Tuesday, July 10, 2012

“Corruption Is The Fastest Growing Industry In Nigeria” – Prof. Niyi Osundare (Part I)


Something ...happened in this country in the very first week of this year that we can never forget: Nigeria’s civil society rose with one voice, one vision, one purpose, one agenda fuelled by extraordinary patriotism and irrepressible anger. The government of President Goodluck Jonathan had removed, against all warning and remonstration; against all hint of commonsense and fellow felling, the so-called ‘subsidy’ on the price of petroleum products, thus plunging the proverbially rickety Nigeria economy into a fatal tailspin, and the Nigerian people into needless agony and deprivation. And he sneaked in this cruel decree on the Nigerian people on the very first day of the year, no doubt as a salutary New Year gift from a caring, God-fearing leader.

President Jonathan’s drastic action and his uncharacteristic ‘No going back’ bravado thereafter came as a surprise to many people. Personally, I began to wonder: how could this fledgling president have braved a monster that defied the antics of the tricky Babangida, the murderous Abacha, and the morally indifferent Obasanjo, his illustrious predecessors in office who kicked and caviled at the ‘subsidy’ beast but only succeeded at nibbling at its toes? What gave Jonathan the ruthless courage to drive the IMF sword to the hilt into the Nigerian body? What gave him the confidence that he could decree that punitive price hike and get away with it? I came to the conclusion that the president must have been strengthened in his resolve by his reading of the Nigerian malaise. Afterall, his predecessors in power as well as all public functionaries have always treated Nigeria as a lawless fiefdom where public opinion counts for nothing, and Nigerians, the people over whom they rule, as civic orphans without alagbawi (advocate) and olugbeja (defender). “Let’s go ahead with the subsidy removal”, I could hear presidential advisers in their caucus, “we know Nigerians: they will only shout for a few hours and then go back to business as usual. We know Nigerians: they will quickly adjust”.

But in January this year, that mindset and its cynical calculations found their graveyard in Lagos, in Abuja, in Kano, in Kaduna, in Ilorin, in Ibadan, in Ado Ekiti. To protest the price hike, a coalition of Civil Society groups and the Nigerian Labour Congress called out a strike that shut down the country for a whole week, finally exacting a 33% climbdown in the decreed price. That reduction may look small, but the pressure and organization that brought it about, and even more important, the consciousness and will power generated by it, total up to an impressive chapter in the annals of Nigeria’s civil society organization. For, what I saw at Gani Fawehinmi Freedom Park which served as the epicenter of the struggle, was not just the demonstration of anger and enactment of protest; it was the platform of possibilities, of rising screams awaiting distillation into a unified voice; of a people sick and tired of their dehumanization; a people ready to throw off their yoke and demolish the sickening notoriety of Nigeria as ‘big for nothing’ country; masses saying to their rulers “Behold, we are PEOPLE/HUMAN; we demand to be treated as such!” It was a people who saw CORRUPTION, not oil subsidy, as the source of the country’s woes and bane of its people’s welfare.

And what a crowd that was at Freedom Park! What an intermingling of people beyond ethnic, religious, political, even personal barriers. For one long week, Nigerians saw themselves as people united by their common degradation at the hands of some of the most corrupt and most insensitive rulers in the world. Their diverse songs coalesed into a chorus of protest and anthem of resistance. For the first time in their beleaguered lives, many Nigerians found an avenue for the expression of their humanity; they had the rare opportunity to join others in the singing of their own song of defiance. Professional bodies responded with an infectious spontaneity: medical doctors/personnel in overcoat and other accoutrements took care of the weak and ailing free of charge; musicians, movies stars, and other social celebrities fired up the crowd; many food-sellers sold at reduced prices. Violence kept its place in the netherworld: the police found no work for their eager truncheons. In a manner reminiscent of similar gatherings at the Tahrir Square in Cairo at the height of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolts, Muslims in the crowd took time out for their prayers while adherents of other faiths formed a ring of solidarity and assurance around them. I wish a video footage of the Freedom Park events in January could be sent to our rulers to show them how united Nigerians are capable of being when motivated by a noble purpose and trustworthy, committed leadership.

So there we had it: the parable of Freedom Square: the selfless, rigorous, imagination that went into its conception; the thoughtful, meticulous method that was behind its organization; the exuberant, positive intelligence that saw it through. President Jonathan’s soldiers came too late: by the time they swooped in to cordon off the Square, the deed had already been done. The irrepressible Nigerian spirit had already registered itself. The events of the first week of this year have shown that it is possible to make the voice of resistance carry in this country; that we are not the dumb, feckless bums that we are thought to be; that unity among the people of Nigeria is not the distant hope their rulers have made it out to be. Above all, it has demonstrated the immense potentiality of civil society in the engineering of change and sociopolitical momentum. And to coast home to the specificities of today’s lecture, it has shown that Nigerians know the meaning, import, and ramifications of CORRUPTION as the canker worm in Nigeria’s body politic and poison in her soul. And, what’s more, that they are ready to do something about it!  

The Save Nigeria Group, the principal civil society organization behind the January strike, deserves more than the cursory appreciation and gratitude that the constraints of time and space permit me to render in a lecture of this kind. We have seen this group before, sometime in 2010, when the former President Yar’Adua lay critically ill in a Saudi hospital, but a cabal whose satanic dominance and influence derived from Yar’Adua’s continued hold on power, insisted that the president must continue to rule, even from the grave. A bizarre and absolutely confounding absurdity threw Nigeria into a state of ludicrous paralysis. Hobbled by characteristic opportunism and tragic inertia, Nigerian politicians wringed their fingers and gnashed their teeth. The Nigerian people gasped and wondered. The outside world chuckled at this latest act from the unedifying drama of Africa’s delinquent giant. The president’s terminal illness was about to plunge Nigeria itself into a terminal coma. The Save Nigeria Group rose literally from nowhere and took up the challenge, rallied the Nigerian people, and marched on the National Assembly. The quaintly coded, ludicrously escapist “Doctrine of Necessity” passed by the Nigerian Senate as a way out of this utterly absurd imbroglio could not have come without the intense moral and political pressure from the SNG and similarly concerned Nigerians.

Thus, in its short existence as a pressure group, conscientizer, public opinion mobilizer in Nigeria, the SNG has taken up the role of ombudsman and tribunal, a kind of moral opposition in a country where the commonality of crime and mutuality of corruption has made a reasonable differentiation between/among the political parties a difficult if not futile exercise.

How, then, can I proceed with this lecture without paying due homage to the patriotic zeal and visionary acumen of Pastor Tunde Bakare (who, by the way, I’m meeting for the first time today!), founder and motivating force behind the SNG, a pastor who, unlike many other men and women of the cloth in Nigeria, has never failed to see the vital link between the religious pulpit and the political platform; one who like the prophets of old, is never afraid of telling truth to power – and making sure that power hearkens and heeds. I cannot review his political activities in the past decade or so without recalling the role of the advocates and practitioners of liberation theology which facilitated the end of military dictatorship in South America, or Rev Desmond Tutu who confronted the Apartheid behemoth with the stinging arrows of moral conscience. No country that I know has ever attained the heights of human development without a vigorous and consistent tradition of public opinion the type that is so helpfully evident in the SNG’s Rescue-and-Salvage Mission. Pastor Bakare, may your tribe increase!


When some three weeks ago, Yinka Odumakin, prominent member of the SNG and, in a manner of speaking, its unacknowledged Minister of Information (and Strategy?), broached the idea of this lecture to me, he already had some sense not only of the likely burden of the lecture, but also the possible wording of its title. “Why We No Longer Blush”, he said more in the manner of a suggestion than a dictation. Personally, I do not respond favourably to prescribed titles. The poet in me always prefers to plumb his own depth for possible terms and denominations. But Odumakin’s phrasing issued from a steady fountain of passion and patriotism; the conviction in his voice was both palpable and infectious. I gave a tentative nod, and for a good four days, I rummaged through a bunch of possible titles. But the suggested phrase kept coming back to my mind as a result of its uncanny appropriateness. I finally decided to meet Odumakin half-way by amplifying his suggested title with my own subtitle; and that is how the full title of this lecture was born.

Why is it that Nigerians no longer blush? How did we come to lose our sense of shame after losing our sense of propriety and proportion? How did we come to develop a skin that is so thick that no arrows of degradation, no needles of dehumanization are ever sharp and violent enough to penetrate our body and rouse our senses! How did our nerves slide into their present state of stupor? How did we plunge into this state of dysconsciousness? Catastrophes that would shake normal societies to their very foundations hit and leave us unfazed. Tyrants in military uniform whipped us with scorpions; only a few of us protested.

Now their civilian inheritors are scourging us with serpents, and many of us respond with ‘ranka dede!’. Politicians and other public functionaries empty public treasuries and squander our patrimony/commonweal right before our very eyes; we pray to God to aid their effort. Time there was when these public thieves stole our money in millions of naira; now they do so in billions and trillions; and many of us urge them on and envy their luck.

Are we a psychologically intimidated, morally weakened, and politically wasted people so indolent about their rights, so unmindful of our dignity? Are we so reprobate that we become so forgiving, so oblivious of the crimes of those who rule us because we have lost the capacity to recognize their malefactions as crimes? In other lands, public figures go to jail for pinching our equivalent of 50,000 naira; in Nigeria, the huger the amount you steal the higher you go on the national order of merit, the closer you get to victory in the next election. As the inimitable Wole Soyinka has so aptly put it

You thief ten kobo they put you for prison
You thief ten million na patriotism. . . .
They go give you chieftaincy and national honour
You thief even bigger, dem go say na rumour
Monkey dey work o, baboon dey chop
Sweet pounded yam, someday i go stop

When, some 30 years ago, the illustrious Dele Giwa typified Nigerians as having gone beyond ‘shockability’, he should have reserved his remarks for the present Jonathan-led, PDP-bled crowd of insensate Nigerians.

 (For the concluding part of this speech, see part II of the post)

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