“Too Deep For Mere Outrage” – On Corruption in Nigeria

On May 27, 2015, on the eve of the inauguration of the current presidency of Muhammadu Buhari, Transparency International published a press statement meant to keep the incoming president engaged with the fight against corruption. Africa is a country publishes an edited version of emailed questions and answers between Akin Adesokan and Chuma Nwokolo, two Nigerian writers, reflecting on the pervasive nature of official corruption in Nigeria.

On May 27, 2015, on the eve of the inauguration of the current presidency of Muhammadu Buhari, Transparency International published a press statement meant to keep the incoming president engaged with the fight against corruption.

Of the several figures published in that statement, perhaps the most staggering was that “more than US $157 billion in the past decade left [Nigeria] illicitly.” Persons or companies allied to the former president Goodluck Jonathan or his wife are currently under investigation or on trial for corruption enrichment. Earlier in March, the acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, was denied confirmation by the Senate, whose president, Bukola Saraki, is on trial before the Code of Conduct Bureau for alleged false declaration of assets.

The following is an edited version of emailed questions and answers between Akin Adesokan and Chuma Nwokolo, two Nigerian writers, reflecting on the pervasive nature of official corruption in Nigeria. Author of several books, most recently How To Spell Naija in 100 Letters, and the forthcoming The Extinction of Menai, Nwokolo is the founder of the anti-corruption initiative, Bribecode. He lives in Asaba, Delta State, Nigeria, the same state to which the convicted former governor James Ibori recently returned after serving time in a British jail on charges of money laundering. Adesokan is the author of the novel Roots in the Sky, and teaches cinema and literature at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Akin Adesokan (AA): Even before I saw your Facebook post “A Cashew Dies” on Friday, February 10, 2017, I had had this feeling, of a cruel, debilitating irony, that James Iborishould return to Asaba, the city where you live. An irony because of the particular sense of the comic absurdity in your fiction as I know it. So, this convicted felon returns to your city, which is also his city, as if fate wants to try your poetic patience, or gift you with an irresistible but also confounding tale. And it should happen that youre connected to BribeCode, the anti-corruption activist initiative. Tell me that the short post has no connection in the way I’m thinking.

Chuma Nwokolo (CN): My ancestral town is Ahaba, renamed Asaba by colonists. I like to think that the real Ahaba is dead and the new city represents part of a strange alien country still coming into being. James Ibori is indeed back home to Delta State. Although the rapturous reception reported in the news took place in his own hometown in Oghara, I have no doubt that he has popular support in the Delta State capital, Asaba, as well.

AA: So, you werent thinking of this strange, alien turn of things when you wrote the blog post? Im trying hard not to put you on the spot, but Im more taken with the challenge that the news of rapturous return and celebration ought to pose to anyone who is concerned about the scale of corruption in Nigeria, and is dedicated to addressing it, as you are. In short, do you wish to comment on Bribecodesoutlook in relation to the confounding level of corruption? Not only Ibori, but others as well?

CN: I certainly do. In discussing corruption in Nigeria, we must appreciate that we have do not merely have endemic corruption, we have a pandemic on our hands. This is why a corruption conviction triggers no opprobrium from church pulpit to street corner. In tackling corruption, indignation serves us poorly. Like 17th century Euro-America embracing and defending the abomination of slavery, our public has embraced an anomaly which they perceive as essential to their survival.

The public has “normalized” corruption because government and the apparatus of state is still largely perceived as a colonial institution. We can process the legal fact of independence, but our heart ownership of state and country is still an emotional fiction. So state brigandage and the bilking of billions from a national budget does not hit the streets with the emotional punch of the theft of a loaf of bread from a trader. So we lynch the bread thief, and hail the budget brigand, “chief,” especially if he throws loaves at us as he cruises past in a stolen limousine.

This is to say that the most successful politicians operate a Robin Hood model with two defining characteristics: First, they never steal alone – they recruit a merry band to whom they bequeath power, such that, in or out of office, they control the treasury and operate a charismatic godfather network whose loyalty is cultic in intensity. In this way, the so-called developmental process of institutionalization is checkmated by the reactionary process of institution-capture. Second, they never “chop” alone, either – they are famously generous with loot and the sundry spoils of office, such that citizens who feel no sense of loss at the theft of a billion Naira from their public treasury feel doubly grateful at the “gift” of a thousand Naira.

Bribecode’s outlook is to take a systemic approach to this problem of a “post autocratic stress syndrome” that makes citizens to deify their politicians and public servants despite the constitutional sovereignty of the citizen state. Recognizing that our most egregious corruption offenders actually occupy statehouses across the land, the Bribecode introduces mechanisms that allow ruinous penalties to be enforced against them and their partners-in-crime. Without successfully instituting this mechanism, the anti-corruption campaigner is the would-be rescuer of a drowning man who is also drowned by the public he is trying to help.

AA: I get the analogy about saving a drowning man, but would you consider the proposition that the anti-corruption campaigner isnt necessarily helping the public, but is trying to fulfill his or her personal duty? One chooses not to be a thief or a robber because its not in ones nature. I wonder if this level of abstraction might be a counter to the extreme cynicism which fuels corruption in our country.

CN: Not really. In a society with endemic or pandemic corruption, an anti-corruption campaigner must act systemically or accept that his interventions are merely a lifestyle choice. An honest second class lower degree has little countervailing value in an employment marketplace awash with hundreds of first class degrees traded for sex. To stop sex for grades, you don’t merely offer your personal example of an honest degree, you act systemically in concert with others to change the system.

Another analogy is cannibalism: imagine that one were stranded on a desert island with no hope of rescue. If the only food available were human flesh, whether on day five or day fifty, most people will eventually become cannibals. Again, the solution is not the personal example of suicide before cannibalism. It is providing an alternative source of food.

Now, imagine a principled father with a daughter at death’s door, required to pay a bribe to secure a critical blood transfusion. It is the rare father that will stand on principle. Corruption is normalized at this existential crux when the request for a bribe crosses over into Extortion. Imagine further, that the principled anti-corruption crusader of your example works in what is essentially a den of civil service thieves and he refuses to take his share of the bribes that are regularly divided. Clearly he constitutes a security risk to his corrupt colleagues and has inadvertently put his life on the line. The quiet, honest path is not always the safest.

Corrupt politicians and senior civil servants do not rely on their official salaries to meet their living expenses. They therefore have no incentive to ensure that national wages are living wages. Lower down the employment ladder, millions are forced to rely on their wages, which are sometimes unpaid for 12 months at a stretch. They are thus compelled into a lifestyle of petty corruption, or “executive begging.” You might find millions of Nigerians in this category, people who are certainly not corrupt by nature, corrupted by an immoral system.

We therefore take the view that the anti-corruption crusader who is merely doing his duty in an epidemically corrupt society is doomed to failure, if his goal is to achieve any kind of change. He would be similar to “ethical” companies who pay no bribes, but are happy to hire customs clearing agents who build bribes into their professional fees. We must act systemically to change the climate that fosters corruption, or concede that we are part of the superstructure of corruption, the valve that sustains the system.

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Credit picture: Nigerian Senate President Bukola Saraki sits in the accused box during a hearing of corruption charges against him at Code of Conduct tribunal in Abuja, on September 22, 2015. Getty Images.