Corruption, aka Giving Gifts: A Call for Self-Reflection

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In less than 10 days, Nigerians will march to the different polling booths across the nation to cast their vote and make a choice concerning who they want as a leader for the next four years. Would he or she be picked on merit? Would the person be selected based on sentiments? Or would it be because the candidate has done a better job at buying peoples’ vote? Inasmuch as we hope it would not be the latter or even the immediate former, I have a few decades of experience to know not to be too hopeful. Still I hope. The interesting part the latter is how society has come to justify it as the act of giving gifts to the electorate. It isn’t bribery and corruption, they say, it is appreciation; a few bags of rice here, a few T-shirts and don’t forget the transport allowance the candidates distribute in a bid to appreciate their supporters.  We can laugh at the rhetoric in this instance but having gone through the whole spectrum of professional life, rising from a fairly junior position in my organisation to the very top, I have come to the conclusion that there is no way I can talk about corruption without being self-indicting. And, as a Nigerian, neither can you in one way or the other.

This week’s column is culled from a chapter of my auto-biography, Hunger for Power, and aimed at the need for self-reflection. I don’t think I would have gotten to where I am today, if I wasn’t involved, no matter how tangentially, in corruption. First, I want to talk about how corruption has become so embedded in our system and how it is even difficult to tell how it started.

The interesting thing is, everyone talks about corruption and while every one of us is involved in it, we somehow always manage to absolve ourselves and that is why it is getting worse. It runs the gamut from mere gifts to the massive looting that we have today, because people have not been able to come out openly to address the issue of corruption.

I hope that, by the time I am done with my stories, we will come up with some idea as to how to deal with corruption.

To begin with, I think it is pertinent to see how our affiliations have and continue to play key roles in how pervasive corruption has become. We must all begin to confront corruption by considering how our culture plays a role, how our involvement with the quest for leadership in student unionism, trade union movement, professional unions and other associations play a role. When you were affiliated to these unions, how did you conduct yourself and your affairs? A proper assessment will help you measure your corruption quotient.

The first story is about me giving; the second story is about me receiving, because when I got my gold pen, which I still have, and when Mr. Farrington, who was my boss at the time, asked me about my nice gold pen, I didn’t tell him it was a gift from our client and I didn’t give it back because I didn’t see it as wrong.

In Nigeria, it is customary to present a gift to your elders, superiors and friends, especially when you need a favour from them or after the favour has been done to you. The colonial masters caught on and soon became adept at presenting gifts of gin, clothing, and jewellery to our chiefs and kings.

Unfortunately, with time, the magnitude of these gifts began to increase exponentially, and officials in positions of authority began to demand these gifts upfront rather than wait for the gifts to be offered. And so Nigerians unwittingly welcomed corruption into our business life.

The challenge for us in my company was, how do we make profit and compete effectively while delivering quality service to our clients? In other words, how do we stay in business in a new Nigeria?

The fact was that things had changed dramatically since the colonial government handed over at Independence. When the colonial masters were there, once you did your job well, you got paid. If you did your job on time, you made your profit.  You encountered issues only when you were not able to finish on time. That was when they would hold on to your balance.

But after they left, we began to see that, in most cases, delaying your payment was often deliberate, either from the civil servants or the system that controlled the certification of those payments. So, what do you do?

That was where my problems started with my bosses from Europe because they had a policy. You must not do this, and even if you do, it must not be more than so, so and so.

Sometime in the 1970s, we were on a foundation project for the extension of a popular hotel in Victoria Island, Lagos. I was mandated to negotiate the contract with the client. A final presentation was scheduled with the entire board of the client company. My friend, who was a board member, advised me to come with a gift for the board, and on further probing he suggested the sum of N 100,000, which at the time was equivalent to 100,000 pounds sterling.

I had a hard time convincing my managing director to play ball, but at the end, he reluctantly agreed. I could understand his reticence because there was really no guarantee that I would not be duped. On the day of the presentation, I attended the meeting, and after the technical presentation, the chairman whispered to me to present my gift formally. Not knowing how to do this, I began with a story.

“Mr. Chairman, distinguished board members, we have a saying in my place that, ‘you do not pay homage to the king with an empty hand.’ Please, accept the offer of a small packet of kolanuts for this august meeting.”

“Well, kolanuts are usually presented at the start of a meeting,” one board member quipped, as the chairman received the envelope from me.

“Let’s see what you have here.” And with that, the chairman opened the envelope. After counting the money, he proceeded to share it N 10,000 to each board member. With only eight board members in total, he had N20,000 left. He looked at me, then counted N 10,000 and offered it to me.

“No sir, thank you sir, but I cannot accept it. The kolanuts are for you.”

“It is customary for the presenter of the kolanut to partake of it too,” answered another board member.

With that, my spirited defence melted away like snow in the desert sun. I took my share of the money, thanked them and left. The next day I took the money to Mr Farrington and told him the story. Peter coldly asked me to return the money to the cashier and sign a new withdrawal form for N 90,000 as against the previous one of N 100,000.

Damn, I thought to myself. My boss could not even see the humour in this transaction. In the end though, the board members were all gentlemen and we were awarded the contract.

In a way, I had accepted the N 10,000 as part of my “kolanut” and who would blame me. My salary at that time was N 2,500 a month. Imagine what that money could have done to the little bungalow I was building at that time. In my mind, I had said, “Let me show Mr. Farrington that I am transparent.” That was why I mentioned it to Mr. Farrington. But I was shocked when he said, “Return it.”

This act of gifting occurred in both directions too. Due to the nature of our business, we dealt with a lot of third party vendors and there were those who showed appreciation for the business we gave to them. One such vendor was a Lebanese-Jew, who supplied us with reinforcement and structural steels for our projects.

One Christmas season, he came to the office and presented me with what appeared to be a solid gold pen. He must have known that I treasured good pens and that I collected them. I happily accepted the gift and thanked him for it. On the first week of resumption of work the following year, I was in Peter Farrington’s office and as usual we were sharing holiday stories.

“Newton, you remember Sayeed the steel supplier?” he asked.

“Yes I do,” I replied

“He gave me a beautiful gold wrist-watch as a Christmas present last December,” Peter told me, then continued. “Whilst in London during the holidays, I decided to have it valued by a jeweller and you cannot believe the value placed on it. At least 20,000 pounds sterling.”

“Goodness me,” I exclaimed. “That is good for you. Congratulations.”

“What, congratulations?” Peter queried. “I am going to return it to him. I cannot accept such an expensive gift.”

I looked at Peter incredulously while a question raged in my head; “What is wrong with you? Somebody gave you a present you did not solicit for and which you had accepted, but now having found out the worth you want to return it for being too expensive for your taste?”

But I could not say that to him. Neither could I tell him that Sayeed had also given me a gold pen.

I still have the pen till date, but have never had the courage to have it valued.

Corruption is responsible for poverty. It is the same corruption that makes it impossible for 60 to 70 per cent of Nigerians to have access to potable drinking water. Corruption makes it impossible to have the kind of infrastructure we should have because the truth is we have the money to do these things but corruption has prevented us from getting them done.

So, once again, I am forced to ask if we really want change or if we can handle the change we need for our society to progress. Would we pick our candidates based on merit or on what ‘appreciation’ we stand to receive?

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