In the last two months, I have written a lot about corruption in one form or the other, either in the form of jokes, story-telling, or good governance, notably the lack of the latter.
Last week, I started a series on the fight against bribery and corruption in the country pointing out that systematic corruption as it is practiced now wasn’t the innovation of the black man even though we have continued to suffer because of it. My article was in no way to exonerate us from any blame but to show just how widespread corruption is in a world. It was also to set the tone for the remaining parts in this series that seek to unceremoniously yank away the blindfold that may be preventing some from seeing the many nations that have still managed to build a strong economy in a ‘corrupt world’. I pointed out in the last edition that colonialism introduced systemic corruption on a grand scale across much of sub-Saharan Africa but our overwhelming penchant for it has led to the state of underdevelopment that we find ourselves in.
It must be known that there is no squeaky-clean country in the world. The corruption perceptions index (CPI) is used to rank countries and territories of the world based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be. In a points system that ranges from 0 (the most corrupt) to 100 (the cleanest), Denmark with 88 points is the least corrupt or cleanest country, and Nigeria with 27 points ranks 144th in a total of 180 nations and territories for 2018. So, we are in the bottom 20%. This is definitely not a good thing, given that this index largely governs the response of the business world to our calls for foreign investment into our economy.
In a world that is fast becoming a global community, it is increasingly impossible for Nigeria to become insular, giving our penchant for all that is foreign. But it is ironic that though we love so much of the good life, we cannot produce much that is good. The Nigerian internal market is such a huge one giving our population of over 189 million. If we could concentrate on creating quality goods and services that are consumed locally, our economy will be in the stratosphere. And so will our social services, our infrastructure, our schools, polytechnics, and universities. Our health care delivery system would be world class, giving the quality of doctors we produce. And our manufacturing would be comparable to those of the industrialized nations.
A close study of the world’s corruption index reveals that all those countries with CPIs below 40 points have weak economies, tottering social services, elevated levels of poverty and wealth inequality. This is not accidental or conspiratorial marginalization by the industrialized nations, the normalized excuse for abject failure. This is the price of corrupt and ignorant public sectors that formulate repressive and disruptive policies that are meant to benefit cronyism and perpetuate the ruling class. So how did Nigeria with its abundant human and natural resources get into this club of failed states? Expanding on the brief account I provided in last week’s column, let’s expand further on our historical past.
To reiterate my previous narrative, traditionally, Nigerians exhibit a huge sense of gratitude to each other in their communities. Normally, every act of kindness or service in the ancient times was rewarded by gifting, sharing, or reciprocity. However, a different approach was adopted if one needed a favour from a constituted authority such as the king or the community head. You would have to precede your supplication with a gift presentation which was meant to recognize his position of influence and not seen as a means of currying favour. The king would accept the gifts, share it with you, or present his own welcoming gift for all to partake in, even when he would reject your entreaties, because he could never be beholden to you. When the colonialists came, they adopted this tradition in their dealings with the kings and traditional rulers, extending it to acts that required the silence of the king in matters that would have otherwise necessitated his disapproval. A lot of internecine wars were fought over such matters, and the Nigerian kings lost those wars. So, the people began to see the white man’s gifts as a means of buying the kings acquiescence. And as the white men conquered territories, they established their administrative controls, education, and governance.
To fund the government, the colonialists introduced the principle of taxation at all levels. This was strange to the indigenous people who were used to executing projects with free communal labor and feasting from contributed produce as compensation. Taxation therefore was alien to the people, poorly understood, and seen as a tool of suppression by the colonialists, who became thoroughly feared and hated. The people evaded taxes in droves, and were also caught and jailed in large numbers.
This too was alien to our culture. In the medieval times, our people rarely broke the laws. Common infraction was stealing, but that too was of spartan occurrence and thieves were so easily caught and publicly shamed. Once in a long while, murder was committed, and the punishment was banishment from your kingdom. Such banished people eventually died lonely deaths in distant lands or in no-man’s land. There were no jails before the colonialists came. So, in those new eras, going to jail was something the people needed to avoid at all costs.
Our ‘western educated’ nationals who found themselves in the administrative offices with the colonialists saw their new status as symbols of authority over their kits and kindred, expecting to be courted and revered by anyone that required their difficult-to-accomplish services of any kind. The popular TV series, Ichoku, which portrayed the travails of a corrupt court messenger in the colonial times, starkly depicted the anguish of the ordinary Nigerian in his quest for justice or escape from the long arms of the law.
The ordinary Nigerian saw himself as a victim of the occupation force, the colonialist. He must therefore seek co-operation from his fellow brother Nigerian in authority to navigate the strange and perilous white man’s world. And so, the word bribery entered our lexicon and legal codes. Unfortunately, the nationals in the justice ministry that were charged to fight and prosecute this were the first line of cooperating kindreds for the hapless citizens. But as typical Africans, they were not offering money but gifts. Offering money was seen as bribes, but gifts were forms of appreciation. Bribe taking was criminalized, a taboo, and shameful act.
Life continued that way until well into our independence, at which time we assumed full responsibility of our collective destiny. It is my belief that because of inadequate education and public enlightenment; taxation, governance, and the rule of law were poorly understood by the people. We saw these institutions as coercive instruments of colonialism. Consequently, in our own governance, we failed to strengthen them. We equally got carried away with control of our affairs and the apparent wealth in the system. It was then easy for the politicians to believe that they need not work hard to govern adequately. The oil boom of the middle sixties and seventies placed so much money in the hands of the civil servants, who could not resist the temptation to device ways of dipping their hands into federal and regional coffers.
At this point in our development, our First Republic politicians and top civil servants encouraged the people they served (especially the foreign businessmen) to always come back to show the traditional appreciation for services and help rendered. These appreciations were in various shades; paid vacations, company share allotments, expensive gifts, and monetary gifts seldomly. The Europeans then mastered the Nigerian art of gifting and used it effectively. With time, our people, ever so ingenious, became adept in agreeing what the appreciation would be pre-contract; thus heralding the arrival of the era of kickbacks.
It did not take long for the lower and middle level civil servants to understand what their bosses were up to. They devised their own system, rooted in frustration, of collecting kickbacks. In their own case, it was more of a mixture of pay it forwards, as the sums demanded were relatively low. Such methods included vanishing project or subject files, and delays in the production of cheques on approved payments. On a personal experience, I had gone to FCDA Abuja, in the late 70s to pursue a payment due to the company I worked for at that time. It was a Friday, and I had arrived Abuja with the first flight to return that evening. After securing the Minister’s approval (with whom I had an earlier appointment), my file was moved to accounts for cheque writing and disbursement to me at about 9.15am. Two hours later, while I was still waiting to pick up my cheque, I noticed that a number of people who came in after me were walking out with their cheques. On advice from a concerned staff who sympathized with my case, I went to see the senior accountant, who demanded for N30, 000. I refused to pay that and instead offered him N5,000 which he rejected so I left his office. An hour later, I was still waiting. My sympathetic staff-friend informed me again that perhaps I should go back to the Minister. She advised that since the Minister would soon be departing to the mosque for Friday Jumat Prayers, I should position myself by the exit so as to catch his attention. This I did, and truly, the Minister was shocked to find me there. I narrated to him that I was yet to collect the cheque. He was furious and ordered the finance director to produce my cheque within minutes. I eventually picked it up, got into my car to head for the airport only to find the senior accountant flagging me down. In response to what he wanted, he reminded me of the money he demanded earlier. I looked at him for a while with incredulity, but remembering that I would certainly need him again and again, I gave him ten thousand naira. Later while comparing notes with colleagues, I discovered that this was the official’s modus operandi especially on Fridays. He would estimate how much you would spend to remain in Abuja for the entire weekend, or how much you would spend for a second trip back to Abuja, before placing his demand, which would be slightly less than his assumed real cost of your suffering.
I believe many Nigerians can relate with my experience in one way or the other from either side of the spectrum. Next week, I would delve into our erroneous understanding of corruption and the impact it has had on our ability to fight this menace and the country as a whole.