If something is adjustable, sooner or later it will need adjusting. Max Frisch
Along with six friends, I watched television footage of the crowds that cheered Chief James Ibori as he drove on the streets on his return home last week after his prison service in the United Kingdom. There was pronounced silence as we watched young and old struggle to catch a glimpse of the man. Like us, it was obvious that many in the crowds that followed his jeep at close quarters did not believe it was indeed Ibori until he, at a point, emerged from the top of his jeep to show an apparently well-fed and healthy-looking former Governor. There was a long silence after the spectacle had we just watched, broken by a question we all thought was rhetorical: "Do these people know what Chief Ibori was, and what he did?" What followed was an animated and passionate argument that laid bare many of the skeletons in our nation's cupboard. Our fundamental values as people are apparently as varied and questionable as we choose to make them. The lady who asked the question was not going to be ignored. She asked again if this is the typically Nigerian rent-a-crowd, or a spontaneous and genuine outpouring of joy among people whose hero had retuned after being jailed in a foreign country for stealing, in all probability, their commonwealth.
In a few exchanges, arguments that corruption is a Nigerian elite affair, a matter of personal opinion, a phenomenon determined by a cultural perspective or an effective value redistribution mechanism which anchors political power competed for hearing and dominance. There was no arguing away the reality before all Nigerians: either Chief Ibori is an extraordinarily likable politician who could do no wrong by his people, or the concept of private plunder of public resources is unknown where he came from. It was relatively easy to tick-off familiar arguments and refrain from many parts of the Niger Delta region, such as those that make heroes of locals who 'liberate', appropriate' or 'personalize' the communities' assets in oil and gas, as opposed to 'strangers' from the rest of Nigeria and the world who 'steal' it under official cover. People form the Niger Delta who will feel insulted by this criminal conclusion were not at the airport and road sides holding up placards saying 'no to corrupt politicians'. By default, voices that agonized over the bleeding of communities by strongmen in the Niger Delta had submitted to a narrative that the use of public office or violence to divert massive resources was tolerable if it was done by locals. If half of the energy devoted to making the case for larger control of revenues by local communities had been directed at fighting corruption that stole huge resources from the same communities by politicians, the Delta region will not so viciously offend all standards of just and equitable development.
Chief Ibori's return will open up many uncomfortable points in debates regarding the place of official corruption in our lives. There will be those that will insist that the fight against corruption is an elite affair, between those who have not amassed wealth illegally either because they could not, or were deeply predisposed against it, on the one hand, and those who see the acquisition of illegal wealth as a normal and essential element of acquiring power and serving the people. They will point at the verifiable fact that no Nigerian politician has ever acquired power without spending huge resources, most of which will not stand up to close legal scrutiny. That is the investment in an enterprise with the surest guarantee for returns. The distance between stolen wealth and productive activities of the vast majority of citizens make it difficult to raise requisite levels of passion and anger against the pillage of common resources. What is endemic is the pervasive and residual resentment of the rich, fueled by suspicion that all wealth is stolen. The popular clamour to humiliate the rich by any means available is constantly hounded by deep-seated convictions that everyone will be corrupt if they get the opportunities.
Do Nigerians know the nature of the damage which systemic corruption does to their lives and the nation, or do they think the fight against corruption is largely a ploy by some elite to settle scores? Not to answer the first question in the affirmative will be to insult everything we value: our religious faiths and other key social values, our politicians who daily remind us that our strengths and assets have been bled dry by corruption, and our indignation at the situation we face daily when we have to submit to corruption. It is the second question which our recent experiences and current circumstances has difficult answers. This administration came to power to fight corruption, and we have a long list of suspects on trial or under investigation to prove it. If therefore, a committed supporter of the current campaign against corruption asks if the cheering crowd that welcomed Ibori knew what he was and what they were involved in, he should be prepared to answer some difficult questions as well. Do our leaders know that corruption at lower levels, the type that touches every citizen still thrives without fear or cover. Do they know that commercial drivers routinely and openly hand over money to police and other army of enforcers and regulators on our roads in full view of citizen passengers who duly note that nothing has changed? Do they know that every transaction, every activity that is service is still substantially fueled by bribes and inducements?
There is a massive disconnect between the fight President Buhari's government is waging against corruption and the life of the Nigerian who has long readjusted to living with bribery, inducement, cheating, bending of rules, impunity and a host of other practices that suggest that only those who steal billions are corrupt. The difficulties imposed by an economy in recession make cheerleading the fight against corruption more difficult. Poor citizens ask if government knows how difficult life has become; why the cost of palm oil, matches, sugar and garri rise literally by the day and no one does anything about it. School fees, diesel, medications, rent, transport and every other essentials are becoming unaffordable. The state is receding at a dangerous rate from many Nigerians, Many among whom now provide their own security, basic infrastructure and other essentials of life. When you do this on a permanent basis, it is difficult to have much sympathy for the case that everyone should live within their means. It does not help the administration's cause when much mileage is made against suspicion that it is reluctant to look too critically at its own side in a nation where saints and sinners wear the same faces, but can be told apart with a strong will and a commitment to expose corruption.
Some weeks ago, Vice President Osinbajo appealed to Nigerians to dislike corruption in all its ramifications, or the battle against it is as good as lost. This an important attempt to hit corruption where it hurts most: in those circles where wealth and power bulldoze their ways into our adulating and weak hearts. You have to feel for a President whose singular hallmark has been the fight against corruption, and a Deputy who doubles as a priest, that they stand at a point where they could persuade Nigerians to stay overwhelmingly loyal to the fight against corruption, or one that could register an irretrievable loss. If the Buhari administration will not win the fight against corruption, it is going to be difficult to see who will. If it will win this war, this administration needs to re-strategize and re-focus on value change and an aggressive campaign to stop small scale corruption which citizens live with. If a citizen cannot be saved from paying bribes for just about everything of value, he is unlikely to see any wrong in Chief James Iboris life. The battle for 2019 will test the effectiveness of the anti-corruption campaign. If billions or trillion are going to have to be spent by politicians and their backers in business they will have to steal it now.
I am about to take a break to serve the nation in another capacity. I will hope that there is still room for me in the paper and your attention when I resume. I thank you for reading me and giving me the courage to share my thought with you.