HOW did corruption become a way of life in Nigeria? This question should be of the utmost importance to the Presidency and of course to the future minister of information whose role, if not for the “job for the boys syndrome” should have remained combined with that of the minister of culture (and by extension tourism). Nigeria’s national orientation, our inability to unanimously condemn wrongdoing, is perhaps our country’s greatest problem.
It allows and reinforces corruption but does it precede it or stem from it? Colonial literature will tell you that the Black man has an inherent propensity to use public office for private gain and that the lack of a responsible public opinion to check corruption has emboldened and excused offenders. The first part of this assertion is clearly racist although the second still holds true.
The media in Nigeria is beholden to those it should be investigating and as such, isn’t institutionally strong enough to take on public policy issues: many reporters are not trained to fully understand them and most politicians have little to no interest in understanding or acting upon issues. Why should they?
The public and those who should be informing them, also know—or care— little about what is at stake. What a catch 22.
Corruption in Nigeria has a very long history. Nnamdi Azikiwe was investigated, in 1956 for not severing his relationship with the African Continental Bank, as required by the code of conduct. In fact, the tribunal believed that Zik used his position as Premier of the Eastern Region to further the bank’s (and his own) interest. The bank reportedly loaned Zik, his family and associates, sums that they were not required to repay.
Long before Emir Sanusi’s discourse on the lack of ethics and the pervasive mismanagement within the Nigerian financial sector, politically connected persons had apparently been involved in various scandals.
As stated by a colonial officer at the time “were a UK minister to be involved in a series of transactions the result of which public funds were used to support an otherwise shaky institution in which he was directly interested, he would be forced to leave public life.” So Nigeria has a long history of allowing corruption.
The question on the British end is why, if indeed there was evidence of wrong-doing, Zik or Awolowo for instance (the latter also had corruption allegations levelled against him by the British), were not formally tried. You see, the colonial powers were never interested in establishing standards in terms of conduct and public morality and neither were those they handed power over to.
During the First Republic, corruption became the order of the day and it’s no wonder that Chinua Achebe reportedly maintained that both Zik and Awolowo were only interested in politics for their own personal profit.
That our leaders, past and present have only ever sought public office to surround themselves with comfort at the expense of the masses, is something we learnt from our colonial masters even though they painted our inability to develop as a character flaw (somehow inherent to our race).
My aim here is not to lay the blame solely on colonisation but to insist that we understand what happened in order to move forward. In a country where history is no longer studied in most schools, there is a culture (and danger) of refusing introspection, self-interrogation or any real scrutiny.
Accountability and good governance were the hallmark of traditional African societies before colonisation. It is a tragedy that the Black mind and culture has so forgotten who it once was that it believes only imperfections could stem from it, thus awarding that which is well-behaved, effective or good to the Western world. Advancement based on merit, public investment for the common good, self-reliance, these words all once qualified the typical African kingdom in the Middle Ages. What happened?
Why does no one know this, least of which Africans themselves? Among the Yoruba, kingmakers existed to keep the crown in check: the Alafin of Oyo had to rule in his citizens’ interest, or face death. The Ibo had no central authority, yet their societies were highly organised: leadership was in the hands of the people.
Titled chiefs with their red caps represented justice, an unwavering commitment to truth and service: thus the saying “a titled man does not lie”, how far we are from this ancient norm!
Now that any Nollywood actor can become a chief, or a PA to a state governor, we have made a mockery of Nigerian traditional institutions. Everything is for sale in today’s Nigeria because all we did was exchange one form of slavery for another: the masters changed but the system didn’t.
Governance in colonial Nigeria wasn’t about character or serving a community: it was about dominance and those who were promoted when the British left were mostly their cronies, often corrupt men and women whom we were too misinformed and brow beaten to oppose.
The people saw little to no social services in return for the taxes they paid the British, thus annihilating the concept of accountability, pitting citizens against each other and the ruling class.
One wonders if our independence leaders truly believed in or cared about our independence: did they just see rising discontent among the masses and an opportunity to be the new lords? If they were so committed to equity and opportunity for all, Nigeria should have had a different system of governance, not one where the same modes of dominance and oppression once used by the British were repeated, until they became the status quo, the only form of existence many of us have ever known.
The police and military existed to crush opposition under colonisation, so they continued, after independence, to enforce a culture of coercion and subjugation, teaching us all to bargain (or buy) our way out of uncomfortable situations. Colonisation also destabilised prevailing African values, the “togetherness” we now claim but don’t practice. A culture of unchecked monetisation, a frenzied greed for possessions was embraced (and encouraged) by our independence leaders which is why a former petroleum minister today is accused of having in her possession the equivalent of a small country’s earnings.
Africans admired their colonial masters for living in nice homes, wielding power unflinchingly and for looking down on blackness. We idolise today’s usurpers of public wealth because of something our colonial masters taught us: that we were not good enough, that we were unworthy of respect without certain trappings of power.
So, today we are consumers (we produce next to nothing) of foreign goods and culture and the baton (passed on from our mentors) bread (and continues to do so) generations of self-centred raiders who see nothing wrong with helping themselves to our commonwealth. Before a Nigerian can even speak, he is practically raised to see what is clearly wrong as debatable rather than something to be unanimously condemned because our masters want it to be so.
Buhari is yet to truly speak about what he is most famous for, besides his anti-corruption stance, its twin, the war on indiscipline. But he must quickly set a course (even though his body language alone has done wonders) particularly in the area of national orientation so that government agencies and departments can partner to assess formal and informal education, the only long term way to correct the huge mental damage done to the Nigerian psyche since independence.
GOOD friends are hard to find or so former president Goodluck Jonathan has probably learnt as one by one, those whose advice he once cherished (and Nigerians wondered why as it seemed lopsided, tainted with unbearable ethnic bias) now abandon him. As they say in local parlance, “man must chop.”