Unification Origins of Nigerian Corruption

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BY AKIN OSUNTOKUN

“The Federal Military Government hereby decrees as follows: Subject to the provisions of this Decree, Nigeria shall on 24th May 1966 (in this decree referred to as ‘the appointed day’) cease to be a Federation and shall accordingly as from that day be a Republic, by the name of the Republic of Nigeria, consisting of the whole of the territory which immediately before that day was comprised in the Federation- The Unification Decree: No. 34 of 1966” —General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi?

It is a familiar and tragic historical recall, too tragic and revealing, that thereafter, the teaching of the history of Nigeria had to be proscribed in our education curriculum. The immediate casualties of the military rule unification of Nigeria were civil democratic rule and federalism, which were then replaced by a top down military command rule of absolute power-undergirded by the philosophy of might is right. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, observes Lord Acton — and that largely is the root cause of the systemic corruption Nigeria had since experienced. Notwithstanding the pseudo civil democratic rule in place, this legacy is alive in the common saying that our president is the most powerful president in the world.

“On the substantive issue of the content of the Constitution, what we have now is a unitary constitution and not a federal constitution. It is a constitution in which there is basically one government which dominates everybody and others that are called federating units which are atrophied, they have no power, no resources and that one government, which is the federal government eventually breaks over the shoulder of these ones and subjects them to its whim and caprices which destroys the whole concept of federalism” contends the recently appointed chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Corruption, Professor Itse Sagay.

I can see that President Muhammadu Buhari seeks an understanding (of the malaise of corruption in Nigeria) that transcends the anti-corruption credentials or lack of it of incumbent leadership. The composition of his anti-corruption advisory panel, teeming with professors, men and women of ideas, says as much. In a manner of speaking, he is looking to predicate solutions to the problem on a degree of theory and not predominantly on law and order disciplinarian approach. I give him kudos for this. The unstated aspect of the assignment is that it presupposes that the chairman personifies this quality more than the other panel members; and conspicuously so in the eyes of the public.

The contemporary public profile of Prof. Sagay is that of a vociferous critic, public intellectual, a Niger Delta irredentist and specifically a fierce proponent of federalism; and the various role depictions are mutually inclusive. He has severally formulated the shortcomings of Nigeria from the very crucial, perhaps the most crucial perspective of federalism. He has equally implied the understanding of corruption from the premise of the poverty of Nigerian federalism. He professes: “The only explanation in favour of a strong, almost unitary constitution, in which the federal government owns everything including the mineral resources in my backyard, (and we all know that federal government means the Arewa North) is the obsessive love for the proceeds of the Niger Delta’s oil and gas proceeds . … At the Political Reform Conference in 2005, we went to the Federal Ministry of Finance to get figures and facts about what each of the zones contributed to the commonwealth. What we saw was amazing; the North-west brings nothing, the same with the North-central and North-east. The South-east and South-west brings minor but the South-south contributes 91 per cent.

“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.”

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 former President Goodluck 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 Prof. Sagay. It is within the framework of this culture that reference to certain public office appointments as ‘lucrative appointments’ has become acceptable vocabulary in the lexicon of day-to-day public communication in Nigeria.

Before proceeding any further, I need to enter a caveat- it is self-evident that Sagay was responding to the stimulus of what he essentially deems the Nigerian jungle where the law of the survival of the fittest does not brook moral compunction. In the circumstance of being availed an opportunity to begin a redress of the failings of Nigeria, it is a position he would never advocate. But here he is admonishing that let us understand and accept this corrupt nation for what it is and let us maximise its exploitation in the same manner others have done. And given the double jeopardy of being the oppressed goose that lays the golden egg-equity and fairness is on our side. This is a position that would be better understood in the light of a theoretical enunciation that would be quoted at the conclusion of this essay.

The seemingly persistent cold shoulder of his Yoruba ethnic kith and kin towards former President Olusegun Obasanjo will likewise find explanation in the widely shared opinion that he did not ‘do anything for his people when he was in office. And the corollary is that it is an acceptable Nigerian convention to expect him to do ‘something’ for his people while in office. On the contrary, not many people will contest the suggestion that the runaway popularity of Buhari in his catchment Northern/Muslim constituency is attributable to the belief that he preferentially identifies with them. Personally I have not reached the conclusion one way or another but there is a prevalent perception that the appointments he has made so far bear out this proclivity. He himself has not helped matters with his body language and Freudian slip with, for instance, particular regards to the statement he volunteered in the United States to the effect he would discriminate against those who did not vote for him at the last presidential election.

At the level of theory and in a paper I presented at the Obafemi Awolowo University in 1991, I located the malfeasance of the Nigerian elite, as it borders on corruption, in the discontinuity between state and society; in the fact that the state did not organically evolve from society; that the state lacks autochthony. I will explain. When we talk of lack of autochthony and lack of organic evolution, we are saying that there is no organic relationship (analogous to parent-child evolution) or linkage between a state and the society from which it is supposed to be derived. There was no society of native Nigerians from which the Nigerian state emerged. The entities comprising Nigeria preexisted as an assortment of tribal empires, kingdoms and principalities like the Oyo Empire, Sokoto caliphate, Tiv, Berom, Ogoni, Ijaw kingdoms and the like. It was from these disparate entities that Nigeria was created by the British colonial masters.

To borrow the parlance of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, there are no Nigerians in the manner that there are Germans, English or Russians. If there are no preexisting Nigerians before Nigeria was created, it means that Nigeria does not represent a continuity of any nationality in the sense that Germany and France are a continuation from preexisting societies or nationalities of Germans and the French. It is in this respect that we speak of state-society discontinuity in Nigeria.

I theorised that there is a psycho-cultural disconnect between the governing mores of the indigenous societies comprising Nigeria and the British — begotten values of the colonial legacy baby — the Nigerian state. One of the negative manifestations of this disconnect is that swearing by the Bible as spiritual bond or covenant for ethical conduct in public office elicits little fear of retribution than would Sango or Ogun to a Nigerian of Yoruba origin. Sworn on these familiar awe-inspiring deities such public officials are likely to be more terrified of the consequences of breaching their oath of office.

I’m in the illustrious company of Professor Peter Ekeh who bestows a better illumination on the dilemma as follows: “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 your opportunities. To steal the funds of the (ethnic) union would offend the public conscience and ostracise you from society.”
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