“Power is like fire; it can keep you warm and it can burn you. It can cook you a meal or raze your house. It can purify gold or calcify a human being. Ensconced deep within its core are elements of good and evil. It all depends on the choices you make when you handle it.” – NEWTON C. JIBUNOH
Fellow Nigerians, I have some serious posers to raise today and I promise to answer them myself. One, how come every Nigerian is a saint, who pontificates about leadership, until he gets power and misbehaves worse than those he used to criticise? Two, why is corruption so endemic in Nigeria? Three, are we one of the most corrupt people on earth, and if so, why? Four, why is it impossible or difficult to fight and defeat or reduce corruption in Nigeria? Five and finally, what is the way forward?
Every Nigerian I know attacks and abuses every one of our leaders as corrupt, greedy, reckless and irresponsible. But is it not strange that our leaders did not just drop from the skies? They were born as normal human beings, went to similar schools like the rest of us, were raised by their parents, went into politics purportedly to serve and help their people, many of them as paupers who had no jobs and could barely feed themselves and their families. But as soon as they get elected or selected, levels change immediately. Instead of being servants of the people, what we see is a complete transformation and transfiguration. They become, and behave like, overlords and, in some cases, even warlords! The people serve them and not vice versa. The same man who, once upon a time, criticised leaders and even heaped curses on them is now a parasite feeding fat on his people. And acting in a worse manner, with no qualms or shame whatsoever.
Why is corruption so endemic in Nigeria? We all miss the answer by jumping to the conclusion that it is because we are selfish and greedy. Every human being has some measure or dosage of selfishness and greed in his blood, the quantity is what differs. I’m yet to see any of the critics who got to power and did not partake in the sharing of public resources or rejected his own share of the incredible remunerations and perks that our leaders attract and enjoy. It is usually a revalidation of the thesis of the Brazilian author, Paulo Freire in his seminal book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that the oppressed man loves and respects only one man, his oppressor, and he has only one dream in life, which is to join the class of oppressors, in order to fulfil his own fantasies.
The reason corruption has become endemic is simple and straight-forward. It begins from severe need and chronic want. Most of us were born poor, abysmally poor, struggled to go to school, graduated into unemployment, and joined the rat race. Even when we eventually get the jobs, it is not usually what we craved and desired. Although, I must immediately stress that, this was not the case many years ago particularly up to about 1984. At that time, it was a shame to be labelled as corrupt, a stigma that nobody wanted to attract to himself. People even took their lives if they were found wanting in this regard. It was more honourable to starve than to be a thief or worse still to be caught stealing from the public purse.
However, things changed from the mid-1980’s. A new mindset began to prevail. It suddenly did not matter too much if you were caught dipping your hands in the Treasury. Government and other public officials began to openly flaunt their ill-gotten wealth, the perennial season of anomy (apologies to Professor Wole Soyinka) from which we have never recovered had begun. What happened? It is not that people became poorer at the outset of this era, although eventually this also happened, but in reality it was our leadership at the time that brazenly took corruption to another level and the mass of the people who were already impoverished and looking for a way out suddenly followed suit.
From then on, the available jobs became jobs that can hardly keep our bodies and souls together. Month in, month out, most of us are already in deficit before the middle of the month. In Nigeria of today, many are easily and readily turned into beggars who have to seek extras from anywhere and wherever to make ends meet. Thus, when opportunities surface in form of political appointments, it is difficult to resist the temptations of stealing some, if not all of the divine favour, as many see such bazaar. Essentially, every adult operates his own government in the jungle that our city life has become. The amount of pressure this puts on an average individual is best left to the imagination.
Mass unemployment has made lives even tougher. Those who went to school with the hope of finding jobs to do afterwards would soon wake up to reality. There is nothing for them. Those with brilliant ideas cannot activate and actualise their dreams. There is no credit system to assist in fertilising their brains. Most civilised societies thrive on credits and overdraft. Ours is totally dependent on cash and carry system that takes no prisoners. I doubt if 80 percent of those who live abroad would ever be able to buy their homes without mortgages or buy cars without loans. Meanwhile, their Nigerian counterparts see how their old schoolmates and friends who went into politics suddenly acquired amazing wealth without much ado or stress. These are some of the reasons corruption is very attractive and extremely endemic in our clime. It has also become a crime not to have money in Nigeria.
Are we the most corrupt people on earth? The answer is a big NO. Nigerians are among the most hardworking people on earth. Most of us work 24/7 but without commensurate results or rewards. Some combine several jobs and juggle this and that to survive in the forest of a thousand demons. Those who let others give us the tag of the most corrupt people on earth are, in reality few and far between. They are people who stole in arrears and in advance. They stole more than they or their families, and even generations unborn, would ever ordinarily need. Speak to any politician about what it takes to attain power, you would be shocked to hear how much he spent and what he sold, including family properties to gamble on politics. It does not end there. Even if he is lucky to win his election, he is permanently under pressure to service his constituency. It is impossible today for the ruling government to probe and prosecute most of its members without hitting a brick-wall or running into big trouble. Apart from the fact that there is the conundrum that these crooks funded the elections that brought the Government into power, there is the irony that it was done on the basis that there would be a quid pro quo, some payback! Indeed, the fight against corruption was therefore compromised from the outset. Once those in opposition realised that this sword of Damocles was actually hanging over the government’s head, it became a way out for those who feared for their proprietary interests. Now, all known criminals, including all those under EFCC trial, have hastily absconded from their former political Parties to join APC, in order for their sins to be glossed over or even buried permanently. I can imagine the frustrations experienced by the EFCC and ICPC bosses who are usually handicapped and constrained from bringing many cases to their logical climax because of the mixed signals being sent by government. All told, corruption is such a complex web, at least in Nigeria.
It is noteworthy, that the corrupt always started as petty thieves in need of succour. Perhaps, if their needs had been nipped in the bud, those needs would not have graduated into pure unadulterated, unrelenting and all-pervading greed. There are several simple and legitimate ways of doing this without giving in to the cankerworm of corruption or creating a beggarly nation.
I love the American system of offering tips for services. It helps to cushion the shortfalls in inadequate incomes. It also ensures excellent service delivery because the nicer you are, the higher your tips. No American leader would ever condemn Americans as a nation of killers just because more homicidal lunatics have killed more human beings than in any other countries in the world. Let Nigeria kill corruption from the bottom and see if it would not reduce at the top. It is natural for people to seek and fight desperately for what they lack but want passionately. Every Nigerian loves the good life which he can hardly afford. It is obvious that waiting for peanuts at the end of every month would never guarantee that good life. Even those who have jobs don’t get paid regularly. He would have to slug it out anyway necessary or possible. As one erudite Judge says, a government cannot demand loyalty, trust and integrity from its work force if that government itself displays no loyalty, trust or integrity towards them by paying them, even the meagre salaries owed to them, when such salaries are due. Integrity, loyalty and trust are, in essence, an issue of mutuality and reciprocity for both the government or employer and its workers. Failing this, corruption becomes one of the easier options, willy-nilly.
Similarly, there is the proven and tested method of giving bonuses and performance related pay. It is frustrating when one knows how much you have contributed to the growth of your organisation, be it the public or private sector, but only the bosses get to receive the benefits of your hard work. The likelihood that you will want to take your own bonus, regardless, is very real and does happen
Unfortunately, we all focus our total attention on 36 Governors, 60 Ministers, less than 50,000 political appointees, while studiously ignoring the millions in the private sectors who wreak havoc slowly but surely and steadily. We simply accept as normal the policeman who collects bribes. A journalist who blackmails, torments and terrorises people would still write articles on behalf of the masses who regard him as their friend and defender. A journalist who is notorious for collecting “brown envelopes” would still misbehave like a pot calling kettle black.”
Is it impossible to kill or reduce corruption in Nigeria? It is not an impossibility. As rampant and pervasive as it is, Nigerians are still largely and mostly honest people. We need to work on those things enumerated above that have made corruption very attractive. There must be a multi-prong approach to killing it. We do not have to reinvent the wheel as different countries are known to have worked assiduously and truly succeeded in curbing the menace. We need to borrow some useful ideas from them. We should never feel too cocky to learn from others.
The way forward is to combine forces and efforts. The executive must be willing and ready. The economy must improve drastically. We can preach from now till kingdom come, but an empty stomach would always rumble and grumble. Mass poverty is the greatest tester and tempter of faith. The Executive and the Legislature must work harder together to create an enabling environment and justice for all. In this regard, the notion that these politicians are legitimately stealing the country blind, by voting humongous salaries for themselves, must be erased and eradicated. The Judiciary must be encouraged, at all times, to do justice without fear or favour. We have witnessed too much intimidation of the Judiciary in recent time and this does not augur well for the fight against corruption. The trial and conviction of alleged offenders on the pages of newspapers and on social media is also very wrong and terrible. No Nigerian should be pronounced guilty summarily without being tried and found guilty in a proper court of Justice.
Above all else, what is greatly needed is for the creation of strong institutions rather than strong personalities. The idea that corruption can only be fought buy one corruption Czar or one person as President must stop. Indeed, that in itself could breed corruption for nothing corrupts more than power. As the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely. With strong institutions, all the safeguards and checks already put in place by our Constitution and other enabling laws can thrive. Things will work, seamlessly, regardless of whoever it is we have at the helm of affairs.
We can rid our country of this cancer. It is benign and not malignant! The way forward is by dedication to those principles of honesty, integrity and, in particular, shame, which served our forefathers well in the past.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.