I landed in Sao Paolo, Brazil, on Saturday, to start a two-week reporting fellowship for journalists, organised by the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. (More on the trip in the coming weeks). Brazil, which I’m visiting for the first time, has captured my imagination for a while, and has come up a couple of times on this column:

“How is Brazil managing to build more than a million new homes per annum? Do its leaders have two heads?” (February 3, 2014).

“Brazil generates 20 times as much electricity for its population which is only slightly more than ours.” (June 24, 2013).

“Let’s turn to Brazil, as an example. That’s a country that knows a thing or two about setting ambitious goals and doing all that is necessary to hit them. Today, Brazil successfully produces everything we can’t; from steel (Hello, Ajaokuta?) to cars to aircraft. It is also one of the world’s largest producers of hydroelectric power (its current capacity makes even our long-term targets seem like a joke), as well as the go-to country for ethanol fuel innovation. The Embraer jets reportedly favoured by the Nigerian government in its planned intervention in the aviation industry are Brazilian in origin.” (May 20, 2013).

Brazil stands as a good example of the kind of progress Nigeria should be aspiring to. Let’s forget the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan and the rest of the rich world, and instead focus on those countries that are closer to us in developmental terms. And let’s ask ourselves: How are they managing to make progress on a scale that has continued to elude us?

Like Brazil, like Indonesia. Journalist Peter Cunliffe-Jones, who in 2003 moved from a role as the AFP Nigeria Bureau Chief to become Asia Editor (covering, amongst other countries, Indonesia) has done an interesting comparison of both countries, in a piece for the BBC titled, “How Indonesia overtook Nigeria”.

“Both were formed as one nation by Europeans around 1900. Both were governed by the colonial system of ‘indirect rule’. Both once made money from palm oil, and later discovered oil and gas. At independence, the standards of living in the two countries were comparable on most measures. And since independence, both have suffered three decades of military misrule and corruption. Their first coups were launched within months of each other – in September 1965 in Indonesia and in January 1966 in Nigeria – and their military regimes died within 12 months, in May 1998 and 1999,” Cunliffe-Jones writes.

Similar stories. Military rule, repression, much corruption. But those similarities mostly end when you start to look at development indices. In other words, while the two countries have suffered similarly awful destinies, what they’ve made out of those destinies has differed remarkably.

Today, Indonesia’s life expectancy is at 72 years (up from about 47 in the 1960s), while Nigeria is today celebrating 52 years. Indonesia’s GDP per capita income is twice that of Nigeria. It also has a much smaller percentage of its population living in poverty (20 per cent), compared with Nigeria’s 70 per cent. Its primary school net enrolment ratio is 99 per cent, compared to Nigeria’s 57.6 per cent.

Under the Abacha-like Suharto, Indonesia focused on a number of key initiatives: Education, health, manufacturing for export, and agriculture. At independence in 1960, Nigeria was the world’s leading producer and exporter of crude palm oil, with about 160,000 tonnes in production per annum. Today, Indonesia is the world’s biggest producer, with about 27 million tonnes in 2013, and 2008 export revenues in excess of $12bn. As for Nigeria, we’re still struggling to produce about 900,000 tonnes per annum, and are today a net importer of (and dumping ground for) crude palm oil from countries like Indonesia.

Analysts have been trying to answer that riddle; of how two countries with very high levels of corruption have had such different trajectories. Economist Paul Collier has put it down in part to capital flight – the movement of money out of a country. “In a country like Indonesia, corrupt money was investment in the economy. In Nigeria, even honestly acquired money was sent out of it,” Collier has argued.

In other words, while both Nigerian and Indonesian leaders were looting their countries blind, Indonesians kept their money within their country, while Nigerians (like many African countries) ferried theirs to Switzerland and any number of tax havens around the world.

While on the surface, it looked like similar stories of corruption, the underlying effects were different, for two reasons. First, as Collier says, all those billions of dollars went into the economy as investment, creating economic value. Second, Indonesia’s leadership was obliged to create the conditions for their money to thrive. If you’re going to keep your money at home then the least you can do is to, in the name of enlightened self-interest, to manage the economy in a way that ensures a conducive environment for your money. Had Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha and the rest of our billionaire ruling class kept all their money in Nigeria, they would have paid better attention to economic management and development.

That matter of enlightened self-interest is a very important one. And it is absent, from all indications, in the Nigerian DNA. Its absence explains why the wealthiest Nigerians are still dying abroad in droves, of cancers that their country’s health system is unable to detect early.

Which brings us to the story of India. The Lagos-based Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy says there are no Mobile Cancer Units in Nigeria, not to speak of Comprehensive Cancer Centres. India alone has 120 Comprehensive Cancer Centres. Those are the centres that cater to the flood of Nigerians who go to India for cancer treatment because their governments refused to pay attention to the health needs of citizens.

The CECP is therefore working to raise the awareness – and funds – to redress this. It is starting with the lower-hanging fruit, the mobile units, which cost only $600,000 per unit (compared with more than $60m for the comprehensive centres). $600,000 is less than what Stella Oduah paid for a BMW in 2013, and only slightly more than what we’ve been told Diezani Alison-Madueke pays for her regular international private-jet junkets. And $60m is “chicken change” when you consider how much pension funds thieves and oil scam syndicates are currently depriving Nigeria of, unchallenged.

A former Minister of State for Health, Muhammad Ali Pate, says that Nigerians currently spend $1bn annually on medical treatments abroad. A chunk of that goes to India, a country that, I believe, is no less corrupt than Nigeria, and certainly no less ethnically and linguistically complicated.

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To be continued