he had hitherto criticised. By now, it is no longer a big deal for Mr. X to begin to use public office or position to amass wealth to enable him (among others) secure higher political office in the future. Mr. X’s new norms and expectations, will freely dispose him to mismanage public funds without any remorse. He is now operating in a new state of mind completely different from that of his pre-appointment life. Again, his new state of mind accounts for why Mr. X would begin (a) to owe his workers their salaries – if he is a chief executive, (b) not remit the organisation’s retirees’ pensions to their various Pension Funds Administrators (PFAs), and (c) to give no serious attention to the welfare of workers which is within his power to handle. There are many others such as not providing little things as office stationeries, repairing office air-conditioners, etc.

But more importantly, this accounts for why Mr. X. would fail woefully to deliver the mandate for which he was appointed. Immersed in corruption, his mandate becomes secondary and his main preoccupation is his future ambition and how to work (‘bribe’) his way to secure higher appointment. At this stage, Mr. X has arrived as a corrupt Nigerian politician and any of the two dominant political parties offers him a good platform to continue operating without seeing anything wrong with the corrupt governance system. 

The second instalment will focus on the portraits of experienced corrupt politicians and how they operate and swim in corruption with impunity in the system. 

Prof. Isaac N. Obasi, a public policy expert is of the Department of Public Administration, University of Abuja. Email: [email protected]      

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