Nigeria: corruption, revenge and spiritual bonds

Nigeria is ranked the 140th in the Corruption Perception Index, just six points below Russia, which occupies the 134th place. Specifically for Russiangate, Artem Filatov talked to investigative journalist Emmanuel Mayah about how the budget money in one of the poorest countries in the world is wrangled and why his fellow citizens do not overthrow the government. Emmanul Mayah is the editor of the Nigerian newspaper Premium Times, a two-time African Investigative Journalism Award winner, who also had the honour to win the CNN award for African journalists.
Origin source
In Russia they say that corruption kills. People die because of bad roads, poor quality of medical care and other problems caused by corruption. How are things going in Nigeria?

If you ask me what are the three main problems in Nigeria, I will answer: corruption, corruption and once again corruption. Bridges collapse, people get contracts for the construction of power plants, but they are never built, and the money disappears. So this is the key problem. There is also corruption in the oil sector: most of things done by the government and multinational companies in this sphere are related to corruption. Nigeria is fighting terrorism and more than $ 2 billion have been allocated for the purchase of weapons. But in fact, these weapons were not purchased. And the government sent soldiers to fight with pistols! Thus, lots of our soldiers were killed because of corruption. This system serves the selfish interests of politicians and their friends.

What is the standard of living in Nigeria, how much do people earn on average and what can they afford?

The situation in Nigeria is frightening. The minimum wage is about 20 thousand Naira ($ 56 for October 2017 - note by Russiangate). Not so long ago, the US dollar was 1:150. Since then, oil prices have fallen, the national currency has collapsed and the dollar rate is 1: 360. Many regions of the country for several months do not pay people their salaries, even the minimum. In 2015, a loaf of bread cost 50 Naira, and then went up to 250 Naira. Of course, it's not just about the oil prices, but also about the fact that our resources are stolen. The budget does not receive additional funds from those areas that could support us in these conditions.

In your investigations, what do you focus on?

One of my first investigations is about extorting money when obtaining foreign passports. Without this document, people cannot leave the country. The Nigerian Migration Service which is authorized to issue these passports is very corrupt. You cannot just get a passport, there's an unofficial fee for that. Sometimes, it is five times higher than the state tariff. The procedure should take from four days to a week. In reality, because of the corruption, you have to wait up to three months. When I began my investigation, I myself went to the Migration Service to get a passport. I was convinced that it is impossible to get a document if you do not give a bribe.

Another investigation I completed is related to slave labor in Nigerian factories run by immigrants from China, India and Lebanon. There is a high level of occupational injuries there: people work without protection, they lose their hands and even die as a result of accidents. For example, during a night shift at a plastic factory, a supervisor would lock more than 200 workers because he did not want his employees to steal anything. One of the nights, there was a fire. Because the doors were locked, people died. After this incident, I conducted an investigation into the conditions of work in the factories, and it brought me fame in Nigeria.

I also investigated human trafficking, the ways of illegal migration from Africa to Europe. Men from Nigeria pay a lot of money to those who promise to send them to Europe. And women are taken to sexual slavery. I pretended that I was going to Europe, paid money and then travelled through the Sahara desert for 37 days, along with the illegal migrants and these criminals. I wrote about how people die in the desert, because there they do not have water and food.

My recent topic is swindling with rice subsidies. This story requires explanation. In Nigeria, a lot of rice is consumed, we buy it in Thailand. But we also try to grow our own rice, and the government allocates subsidies for this. The government gave money to those who were supposed to produce rice. But these quotas did not reach the farmers. In reality, they were received by people close to the authorities who sold the quotas to businessmen, and they supplied rice to the population at very high prices. Thus, at first, the state and then, the ordinary people lost money.

Do you feel that your investigations are changing the situation?

Yes, there are examples of how my investigations have influenced the situation in Nigeria. Including the one that was about the slave labour at the factories. After it was published, I received a letter of recommendation from the Labour Union: now, they are reviewing the labour laws to prevent such tragedies. The history of corruption when issuing passports has also produced an effect. After the publication of the investigation about a specific office in Lagos, the country's largest city, many executives lost their posts. And the organization of the work of the office has been revised, people can now get a passport faster. So far, everything is not perfect, but it's much better.

I also investigated topics related to the development of the country. In 2015, I published a story about the large South African telecommunications company MTN, which avoids taxes. The investigation resulted in the Nigerian Telecommunications Commission imposing sanctions on MTN Nigeria and the company had to pay a fine of $ 5 million. So, not all investigations are effective, but sometimes they help to change the situation. I use different formats for this: I work in a newspaper, I investigate on the Internet. But also once in a while I make stories for television, because some themes are more suitable for the screen.

Is it possible to say that the government of Nigeria is really fighting corruption?

The government makes such statements, but in practice, the current government contributes to new cases of corruption. Because for the successful struggle you need a credit of trust and honesty, i.e. a sincere desire to fight. The fight against corruption in Nigeria lacks these elements. Citizens send petitions to the anti-corruption agency, but that does not result in anything. The government and the president rely on the class of rich, powerful and corrupt people. During the election campaign, these rich people provided business jets, gave money. Including the money that was spent on mobilizing people to vote for the president. Therefore, the fight against corruption turns into some sort of cosmetic procedures.

Until now, the fight against corruption in our country is connected with revenge. This happened with the investigation of the $ 2 billion that the past administration spent on weapons. National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki, who was arrested on charges of stealing weapons, was arrested for a reason. In 1985, he was one of the officers, who arrested the current president, Muhammadu Buhari, who at that time was the country's military leader. And after becoming president, Buhari got the opportunity to take revenge on Dasuki, 30 years later. The judges helped him with that. Thus, there is no serious fight against corruption in Nigeria.

How exactly do the authorities conduct investigations, at what stages do they “brake” the cases?

The judicial system in Nigeria is also corrupt. Not long ago, several Supreme Court justices were arrested for corruption. But since the whole system of power is thoroughly corrupt, such arrests are only a political witch-hunt. For example, if after the elections the opposition goes to court and the judge decides in favor of the opposition, this judge will immediately be charged with corruption.

We have a special agency that is called the Commission on Economic and Financial Crimes. But it is more concerned with finding scapegoats than fighting corruption. For example, the head of the army staff and the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs are accused of corruption. It transpired that that they have houses in Dubai, private refineries. But the government does not want to hear about these clues and the Commission does not investigate anything. The government allows the people who are close to it to engage in corruption. The Minister of Transport and Aviation owns a private aircraft, but nobody puts him behind bars either.

But if the economy deteriorates, the authorities must say something to people and do something ... In Russia, the United States and the European Union are often blamed for the problems.

In Nigeria, they do not accuse the foreign powers of all sins, but accuse the previous governments of our country. The most frequent answer that can be heard: this problem emerged under the previous president. But the people’s response is: we chose you to solve our problems, not to listen to explanations... 

Do ordinary citizens understand that their problems are caused precisely by corruption?

What do you think? What else can they think, if the name of our country – Nigeria – unfortunately, has already become a synonym for corruption. And many felt this on themselves. In business and other spheres, people around the world think “Can we trust them?”, “Are they reliable partners?” And even those Nigerians, who are honest and non-corrupt, face such an attitude because of the high spread of corruption.

Simple people ask themselves – how is it possible: we are so lucky, our country is rich with gas, oil, we have our own agriculture, minerals – but we are so poor! Many of my fellow citizens live in extreme poverty, that is less than 1 dollar a day. To buy bread for a family of four, you need several times more money than they can earn... Therefore, Nigerians want to still fight corruption and gradually gain a new identity.

The problem we are facing in Nigeria is not so much connected with the political system as with the strong influence of religious and ethnic factors. Because of this, it is difficult to coordinate public actions. For example, in Kenya, if one publishes the results of a certain investigation, people will get out on the streets, whereas in Nigeria they do not want to protest.

Why do you think this is happening in your country? In Russia, people are also reluctant to protest...

In Nigeria, religion has a very strong influence. Imagine a situation: the president or the government are doing something wrong, and a journalist discovers it. When some group begins to protest, they meet resistance from one of the ethnic or religious groups to which this particular politician belongs. They immediately say: you protest, because this person is not a Muslim or a Christian, or he is not from your area. And while religious and ethnic factors are being discussed, the essence of the matter – what was the reason for the protest - is forgotten.

These days, there is no platform that can mobilize people. For example, labor unions, student unions could easily block the streets, paralyze the work of the government. But there are no more trade unions and pro-democratic movements that were strong a few decades ago. Their former leaders have become part of the elite, so we can’t rely on them.

Is there any hope that the situation will change and what would cause that?

When the Arab spring began, many believed that something similar would take place in Nigeria as well. But this did not happen, there were only a few protest actions. Also, in 2016, there was an action against the president, but it was only in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Another example is when the government doubled the cost of gasoline: the protests lasted only for two days. We still hope that the changes in Nigeria will begin just as the Arab spring began – without warning.

But another problem for Nigeria in terms of organizing protests is religion, Christianity. When something happens and people have to get out on the streets to protest, the Christians say: “We do not want violence, we do not want protests.” And the people listen to the religious leaders who say “Go and pray for the president.” Also, they often repeat another phrase: “Let's pray for our country, maybe everything will straighten out.” Believers listen to them and do not want to express any aggression.

Don’t you want to leave the country if everything is so bad?

I am 42 years old, I have been working in journalism for 15 years. I cannot live in any other country, in any society except Nigerian. Therefore, I will not emigrate either in the US or in any other country. But since I'm investigating, sometimes I'm threatened. And so I sometimes I think about the fact that it would be nice if my family lived in a safe place. But for me, Nigeria is the place where I will live, work and die.