I carry a plastic chair over to sit with Pastor Samuel Tewogbola outside his house in the southern Nigerian town of Igarra. The family goat wanders past us, nosing the earth. It’s November 2014, and I am doing preliminary research for a future book. Tewogbola is a fire-and-brimstone preacher—43 years in a hard-line Pentecostal church. When I arrived with my friend Esther, his daughter, he made us all kneel in his doorway while he intoned thanks to Jesus for our safe journey.

We’re philosophizing, talking about what makes up good human character, and about money—how money is used to buy “things God doesn’t want,” as Tewogbola puts it, including position and influence. I chime in with something I’ve just heard from tribal elders in town. After they settle a local dispute, they told me, people sometimes bring money and change the result.

“Elders,” Tewogbola contradicts, “can’t be bribed to judge unfairly, because the idols . . .” He breaks off, leaning forward. “You know idols?”

I nod.

“The idols will take their retribution immediately! The Thunder God will start rumbling straight away. But Jesus is different. Jesus is merciful. And that’s why there’s so much corruption today.”

I struggle to take in what the pastor has just said.

Later, I’m in the northern city of Kano. I strike up a similar conversation and hear similar, impassioned responses. “Money is everything now,” Bala Saleh, a professor at Bayero University, tells me. “The more you steal, the more you get recognition. Loot, and they give you titles.”

Businessman Mustapha Hanga, tall and dignified and quietly pious, agrees.

“Deep inside,” he says, “we know who’s truly good. But we don’t honor it. There is a huge moral confusion in this country.”

The awareness of this confusion—Nigerians’ profound discomfort with the grossly corrupt nature of their politics, and with their own ambiguous behavior in light of it—helps explain the results of last month’s remarkable presidential election. It also helps illuminate the emergence and endurance of the radical Boko Haram insurgency that has terrorized northern Nigeria. Both developments reflect the understanding that corruption is not only a problem of governance, but a profound moral challenge for Nigerian society.

A Historic and Unexpected Electoral Result

In voting on March 28 and 29, a 72-year-old former dictator named Muhammadu Buhari defeated President Goodluck Jonathan by a wide margin. For the first time in Nigeria’s history as an independent nation, an incumbent leader was ousted not in a coup, but at the ballot box.

Everything about the election defied expectations. Voters told me they had never in their lives seen such crowds at the polls. According to the official count, the turnout was only average, perhaps indicating how fanciful the tallies were from previous, notoriously fraudulent elections. It was as though voters sought to swamp, by their sheer numbers, any possibility of another rigged outcome. Despite fears of violence and physical hardship, thousands rose at dawn, waited for officials to arrive—often hours late—and endured a complex multistage process to be accredited and finally cast their ballots. Many then stood by until late at night watching the counting and snapping pictures of the tally sheets on cell phones. It’s hard to imagine many Westerners taking such trouble to cast their ballots and make sure they were counted.

The election also defied the common depiction of Nigeria as irreparably split along regional and religious lines between the predominantly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south. Buhari, a Muslim from the north, chose as his running mate Yemi Osinbajo, a Christian pastor of the Yoruba tribe from the dynamic southern commercial capital, Lagos. Both men have a history of combating government malfeasance.

Buhari and Osinbajo pledged to get serious with the Boko Haram insurgency, and given Buhari’s military past, their commitment was deemed credible. That focus and their powerful anti-corruption message spoke to universal concerns, not identity-group prejudices. The ticket swept the country, with the sole exceptions of its oil-rich southern tip—where there were clear indications of vote-rigging—and an enclave in the east.

And then there was Jonathan’s early, and unexpected, concession. Delivered under significant international pressure, it was nonetheless gracious and surely helped ward off post-election violence.

Jonathan’s Corrupt Legacy

Still, it is under Jonathan that the corruption for which Nigeria was already infamous degenerated into what can be fairly termed pillage. In private conversation early this year, a U.S. intelligence official described Jonathan’s government as “Nigeria’s most corrupt administration ever.”

Over the past few years, the revelations have fallen like hail. There was the cash-strapped Aviation Ministry paying $1.6 million for two armored BMWs, when the car’s list price was approximately $170,000. There was the private jet seized in South Africa last fall with $9.3 million aboard, reportedly to pay mercenaries to fight Boko Haram. There were the soldiers on the front line mutinying for lack of bullets and other basic equipment, despite a defense budget that absorbs some 20 percent of federal government expenditures, or nearly $5 billion a year.

But the most spectacular scandal, and the subject of heated debate during the campaign, was then-Central Bank Gov. Lamido Sanusi’s discover y in late 2013 that some $20 billion in oil revenue was unaccounted for over an 18-month period. In one massive scam, Sanusi’s investigations revealed, the national petroleum company claimed to have spent billions of dollars subsidizing imported kerosene and gasoline. But there was no government appropriation for a kerosene subsidy, and Nigerian National Statistics Bureau figures show that “Nigerians were nowhere purchasing kerosene at the subsidized rate.” In other words, the national oil company was submitting false claims for a subsidy that wasn’t even legal, and pocketing the cash.

Other maneuvers the memo detailed included ghost cargoes, opaque swaps of crude oil for refined product and the wholesale privatization of oil blocks to locally owned shell companies close to the regime. Sanusi found that two people, lacking both capital and industry experience, had registered some 33 separate companies involved in the deals.

“Where did they get $2.2 billion?” Sanusi wondered at the time. “There are government revenues that should be remitted to the government that haven’t been remitted. There are swaps of crude for refined products, but Nigeria is cheated in the swap.” But when Sanusi told the heads of several banks that he would order a rigorous special examination of their books, they complained to Jonathan, who fired him.

The Jonathan administration’s chief image-launderer in Washington, Finance Minister Ngozi Okonja-Iweala, subsequently commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers to audit the Central Bank’s accounts. Under campaign season pressure, she released a few excerpts of the report in March, more than six months after it was due, and admitted to a shortfall of “only” $1.8 billion. But Okonja-Iweala refused to make the whole document public.

The epic profiteering at the top of the system is mirrored by streetlevel shakedowns that cost precious money and, perhaps more significantly, constitute devastating attacks on their victims’ personal dignity. Acquitted prisoners are taken back to holding cells until their family “settles” the police officers. Intake staff at public hospitals watch people bleed while they haughtily demand unexplained fees. Nursery school teachers require children to bring soap and other supplies to school, then put a single bar by the sink and sell the rest.

In February, I asked a group of lawyers to explain how corruption functioned within the judicial branch. Ibrahim Mukhtar, a public prosecutor, remarked on one particularly egregious case—in which money was not the object. “A husband was in custody pending trial,” he recounted. “He was ill, and his wife went to the judge to plead for his release on bail. The judge took advantage of her. And he never released the man! He died in jail. I think that woman went mad.”

Corruption and Terrorism

In his April 1 acceptance speech, Buhari called corruption a “ form of evil that is even worse than terrorism.”

In fact, there is reason to believe the two may be linked. As I have argued in “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security,” militant puritanical religion has been a common reaction to severe lapses in public integrity across many cultures and eras. A strict code of personal morality, imposed if necessary by force, is often held up as the only sure route to reform.

This link is visible in the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, in the expansion of the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the inroads al-Shabab militants are making in Kenya. It even helps explain that explosion of religious extremism in 16th century Europe known as the Protestant Reformation. The writings of Martin Luther, the countless petitions sent to Rome at the time, sizzle with denunciations of the shameless corruption of the Catholic Church.

In Nigeria, before they began to commit the massacres and kidnappings of civilians they are known for today, Boko Haram militants focused their attacks against the police, infamous as one of the most abusive and crudely venal branches of a spectacularly corrupt government. These initial attacks struck a chord among many of their neighbors.

“People hailed Boko Haram’s early attacks,” Ibrahim Nassarawa, former chairman of the Kano State Bar Association, remarked to me in February. “People said, ‘These police who have been robbing and beating us all these years, finally someone is killing them!’”

Nassarawa and other Kano lawyers say that Boko Haram’s early rise in 2005 can be partially explained by disillusionment, after a grassroots movement to introduce Shariah law in several northern states failed to alter corrupt practices. “When the people said ‘Shariah’ [at the time], it wasn’t about the details of jurisprudence,” he told me in late 2013. “They meant politics, economics, social justice.”

Muhammad Tabiu, who runs a nonprofit called Justice For All, agreed. “The issue of corruption was central to people’s demand for Shariah law. But then they found that the Shariah system was the same personnel, the same judges, the same staff, the same culture. Only the name was changed. Faced with such a result, some people will say, ‘Whatever tweak you make to the system will not work. You need to overthrow it entirely and bring some pure pristine system in
its place.’”

Boko Haram, Tabiu and Nassarawa agreed, represented such a revolutionary alternative, at least at first.

“There is a collective resentment against the elites,” Nassarawa said. “And it’s not just about money, it’s about the unfair use of influence. If you’re part of the cabal, you get protection. Boko Haram aren’t the first to feel this resentment. They’re just the first, in recent years, to express it violently.”

Even the name “Boko Haram”—meaning, roughly, “Western education is ritually unclean”—has a link to corruption that may not be self-evident to Westerners.

Alongside the politicians whose names have festooned the frequent reports of corruption scandals, Nigerians blame career civil servants for the endemic official theft. Without the technical knowledge of contracting procedures that allows them to rig tenders and inflate budgets, the scams could not be perpetrated. Infrastructure projects are implemented at many times their real cost, with bureaucrats serving themselves along the way.

The small fortunes that salaried civil servants often amass are seen as signs of such wrongdoing. “A big businessman who is doing business where he can make huge profits, he can get rich,” a professional driver named Ezekiel from the southwestern city of Ibadan complained to me in February. “But a civil servant shouldn’t be getting rich.”

“Kids these days dream of a job in the civil service,” Hanga, the Kano businessman, tells me. “The civil service is the quickest way to get rich, and they are the richest people in society.”

And the path to a job in the civil service passes by way of the school system—with parents often compelled to bribe their children’s way in and through.

Education, in other words, is not primarily seen as an opportunity for self-improvement or a way for children to learn critical thinking and tolerance. For many Nigerians, education is a corrupt intake valve into a profoundly corrupt system.

“People feel the boko way is the way we got to this state of affairs,” says Tabiu.

Money and Moral Sickness

Beyond the government officials and their million-dollar heists, or the degrading shakedowns perpetrated at street level, the venality that characterizes the political economy has metastasized, many Nigerians have told me. The sickness, they say, has spread into the nation’s very bloodstream.

“Corruption cuts across everything,” another pastor, named Jasper, exclaimed as we sat in the local office of the then-ruling People’s Democratic Party in southern Benin City in February. “It’s in the genes.”

When Esther, Pastor Tewogbola’s daughter, first moved from the countryside to the capital Abuja, she landed a job washing floors in a restaurant, but the person who helped her get the position demanded a cut of her salary.

“We, the poor, prey upon the poor,” her sister, who works in the Ministry of Defense, told me in late 2013. “We can’t steal from the rich, because the rich can call a policeman to beat us. We can’t use the law against them, because money can buy the law. So we have to steal from the poor.”

“This environment,” says Saleh, the university professor, “is criminogenic.”

Shaping that environment, in part, has been a profound transformation in Nigeria of the social value of money, a transformation that has intensified recently, but which many date back to the oil boom of the 1980s and the sudden gush of easy cash that flooded the country.

“Money used to be to buy items that you needed,” says Moronke Afolabi, an Abuja cloth merchant. “Nowadays, people worship money. They use it to oppress people. If someone gives you money, you can’t say anything bad about them. You have to praise them.”

“The aims and objectives of money have changed,” concurs a Benin City elder. “In the past, when the elders discovered you had some money, they would assess whether you could have earned it honestly. They would assess your farm and what kind of income you should be earning from that. Parents would question their children. If there were no good explanation for the money in their son’s hand, they would summon him before the elders. People didn’t want their name dragged in the mud.”

But now, Nigerians agree, few are so fastidious. “Money is the first index to judge the quality of a person,” says Kano filmmaker Abdulkareem Mohammed. “No one cares where he got it.”

Ibrahim Hamza, an official in the Kano state government, complains that his countrymen are “glorifying those who loot from the public treasury. Their gala weddings are covered on television.”

Hanga finds that even some of the most cherished elements of Nigerian culture have been twisted in a way that contributes to corruption.

The responsibility to care for the elderly, for example, can turn into an ugly contest among siblings, who now use their gifts to compete for their parents’ favor. “You try to show off so the parents will bless you,” he says. “This competition has brought a lot of devastation into social relations.”

Esther describes people stealing or going into prostitution to come up with the cash.

In other words, the exaltation of money has deeply undermined other social and cultural ideals of which Nigerians were once proud. Most are conscious of this change, and are deeply distressed—even as they succumb themselves to money’s overwhelming influence.

Moral Order

This context may shed some light on last month’s election.

A septuagenarian who already ruled the country 30 years ago may seem an odd choice to represent the change Nigerians demand. It’s not as though Buhari is unfamiliar to them. During his brief rule in 1984 and 1985, he subjected Nigerians to a draconian “discipline campaign,” which included, famously, whipping them into line at bus stops.

But that history, and the president-elect’s reputation for asceticism, didn’t deter voters. In fact, it may be exactly what they were looking for.

Buhari represents an earlier generation of Nigerians, still imbued with the values that predated the country’s oil wealth. His acceptance speech rang with those values, articulated with a bygone eloquence. “I pledge myself to just and principled government,” he promised. “I pledge myself and the government to the rule of law, in which none shall be so above the law that they are not subject to its dictates, and none shall be so below it that they are not availed of its protection.”

A majority of Nigerians voted for those values, and for their more stringent application. They expect Buhari to be tough, both on venal government officials and on Boko Haram. But their choice may also express a candid recognition that they could use a dose of that stern discipline themselves. In Buhari, they may have voted for a kind of Thunder God on earth, who will start rumbling immediately when they engage in practices they know to be unjust.

This article was originally published in the World Politics Review.