We Came. We Saw. We Stole

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Dan Agbese

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By Dan Agbese  |

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BRITISH Prime Minister, David Cameron threw the dust in our country’s face last week. He described Nigeria and Afghanistan as “fantastically corrupt.” He believes Nigeria and Afghanistan are “the two most corrupt countries in the world.”

It rankles. Still, fantastically true. But Cameron got his facts slightly wrong here. The annual report of Transparency International for 2015 showed that Nigeria and Afghanistan did not rub shoulders in the contest for supremacy in the league of soiled nations. Afghanistan came in at number 167 and our country trailed far behind at number 136; therefore, it is much less corrupt than Afghanistan.

There are senior players and junior players in this sordid league of the soiled, obviously. Somalia and North Korea enjoy the privileges of being right up there.  Bangladesh leads the pack annually. There is not much to cheer about the fact that despite our gallant fight against corruption our country still features in the annual corruption index. Still, Mr. Cameron was uncharitable to have placed our country with a failed and lawless state like Afghanistan. I believe its brand of corruption is more ruthless and lawless than ours.

President Muhammadu Buhari was said to have been shocked at the views of his British counterpart. Sure, he should be. The president must feel that Mr. Cameron showed an inexcusable lack of appreciation of his determined battle against corruption in our country. the results so far should give us hope ridding our country of corruption is not a mission impossible. Buhari’s anti-graft war has won him plaudits in some informed quarters among the western nations, including Britain. Buhari must feel that at the height of this war and given his personal commitment and that of his administration to it, he needs to be encouraged, not criticised in a manner that suggests that our country is a hopeless case and the anti-graft war is more smoke than fire. But the president recovered from his shock and reduced Cameron’s unkind cut to humour, telling him he wants the money corruptly stashed in UK bank vaults to be returned to him.

Corruption is not just our problem. It is a global problem. It is now increasingly intractable. World leaders met in London last week to seek collective ways and means of decisively dealing with the scourge that has made many a nation prostrate and pauperised many a rich nation, as in Nigeria. The hope that the world leaders might have discovered the formula that has eluded mankind throughout its history obviously blows in the wind. Yet, it is one fight the world would give up at its own peril.

The annual corruption index issued by Transparency International has become the accepted yardstick for measuring the corruption quotient of all nations. Our country is not among the dirtiest among the dirty nations. But the taint of corruption in the land is comprehensive. It would be foolish to deny that speaking generally, every institution in our country is tainted by corruption. Our public officers are tainted; our armed forces are tainted; our politicians are tainted; our so-called men of God are tainted; our bankers are tainted; our lawyers are tainted; our judiciary and our judges are tainted – and if you insist, our press men and women are tainted.

I wonder how many cartons of Omo would wash us as clean as the whistle and give us back our country. Despite our corroded sense of shame, it still rankles when our former governors are arrested by EFCC and charged with alleged shocking financial malfeasance It happens no where any where in Africa. You wonder: do they go into public office dirty and come out dirty or do they go into public clean and come out dirty?

I appreciate Buhari’s ambition in this war. He wants to draw the line in the sand: Nigeria Before Buhari and Nigeria After Buhari. Before Buhari, corruption flourished; it became a way of life. General Collin Powell, the former US secretary of state, was once quoted as saying that corruption was wired into our DNA. The dirty Nigerian would belong to Nigeria Before Buhari.

When Buhari is done and the battle is either won or the enemy is rendered comatose and harmless and our country enters a new era, Nigeria After Buhari would dawn on us. It is a beguiling prospect. Think of the day our news media would publish no stories on corruption. A dream? Well, all human progress owes itself to hopes and dreams. So, do not be afraid of dreaming of incorruptible Nigerians in Nigeria After Buhari. No, I am not being cynical. I am being honest and hopeful. To rid our country of all shades of corruption has been a long and frustrating struggle in the hands of the military as well as of our civilian leaders. Time to see the rainbow.

It seems to me that there are at least three huge obstacles in the path of the anti-graft war. One, the concept of public service has undergone a sea change. Public service was the highest honour a nation bestowed on its brightest – men and women who took pride in leaving a record, not in what they amassed at the expense of the public but rather the service they rendered to make their country and their society better than they found them. We had real giants in the federal and the regional public services; men whose moral cleanliness and professional commitment to the best practices in bureaucracy were so intimidating they qualified to be deified.

Remember Chief Simeon Adebo, Adamu Attah, Allison Ayida, Philip Asiodu, Ahmed Joda, Ali Akilu, Jerome Udoji, etc.? Their successors are venal men, Lilliputians sold on kleptocracy. They care less for service and what name they leave behind and more for the size of their personal bank accounts and those of their wives and children.

Can we bring back the spirit and the concept public service of yester years? Tough. The problem with an era is that it never returns. Nor need we waste our time and our hope entertaining the vain hope that it is possible for the men of God to persuade the almighty to lend a hand in the miracle of bringing yesterday back. I am not sure the man upstairs would be persuaded to intervene because those who call themselves his men without an iota of shame are complicit in the laundering of corruption.

The ubiquitous houses of worship have become homes of the sleek and venal preachers who fleece their followers and live the good life here on earth. I wonder why those who are told to store their treasures in heaven fail to see that their own pastors are storing theirs right here on earth and enjoying the ultimate luxury that life has to offer – private jets, state of the art cars and jeeps, palatial homes in and outside Nigeria and businesses that rank them among the wealthiest. My point is that these people are part of our national baggage. They are fantastically corrupt.

Two, the anti-graft war is not a shooting war. Bazookas and AK-47 are totally useless in this war because it is actually a moral crusade. The battle to change the mind set of people and their behaviour towards public property is necessarily long and frustrated. We must brace up for the long haul in this war.

Three, and perhaps most importantly, the anti-graft war ignores the cultural dimension of corruption. I am willing to hazard a guess that no Nigerian language has the word corruption in its vocabulary. Stealing is perhaps all we really know. The attitude of the Nigerian towards public property is that it belongs to no one. He who steals from the government purse takes nothing that makes the other person poorer.

We do see evidence of this. No Nigerian tribe ostracises those of its members who are fingered for alleged theft of public property, especially money. I have always been disgusted by the fact that when the venality of a Nigerian pulls him down from his high perch, his tribes men and women rally around him. They demonstrate against his removal; they celebrate him as a great son of the soil who went, saw and stole in order that the lot his tribe’s men and women would be better.

It is common sense that a society that fetes thieves and gives them chieftain titles because they are our brothers and sisters, is one that has lost its sense of proportion and decency. The real muumuu is the man who goes home empty handed and truly empty of pocket because he refused to join them and belong. It is not uncommon for such people to be ostracised by their tribesmen and women. It seems to me that the fear of the tribes dumping such people in the isolated valley of irrelevance that drives people into the waiting arms of corruption.

—  May 16, 2016 @ 17:20 GMT

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