Corruption, Conflicts, Capacity and Culture: Governance Challenges Confronting Nigeria and How to Clear the Augean Stable

By Dele Olowu


In classical Greek mythology, a Greek King Elis had a stable of 3000 oxen, which had not been cleaned for 30 years. He tasked Hercules, a Greek legendary superman, to clean the stable. Hercules accomplished the task in one day, by diverting one or two rivers through those stables. This legend perhaps best describes what is required of the new Nigerian government.

The 2015 Elections signaled that Nigeria was at the threshold of a great transformation that would lead us into greatness that we and the coming generations would be proud of. Some observers believe that Nigeria might surpass new global players in Asia and Latin America if we are able to tackle the big governance issues that confront us – a clearing of the Augean-like stable. I will highlight the positive and the negative aspects of Nigeria’s current context before discussing some of these governance issues.

In the context of modern day Nigeria, our prospect is bright but this is conditional on our engaging, as a people, the key governance issues that confront us. This article focuses on four of these issues because of their strategic significance. They are conflicts, capacity, corruption, and culture. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to reduce all of these to only one issue by both the governors and the governed, namely corruption.  What we need is a cultural change, in which all of us have a role to play in resolving these challenges, not least professionals in the diaspora.

The Nigerian Context:

The Nigerian context at this time presents, especially since the elections of 2015, both positive and negative news.  As professionals who care deeply about our country, it is important to focus on the facts as basis for any prospective analysis.

First, for the good news – the election of 2015, which was hailed globally as free and fair, and a good reflection of the wishes of the Nigerian people is the foremost good news from Nigeria.  There were many factors that led to this positive outcome: political, economic, demographic, technological and even spiritual.  For the first time, an incumbent government in Nigeria was defeated at the elections and even more extraordinary was the fact that the outgoing president accepted defeat with grace and actually congratulated the leader of the opposition who had won at the polls.

Nigeria’s economy also grew at an average rate 7% over the last decade making it ‘one of the world’s fastest growing economies’.  Over that that period, the country’s GDP has doubled. This paved the way for the rebasing of our GDP, which transformed Nigeria into Africa’s largest economy, surpassing South Africa.

On the other hand, there were also ominous issues. Inequality remains high, with opulence of the few in the midst of widespread poverty (defined as less than $2/day) for the masses of Nigerians. Moreover, the government relies on oil and gas for 85% of her revenues, which has become precarious at a time of a sharp drop in global oil prices. Nigeria’s oil revenues are estimated to have dropped by at least 40% between 2014 and 2015 – the price of European Brent crude oil has dropped from US$115 per barrel at the end of June 2014 to US$60 at the end of June 2015 and currently hovers around US$30. This could have motivated economic diversification but for the fact that the tax system remains outdated. We collect only 7% of the GDP in taxes when the African average is 17% [1]. The resources needed to facilitate diversification and build the critical infrastructures are lacking for reasons explained in detail below. Normally, nations that have experienced large oil yields have set aside some of the revenues during periods of high oil prices in order to survive the inevitable periods of low oil prices, but we have tended to spend much of our oil earnings and have dipped into our savings to finance even more consumption especially under the last regime.

These contextual problems would not have been grave if we had an adequate governance system to respond to them. What is referred to as the oil curse or the paradox of wealth, in the absence of effective governance on a society in three pernicious ways.

First, economically, it fuels inflation, distorts exchange rates, and competitiveness for traditional exports, it also undermines industrialization as easy or ‘bad’ money chases out ‘good’ money. This is the dreaded ‘Dutch disease’, used to describe the Netherlands’ economy when it discovered large gas resources in the late 1950s.

Second, financially it reduces the incentives to improve and mobilize higher revenues from the traditional income sources, notably taxes, as citizens and public officials rely more on earned income or rents. This has serious economic and governance implications as it not only undermines entrepreneurship and investment but also impairs the social contract that exists between the governors and the governed when the government’s revenues come mainly from taxes. The clarion call, ‘no taxation without representation’ sums up this contract. Those who pay taxes demand not only accountability but also representation in determining priorities on which the monies would be spent. Large incomes from natural resources undermine this contract, especially in Africa, as it accrues mostly to the state, much like development assistance or aid.

Finally, in the absence of transparent and effective accountability institutions, these huge resource inflows encourage waste and corruption in the nation’s polity. Further, it tends to attract the worst elements into politics and make politics both dangerous and dirty while allowing bad political actors to insulate themselves through legislation. They obstruct any efforts to improve governance or accountability and block more civic people from emerging as leaders in governance. Unfortunately, such actors work closely with external actors who collaborate to pillage these countries.

It would seem that fortune smiled on us to give us a break from these political implications of the oil curse by way of the last elections. However, if this is not well managed, even the possible gains of victory at the polls might be compromised.

Key Message and Conceptual Clarifications

My main point is to make the distinction between government and governance and also to call attention to the main governance challenges that need fixing by all concerned Nigerians within and outside the government, and also within and outside Nigeria.

Governments can be likened to the board of management of a company – which in this case is the state. They are normally voted into power through elections although in some cases they force themselves into power. Governance, by contrast, is the set of core rules that govern or determine how rulers relate to those they rule in any social context. It is therefore possible to have governance in the church, mosque, university, trade union, clubs and associations, and not only in government.

Formally, governance constitutes the fundamental rules of organizing for the exercise of power between the rulers and the ruled in any social context. The ineffectiveness and lack of resilience of our governance system has aggravated problems on several fronts. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to reduce all the governance problems of Nigeria to only one of these manifestations – mainly corruption.  Even the widely read The Economist magazine published in London in June 2015 [2], noted that corruption is the only thing that works in Nigeria. It noted that ‘it is impossible to find an arm of government which is not crooked [3] .

There are actually four big governance problems that must be addressed. I have called these corruption, conflicts, capacity and culture.

Corruption is the decay or departure from the norms concerning the use of social resources. When applied to the public sector, it is said to be the illegal privatization or misuse of public resources.  The fact of the matter, however, is that there is corruption everywhere and in all countries. The difference is whether there exist credible mechanisms for exposing and penalizing those who are found guilty of corruption. Corruption is in degrees. In its worst form, when it has become systemic, those who try to expose corruption and the corrupt are the ones persecuted and punished.

Conflict is the absence of peace. Peace can be defined in two ways: the absence of war or the presence of social capital. The latter definition implies the presence of meaningful positive social institutions and relationships. Conflictual situations are therefore the presence of war, or the absence of social capital.

Culture is the accepted ways and customs of doing things by any social group. I would argue below that what we need is a cultural change and that government alone cannot and should not be the sole agent of such changes. We all must take responsibility for the kind of changes that would bring about a radically different way of doing things. I will argue later that the culture of public service has actually declined and to the extent that we all contributed to this present state we must all be ready to play our part in bringing about a cultural change.

The first three concepts are fairly well known but the last one might need further articulation.


For any nation to function at full capacity it requires some essential infrastructures. The production of these infrastructures is governed by rules set in the public sector to establish public or societal oversight and benefits irrespective of which agencies produced them. By their very nature, these infrastructures are essential services that are public because the public benefits are greater than the private benefits, hence private providers would not provide them at the appropriate quality without oversight or support by the public sector. These infrastructures along with the capabilities and institutions required for their development are necessary for accelerating development. Capacity is therefore measured in terms of the ability to design rules that make for the effective, humane and resilient production and provision of these essential services to citizens. It means paying for competitive wages that keep professionals like engineers and doctors in the public sector and intelligently and effectively engaging actors in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors so that they deliver services professionally and humanely to all citizens. Unfortunately, vested interests and a weakened public bureaucracy explains the horrible state of our essential infrastructures—whether we think of schools, hospitals, transportation, the environment, water, sanitation, or energy. Without these in place, high levels of economic growth can never lead to social transformation, industrialization, and economic diversification.  In other words, the dividends of economic growth will be squandered rather than providing the impetus of further economic growth that can bear fruit for all Nigerians.

I give a few illustrations below of what the absence of effective capacity rules can do to one service, the health sector.

Illustrations of Capacity Challenges from the Health Sector.

In the last one-year, the following episodes which I relate below are actual events, which have touched me personally through persons that I know quite closely:

Mrs. Y had been newly married and was due with her first baby when she noticed that she had some pains in her stomach. She was rushed to a private hospital after she lost her pregnancy for  D and C procedure to clean out her womb. However, probably due to the use of rusted metal, which were used to hold her feet at this highbrow private hospital in Lagos, her ankles developed gangrene. But for the fact that the parents were well to do, and rushed their daughter abroad for proper care and diagnosis, she would have died from the gangrene on her feet. Fortunately, she not only totally healed, she also had another baby while staying abroad before she returned to Nigeria to join her husband who visited her several times while she was hospitalized abroad.

Granny is 87 years old. She was diagnosed as needing surgery for her arm. One of the most expensive private hospitals in Lagos performed two operations on the arm only to lament that these operations were done with oversight of some critical matters. The hospital told the relations that a more extensive operation would be necessary which would cost 4.5 million Naira – approximately US$20,000. There was no apology or consideration given for their first two mistakes. After a while the relations of dear granny took her to a public hospital, the best orthopedic hospital in the country. After their initial investigations they determined that granny needed an operation. They fixed the date and granny had to check in two days before. On the day of the operation, they placed her on the operating table and then discovered that the equipment they needed for the operation was not functional and had to order for another. Of course, granny refused to go to the operating table, ever again.

A third case, after two operations, one in a private and the other in a public hospital, the situation of Mr. X degenerated. It was discovered that the wrong procedure had been completed. A corrective operation was performed at another private hospital, which resulted in complications that caused Mr. X, another relation to pass on after a week. Notice that both private and public hospitals were involved without much difference.

The moral of the above stories is that our hospitals both public and private have indeed become institutions that degrade rather than enhance life. But the problem is not with these hospitals. The fact is that there are no sound rules that operators in the public, private and even not-for-profit sectors have to comply with in discharging their responsibilities in Nigeria. Imagine what would have happened in each case if these events were to have occurred in Holland or some other countries where both public and private hospitals practiced their profession under strict rules that ensure that health professionals take responsibility for the care of their patients. The same principle applies to all other service providers in different fields, such as those providing mobile phones, electricity, education, and transportation. This is not an issue that only the government alone can change.

Corruption, Conflicts and Capacity in Nigeria.

Corruption: Corruption exists everywhere in all nations and sectors, as anyone who listens to or reads the news regularly knows.  However, certain attributes of corruption in Nigeria cause it to be extremely detrimental.

First, corruption in Nigeria is cultural because it has become pervasive and systemic; it has become the way of doing things. In fact, it is the person who is not corrupt that is prosecuted and suffers. Unfortunately, it exists not only in the public but also in the private sector and even in the charity or not-for profit sectors. It was understood that the last government sought to impose a system of rules on non-governmental actors, but this is being successfully resisted

The second pernicious aspect of Nigerian corruption is its form and impact. A recent study published in a book sponsored by the Dutch Government compared African countries with the south eastern Asian countries and posed the question why the Asian countries prospered in the last five decades of independence, whereas African countries that had initial prospects of higher levels of development decayed (Beredsen et al 2013). One of the interesting chapters compared corruption levels in Indonesia and Nigeria. Both countries had high levels of corruption but one prospered and the other did not within the same time period. The answer was that whereas corruption in Indonesia was highly centralized and all players subscribed to certain rules of corruption the Nigerian experience was more decentralized and had no rules. For instance, Indonesian corruption proceeds were never exported abroad but invested in the local or domestic economy whereas the reverse was the case in Nigeria. Moreover, the Indonesian corrupt tended to re-invest their loot in the productive sectors of the Indonesian economy. By contrast, the Nigerian looters generally tended to cart away their loot into foreign accounts, especially Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Worse still, these monies were used to finance conspicuous consumption such as ‘luxurious private residential houses, state-of-the-art automobiles, private jets or simply as bank deposits [4].


Most people are aware of the conflict involving Boko Haram in the northeastern part of Nigeria, which has claimed some 20,000 lives and displaced over 1.5 million persons. It still remains incredible how a rag-tag insurgent group could confound a Nigerian military that had fought many regional wars and assisted many countries in the region. Boko Haram had practically established its presence in three Nigerian states (Yobe, Adamawa and Borno) and it actually made a bold attempt to take the capital of the Borno state in January. Most people are grateful that a new government, which has shown greater determination to fight the insurgency, came to power during the last election.  Nigeria was already showing all the evidences of a failed state. In some of its finest moves, the new government retired top military leaders and appointed new incumbents solely on the basis of their meritorious performance.

But the northeast is not the only theatre of conflict in the country. In the southeast especially in oil delta area, the government was compelled to provide amnesty in collaboration with the oil companies. But this has not led to a cessation of oil bunkering and thefts, or the despoliation of the oil communities. Besides, there are also pockets of religious and communal violence especially in the Middle Belt, Jos and its environs. Election-related violence has also not subsided as each election – whether at the national, state or local level – leads to each political party paying its own army of thugs. But all of these pales in insignificance when compared with the violence visited on innocent persons by the police – eager for their roadside bribes – and armed robbers.

Unfortunately, the justice system, which is expected to investigate and prosecute these cases, is both overburdened and corrupted, further complicating matters.  Most people fear the police and don’t see them as their protectors. People are scared to report crimes because they fear becoming the accused in the hands of a police and judicial system known widely as corrupted. Even the prisons are overcrowded and many become hardened criminals through the criminal justice system.

Capacity: Infrastructural, Institutional and Human

Infrastructure requires qualified and competent, as well as highly motivated professionals to create and sustain them. Unfortunately, the lack of these two sets of critical capacities sets serious limits the prospects of Nigeria’s modernization as a nation. They also further aggravate the two other problems we discussed earlier, corruption and conflict.

It is possible to argue for instance that both the Boko Haram and Niger-Delta conflicts would have been diminished were there effective infrastructures and professional military and civil services in the affected areas. Similarly, the lack of infrastructures makes people desperate to offer bribes to gain access to the very basic services that should have been taken for granted. In fact, one of the most enduring weapons against corruption in many nations of the world is a professional, meritorious military and civil services particularly at the very top. Insulated from the rest of the polity, they set high standards for the policy process and are called to serve as the archetype of the system of accountability. The systems Nigeria inherited either from the British or American systems maintain that while politicians serve as the chief executives of ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs), professional civil servants are the accounting officers. They account for the use of the resources in each of these MDAs. Unfortunately, reforms undertaken under the military since 1988 swept away this arrangement and politicized the positions in the higher civil service creating gaping holes in critical institutions that should lead the battle against corruption, conflict and inadequate capacity. It is indeed a sad day that in spite of the best efforts of the new administration, many officials of government are not even paid their wages at national, state and local levels for several months. It’s indeed a miracle that anyone works in these agencies.

The Way Forward: Culture Change

In this lecture, I have spoken so far about corruption, conflict and capacity. The key to change as I have argued is a fresh appreciation that culture is not static. It is dynamic. In fact, even if a people decide to do things as in the historical past, it is a cultural decision on how to relate today.

The combination of a youthful, energetic and technology savvy generation has brought about many changes to Nigeria’s economy and polity, including the last elections. Unfortunately, allies are needed within and outside the government to help create the culture of a public social space that we can all be proud of. Most of us know how to organize our private lives. Otherwise, we would not be the most dynamic economy in Africa. What we have not succeeded in doing is creating a social public space that actually serves our collective interests.

Otherwise how do you explain the fact that most Nigerians build palatial structures for themselves (private investment) all over the country but care little about the roads (public investment) that lead to such palaces? It is this that we need to urgently address. Otherwise, the present economic boom might turn to doom again.

What makes our present juncture painful is that agriculture has made massive progress in spite of the limited policy reinforcements. There has been increased agriculture production in Nigeria as in other African countries. Moreover, the services sector has also transformed—and featured prominently in the rebasing of Nigeria’s economy. Unfortunately, the greatest disappointments have been by the policy elites—in terms of promoting the kinds of reforms that cause an economy to transform from a backward to a prosperous one. Three of such policies are well articulated in the literature: pro-poor public spending on transforming peasant agriculture and rural infrastructure; redirection of investment and entrepreneurs towards manufacturing through subsidies that are conditioned on export performance; and macro-economic stability involving low inflation and little currency overvaluation that encourages investment on intensive, small scale agriculture and on manufacturing developments [5].

For all these changes to occur, the institutions for making and implementing policy at all levels must be overhauled. According to an insider, a former Head of Civil Service, there is institutionalized corruption, incompetence and structural defects in our civil and political governing institutions [6]. Change would necessitate synergy between government and civil society. The good news of the present government is that it is open to voices within and outside itself and even from outside Nigeria, namely those in the Diaspora to new and novel ideas to take Nigeria forward.  These new policy elites must be attracted to work for the public interest through competitive salaries, merit and performance management or even contracts. Inevitably it would also involve a rethinking and reshaping of our educational system, which has all but collapsed, because this should be the tooling and retooling institutions for a meritorious and incorruptible public service.


I should conclude by restating the point that there is a tendency to think that change can only come through the government; so we put all our hopes on the government of the day. We quickly forget that those in government are people like us. They need us as much as we need them and much can be accomplished when we work in tandem. We must work with government not as individuals but as a part of enduring groups – communities of interest based, for instance on profession, faith or social causes such as the eradication of corruption, peaceful relations, improvement of education.

Nowhere has change come into a nation through only the government. Rather change has always come when those in the society work closely with those in government to bring about change in the rules of governing their societies…. e.g. the abolition of slavery, the improvement of prisons, the introduction of free education in many countries in Africa (e.g. Nigeria in 1955, Uganda 2004). In fact, individuals within and out of government must be born afresh by the spirit of God in order for any nation to be truly transformed.

The best way to understand the change that happened in our nation in 2015 is to appreciate that we have been given another opportunity by the Almighty to actualize our manifest destiny as a nation (Acts 17.26). We have been moved from the ranks of nations that fail and are fragile, which cannot provide the basic needs expected of all states to their citizens, namely security, welfare and representation to the ranks of those with a decent prospect for building an effective and resilient state.

Dele Olowu, taught at universities in Nigeria, a few other African countries, worked at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the African Development Bank. He currently oversees the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Europe Mainland and he is also involved in a number of civic organizations including the Global Peace Compact, a think-tank based in Amsterdam, as co-director.

(This paper is amended from a speech that was delivered on October 3, 2015, by Dele Oluwu at Nigeria’s Independence Anniversary Lecture, which was hosted by Shell Community in the Netherlands).

[1] Eloho Otobo, “Nigeria After the 2015 Election,” Africa Peace & Security Monitor, March 2015,

[2] The Economist, “Nigeria Opportunity Knocks,” The Economist, June 20, 2015

[3] The Economist, “Nigeria Opportunity Knocks,” The Economist, June 20, 2015, p. 15

[4] David U. Enweremadu, “The Impact of Corruption on Economic Development: Comparing the Experiences of Nigeria and Indonesia,” 2013, p. 219

[5] David U Enweremadu, “The Impact of Corruption on Economic Development: Comparing the Experiences of Nigeria and Indonesia”, 2015; B. Beredsen et al, “Asian Tigers, African Lions: Comparing the Development Performance of South East Asia and Africa,” 2013

[6] Goke Adegoroye, Governance in Nigeria, 2015


About africapeacesupport

Former Representative of the United Nations SecretaryGeneral in Guinea-Bissau and Head of UNOGBIS.
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1 Response to Corruption, Conflicts, Capacity and Culture: Governance Challenges Confronting Nigeria and How to Clear the Augean Stable

  1. Dr. Alwell Nwankwoala says:

    Thanks Ambassador Omoregie for sustaining the publication of the African Peace and Security Monitor. For some of us in the periphery of International Affairs, your well thought out articles and commentaries on African issues especially as it relates to regional peace and security have provided a great avenue for knowledge enrichment. I have shared the link to your current issue in the social media (FB) as far as possible so that other Africans can benefit and contribute to the debate on pathways for peace and security within the African region.

    I very much share Dr. Olowu’s thesis regarding development and its impediments in Nigeria. However I still believe that the very bottom line in Nigeria is corruption. For Nigeria to move forward, corruption within the entire fabric of the society must be confronted. My inclination is for a top down approach that will bring immediate consequences for those involved. Yes this may need a cultural change and re-orientation but until the top is cleansed, the environment would not be here to hold those below responsible for their actions. To be successful, it must also be devoid of witch hunting.

    Once more, thanks Ambassador for making the publication available to us.

    Alwell Nwankwoala, Ph.D.
    New York.

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