Nigeria’s “free market” of corruption
By Obi Nwakanma
There is a link to the introduction and application of the IMF and World Bank’s concepts of “liberalization,” “privatization,” and the “free market” to the exponential rise of corruption in Nigeria. There was always corruption in government, but before the advent of the IMF conditions, corruption in the public system was at its very minimal; what was known then as corruption would today pale in the face of the systemic subversion that has since buckled public governance in Nigeria.
An organized government must have an in-built control system to contain damage to the business of public governance. “Liberalization” was a catchphrase that basically sought to reduce, water-down, or remove government regulations, or the systems of control that kept the “free market” at bay: basically, the policy of de-regulation implied less law, less oversight, less control of the blind phenomenon called “market forces.” Shorn of all euphemism, it is the principle that sees the national economic space as a frontiers space with economic cowboys shooting from the hip to achieve the highest value and profit. It is the legitimizing of profiteering by an oligarchy. Society had to be defined in terms of “insiders” and “outsiders,” and “winners” or “losers. The losers were often naturally, given the limited nature of resource, far more of the population, while winners, because of the rigged process of advantages, necessarily very few in number.
The very idea of a free market by its own very internal logic and nature is extremely corrupt. The destruction of the public system, and all the key institutions that undergirded it, led to the decline of public accountability.
The weakening of the public system was predicated on the strategic reduction and subversion of the institutional means by which the state exerted control, and reduced the plural autarchies that have now increasingly assumed the power of the state: the oligarchs who now own everything that once belonged to the state and the commonwealth through “privatization.” Nigerians publicly fought Babangida over the prospects of “privatizing” Nigeria’s public corporations. The IMF and the World Bank had told the government to sell it all off – privatize it all to limit waste and inefficiency. Good public Investments made in the 1950s, ‘60s ‘70s and ‘80s were sold off or strategically undermined to create space for private investment – NITEL, Nigerian Shipping Line, Nigerian Airways, Nigerian Railways, the Vehicle Assembly Plants; the Textile Mills; the Breweries; etc. Good industries that provided good jobs, and helped to create and maintain a good middle class, with good pay, were liquidated, sold off, or allowed to die. Government-owned Banks were either privatized or liquidated, and all their assets sold to individuals who had been allowed to steal or borrow government funds in order to buy government-owned investments. Those with authority sold some either to themselves or to their proxies. In Imo state for example, Ike Nwachukwu as military governor sold industries which the Mbakwe government had borrowed to build, among them the Paint and Resin Industry in Mbaise, which he sold to himself; a controversial purchase for which he should still be held accountable. In his coming as civilian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, once himself a soldier, and a very key ally of the “international community” literally transferred the offices of Nigeria’s Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning to the Headquarters of the World Bank and the IMF. As President, Obasanjo supervised the complete and utter liquidation of Nigeria. Under Obasanjo, Nigeria’s public holdings, from factories to government housing stock was liquidated; privatized and sold in what should pass for the most brazen form of profiteering and looting of any nation in history. It was the transfer of Nigeria’s wealth through the patronage system to Obasanjo’s allies in a move that typified the highest character of the “free market” – crony capitalism, as distinct from “state capitalism.” State capitalism is a system by which an organized national and nationalist government uses the means of the state, and through a highly systematized process of economic and political control creates state infrastructure, and state-driven industry, for effective and relatively even distribution of national wealth, and to drive growth. The key example of this is China. Crony capitalism is the means by which those who seize the power of the state use it to distribute the wealth of the state to a few oligarchs, mostly their friends, members of their families, or lovers – basically a narrow population – to control and dominate state wealth for the maintenance of the idea of private property. In State capitalism, State and private property exist side-by side. In crony capitalism, with its in-built condition of extreme corruption, private capital is like the lean, hungry cows of the Pharaonic visions, swallowing the fat, study, and healthy cows. The public school system – the great equalizer – are undermined, so that the private schools can thrive. The great public institutions like Kings College, the Government Colleges at Umuahia, Ibadan, Zaria or Ughelli – once the great national pride of Nigeria – are as a result underfunded and abandoned, so that the private, for profit secondary schools, may now thrive. The great public universities are, with their national research infrastructure and orientation, established to serve a thriving public system are deliberately destroyed, so that the private universities built by the likes of Obasanjo may take over. Public government is undermined. Once-upon- a time in Nigeria, the best educated Nigerians from the best universities in the world were recruited to public service; now the public system is structured in such a way that the private sector takes the best, and leaves the dregs for the public system. In fact, the public service stopped recruiting, because it no longer serves the public, yet, government’s operational overhead grows in paying for ghost services.
All these because a public system was deliberately corrupted and undermined to clear grounds for the “private sector,”- another word for cronyism – starting with the so-called “IMF conditionalities.” It was no wonder therefore that Nigerians felt utterly outraged by the visit and reception accorded to Ms. Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the IMF who visited Nigeria, soon after President Buhari announced his budget, and after she left, the budget submitted to the National Assembly went missing, and resurfaced with alterations. The Budget submitted by Buhari continues on this beaten-track of national corruption, and worse, it lacks imagination.