JJ, Omojuwa: Corruption, wealth creation and the Nigerian elite

Nigeria is a tough place to start a business, and even a much tougher place to run one. When you check the World Bank’s annual Ease of Doing Business Report, you’d actually see that doing business in Nigeria that was a tough ordeal has only got tougher over the years. From its best ranking of 120 in 2008, the country sank to the depths ranking 170 in 2014 and 2015. There was actually a downward spiral between 2012 and 2014 when in 2012 the country was ranked 138. The 2016 number at 169 was just an insignificant movement from 170. The poorest ranking is about 190 with the best country ranked 1.

Capital is very expensive in Nigeria yet we need capital amongst other factors, to create wealth. Accessing loans for your new or active business is a tough ordeal. For most people starting small businesses, they are more likely to get help from family and friends than they are to get loans from the banks. But when friends and families themselves have fallen on hard times, it then means we need a new wave of helpers more than ever before. With interest rates as high as 24 per cent and collaterals as unreasonable as documents of landed properties – from someone looking to get started in business – things are not looking pretty at all.

The current Muhammadu Buhari administration through the office of the Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo, has committed to a timeline of improving the ease of doing business but while they get on that and we continue to put them on their toes, a certain group of Nigerians must stand up to be counted!

Nigeria’s elite must do better. We need to prioritise giving, give intentionally and strategically for the purpose of expanding opportunities and creating wealth. There are two main types of giving in a certain sense. There are those that give in such a way that the receiver continues to depend on them and then there are those that give for the sole purpose of empowering the giver. We need to do more of the latter. Even with a governance system that works – ours still doesn’t – we’d still need to do a lot more than depend on government to fix our poverty challenge. It is a massive problem. One of the reasons certain countries continue to be prosperous over centuries is not only because of their system of governance but because private citizens committed to using their wealth for the purpose of development; endowing universities for the education of a certain group of people, empowering businesses via soft loans or equity contribution, covering several other gaps left by the government. No system has ever thrived solely because its system of government worked. Ultimately, we need change to happen from top to bottom and bottom to top for it to be wholesome and enduring. Ours is a double whammy challenge because whether top to bottom or bottom to top, we haven’t even started at all.

Corruption has cost us a lot more than the shortage of public funds. I have always believed that Africa’s challenge with corruption is not as much about the fact that a lot of its resources are stolen by some of those trusted with power, as it is about the fact that virtually all the stolen money gets transferred mostly to Western countries. In other words, not only are we denying ourselves resources to build public institutions and infrastructure, we also export jobs and value when our stolen money gets exported. A thief is a thief of course but a thief who steals billions of naira without carrying a gun is a bigger thief than one that steals N5m by brandishing a gun. You are probably aware of all the monies being returned to Nigeria from Switzerland, being proceeds of corruption. Whilst Nigeria gets to collect the exact money stolen some 18 years ago in certain cases – if charges are not deducted for consultants and the likes – the truth of the matter is, the returned money is a lot less than the wealth the initially stolen money must have created over almost two decades. Those returning the money know this, it is why everything is done to delay the return as long as possible. It helps for us to know this too.

There is no need to sing to the choir about Nigeria’s challenges, we know them, we talk and sing about them and we always trust in the next election or next government to fix these things. We also know that more often than not, our trust gets betrayed. We need to do better. Government is critical to our development but we need to think beyond government. Someone posted a tweet during the week about how a former minister – who recently lost some $153.3m of the total money she allegedly stole – comes from a part of the country where poverty remains a prevailing reality as this person has done almost nothing to improve the lives of those who share kinship with her. It is why those who defend corrupt people defy logic. Someone even said it was better to ignore corruption stories for now as we focus on insecurity issues. That is also anti-logic because on the one count, the human brain has the capacity to deal with more than one issue at a time and on the other, these things are interlinked. Corruption begins a cascade of tragedies that lead to the shortage of infrastructure, drugs in hospitals, resources for the training of police officers and whatever else you can think of. All of these shortages have consequences and Nigeria is a breathing reality of those consequences.

A lot of us must be used to this picture; a big rich man in a poor neighbourhood who is ever ready to give a token to the poor just so they can feed and survive for two or more days or weeks before they return to beg the big rich man again. The rich man also gets a sense of his wealth when he looks out at night and sees his house is one of the few lit houses in the neighbourhood, while in the day his house stands out in a neighbourhood that reeks of poverty. This picture must change; enough of giving to the poor or needy for the purpose of keeping them alive to beg again. We must now begin to give strategically. Give N200,000 to four enterprising small business owners whose businesses will get a major lift with N50,000.00 than hand N1,000 to 200 wailers and hailers. N200,000 in the hands of four value creators could become N500,000 in a matter of months.

I want to see a Nigeria where the battle goes from which rich man or woman had the party of the year, the biggest car or house to one where the conversation is about “Who is doing more to support small businesses?” Trust me, if we don’t get this right, things will continue to get worse. We need to be more intentional, creative and strategic about our giving so that when we give, we give to create more wealth. There will always be room for everyday giving, the ones that keep food on another’s table or helps another to feed for yet another day. But as Tony Elumelu  noted, “we need to give from the perspective of empowering the recipient, instead of making them dependent on us.”  That powerful statement deserves the last word on this.

This piece was syndicated on other platforms and published in the Punch Newspaper of 11th January, 2017.