Can Nigeria overcome corruption? Will Nigeria survive corruption?
The optimistic, overconfident Nigerian who offered me a “no shaking yes” to both questions was only able to do so because he successfully outed me as I tried to remain incognito and maintain a low profile at the hotel pool in Lagos. Retreating incognito to a hotel in Lagos to assess our war front strategies in matters Nigeriana is something I often do with Omoyele Sowore.
This time in the summer of 2016, I was alone in a secluded corner of the poolside, trying not to look like me. I didn’t want the burden of public recognition which often ruins my attempts at privacy in Nigeria.
It was evening and my niche on the poolside terrace was poorly-lit, increasing my chances of an interrupted time to unwind alone. On the table, in front of me, a half-finished big bottle of Orijin was trying unsuccessfully to help a bowl of nkwobi down my throat. I thought that the bottle was doing a poor job of accompaniment and blamed myself for believing that only one bottle could successfully accomplish the task of helping the nkwobi to its final resting place in my gut.
I decided that the unsuccessful bottle would need help from at least two more bottles to guarantee the nkwobi’s funeral. I was about to order the reinforcement when I heard shrieks of excitement at the other end of the pool.
“Abi my eyes dey deceive me? No be Prof Pius Adesanmi I dey see yonder so?” My cover was blown. He was yelling in excitement, talking to everybody and nobody in particular, pointing at me. “Ah, it’s Prof o. I can’t believe this! Waiter, waiter, oya, bring my things, I am going to join Prof.”
By now he had reached my table, grabbed my hands in a ferocious handshake. I stood up and gave him a bear hug and we sat down to a familiar story: of how he had been reading me for over a decade; of how he had always prayed that he would meet me; of Sahara Reporters; of Omoyele Sowore; of how much he admires the work we do; of the need for us to ignore naysayers and detractors; of Nigeria.
I listened with rapt attention, interjecting as appropriate to agree with him, keeping everything in a Pidgin laced with contemporary Nigerianisms and ijinle slangs.
“Ah, Prof, I can’t believe you still talk like this after so many years abroad. This is what I’ve been saying. You are not like some of our yeye people who will spend two months abroad and go begin dey yarn fone through the nose.”
Then he appeared to notice what was on the table for the first time.
“Ah, Prof, no benkwobi you dey whack here so? And Orijin? Prof, you sef dey follow us quaff Orijin? Waiter!!! Waiter!!! Oya, bring more nkwobi for Prof and two bottles of Orijin.”
I protested vehemently and insisted I should be the one ordering him peppersoup and drinks. I was taking a dangerous gambit. Given Nigeria’s abysmal economic downturn, especially the economic doldrums supervised by President Buhari, the cultural schema of refusing hospitality and offering to pay for it, expecting the initiator of that social contract to insist on paying, no longer works.
Luckily for my pocket, he stood his ground and insisted on paying for the orders. At this point, I confessed that I was about adding two bottles of Orijin to the tally when he recognized and hailed me.
We returned to Nigeriana. Like every Nigerian I know, he’s had it with Nigeria. Like every Nigerian I know, he is fed up with the Nigerian tragedy. He gives the standard speech: the failures of Nigeria; the trauma that is Nigeria; the self-inflicted wounds; the avoidable tragedies; and, of course, corruption.
Like every Nigerian, he knows about or had heard stories of corruption that are much worse than the worst case scenario you know. Whatever you think you have heard about Nigeria’s corruption is always child’s play compared to what every other Nigerian has seen or heard.
If you go to town with the story of a Governor who just stole 20 billion naira, the first Nigerian you encounter has only just read somewhere that a Minister stole 20 trillion naira. Thus it was that my new friend dismissed every story I had to tell with, “shior, Prof, na dat one you dey call corruption? Dat one no be corruption now. Prof, you never hear say…” And he would regale me with the latest dizzying figures of heists by members of Nigeria’s political leadership.
And he moaned. And he lamented. Things took an interesting turn here. He said he had identified Nigeria’s problem: wickedness and greed. Corruption, he stated, is attributable to the unquenchable greed and wickedness of Nigerians. If only every Nigerian was like him, he continued, corruption would become a thing of the past. Nigeria, he concluded, will overcome corruption when those who are content with the deserved fruits of their labour outnumber the wicked and the greedy.
He returned again and again to the theme of his own righteousness. What Nigeria needs are more people like himself. That is why he admires my writing. That is why my Facebook Wall is a daily ritual for him. That is why he is in awe of Omoyele Sowore and Sahara Reporters. On and on he went.
I was intrigued by the thesis of his righteousness – the basis of his assurance that Nigeria can survive and overcome corruption. I realized that he still hadn’t even properly introduced himself. We had hugged and exchanged banter. He had ordered me nkwobi and two bottles of Orijin. He was by all accounts now part of my socius yet I still had no idea who he was. I love Africa! I deftly nudged the conversation in the direction of his identity.
As it turns out, he was with one of the numerous uniformed corps which litter Nigeria’s land borders. To enter Nigeria through any of her land borders – but most especially Seme – is to encounter a maze of uniforms processing you through an extremely long pipeline of corruption. Immigration passes you on to Customs who passes you on to NDLEA who passes you on to SON who passes you on to the Police who passes you on to the Army who passes you on to FRSC who passes you on to LASTMA. Repeat process several times till you get to Lagos.
It is absolutely possible for immigration to check you for drugs while NDLEA tries to see if your passport is stamped. It is possible for FRSC to check you for smuggling while Customs tries to determine whether you are speeding.
My interlocutor works for one of Nigeria’s uniformed border nightmares. What he sees there daily is the basis of his exceptional righteousness. With considerable pain in his eyes, he told me stories of wickedness and greed; of the terrible things allowed into Nigeria daily after bribery – expired drugs, expired tires, and all sorts of goods long past expiry date.
“Prof, people do this because they want to own ten jeeps and five mansions in Lekki and another five mansions in Maitama. You will allow somebody to smuggle tires that expired five years ago. You will allow somebody to smuggle drugs that expired five years ago. I don’t understand it. Prof, look at me, I have only two houses in this Lagos. We live in a duplex in Magodo. Then we have another house that we rent out. I have two jeeps and my wife drives a Venza. That is it. We are satisfied. Even God does not like ojukokoro.”
He continued: “Left to me, anything that is more than one year past expiry date will never enter, but how can you say that to all our rotten Ogas at the top? They are the greedy ones. They are the wicked ones. So many times, I have risked my neck and job trying to say that we should not allow certain categories of goods that are more than two years past expiry date to be smuggled into the country but nobody listens.”
By this time, my mind had overcome the effect of alcohol and was now quite alert. Before me was sitting the summation of Nigeria’s unsolvable dilemma of corruption. Such are the layers and the encrustations that it is no longer possible for a morality of zero corruption to be the basis of national self-imagining.
Thus, the righteous Nigerian is not the Nigerian who is not corrupt but one who still has a sufficient moral clarity to be alarmed by and be resentful of any corruption superior to his. Given this dynamic, overcoming corruption, in the understanding of way too many of our citizens, means minimizing and bringing it down to one’s level of rationalized individual corruption.
One major reason which accounts for the intractable nature of corruption in Nigeria is that we pay scant attention to its rationality in our national experience. Why is the sort of individual corruption described above rational?
I am talking about the rational, considerate, and compassionate corruption which allows drugs and tires only one or two years past expiration to be smuggled into Nigeria, unlike the wicked corruption which allows products up to five years past expiration to be smuggled. I am talking about the corruption which is content with accepting just enough bribes at the border to be able to afford a standard Western middle class life – one residential house, one rental property, two or three cars – as opposed to the wicked and unacceptable corruption which must have twenty mansions and twenty jeeps scattered between Lagos and Abuja.
What provides the rationality and legitimacy of the first kind of small-scale individual corruption in our national experience? It would be a simplistic mistake to attribute it singularly to Nigeria’s ontological unfairness. It is true that Nigeria is ontologically unfair by which I mean that there is no conceivable way to survive on an honest wage. In this case, corruption is the singular means of survival. Once your nose supplies your share of the oxygen required for life, only corruption can sustain it in your body to keep you alive.
Does this ontological unfairness account for the rationality of corruption? It explains but does not account for it. What accounts for it is the death of symbolism in Nigeria’s national life – starting with its centres of power.
The sort of corruption which is rational can only be made irrational in the life of a nation and people when it confronts symbolism. If Nigeria had any chance to effectively confront the rationality of corruption, it was with the potential symbolism of President Buhari when he was elected.
A few symbolic steps, never-before-seen in Nigeria’s orbit of power were required of him. No Nigerian in power has ever accounted for or retired campaign funds. Retirement of his funds – I am not even sure that many of our citizens understand what it means to retire campaign funds because it has never been part of their civic experience – would have been a first in our history.
It would have meant a thorough auditing of his campaign fundraising and expenses with the attendant transparency of Nigerians knowing who funded the campaign. It would have meant a return of whatever was left to the party treasury to fund future campaigns. It would have implied other things that we need not go into here. Beyond campaign funds, beyond the Presidential fleet that he has immorally and amorally refused to reduce, we do not need to go into President Buhari’s extensive library of failed symbolism and failure to launch. His hostility to symbolism has had tragic consequences by not only undoing his anti-corruption war but also enhancing the rationality of corruption.
One such consequence is the way in which the work of the Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption (PACAC) is failing to eventuate in any drastic systemic changes. You cannot do better than Professors Itse Sagay and Bolaji Owasanoye. They are among Nigeria’s very best. And they and their colleagues are deploying unmatchable genius and innovation to provide a thoroughgoing national canvass for fighting corruption.
I was privileged to attend one of their brainstorming sessions in Abuja in the summer of 2016. It was a rich session, with so many brilliant ideas flying across the room.
However, I did warn the committee that the most brilliant idea, the most solid willpower on their part, still depends entirely on the willingness of the President to facilitate their work with symbolism. Without symbolic acts from the President, it will be impossible to reverse the rationality of corruption. For instance, a Director from the Federal Ministry of Information, who represented Lai Mohammed at the meeting, opined that to successfully combat corruption, the media must help the nation’s anti-corruption war with investigative journalism!
I couldn’t believe my ears. I reminded the Director that in our recent memory, Sahara Reporters, Premium Times and the defunct NEXT Newspapers – not to mention The Cable – all built their reputation almost exclusively on investigative journalism in the arena of corruption. Tolu Ogunlesi was in the room and I mentioned him as one of those rendered jobless when NEXT folded up due to a combination of factors ranging from poor management to hostility to its relentless investigative exposes into corruption under Goodluck Jonathan. President Jonathan even went on air to declare that newspaper an enemy.
What President Buhari lacks, I opined, it not help from investigative news media. Rather, it is the will to shift the paradigm with symbolic acts. President Jonathan greeted every investigative scoop into corruption around him with his trademark, “I don’t give a damn.” President Buhari’s handling of the plethora of investigative scoops on the festering corruption of his lieutenants even makes the response of his predecessor sound like a responsible answer.
At least his predecessor said he didn’t give a damn. Sahara Reporters has been screaming about the fetid and mammoth corruption of Abba Kyari, Dambazzau, Buratai and a host of other Buhari lieutenants and the President’s answer has been something like silence is the best answer for a fool. Who is going to buy into PACAC’s splendid work when, at every turn, the President who empanelled them pulls the rug from under their feet and shreds it with his poverty of symbolism?
This lack of symbolism, this lack of change, has other consequences. When the incumbent fails to supply the symbolism needed to unravel the rational bases of the corruption of the moment, the corruption of the past begins to acquire its own logic of rationality in the hands of witting and unwitting revisionists.
You would have noticed by now that Dasuki has lost its capacity to shock – despite the daily revelations which have continued to drip. You would have noticed that despite the admissions of the key players in the Jonathan corruption industry – Diezani, Fayose, FFK, and the military officers facing trial – a space of rationality has been carved out to defend and make meaning of that plunder. I even recently read a “brilliant” expose saying that anybody who believes the Diezani heist figures must be sick.
Past corruption builds its rationality on the symbolic poverty of the incumbent. Those who betray the present do the most damage because they enable a rationality in which the past begins to appear to be not as bad as people had thought. And in the hands of brilliant revisionists and masters of discursive sleights of hand, the past can become really attractive.
This revisionist imperative is what is going on when you read essays stating, “Jonathan never did; or Jonathan never said; or Jonathan never promised…” Don’t worry. If you dig into the archives, you will discover that Jonathan did or said or promised precisely what the author is denying. Buhari’s failures and betrayals of the people’s trust are the enablers of the revisionist impulse through which past corruption acquires rationality.
This is not limited to the Buhari-Jonathan dynamic. Just as President Buhari’s tragic failure has opened a window of rationality for the behemoth corruption supervised by Jonathan, Jonathan’s own failures also provided the window through which former President Obasanjo’s empire of corruption acquired rationality.
Because Jonathan failed on the symbolism front during his own time, President Obasanjo who spent $16 billion on darkness, supervised Halliburton and Siemens, spent billions trying to buy NASS for his third term gamble, and exited Aso Rock as one of Africa’s richest men, is today strutting around the country chastising Jonathan and Buhari and giving lectures on corruption.
From the foregoing, it should be obvious that fighting corruption is but one small step of a huge journey. Addressing the modes of its acquisition of rationality is a more significant step. This acquisition of rationality is a function of the supply of symbolism – or lack thereof – by the incumbent.
President Buhari is again in London on a medical safari at public expense. His staff also jaunt to London for toothache at public expense. Given this reality, how am I supposed to deny a righteous Nigerian the rationality of his own individual corruption at a poolside in Lagos? I have no moral basis to do this because there is no symbolism from the top.
But I have a pragmatic basis to appeal to the righteous Nigerian to resist the temptation of using the symbolic failures of the buccaneers in the 1% as the rationalizing alibi for his own individual corruption. President Buhari and members of the political class have no stake in Nigeria. Your Pastors and Imams have no stake in Nigeria. Their children are not in Nigeria. The bulk of their property is scattered from Dubai to New York via London.
When unbridled corruption sinks Nigeria, there will be no democracy of consequences. The tragedy will be borne exclusively by the 90%, not the 1%. The Yoruba say that when the sky falls, it is everybody’s burden. That does not apply to Nigeria’s liabilities. Those who stole billions and trillions will disappear overseas with their children.
You, stealing crumbs to survive and using the mega-corruption of the one percenters to rationalize your own individual corruption, have no place to go. The consequences of Nigeria’s unraveling will be borne by you and your children. It, therefore, behoves you to identify with any of the nascent values movements in the country.
The build-up towards 2019 is not singularly about politics. Beyond politics, there are energies being mobilized towards a renaissance of values by those who look at the bigger picture beyond 2019 and understand that the practice of democracy every four years will always be consumed by the rationality of corruption until we fight and win other wars on the fronts – notably the values front.