Some years ago, a friend called and asked if he could use my incorporated company for a business. I know he will be the last to engage in a fraud so I sent him all the information he needed. A few days later he called and said “the Minister insisted he incorporates his own company and he had prepared documents to give him a N600 million deal”. Of course at that point I knew I wasn’t hearing him well or he was wallowing in a fantastic assumption. My friend is just a simple lovely man who is not interested in all those high sounding things. He is one of the most contented people I know in my life. But then, the Minister for Works at that time happened to be his former classmate and he wanted to fling something his way. N600 million of that time for man who didn’t even know the difference between a cheque and a banker’s cheque. But I later saw that the thing was absolutely true. Absolutely genuine!
I am thinking about this occurrence in the light of how it actually became a culture and how it had shaped our attitude towards money, wealth and our interaction with government and its officials. When you are at the longer end of the stick, it tastes so nice, does it not? You are sitting at home and the phone rings. A cabinet member is at the other end and he wants you to come pick up papers for a $3.5m deal (about the USD value at the time). An ocean of money right out of the blues.
Yes. That was how it used to happen and people called it, ‘making the money circulate’. They called it, ‘releasing money’, and it largely shaped the expectations of most Nigerians about how governments manage the affairs of state.
When someone experiences this and goes to church, gives his testimony, pays a hefty tithe and makes generous donations to causes and to individuals, of course there is a lot of electricity and relief to so many people. A preacher might even wax spiritual and weave this into a homily about divine favour and supernatural financial breakthrough. We lived like that for decades and it became standard expectation. Such governments were thought good and such officials were deemed generous and kind. To so otherwise would have been selfish and cruel, not prudent or circumspect. But listen: our people have been wise a long, long time ago. A Yoruba adage says the beginning of want is just like the onset of wealth: when the man is going to the farm, he is so gorgeously dressed you’ll think he is going to visit his in-laws!
Public officers were spending the future of the country as wantonly as they could. They were being generous with what was not theirs. They were preparing feasts with the nation’s seeds. The worst of the consequences is, the phenomenon led to too many falsely wealthy people. They weren’t necessarily thieves, but they were certainly beneficiaries of abuse of processes, abuses that precipitated hardship and mass poverty for the future. They were in false money, cash not backed up with any type of ability or work, self discipline, skills or anything of the like. The land was full of such people who themselves later set up structures that employ workers. It all looked clean from afar but the fact is that there were no foundations and the inside of their edifices has always been hollow. When it gets to a point, those structures will list and start falling like dominoes. Such an event will also be further mistaken for a real economic disaster and actual business collapse and job losses. But they are not in the real sense. They have always been false edifices whose construction was begun from the top: it is only the grave you start building from the top. I heard of one very famous Nigerian who became an instant miltibillionaire this way. Today he is barely able to pay his bills, all within just 23 years. That’s where this nation is at this time. In three months, we will be called out again to decide whether we want to go back to that style of managing our national wealth or we want to do it right in that slow but stable, solid and enduring way, the enduring way we can bequeath to our children, the way that ensures real development, supported with skills, value and undergirded with true assets. It is the only way to build with a true core – but the choice is ours.