Why We No Longer Blush: Corruption As Grand Commander Of The Federal Republic Of Nigeria By Niyi Osundare
(Lecture delivered under the Auspices of the Save Nigeria Group (SNG) at Sheraton Hotel, Ikeja, Lagos, Monday July 9, 2012).
• Nigeria is a kleptocracy: a state ruled by thieves
• We no longer blush because we have lost our skin
• Corruption is Nigeria’s fastest-growing industry
• If Nigeria does not kill Corruption, Corruption will kill Nigeria
• Our fate is in our own hands
The SNG Example
Something happened in this country in the very first week of this year that we can never forget: Nigeria’s civil society rose with one voice, one vision, one purpose, one agenda fuelled by extraordinary patriotism and irrepressible anger. The government of President Goodluck Jonathan had removed, against all warning and remonstration; against all hint of commonsense and fellow felling, the so-called ‘subsidy’ on the price of petroleum products, thus plunging the proverbially rickety Nigeria economy into a fatal tailspin, and the Nigerian people into needless agony and deprivation. And he sneaked in this cruel decree on the Nigerian people on the very first day of the year, no doubt as a salutary New Year gift from a caring, God-fearing leader.
President Jonathan’s drastic action and his uncharacteristic ‘No going back’ bravado thereafter came as a surprise to many people. Personally, I began to wonder: how could this fledgling president have braved a monster that defied the antics of the tricky Babangida, the murderous Abacha, and the morally indifferent Obasanjo, his illustrious predecessors in office who kicked and caviled at the ‘subsidy’ beast but only succeeded at nibbling at its toes? What gave Jonathan the ruthless courage to drive the IMF sword to the hilt into the Nigerian body? What gave him the confidence that he could decree that punitive price hike and get away with it? I came to the conclusion that the president must have been strengthened in his resolve by his reading of the Nigerian malaise. Afterall, his predecessors in power as well as all public functionaries have always treated Nigeria as a lawless fiefdom where public opinion counts for nothing, and Nigerians, the people over whom they rule, as civic orphans without alagbawi (advocate) and olugbeja (defender). “Let’s go ahead with the subsidy removal”, I could hear presidential advisers in their caucus, “we know Nigerians: they will only shout for a few hours and then go back to business as usual. We know Nigerians: they will quickly adjust”.
But in January this year, that mindset and its cynical calculations found their graveyard in Lagos, in Abuja, in Kano, in Kaduna, in Ilorin, in Ibadan, in Ado Ekiti. To protest the price hike, a coalition of Civil Society groups and the Nigerian Labour Congress called out a strike that shut down the country for a whole week, finally exacting a 33% climbdown in the decreed price. That reduction may look small, but the pressure and organization that brought it about, and even more important, the consciousness and will power generated by it, total up to an impressive chapter in the annals of Nigeria’s civil society organization. For, what I saw at Gani Fawehinmi Freedom Park which served as the epicenter of the struggle, was not just the demonstration of anger and enactment of protest; it was the platform of possibilities, of rising screams awaiting distillation into a unified voice; of a people sick and tired of their dehumanization; a people ready to throw off their yoke and demolish the sickening notoriety of Nigeria as ‘big for nothing’ country; masses saying to their rulers “Behold, we are PEOPLE/HUMAN; we demand to be treated as such!” It was a people who saw CORRUPTION, not oil subsidy, as the source of the country’s woes and bane of its people’s welfare.
And what a crowd that was at Freedom Park! What an intermingling of people beyond ethnic, religious, political, even personal barriers. For one long week, Nigerians saw themselves as people united by their common degradation at the hands of some of the most corrupt and most insensitive rulers in the world. Their diverse songs coalesed into a chorus of protest and anthem of resistance. For the first time in their beleaguered lives, many Nigerians found an avenue for the expression of their humanity; they had the rare opportunity to join others in the singing of their own song of defiance. Professional bodies responded with an infectious spontaneity: medical doctors/personnel in overcoat and other accoutrements took care of the weak and ailing free of charge; musicians, movies stars, and other social celebrities fired up the crowd; many food-sellers sold at reduced prices. Violence kept its place in the netherworld: the police found no work for their eager truncheons. In a manner reminiscent of similar gatherings at the Tahrir Square in Cairo at the height of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolts, Muslims in the crowd took time out for their prayers while adherents of other faiths formed a ring of solidarity and assurance around them. I wish a video footage of the Freedom Park events in January could be sent to our rulers to show them how united Nigerians are capable of being when motivated by a noble purpose and trustworthy, committed leadership.
So there we had it: the parable of Freedom Square: the selfless, rigorous, imagination that went into its conception; the thoughtful, meticulous method that was behind its organization; the exuberant, positive intelligence that saw it through. President Jonathan’s soldiers came too late: by the time they swooped in to cordon off the Square, the deed had already been done. The irrepressible Nigerian spirit had already registered itself. The events of the first week of this year have shown that it is possible to make the voice of resistance carry in this country; that we are not the dumb, feckless bums that we are thought to be; that unity among the people of Nigeria is not the distant hope their rulers have made it out to be. Above all, it has demonstrated the immense potentiality of civil society in the engineering of change and sociopolitical momentum. And to coast home to the specificities of today’s lecture, it has shown that Nigerians know the meaning, import, and ramifications of CORRUPTION as the cankerworm in Nigeria’s body politic and poison in her soul. And, what’s more, that they are ready to do something about it!
The Save Nigeria Group, the principal civil society organization behind the January strike, deserves more than the cursory appreciation and gratitude that the constraints of time and space permit me to render in a lecture of this kind. We have seen this group before, sometime in 2010, when the former President Yar’Adua lay critically ill in a Saudi hospital, but a cabal whose satanic dominance and influence derived from Yar’Adua’s continued hold on power, insisted that the president must continue to rule, even from the grave. A bizarre and absolutely confounding absurdity threw Nigeria into a state of ludicrous paralysis. Hobbled by characteristic opportunism and tragic inertia, Nigerian politicians wringed their fingers and gnashed their teeth. The Nigerian people gasped and wondered. The outside world chuckled at this latest act from the unedifying drama of Africa’s delinquent giant. The president’s terminal illness was about to plunge Nigeria itself into a terminal coma. The Save Nigeria Group rose literally from nowhere and took up the challenge, rallied the Nigerian people, and marched on the National Assembly. The quaintly coded, ludicrously escapist “Doctrine of Necessity” passed by the Nigerian Senate as a way out of this utterly absurd imbroglio could not have come without the intense moral and political pressure from the SNG and similarly concerned Nigerians.
Thus, in its short existence as a pressure group, conscientizer, public opinion mobilizer in Nigeria, the SNG has taken up the role of ombudsman and tribunal, a kind of moral opposition in a country where the commonality of crime and mutuality of corruption has made a reasonable differentiation between/among the political parties a difficult if not futile exercise.
How, then, can I proceed with this lecture without paying due homage to the patriotic zeal and visionary acumen of Pastor Tunde Bakare (who, by the way, I’m meeting for the first time today!), founder and motivating force behind the SNG, a pastor who, unlike many other men and women of the cloth in Nigeria, has never failed to see the vital link between the religious pulpit and the political platform; one who like the prophets of old, is never afraid of telling truth to power – and making sure that power hearkens and heeds. I cannot review his political activities in the past decade or so without recalling the role of the advocates and practitioners of liberation theology which facilitated the end of military dictatorship in South America, or Rev Desmond Tutu who confronted the Apartheid behemoth with the stinging arrows of moral conscience. No country that I know has ever attained the heights of human development without a vigorous and consistent tradition of public opinion the type that is so helpfully evident in the SNG’s Rescue-and-Salvage Mission. Pastor Bakare, may your tribe increase!
The Cankerworm Called Corruption
When some three weeks ago, Yinka Odumakin, prominent member of the SNG and, in a manner of speaking, its unacknowledged Minister of Information (and Strategy?), broached the idea of this lecture to me, he already had some sense not only of the likely burden of the lecture, but also the possible wording of its title. “Why We No Longer Blush”, he said more in the manner of a suggestion than a dictation. Personally, I do not respond favourably to prescribed titles. The poet in me always prefers to plumb his own depth for possible terms and denominations. But Odumakin’s phrasing issued from a steady fountain of passion and patriotism; the conviction in his voice was both palpable and infectious. I gave a tentative nod, and for a good four days, I rummaged through a bunch of possible titles. But the suggested phrase kept coming back to my mind as a result of its uncanny appropriateness. I finally decided to meet Odumakin half-way by amplifying his suggested title with my own subtitle; and that is how the full title of this lecture was born.
Why is it that Nigerians no longer blush? How did we come to lose our sense of shame after losing our sense of propriety and proportion? How did we come to develop a skin that is so thick that no arrows of degradation, no needles of dehumanization are ever sharp and violent enough to penetrate our body and rouse our senses! How did our nerves slide into their present state of stupor? How did we plunge into this state of dysconsciousness? Catastrophes that would shake normal societies to their very foundations hit and leave us unfazed. Tyrants in military uniform whipped us with scorpions; only a few of us protested.
Now their civilian inheritors are scourging us with serpents, and many of us respond with ‘ranka dede!’. Politicians and other public functionaries empty public treasuries and squander our patrimony/commonweal right before our very eyes; we pray to God to aid their effort. Time there was when these public thieves stole our money in millions of naira; now they do so in billions and trillions; and many of us urge them on and envy their luck.
Are we a psychologically intimidated, morally weakened, and politically wasted people so indolent about their rights, so unmindful of our dignity? Are we so reprobate that we become so forgiving, so oblivious of the crimes of those who rule us because we have lost the capacity to recognize their malefactions as crimes? In other lands, public figures go to jail for pinching our equivalent of 50,000 naira; in Nigeria, the huger the amount you steal the higher you go on the national order of merit, the closer you get to victory in the next election. As the inimitable Wole Soyinka has so aptly put it
You thief ten kobo they put you for prison
You thief ten million na patriotism. . . .
They go give you chieftaincy and national honour
You thief even bigger, dem go say na rumour
Monkey dey work o, baboon dey chop
Sweet pounded yam, someday i go stop
When, some 30 years ago, the illustrious Dele Giwa typified Nigerians as having gone beyond ‘shockability’, he should have reserved his remarks for the present Jonathan-led, PDP-bled crowd of insensate Nigerians.
As it was in the Beginning
But things have not always been this bad, this dismal. Nigerians have not always lived in the present kind of moral desert. Time there was when we knew the difference between wrong and right, when shame coupled with remorse was the dreaded consequence of wrongdoing. Let me share with you a story I heard from my father, a story which illustrates the astonishing difference between the moral order of those days and the degenerate laxity of the so-called postcolonial era.
As this story goes, a young man in another part of town was beginning to give everyone around him a cause to worry. Already well into his thirties, he had no job; he hated farming, the major occupation at that time because it was hard and dirty. He was apprenticed to one or two trades, but he never waited long enough to complete his training in any of them. The extended family then called him and asked what exactly he would like to do for a living. He said the business of buying and selling was his prime choice, the one he dreamt about all the time, the one that would bring him the fortune and freedom he needed. And he insisted on doing this in some big and faraway town where his need to make profits would not be compromised by family obligations. His family taxed its members, raked together a tidy sum for him and sent him off with all their good wishes.
About six months later, it was Christmas time, and this young man returned to town, looking conspicuously prosperous. People wondered which shone the loudest: the gold chain around his neck or the gold strap of his exotic wrist watch. On Christmas day, he floated a feast whose lavish extravagance beggared a royal banquet. About five goats and countless chickens collided in his giant cooking pot, while all the palmwine tappers in town knew where to direct their kegs that day. The great feast was about to start when the guests sent for my father to join them. The first messenger came; my father refused to go; then the second. The third reported with the sardonic warning that whoever failed to get to the feast when the fireplace was still hot would only have himself to blame if all he met were half-picked bones and the loud belches of the punctual guests.
At this point, my father felt the need to clarify a few issues, and said something to this effect: Let me explain myself now before outsiders begin to explain it for me or read hostile meanings into my absence at our brother’s feast. He is our brother, and I have nothing against him. I know the way to our brother’s house, and I have been there many times before without being persuaded to come. And it is not that I woke up today of all days and could not find my appetite. But the question for our brother is: ibi se ti reo ree? (where did he get the money from?). Is this not the same young man for whom we had to collect all our toro, kobo (all our little pennies) some six months ago? How could he have made the profit that could fund the feast whose extravagance the whole town is talking about? No one who has made money the hard, honest way squanders it the way our brother is doing. So, without any envy or ill wish, I ask our brother again, ibi se to reo ree?.
My father never attended that feast; and as the story goes, there were some members of the celebrant’s molebi (extended family) who never did. Christmas over, the pots and pans went back where they came; the revelers dispersed; our young man returned to his ‘station’. But about two weeks later, when the new year was still very new and remnants of yuletide jollifications floated on the wings of the harmattan wind, an uncharacteristic hush fell on the town. The young man, that generous thrower of the Christmas party, was back in town. Only that this time he was securely handcuffed and sandwiched between two hefty policemen who had come to search his family house. The town was later told that the young man was charged with all kinds of crimes ranging from massive theft to embezzlement. He was already working hard for a one-way ticket to prison.
Ibi se ti reo ree? (Where did he get his money from?): that was the question people asked in those days when our society’s head stood confidently on its neck, and all manner of thieves and criminals never found their way to power from where they could choke us in their moral effluvia.
All kinds of interpretation could be read to this parable of a story. The society that serves as its setting is not a perfect one; otherwise that feast would have been boycotted by everyone. But it was a society that still had a conscience and where moral dissent was still the norm. Furthermore, it was a society where the Law still had its way and the restoration of order and good governance was still possible. It was a society which still operated by a hallowed observance of the rubric Aa kii (We do not do....i.e. it is not done; it is forbidden). It was a society of law and order; crime and punishment; good behavior and adequate reward. It was a society which recognized abomination (eewo) and kept it at bay; a society which put a healthy distance between oode (inner room) and aatan (the dunghill) in their literal and figurative senses. It was a society where people still blushed.
As It is Now
Ibi se ti reo ree? (where did he get his money from?). Now, wind forward the reel. Welcome to present-day Nigeria. Welcome to our moral desert and political jungle where the Law has been turned into a limbless ass; where order has gone under, where the criminal is Hero. Our world is upside down, like the bat of night. Crime pays. The criminal is hero. Let us consider three iconic cases.
A couple of months ago, justice finally caught up with James Onanefe Ibori, the famous ‘thief in the state house’, the ex-governor of Delta State of Nigeria, who stole over 10 billion naira of state money which he squandered on lavish estates and cars abroad while dumping huge sums of the people’s money in coded and un-coded bank accounts all over the world. Ibori’s case is so chronically symptomatic of the hopeless rot in the Nigerian system. Here was a man with a brimming rap sheet featuring criminal convictions both in the United Kingdom and Nigeria, but who wangled his way through our rickety legal and political wilderness, and ended up as governor of a state and one of the shot-callers of the ruling People Democratic Party (PDP). Many times he was taken to court in Nigeria to face the monster of his criminal past, but each time he was discharged and acquitted. (I remember one of his court appearances in Abuja at which the presiding judge said something to this effect: Yes, you are James Onanefe Ibori, but you are not James Onanefe Ibori. Pontius Pilate could have done better; but then he would have been infinitely less rich from the chests of cash that must have purchased that famous equivocation). And after each court ‘victory’, rented crowds trooped out in the streets of Asaba to welcome home their illustrious governor, conqueror of Abuja, the one and only Ogidigbodigbo of the universe! Church services were held in his honour to thank God for his victory and evoke hell fire on his traducers. When, in his post-office, post-immunity period, the EFCC tried to bring him in to account for his stolen wealth, he executed a rapid escape, headed for Delta State and holed up himself in his native village where armed home boys rolled timber logs on to the roads and drove off the anti-graft operatives intent upon his arrest.
These boys as well as all the other political jobbers and parasitic spongers who facilitated Ibori’s comprehensive criminality and sheltered him from the scorching sun of justice, are well beyond the possibility of ‘blushing’. Hardened and dehumanized into the status of small criminals who owe their livelihood to the machinations of a bigger criminal, they were not concerned about the source of Ibori’s wealth. All they knew is that their son had brought in their own share of the federal loot - a case of one thief stealing from another thief. With this kind of moral anarchy, how can anyone ask ibi se ti reo ree? Who the hell in present-day Nigeria has the mind for that kind of useless question?
But in the civilized tradition of the United Kingdom, that question is of paramount importance. When it was asked and Ibori provided no credible answers; when they opened back the book to his previous felonies, when they confronted him with unassailable evidence of his rampant thievery and allied transgressions, they gave him enough years to keep him sober in jail. More than anything else, the Ibori case has put in bold relief the difference between the British legal system and the Nigerian legal anarchy, the difference between civilization and barbarism, between orderly jurispudentiality and capricious legal ad-hocism, between the rule of Law and the rule of thieves.
This may sound strange to some people, but all things considered, Ibori was just a scapegoat whose case blew into the open at the most inauspicious time. There is something almost Shakespearean in the unfolding of the Delta man’s unraveling . Were Umaru Yar’Adua still alive today, James Onanefe Ibori would still be gallivanting up and down the terrain of this unfortunate country in his capacity as one of the principal financiers of the Yar’Adua presidential campaign, who has therefore earned his enviable status as a formidable power broker and the de facto second most powerful man in Nigeria. But death, that inscrutable juggernaut, took his powerful beneficiary away and exposed him to the whimsical wiles of a Vice President he once despised and whose presidential emergence he did everything possible and impossible to thwart. Put another way, Ibori’s final conviction is absolutely no indication of the health of Nigeria’s legal cum political system. On the contrary, it is a powerful pointer to its medieval rot and dysfunctionality. And, finally, Ibori is just one tiny (though significant) pimple in a body politic ravaged by a plague of boils. There are infinitely bigger, more rapacious thieves among Nigeria’s public functionaries today, walking freely and calling the shots because their own lid has not been blown. Who still has the capacity to blush in a country ruled by thieves?
Now, before you start thinking that the Ibori saga was unique and that the people’s toleration of his crime was unbelievable, consider the case of another big party wig from the same party, from another part of the country, convicted for blatantly illegal manipulation of contract awards in his position as Chairman of the board of Nigerian Ports Authority. When chief Bode George got a two-year jail term (considered as grossly in-commensurate with the gravity of his crime), his “teeming supporters” thumbed their noses at a Nigerian legal system that was so blind to the proverbial imuniti which should naturally serve as shield for a man of the Lagos chief’s military and political record. Many even couched their anger in sardonic rhetorical questions: Ki lo se teni kan o se ri? Owoo baba ta na sope o ji? (What did he do that no one had done before? Whose father owned the money they said he stole?). And, to back up their protest in a typical Nigerian fashion, on the day the Big Chief completed his term in jail, “teeming supporters” in dazzling aso ebi lined the route from the prison gate to his house, chanting party songs and other vocal ammunitions of perverse resistance. A lavish party followed, crowned with a thanksgiving service in which the officiating clergy berated the Chief’s political enemies, and beseeched God to shower him with further blessings. The Lagos sky was rent by the resounding “Amen” of party chieftains, “teeming supporters”, and kindred spirits. Tell me, with this sanctification of crime and beatification of the criminal, could anyone in the crowd have asked: ‘Ibi se ti reo ree?’
Let us move quickly now from the debauchery of Nigeria’s political gladiators to the iniquity of electoral functionaries who facilitate their ride into office. Remember Maurice Iwu, the Ebola Professor who infected Nigeria’s body politic with the plagues of the 2003 and 2007 polls (who can forget the infamy of the Ido-Osi jumbo numbers in a hurry? Certainly not Femi Orebe, my compatriot and intrepid columnist!). Well, when he finally left office and retired into well-earned comfort, he was treated to an uproarious homecoming by an appreciative crowd including kinsmen and women, party faithfuls, (for he was profitably faithful to the ruling party), honourable legislators, and musical celebrities. Did anyone in the crowd ever ask their son to give account of his years in office? Were they ever concerned that their son supervised an electoral heist of such phenomenal enormity that nearly tore Nigeria apart and which brought the country the searing contempt and opprobrium of the international community? Did any of them blush at the abysmally low esteem in which their son was held by an honest sector of the Nigerian population? Blame not the Iwu clan, for he has equally famous antecedents in Nigeria’s history of ignominious election umpires. Blame them not for in obodo dike Nigeria, the rogue politician is man of the people; the thief is hero. Our skin has become so coarse, so thick, our blood so pale with perfidy that we have lost our capacity to blush.
If Nigeria does not kill corruption,
Corruption will kill Nigeria.
That was my somewhat epigrammatic rejoinder some two months ago, to a touchingly thoughtful memo by Mobolaji Aluko, the Nigerian academic and public intellectual, on corruption in Nigeria and the possible role of the country’s elite in stemming its spread. Corruption kills by blighting our blossom, frustrating new shoots while stunting the growth of the old stem. Like a virulent weed, it does not just smother the good crop; it shoves aside its carcass and usurps its place. Thereafter, it starts reproducing itself in multiple folds, carving out the entire terrain in its own image, developing new shells and shields against possible assaults, completely erasing every trace of the old virtuous order, and taking on a false originary aspect. Its operational lackeys are degradation and decay; its ultimate harbor is death. Consider the ubiquity of death and mayhem in our country today and you appreciate the more the absolutely morbid repercussions of corruption.
The last day of May and the first three of June this year shocked Nigeria with a near-apocalyptically morbid timeline:
Thursday May 31: 8 loaded petro tankers burnt to carcass on the Lagos Ibadan expressway
Friday June 1: over 30 vehicles private and commercial caught fire and roasted on the same Lagos-Ibadan expressway
Saturday June 2: a Nigerian cargo plane overshot the runway and killed about eight people in faraway Ghana. Poor Ghana became a victim of Nigeria’s culpable incompetence.
Sunday June 3: Father of all disasters. Nigeria brought the tragedy home; DANA airplane crashed in the densely populated village of Ishaga-Agege near Lagos, killing all 153 people on board and some half dozen on the ground.
That same day, Boko Haram, Nigeria’s dreaded Nemesis, exploded their trademark bombs in Bauchi, dispatching over a dozen Christian worshippers in a bloody inferno.
In four short days, Nigeria harvested a bulk of tragedies that many countries do not experience in many years. This cluster of calamities came in such a breathless succession and with such alarming reverberation that some Nigerians felt the country was just one bang away from Apocalypse. Some saw it as a sign that Jonathan’s rule had brought Nigeria a fate that is the exact opposite of his first name (Goodluck). Some were already seeing it as the first hint of the unraveling predicted for 2015. But the rational, hard-nosed discerned the pattern in it all, sensing the deleterious implication of Nigeria’s number one killer: corruption.
To know what these incidents have to do with corruption, let’s ask the following questions:
Why has the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, the principal artery connecting the rest of the country to its commercial heartbeat of Lagos, remained a death trap in the past 10 years? What has happened to the loudly touted plan in the past five years to rehabilitate and expand the expressway? Is the company called Bi-Courtney still interested in the ‘concessioning’ arrangement? And, by the way, what about the billions of naira budgeted for road rehabilitation every year? What happened to them?
What, if not corruption, is responsible for the presence of so many patently non-roadworthy vehicles on Nigerian roads? Time there was when Vehicle Inspection Officers (VIO’s) made sure only fit and proper vehicles plied the roads, and the traffic police took care of the sanity and competence of Nigerian drivers. Now, the VIO has literally disappeared, and, with the right bribe to give, you could speed along with your brakeless vehicle and kill as many people as your tyres can crush.
What about those long articulated vehicles and loaded petrol tankers which pummel the roads with their heavy weights and park anywhere that suits their tyrannical fancy? What became of the Nigeria rail system that should have relieved the road of their heavy haulage? Is it true that we have the bribing generosity of trailer magnates to thank for the untimely demise of the Nigerian railway? Pray, to which cabal do we owe the death of the once active Nigerian railway?
And, regarding the planes, why is the Nigerian air space full of Tokunbo aircraft? (As if the carnage being wrought by Tokunbo automobiles on our roads is not enough!). Why is the Nigerian sky littered with cheap, creaking carriers from foreign scrap-yards, refurbished jalopies imported to serve as shortcut to wealth for their ruthless owners and one-way ticket to death for Nigerian passengers?
How are the inspection schedules and oversight procedures of planes plying the Nigerian space handled? Is it true that some ‘inspectors’ certify airplanes in the manager’s office, declaring them air-worthy after collecting their brown envelopes or bulging Ghana-must-go’s – without ever laying their eye on the very object of their inspection? There were rumours that this kind of malpractice contributed to the crash of Sosoliso airplane in Port Harcourt on December 10, 2005 and the Bellview one just two months before - rumours that have been blowing in the wind ever since owing to the non-availability of the post-crash investigation reports
And so we ask: where are these reports? Why have they not been made public? Why have the recommendations therein not been implemented? On whose shelves have they been gathering dust?
There is a sinister pattern to these catastrophes, a sickeningly predictable chronology to their narratives. First, the predisposing condition: a corruptly compromised equipment that is nothing short of an accident waiting to happen, lives true to expectation and precipitates a tremendous catastrophe. Then a ritual of oohs and aahs, gnashing of teeth and rending of garment, and profuse outpouring of condolences. Then a visit to the disaster site by the president and the governor and a gaggle of other public functionaries, complete with a formidable press crew. The team perform (what a word!) a guided tour of the disaster site; the president manages to shed a tear or two, proclaims before the camera how broken-hearted he is; declares a period of national mourning; talks tough about the cause of the accident, and promises to bring to ‘bring to book’ all those responsible for it; sets up an investigation panel; then heads out for his next overseas trip. Weeks later the panel submits its report with full publicity fanfare. The president thanks them for their patriotic service, repeats his former threat to ‘bring to book’ all those responsible for the accident; accepts the report and dumps it in the national archives. End of story. Well, no, until another round of accidents and . . . .
Investigations without end. Reports without result. Recommendations without implementation. Crimes without punishment. This is the sorry order in the Federal Republic of Nigeria. We learn nothing from history, and that is why for us History frequently repeats itself as a running mix of tragedy and farce. We are like that nanny goat in the tale whipped countless times for a repeated offence. Buffeted by political banditry, anesthesized by gross religiosity, inundated by injustices which stink to the high heavens, our senses have been dulled, our nerves critically undone, our sense of reality twisted to look like something straight out of the theatre of the absurd.
Or what could be more absurd, more jaw-droppingly nightmarish than the present sensational bribegate involving the Right Honourable Farouk Lawan and the House of Representatives Ad Hoc Committee on the probe of the oil subsidy scandal? As the story goes, Honourable Lawan, chairman of this committee, is alleged to have asked one of the oil magnates for a hefty bribe so as to remove his company’s name from the list of those being penciled down for investigation and possible sanction. But he barged straight into a setup and went home with marked dollar bills. By the time he began to badger his affluent briber for the outstanding balance of the three-million dollar deal (after collecting the initial 620,000 dollars), the police were already knocking on his door. In the past three weeks or so, our minds have been smothered by the slush and sleaze of this unedifying saga. Now our Honourable Representatives are trying to set up another committee to investigate the disgraced investigators.
Round and round in a cycle of shame
The bribed, the briber, all the same
In a land so decrepit, so decayed
Justice always denied, for ever delayed
To think that this unforgivably silly charade is what our so-called elected representatives are making of a serious scandal involving the oil subsidy, the removal of which precipitated a virtual shutdown of the country in the very first week of this year, subjecting millions of our people to untold suffering, and in some cases, death. From the very beginning, we never trusted the Jonathan government’s propaganda regarding the existence of subsidy, nor were we persuaded by Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s IMF-induced campaign for its removal. Many argued that the problem with Nigeria’s oil business was not the so-called subsidy on the price at the pump-head, but the wanton hemorrhaging caused by vulpine oil cabals who collected billions of naira as subsidy on oil which they never supplied. The Nigerian government had, therefore, been subsidizing corruption all along, and was bent on getting the Nigerian people to cough out more for that ignoble purpose. The people said no in January, and the thunderous reverberations of their voices gingered the House of Representatives into instituting an investigation.
To be sure, the Farouk Lawan ad hoc committee started off on a salutary note. Its initial revelation of millions of dollars collected as phantom subsidy by oil companies endeared it to the Nigerian people whose strong suspicion it only served to confirm. For once, the people thought they were about to crush the subsidy conundrum and expose, at last, the cabal that held Nigeria to such exploitative ransom. The canonization of Lawan and his committee was just about to begin when the Otedola dollars threw a wrench into the works. Now attention has shifted from the reports of the committee to the misconduct of some of its members. The oil cabals must be laughing in their sea of subsidy dollars while many Nigerians are still wondering: is this the end of the probe? When will President Jonathan and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala ask Nigerians to submit their backs for the yoke of another “subsidy” removal?
Round and round in a cycle of shame. . . . Just a few months before Lawangate, there was Hembegate. In a classic case of “YOU HEMBE ME AND I’LL OTEH YOU”, Arunma Oteh, then Director General of the Security Exchange Commission (SEC) surprised the whole world with the allegation that the chairman of the committee set up to probe her had earlier demanded from her a bribe of 44 million naira. Before then, Honourable Hembe was said to have also received travel funds, including estacode, from SEC for a foreign trip he never made and the money for which he never returned. Again, a carefully calculated distraction had supplanted the main issue: serious allegations of mismanagement of funds and reckless spending preferred against Ms Oteh became a side item in the panel’s menu of egregious entrees. The accuser had become the accused. Up till now, the nation has not got to the bottom of the serious allegations against the SEC Director. As usual, in response to public outcry and anger, the Very Honourable House of Representatives referred the case to its Ethics and Privileges Committee for further investigation, the outcome of which may never see the light of day.
Round and round in a cycle of shame. . . Before the two
‘-gates’ above there was Elumelugate. In 2007, Dimeji Bankole, then speaker of the House, surprised the entire nation with the revelation that the Obasanjo government had invested 16 billion dollars in the power sector with nothing practically to show for it except the conspicuous darkness that enveloped the nation. In January the following year, the House Power and Steel Committee chaired by Godwin Elumelu was mandated to probe the power sector in respect of the alleged 16 billion dollars. After an extensive tour of power project sites all over the country, the committee wrote and submitted a report containing a searing indictment of many of the major players in the country’s power sector, including the President himself, and recommended them for possible sanctions. It was at this crucial juncture that the allegation of a 100-million naira bribe was hurled at the committee. Again, the case was referred to the House Ethics and Privileges Committee which investigated and cleared the Elumelu committee which then went ahead to submit its report. Then, this macabre drama by the very honourable members of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, as brilliantly captured by Samson Ezea of The Guardian on Saturday:
Curiously and shockingly, virulent verbal attacks were launched against Elumelu. Nigerians were amazed at the effusive manner majority of the members cursed the recommendations, making many to wonder whether these were the same people that spoke so “patriotically” in praise of the report when it was submitted. (p.50)
After reading this one feels like screaming as Kunle Ajibade did a couple of years ago: What a Country! Thereafter, Honourable Elumelu was arrested by the EFCC for mismanaging the 5.2 billion naira rural electrification contract funds, an allegation he took to a Federal High Court where he was cleared though the presiding Justice declared that he and some of his committee members still had a case to answer.
Dear listeners, at this juncture, I find myself wondering with the Narrator in my play The State visit:
How many, oh how many shall we count
Of the teeth of Adepele:
There are twenty incisors, fifty canines,
While uncountable molars lie buried
In the caves of the jaw
From every indication, it appears that those in positions of authority in Nigeria especially in the political and economic spheres have been waging an undeclared war on the country’s resources and general welfare. And it is a war that is savage in its method and dehumanizing in its impact. I have never seen or heard of a country in the world in which public functionaries are as pathologically perverse, blindly rapacious, brutally cannibalistic, and callously unpatriotic as the ones that hold this unfortunate land in thrall. Consider the mind-boggling scam by the Pension Reform Task Team and the two billion naira cash discovered cruse and raw in the home of one of the officials. Two billion naira of pension funds in a country where old, feeble pensioners starve to death in their little hovels or collapse from exhaustion on mindless “verification parades”! What about police bosses who embezzle funds meant for the welfare of the Force (For an instructive story of Tafa Balogun, one of such bosses, see Wale Adebanwi’s A Paradise for Maggots: The Story of a Nigerian anti-Graft Czar, a meticulously detailed, eloquently written biography of Nuhu Ribadu, a book that should be compulsory read for every public official in this country – from the local government councilor to the President, from the micro-finance banker to the Central Bank governor).
What about suspected public officials and the EFCC’s revolving door? Again, another narrative with a shameful chronology: allegation of extensive graft, arrest, arraignment, brief detention, (with all the publicity razzmatazz), then bail, and silence, Finis. . . . Virtually every former governor since 1999 has gone through this deceptive ritual. Dimeji Bankole, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, went through his own motions recently, with the same result. Somehow, the huge sums the ‘arrested’ officials are suspected to have stolen/embezzled/mismanaged resonate in the public domain for a while, then fade away as we move on to further, bigger scams. The Nigerian people have seen and heard about so many colossal sums being stolen that they have lost their awe for numbers.
Time there was when millions raised the brow
And a millionaire was deemed the super rich
Then came the billions and their ceaseless itch
And now we talk in trillions in a tall and tidy row
We have not only lost our capacity to blush; swarmed by the grossness of fraud-fraught numbers, we have also lost the ability to count. Or to put it another way, we have been afflicted by a chronic number fatigue. Those who steal the nation’s money have not only ruined our economy by devaluing the national currency; they have also impoverished our spirit and devalued our capacity to be human. Nigeria today is suffering from moral inflation: outwardly big and bloated, internally empty and weak.
Corruption, Nigeria’s fastest-growing Industry
Let’s face this fact: corruption is the fastest-growing industry in Nigeria today. It is the real money-spinner, the oil which lubricates the engine of Nigeria’s politics and economy, a sine qua non in business deals, a desideratum for advancement in all spheres. Come to think of it. How/what would our politics be without corruption? If our electoral processes were less corrupt, how would judges on the Election Petition and Appeal Court get a few ‘gifts’ to secure them in their retirement? What about the lawyers who rake up their billions from litigating cases that should have been determined in the polling booth? How would the Distinguished Senator and Honourable Rep. live up to their billing as lawmakers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria without securing millions of naira from acts such as anticipatory approvals, or incidents such as Lawangate or Hembegate? If you are in the aviation sector, how can you boost your profit margin if you refuse to bribe oversight officers and inspectors whose duty it is to pass your rickety, octogenarian air plane as eminently air-worthy and litter the Nigeria sky with flying coffins? If you are a banker, how can you join the big league of billionaires without cooking the books, proliferating unsecured loans, liquidating your bank and running away with the money while hundreds of depositors perish from the stress engendered by your fraud? Yes, indeed, corruption is Nigeria’s most viable industry, the largest employer of labour, engenderer of an economy that knows no recession. In obodo dike Nigeria, corruption pays; it pays handsomely.. . . And this is why we no longer blush . . . .
The Way Out
Corruption is one hell of a demon which virtually everyone in Nigeria talks so about, but which only few are ready to confront head-on. This is because, as hinted above, corruption is the very lifeblood of Nigeria’s politics and economy. As run in this country, the so-called presidential system does not only feed on corruption; it actively encourages it: the huge deposits expected from office seekers, the large sums that exchange hands among party ‘stakeholders’; the perverse tradition of patronage through booty-sharing and largess-dispensation; the shocking combination of immunity and impunity by public functionaries; the absolute lack of transparency and accountability.
It is in the light of the above that we must appraise President Goodluck Jonathan’s recent statement on asset declaration vis-à-vis corruption. Boasted the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed forces:
It is personal and I don’t give a damn about that [asset declaration]. The law is clear about it and so making it public is no issue and I will not play into the hands of the people. . . . I declared (assets publicly) under late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua because he did it, but it is not proper. . . It is not the President declaring assets that will change the country
The Nation, Mon.June 25, 2012, front page.
And President Jonathan sees all this as ‘a matter of principle’. Whose principle? What principle, you are tempted to ask? For him, asset declaration is ‘personal’, ‘not proper’; it will lead to ‘play[ing] into the hands of the people’. Again, which ‘people?’, you want to ask. Can it be the Nigerian people to whom he owes his mandate and to whom he swore to be transparently accountable? ‘I don’t give a damn’, swaggered the once God-fearing, meek-looking Jonathan, with an egregious arrogance so redolent of his “No-going-back” braggadocio when he unleashed that untold agony on the Nigerian people in the opening hours of this year, and his unilateral re-christening of the University of Lagos as a grand May 29 gesture . ‘I don’t give a damn’: that must have been his reaction to the public outcry when Gitto Construzioni General Nigeria Limited, a company with substantial construction business deals with the Nigerian government, refurbished a church in Otuoke, his hometown as a ‘friendly’ gift, and the President and his entourage trooped to that church to give thanks to the Lord for his blessing.
Watch out, Nigeria: a new Jonathan seems to be emerging, one who confuses cockiness with confidence, tactlessness with toughness, strong-manship with statesmanship. Is Nigeria witnessing the rise of another ‘African President’, obstinate even when wrong, intolerant even of positive criticism? President Jonathan’s combination of naivety and amorality is as profound as it is injurious to the health of this country. Can a corruption-compliant ruler really lead a corruption-free country?
The American people know the answer to that question (And I am using the America example since the United States is one country in the world Nigeria is aspiring to copy). That is why they hold their leaders to high ethical standards. That is why those leaders treat them with unstinting respect. In the first quarter of this year, President Obama made public his tax returns, and later his total assets. Mitt Romney, though a presidential candidate, followed suit. Those are leaders who ‘give a damn’ about the just, the proper, and the decent; leaders who know that ‘the President declaring asset [can] change the country’. Those are leaders with demonstrable respect for their people and the rule of law.
To fight corruption in Nigeria we must first get our rulers to change their attitude to the ruled via the rule of law. And we must do this by changing our own attitude to those in the position of power. Too often we the Nigerian people encourage the criminality of our rulers by kow-towing to their every whim and caprice; we invite their disdain by denying ourselves any claim to self-respect; we court their oppression by readily offering them our backs to ride upon. We cow when we should kick; we temporize when we need to toughen up. We smile when we should smite. We need to change the Kabiyesi Syndrome that forbids the asking of critical questions and the insistence on having them answered. It is the typical Nigerian attitude to power that has turned our rulers into aseyiowuu (the one who does as s/he pleases), and encouraged them to corrupt the immunity innocently enshrined in the constitution into the impunity of criminal rulership.
Let us interrogate the way the Nigerian system pampers public officials with extravagant emoluments: the bloated cabinets at all levels of government, the slew of personal assistants, special advisers, ministers of, ministers for, ministers on, ministers under, ministers to, and suchlike spongers who constitute a drain on the national economy. Not to be forgotten: the estacode regimen and its use and abuse by functionaries in the political realm as well as those in the civil service. Let every Nigeria ask their councilor, assembly man/woman, representative, and senator today: how much exactly do you earn? What is the difference between your stipulated salary and your actual income? How much is your constituency allowance and how much of it actually goes to your constituency? Let us ask the president and the governors: how much exactly does the nation spend on security votes? How is the money spent? Where is that ‘security’ in a country so beleaguered by wanton violence?
We need to ask these questions and more because experience has shown that Nigerian public functionaries steal so greedily while in office so as to stow fortunes away for the continuation of their extravagant lifestyle when their term is over. (For instance, a governor, minister, senator, permanent secretary, or vice chancellor already used to flying first/business class at public expense, or being fussed over by a crowd of ‘personal assistants’, will have a serious withdrawal problem letting go of these privileges and perks. The solution? Steal all you can in preparation for the rainy day!
Nor can/must we forget the issue of religion and its ironic role in the sanctification of corruption in Nigeria. It is a known but hardly acknowledged fact that Nigeria boasts one of the highest church/population ratios in the world and yet ranks as one of the most corrupt countries on planet earth. As concerned compatriots such as GA Akinola, Biodun Jeyifo, Ebenezer Obadare, Eddy & Bene Madunagu, Okey Ndibe, Festus Iyayi, Pius Adesanmi, Ogaga Ifowodo, Abimbola Adelakun, and others have frequently observed, for the most part, religion in Nigeria is nothing more than superstition, a crafty mask, and grand pretence. This is particularly so with the country’s swelling ranks of Prosperity Gospel preachers, those faith-vendors who purchase sins and sell forgiveness at equally exorbitant prices. If you are poor, we are told, it’s because of your sin; if you are jobless, it’s because you’ve strayed from the straight ‘n narrow way. Absolving the creators of the corrupt socio-economic system that turns its victims into paupers and social cannibals, these preachers portray every crook in power as God-chosen, even when that power has come through rigged elections and murderous brigandage. They conduct thanksgiving service for notorious political jobbers and perform homecoming ceremonies for returnees with looted fortunes. When the wealthy crook hands them the key to a luxury car (or private jet), they shower the ‘cheerful giver’ with blessings, beseech God to ‘prosper his ways’, and extol his virtues to the heavens. Hardly do they ever ask, as father did in those days: ‘ibi se ti reo ree?’.
And, very important, Nigeria’s super-structure and the phenomenality of corruption. This may sound rather far-fetched to some people, but one of the ways of tackling graft in this country is to address the structural corruption in the very composition of Nigeria itself. The present rickety, loosely assembled contraption with all its Lugardian paralysis is riddled with dissonance and disconnect. A succession of visionless, close-minded rulers has made the country both loveless and unlovable. To many Nigerians, Nigeria is ‘their country’, some distant no-man’s-land where you go to scoop your own fortune and take your loot back to your own clan. They may call it stealing in Abuja, but as far as the home crowd is concerned, you have only brought back your/their share of the ‘national cake’. The cases of James Ibori, Bode George, and Maurice Iwu mentioned above owe their peculiarity to this kind of double consciousness and moral ambivalence. The erudite political scientist, Peter Ekeh, has put this mentality down to the existence in Nigeria of two republics: the primordial/ethnic/pre-colonial and the modern/national/post-colonial, the former exacting near-sacred loyalty, the latter begrudged with faint political observance. This curious situation has led to the relativization of morality in Nigeria, as what is wrong and condemnable in one republic is but right and commendable in the other. In a nutshell, to solve the problem of corruption in Nigeria, we must first face head on the issue of the national question.
If Nigeria does not kill corruption, corruption will kill Nigeria. Corruption has taken over the commanding heights of Nigerian society. It is, without doubt, the Grand commander of the Federal Republic. Like a frightfully aggressive cancer, it has metastasized to the vital cells of our body politic, and the debilitating symptoms are everywhere: perverted moral values, a rig-prone electoral arrangement designed to throw up criminals in place of leaders, fraud-choked banking and finance system, irregular power supply, dry water-taps, death-trap roads, death-dispensing hospitals, a progressively illiterate educational system, global notoriety, . . . .. Melo la o ka leyin Adepele?. (Oh how many shall we count/Of the teeth of Adepele?. . . .) The malaise is massive, the dysfunctionalities are daunting. But we must NEVER allow this situation, grim as it is, to plunge us into cynicism and despair. Yes, indeed, Nigeria is worth fighting for. And this fight will have to be carried out by the people of this country. The soldiers have shown by their many years of misrule that our national salvation is not in their hands. The present gaggle of civilian rulers is proving to be no different. At no time, therefore, is the role of civil society more crucial, more imperative than the present. Let there be more of the coalition of civil society organizations that brought Nigeria back from the chaos that ensued from the politicization of President Yar’Adua’s illness; the type that forced the “No going back” Jonathan to back down on his callous, inequitable fuel price hike. This country has enough to make life comfortable for ALL of us and generations yet unborn. Let us begin to ask: Why are a few Nigerians so rich and the rest of us so poor? Let us go beyond this and engage in a massive civil action for change, knowing full well that our fate is in our own hands. It is organized massive action from the Nigerian people that can eliminate the canker worm of corruption that is sucking the lifeblood of this bountifully endowed but criminally misgoverned country. We must make sure that we kill corruption before it has the chance of killing Nigeria.
I thank the Save Nigeria Group (SNG) for inviting me and you for being such an obliging audience.
Yio see se o (May it be possible).
Ibadan, July 5, 2012