Nigeria: In Praise of Corruption
by Chido Onumah
One of the most frightening things about the Jonathan administration is the president’s palpable lack of appreciation of the problems that confront us and “the fierce urgency of Now”. This phenomenon rears its head at every opportunity the president has to reassure Nigerians that he has the capacity to lead the country out of
its current morass.
It is clichéd now to refer to the president’s response when asked last June why he was unwilling to declare his asset publicly as a mark of his commitment to fighting corruption. The president told a bewildered nation that he didn’t “give a damn” about Nigerians not knowing what he is worth. That comment reverberated and still reverberates around the country, particularly whenever the words fighting corruption and Jonathan administration are used in a sentence.
Those who thought that was one presidential gaffe too many were surely mistaken. The president upped the ante during the 2012 Christmas service in Abuja when he said his government appeared to be slow because it did not want to make mistakes. “By human thinking our administration is slow; I won’t say we are slow, but we need to think through things properly if we are to make lasting impact,” the president said in his homily. “If we rush, we will make mistakes and sometimes it is more difficult to correct those mistakes.”
Slow is an understatement. The president is simply telling us he doesn’t know what he is doing. The truth is that there is no governance going on in the country. We all know the president is not circumspect or afraid of taking decisions, particularly when such decisions will benefit his friends in the oil industry. We witnessed that a year ago when, to the chagrin of the mass of our people, the president increased the price of petrol even when negotiations were on-going with the Nigeria Labour Congress and civil society. Since then, the president has followed that insensate decision with numerous anti-people actions like spending N22.6bn of our collective wealth to offset bank loans owed by 84 rogue stock broking firms.
The major headline of the preceding week was not the hardship Nigerians had to endure during the holidays or the death and destruction that stalk the land. It was the pronouncement of President Jonathan in what appeared as an official endorsement of corruption during the funeral service of General Owoye Azazi in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State. Presidential aide, Reuben Abati, has admonished us not to take the president literally when he speaks. But this is one time we have no option but to pay close attention to the president for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh”.
Bishop of Bomadi Catholic Diocese, Vicarage Hyacinth Egbebor, probably didn’t know he was stirring up a hornet’s nest when he blamed the December 15 helicopter crash at Okoroba in Nembe Local Government Area, Bayelsa State, that killed the former National Security Adviser, Andrew Azazi, former Kaduna State Governor, Patrick Yakowa, and four others, on corruption. “Corruption is the only underlying evil that is responsible for the air mishaps. If the military cannot guarantee the safety and security of their own, who else can they protect?” Vicarage Egbebor noted in his sermon. “If there is anywhere one looks for excellent performance, it is the military. Now we have compromised excellence for money. Money has taken over.”
An obviously peeved President Jonathan remarked in response to Vicarage Egbebor, “But most of these things we talk about corruption are not even corruption. It is true that most cases we talk about corruption as if corruption is the cause of most of our problems. No. Yes, we have corruption in this country, no doubt about that. The government is also fighting corruption.” The president reminded us that “Nigeria has more institutions that fight corruption than most other countries”. His solution: attitudinal change on the part of Nigerians and concerted effort by at least half of the population to follow in the footsteps of the late Gen. Azazi.
It’s a good thing that President Jonathan, while rejecting corruption as the problem, returned to the theme of attitude as the bane of Nigeria’s development. As a result, the president apparently demonstrated the logic of rational analysis in locating corruption in the wider cosmic of attitude. In that context he is right to call for a change of attitude. But Nigerians would expect the change of attitude he preaches to begin with him. The only way to do this is for him to lead by example; to practice what he preaches.
President Jonathan should not expect the man on the street to heed the call to imbibe new ways of doing things when he himself is not demonstrating it. Unfortunately, he has refused to drive the process by, amongst other things, arrogantly failing to publicly declare his assets, apportioning over a N1bn to the Presidency for feeding and expanding the presidential fleet while saner countries are reducing theirs.
Unfortunately, the president failed to mention that the attitudinal change we need most is one that de-prioritises corruption as an ingrained culture of the Nigerian people. By so doing, he ignored the consensus among not just the dispossessed majority, but also in the circle of elites of which he is one, that corruption, contrary to what he believes, is the number one problem facing Nigeria today.
All the negative indices routinely ascribed to virtually every sector of Nigerian life are the consequence of widespread sleaze perpetrated by government officials and their collaborators outside government. As long as the status quo continues to endure in the midst of rapid degeneration in the quality of life and infrastructure, corruption will continue to get the pride of place as the major cause of Nigeria’s problem.
Though he never misses any opportunity to dish out rhetoric about his government’s anti-corruption credentials, the president’s mindset is one that places corruption at the lower rung of the socio-economic evils bedevilling the country. Thus, the will to confront it headlong does not exist. What exists is the impulse to nurture it in order to continue to sustain the plutocracy which he and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have dishonestly sold to the people as democracy.
Evidence of this intent is the recent appointment of Tony Anenih, alias “Mr. Fix It”, as the chairman of Nigeria Ports Authority, the cash cow which produces a large chunk of the money the ruling party uses to fund its political campaigns. The president disregarded the mountain of allegations of corruption sitting on Chief Anenih’s head to make the appointment. It is a mark of a president who is not only out of touch with the people, but one that doesn’t give a damn about corruption and its deleterious impact on our society.
In a sense, I agree with President Jonathan. It is time to disband our anti-corruption agencies and set up an agency for attitudinal change, that is, if we can’t revive the National Orientation Agency (NOA). The first task of the new agency — the National Agency for Attitudinal and Behavioural Change — will be to get President Jonathan to change his attitude toward corruption. And the reason is simple. Corruption, regardless of the president’s stance, is Nigeria’s number one problem and it manifests itself in different ways whether the president sees it or not.
Martin Luther King, Jr. clergyman, activist, and prominent leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement, once reminded Americans about the “fierce urgency of Now”. In his “I Have a Dream” speech delivered almost fifty years ago on 28 August, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., he noted: “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy”.
I think President Jonathan should read that speech if he hasn’t done so. Even though its focus was race relations, its unifying idea was a warning for every people to frontally confront their national “demon” and “make justice a reality for all of God’s children”.
Corruption is Nigeria’s “demon” and unless the president wants us to believe he is granting a national amnesty to corruption, now is the time to end the platitudes and confront it head on.
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