By Abimbola Adelakun
Over the weekend, former military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida (retd.) gave out his daughter in marriage and the media could not seem to get over the spectacle of the number of private jets that landed in Minna, Niger State. The wedding was not the first instance of a crass exhibition of private jets by the Nigerian political class. In 2013, during the 50th celebration of Kenya’s independence, its Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary, Amina Mohammed, mentioned that Nigeria wowed them with the array of private jets that brought former President Goodluck Jonathan and his associates to their country. Kenyans, unfortunately, should not have been dazzled. They should have been scornful of the country that cannot provide electricity but manages to fly its President and his attendants in a multitude of private jets.
Private jets, viewed against the backdrop of the grinding poverty and gross underdevelopment that plagues Africa, is obnoxious. Countries like the United States have more than half of all private jets in the world, but in their cultural context, their class ostentation makes far more sense than Africa where the majority live below poverty line. The sight of private jets in Africa is usually a testimony to the oppression of the masses by the rapacious ruling class and our habit of underdevelopment.
In 2014, when Jonathan addressed workers during the May Day celebration, he cited the rising number of private jets in Nigeria as evidence of Nigeria’s emerging wealth. Jonathan, in that speech, countered a report from the World Bank that claimed Nigeria was one of five poorest nations in the world. He cited the country’s ownership of jets (as well as the hoopla in the Kenyan media about the private jets that travelled with him) as evidence that Nigeria was not a poor country. Jonathan, who was infamous for his malformed thoughts, remarked that Nigeria’s problem was not poverty but a matter of “redistribution of wealth.”
Looking at the picture of Jonathan at the wedding where he sat amid former Presidents and power brokers in Nigeria (some of who conspired to oust him at the last election), I wondered what went through his mind. Does he still hold on to his “redistribution” theory or by now he has realised that the members of the ruling elite – including Jonathan himself – chose to fly to Minna because they themselves cannot stand the mess they have made on the ground?
The mere flashing of wealth is the point at which the hustle of the Nigerian ruling class becomes puzzling. Considering that they have an almost unfettered access to capital, why are they not investing in areas that can yield returns? Corruption tales in Nigeria are basically the same: people steal money and acquire luxury items like private jets or sports cars. They buy real estate in prime locations both in Nigeria (at prices that make virtually no sense) and in western countries as well. They not only get education and health facilities abroad; they also squirrel humongous amounts in foreign banks. That’s all.
But why do they still keep stealing when they can invest in areas that can benefit the economy like manufacturing, electricity generation, and allied industries? Since they control economic and political resources, why not create wealth instead of merely eating it up?
From the political class to traditional rulers and pastors, there seems to be an endless drive to perform wealth rather than produce it. It is not uncommon in Nigeria for a pastor to graciously accept the gift of a private jet or a Rolls Royce from members of his congregation who can barely afford such a luxury. But how does the pastor – who cannot be classified as a producer in the real sense of the word – not feel uneasy maintaining a luxurious item such as a private jet? How dare you consume so much when you produce so little or nothing at all?
I was one of those who did not immediately buy the so-called radicalism of the Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi. Yes, he has said all the right things and there is a merit to having a traditional ruler system make a critique of the same system that he represents. However, Sanusi’s contradictions confuse me. How does a man who produces nothing, rides a Rolls Royce and gets paid from resources that ought to be spent on the people, get labelled a ‘radical’ because he purportedly speaks on behalf of the same people whose sweat and blood fund his privileges? I do not understand.
The few times this class opted for investment, they have favoured relatively ‘safe’ areas, such as education, hotels or filling stations. One state governor looted public funds in his religion-suffused home state and headed for Lagos, the sin city, to start a hotel business where unlicensed sexual activities can take place. Others set up media houses to transmit their propaganda. But what would it have meant if the money siphoned from Nigeria through the Siemens, Malabu, and Halliburton scandals had been channelled into more productive ventures? For instance, what if the money stolen through fuel subsidy had been used to build factories?
There is, of course, the ethics of calling for the proceeds of corruption to be invested in the economy rather than on frivolities. Yet, the idea is not particularly novel. Nigerians have been asked to believe that if we do not kill corruption, corruption will kill Nigeria. In reality, many developed countries around the world today were founded on corruption and they still thrive on it. Countries like China and India rank high on various scales of development and innovation, but they suffer from ethical challenges, just like Nigeria.
Corruption is debilitating and has crippled Nigeria in a lot of ways, but it is still not the primary source of our problem. We are a country that lacks a founding philosophy and the capacity to articulate a vision for the future. Therefore, we are consumed with frivolities and whatever produces immediate gratification. We expend resources on glittering objects that we neither produce nor deserve. Our morally depraved leaders celebrate mediocrity because there is no guiding philosophy of where they should take the country.
Developed countries like the US and Britain do not have spotless histories, their civilisations were built by soullessly corrupt capitalists in cahoots with equally degenerate politicians. Tycoons and ‘robber barons’ like Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John Rockefeller were ruthless business people who corrupted government and exploited the system to build wealth. Yet, modern America would not be what it is without their investments, innovation and the insight they brought to the US economy. Where they are different from present Nigerian ruling class is that their money went back into their economy, not stashed away abroad or merely used to procure luxury items. Some of these men, ironically, were also philanthropists whose wealth continues to benefit generations. Their history is proof that merely fighting corruption without an imagination of the society we want to build is a waste of time. If the Nigerian ruling class can think more productively about what can be done with money beyond acquiring adult toys, they will see how much a functioning society is in their interests, too.