The art of throwing money away

by Okey Ndibe

It’s always deeply painful when Africa achieves another distinction in the wrong sector. This time, it’s in the foolish art of throwing money away!

Last month, the Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based research group, released a sobering report on the illicit outflow of cash from African nations. The report concluded that, in the four decades between 1970 and 2008, African nations lost $854 billion through illegal transfers of funds. And GFI suggests that it’s a conservative estimate. Actual outflows, the report states, may be as high as $1.8 trillion.

In case Nigerians are wondering – yes, our country (once again) topped the list. With $240.7 billion, Nigeria clinched a claim as the outstanding star in the league of exporters of cash. Nigeria’s closest competitor, Egypt, lost $131.3 billion. The other countries in the top five are South Africa ($76.4 billion), Morocco ($41 billion), and Algeria ($35.1 billion).

There’s little surprise about Nigeria’s stellar showing in this dubious league. It’s estimated, after all, that Sani Abacha alone pocketed more than $3 billion. Last year, a Swiss judge ordered the freezing of $350 million in assets “belonging” to Abba Abacha, one of the dictator’s sons.

The picture is dismal. Much of these stolen funds end up in European, Asian, and North American banks. And then comes the paradox: the same public officials responsible for frittering away the continent’s resources are quick to haunt the capitals of Europe and North America, bowl in hand, to beg – shamelessly! – for alms.

The GFI report illustrates the anomaly: what Africa has exported in illicit cash is at least double the official development aid that’s come to the continent. That’s one way of saying – forgive the cliché – penny wise, pound-foolish. Here’s the diagram of events. First, our rulers wire good money to the so-called big donor nations. Then they travel to the Western capitals to debase themselves begging for handouts. Often, they return, like triumphant fools, clutching the pittance they received – at best, half of the loot they “donated” to Western banks. And then they promptly privatize much of the aid – and wire it back to their Western sponsors.

What’s worse, foreign aid – unlike the cool cash we idiotically transfer – comes with strings attached. Often, it’s aid only in name, but in reality part of the scheme by donors to further impoverish African peoples. All too frequently, foreign aid is abracadabra, pure and simple. It’s often packaged as “technical” assistance that destitute African nations are coaxed to pay for – often at hideously inflated prices.

It’s a financial magician’s dream trick. One day, no questions asked, African rulers enrich the banks and economies of the West with looted funds. The next day, these same rulers show up in Western capitals on perennial begging missions. They look like miscast mendicants in their designer suits and handcrafted pairs of shoes. They mope, listening – with little or no sense of shame or irony – to Western “donors” give them long, stiff and humiliating lectures on the virtues of wise investment, sound economic planning, and financial discipline.

I invoke the words of Ayi Kwei Armah: Why are we so blest?

There’s no question that many – I dare say, most – of those who answer to the name of leader in Africa are in the mold that Frantz Fanon categorizes as “contemptible fools.” But there’s also, we must not forget, the issue of the hypocrisy of the world’s economic powers – the nations whose banks facilitate the thefts in Africa, and keep the proceeds. When the right crop of African leaders reclaim their nations from the depraved hands of those who steal for a living, then the issue of the West’s role in impoverishing Africa must be raised.

It would be comforting if we could say that the GFI report focused on a habit that African leaders have since been dropped. Sadly, that’s far from being the case.

Take Nigeria. Despite some modest gains made over the last eleven years against the scourge of corruption and money laundering, the culture of stealing public funds remains alive.

Last week, the president of the Nigerian Bar Association reminded the world that his country has not lifted a finger about the Halliburton bribe scandal. This, despite the fact that there’s no doubt that officials of Halliburton handed hefty bribes to high-ranking Nigerian public officials. And despite the fact that Mr. Umaru Yar’Adua promised that he would not shield any implicated officials, and made a “show” of setting up an investigation panel. Chances are that, had Yar’Adua not been hobbled by sickness, he would have bestowed national honors on some of the Nigerian recipients of Halliburton bribes.

Nigerians pay a steep price for a culture that garlands corrupt people with pompous chieftaincy titles and hollow honors. That price is that corruption has become as familiar as staple food; the stealing of public funds is so normalized, in fact, that those who reject the temptation to steal are often viewed as fools – or worse.

Nigerian officials are specialists in squandermania, the disease of throwing money away. Nigerians throw away money on power generators, neglecting to fix their country’s power supply. Too many government officials splash huge fortunes on high-priced cars, but won’t invest in road construction and maintenance. They dole out stupendous sums to foreign hospitals and doctors, but won’t provide a healthcare system worthy of human beings for their hapless fellows who are stuck in Nigeria.

Today, Nigerians are riveted by the scandal of the N64 billion-runway at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja. How did Julius Berger win a contract to construct a runway whose price tag surpasses the cost of building an entire airport? Nigeria has a Bureau of Public Procurement whose statutory job includes the carrying out of due diligence before signing off on contracts. Did the officials of that bureau go to sleep when it came time to vet this contract? How in the world did the bureau give a thumbs-up to a project whose cost – from all appearances – is so scandalously inflated?

The aviation committee of the House of Representatives has been holding hearings, but I doubt that its members are less puzzled than the rest of us. Numerous officials have appeared before the committee in Abuja, but none has given a coherent explanation. The runway saga is, I fear, one of those bizarre narratives that point up how Nigeria’s cash takes wings and flies away to foreign vaults.

Here’s a textbook case deserving Nigerians’ attention. The bar association, labor unions, student activists, the media and other civic organizations ought to use this case to advance the cause of accountability in Nigeria. Acting President Goodluck Jonathan ought to ask for briefing on this scandal. At the very least, he should send away the leadership of the Bureau of Public Procurement and demand that Julius Berger renegotiate the contract.

GFI’s director, Raymond Baker, stated that stemming the “devastating outflow of much-needed capital is essential to achieving economic development and poverty alleviation goals in these [African] countries.” It’s questionable that Mr. Jonathan has the will to play spoiler to those who profit by throwing away Nigeria’s cash. But he has a rare opportunity to rise above the limitations of his political career, and the forces that contend for his loyalty. If he acts to freeze the runway contract until the disturbing questions are resolved, and to dismiss procurement officials who seem to doz

e while Nigeria is being fleeced, he’d send a signal that the era of irresponsible fiddling with public funds is nearing the end of its run.

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