DIALOGUE WITH NIGERIA BY AKIN OSUNTOKUN
Picking a subject matter for a column isn’t always an easy choice. This week, two compelling choices arrested public attention. Readers would readily second guess these two as-the arrival in Nigeria of the convicted former governor of Delta state, James Ibori from a British prison; and the escalation of the self-inflicted reportage crisis of President Mohammadu Buhari’s ailing health condition. Comrade Kayode Komolafe then inserted himself into my vacillation and tilted the balance.
He had not communicated with me before on Whatsapp and I was more than mildly curious on sighting his posted video clip. I normally do not react with enthusiasm to the barrage of unsolicited video messages I receive daily. Beyond the tendency to be repetitive and somewhat vacuous, how do I cope with a plethora of ten or more instances of six minutes (and counting) video clip duration every day? It becomes a different ballgame where the sender is Komolafe. And I know he wouldn’t take recourse to this much abused communication channel if he doesn’t deem it significant enough.
And significant enough it turned out to be. It revealed the scene of an audio visual documentary featuring a wildly jubilant reception lavished on Ibori by an overly excited crowd of fans and hero worshippers. All this was not surprising to me and the reason it is not is our subject matter today. What I find surprising and appalling was the (one off) beyond belief drunken blasphemous comparison to the rapturous adoration received by Jesus Christ on his arrival at Jerusalem!
James Ibori was elected governor of Delta state in 1999 and served in that capacity for eight years. His incumbency was marked by the uniqueness, (along with the other oil rich Niger Delta states), of having access to a huge and relatively unaccountable public funds belonging to Delta state. Evidence abound that he generously availed himself of the overflowing state treasury and enriched himself to his heart’s desire. In the process, he emerged one of the most formidable financial powerhouses around and a rough and ready source of hotly desired sleaze funds. He did more, he was consummate in the art of spreading and dispensing largesse to as many famished and greedy supplicants as came near him.
He was a prominent victim of the power struggle that accompanied the premature termination of the Umaru Yaradua’s Presidency; his faction lost out and with the loss began his ordeal. From his exiled base in United Arab Emirates, UAE, he was extradited to the United Kingdom, UK, to face charges of money laundering upon which he was ultimately convicted. His incarceration and absence from Nigeria fostered the affliction of withdrawal syndrome on his vast array of economic and political dependents more so the economic-who would no doubt constitute the bulk of the reception partiers-expressing gratitude at the return of a lifesaver.
To a sizable proportion of the Nigerian intelligentsia and Western oriented cosmopolitan citizenry, Ibori got his just dessert and should be deemed an anathema. This attitude is supported by facts, including the ones provided by Ibori-that he committed the criminal act of embezzling the public fund of Delta state. Under the Nigerian constitution and the provenance of the entire civilised world, this is a crime for which there is a public obligation to ensure that the perpetrator is penalised and punished. Beyond the legal sanction, the public equally owes the social obligation of moral censure-to the effect that under no circumstance should the convict be perceived and upheld as a celebrity. It is this universally applicable and acceptable social and moral standards that the behaviour of the Ibori crowd has defied and controverted. It is appropriate to condemn the abnegating morally lapse behaviour but it is, in the final analysis, only a symptom of a fundamental and general disease. To adequately grapple with the disease requires that we get to the root of the pathology.
Within the combined illumination provided by the resource curse syndrome; degradation of federalism; and ‘the colonialism and the two publics’ thesis of Professor Peter Ekeh, adequate explanation would be found for this seeming aberrant behaviour. Inherent in the postulations of these three captive banners is the logic that contrary to several protestations, the behaviour of the Ibori supporters is the rule rather than the exception in Nigeria; that it is generalizable across the length and breadth of Nigeria; and that the objectionable behaviour is more typical than atypical of the rest of us.
The predisposing factors are the three captive banners indicated above. They are the political dysfunction at the root of corruption and nearly all other self-abnegating instances of citizen alienation-from Nigeria. You don’t harm or damage what you love with a defiant behaviour-deliberate or subconscious. In other words, corruption in Nigeria is largely a derivative of a problematic political acculturation. And it is the reason why a law and order punitive deterrence will not go far in allaying the problem. The tendency to accept, condone and even defend the Ibori type transgression is pervasive but comes in different manifestations. In contemporary Nigeria, the most instructive manifestation of this behaviour type was the blind exoneration of the late Sani Abacha by no less an authority figure than our fabled anti-corruption President, Muhammadu Buhari. Following Buhari, what the Delta state celebrants are equally saying is that Ibori did not steal any money! I had argued in an earlier commentary:
‘……Of all those who have had the privilege of governing Nigeria, Buhari rates high in personal integrity and seriousness in fighting corruption but he has also contributed his damaging quota to the erection of a national ideology of corruption. He did this when he brought the weight of his public respect to make the call-against the preponderance of evidence including admission of culpability by the late dictator’s family that ‘Abacha did not steal any money’. I stand to be corrected but my interpretation of the embarrassingly defiant and blind exoneration was borne out of political identification with Abacha, warts and all. I will go further to qualify the statement as the exhibition of ethno regional parochialism (my brother, right or wrong) whose reinforcement by the over centralised federal government is at the root of public corruption in Nigeria. The twin brother of corruption namely abuse of office is manifested in the political nepotism inherent, for instance, in the declaration by Buhari that he would discriminate against those who did not vote for him……
..’Between the Ibori supporters alleluia chorus and the pronouncement of exculpation of Abacha by Buhari there is really no ideological gap and difference. Both are governed by the same ideology of corruption sanctified by a predisposing context of ethno national parochialism. The question then arises-can corruption in Nigeria be meaningfully addressed without regard to the prior and predisposing context of ethno regional parochialism and the constitutional structure that sustains it?’
Next is the perspective of the resource curse syndrome. The premise of the resource curse syndrome is captured in the following contention ‘In many economies that are not resource-dependent, governments tax citizens, who demand efficient and responsive government in return. This bargain establishes a political relationship between rulers and subjects. In countries whose economies are dominated by natural resources, however, rulers don’t need to tax their citizens because they have a guaranteed source of income from natural resources. Because the country’s citizens aren’t being taxed, they have less incentive to be watchful with how government spends its money’. Ingrained in this culture is the regime of lack of positive correspondence between productivity and reward.
Further illumination is provided by the theory of the two publics propounded by Ekeh which I have severally cited before:
‘Acts of corruption in public office carry little moral sanction and may well receive great moral approbation from members of one’s primordial public (read ethnic affiliation). But contrariwise, these forms of corruption are completely absent in the primordial public. Strange is the Nigerian who engages in embezzlement in the performance of his duties to his primordial public-town union. To put your fingers in the till of the government will not unduly burden your conscience and people may well think you are a smart fellow and envy you your opportunities. To steal the funds of the (ethnic) union would offend the public conscience and ostracise you from society.’
And then there is the contribution of the degradation of federalism in Nigeria encapsulated in this parochial rebuke by Itse Sagay “This is a wake-up call on the people of the oil-bearing region. For instance this is the time to come together and fight intellectually for the anomaly in the uneven allocation of oil blocs in the country. You will observe that because of the long stay of the North in power at the centre, they manipulated the process and cornered these blocs to the disadvantage of the south; today, you have all juicy oil blocs in the hands of the north. Now that Jonathan is there, I would not want to sound being immodest by calling for a revocation of the blocs allocated to the northern businessmen, but from the look of things, they have decided to take the entire South for a ride, so Jonathan should ensure that he corrects this imbalance by allocating more oil-blocs to people in the South to make up for the inequity in the sector.”
The rebuke invited this interpretation from me ‘It is most certainly not his intention but Sagay here appears to have inadvertently formulated a template for the perpetration of corruption in Nigeria. The formulation he offers (and on which he was completely spot on) is that the power to abuse office, to dispense corrupt patronage, is weighted heavily in favour of whoever wields power at the centre and that the Nigerian culture expects the incumbent power holder to employ this power as such and to discriminately favour his people.
It is this formulation of the balance of nepotism, to corner national resources, that is at the heart of the ‘do or die’ battle to capture power at Abuja. To the extent that the profile of the Niger Delta kith and kin of Jonathan soared beyond others amidst the emergency billionaires created in the past six years-is the extent to which corruption will find adequate explanation and mitigation in the postulation of Professor Sagay’.