I owe the title of this column to Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s classic song of outrage, and call to action, against the living evil of corruption threatening to throttle Nigeria to death. If you do not own the LP or CD of Authority Stealing, and have no immediate access to it online, I suggest that you seek it out after reading this column. If you do, it is recommended that this essay be read to the accompaniment of that soundtrack of our wholesale dispossession through the mind-boggling thievery of top public officials. In my last column entitled “A Case for Punishing Corruption as Armed Robbery,” I pointed to the discrepant morality of the death penalty for armed robbery — irrespective of the amount stolen, be it one kobo or one million naira — as long as the robber used a “firearm” or any “offensive weapon,” and deeming billion-naira thieves severely punished if told to confess their sins, put whatever is in their back pocket on the table, and go home.
Thus, while staunchly opposed to the death penalty, I argued that it be applied in the true spirit of “deterrence” to anyone who steals public funds in the amount of one billion naira or more. A temporary and strategic stance, albeit, in honour of the fundamental principle of justice that insists like cases be treated alike. But that argument, I fear, does not wholly bare the stinking reality of the corruption-versus-armed-robbery distinction in our laws, based as it is almost entirely on interpretation; so I will today back up that call by pointing to the colossal social costs of corruption. Admittedly, there is something blood-curdling and menacing when a robber, armed with a gun, is breaking into your home or waylaying you on the road and dispossessing you of car or money. But how less menacing is the robber armed with a pen, who steals billions with a single stroke, thereby inflicting mortal injuries on the body-politic?
The consequences of pen robbery are far more lethal than those of armed robbery; to say this is not to minimise the material and psychological consequences of the latter. It is, rather, to adopt a global view that reveals the full ramifications of pen robbery; showing it, among other things, is in fact a principal cause of armed robbery. In any case, the choice of “weapon” has more to do with the class or social status of the robber than with the intent behind the crime itself. Consider the N32.8 stolen from the police pension fund and the N20 billion stolen by former Inspector-General of Police, Tafa Balogun. How many people do you think die due to the inability of a poorly trained, equipped and motivated police to prevent violent crimes? How many murdered in cold blood at checkpoints by hungry policemen traumatised by their bestial conditions of training and service (thanks, Channels Television) due to the theft of moneys allocated for their welfare?
And if we turn our gaze to other government agencies, are the casualties less in scale or number? Sadly, no. Not with the daily body count on the death traps called highways, despite the countless billions allocated for road reconstruction or repair but which end up in private pockets. Our hospitals? Simply put, more “mortuaries” now than “consulting clinics,” to recall the words of the late tyrant and ace plunderer of the public treasury, General Sani Abacha (the Devil roast his soul) when justifying the coup of 31 December 1983 that hastened the country’s transformation into a robbers den. As for our educational institutions, the images we see now and then on television, in newspapers or online of primary school pupils huddled in the dust under a tree while their teachers pretend to be teaching them the alphabet or arithmetic tell the glorious story.
It is this palpable truth of pen robbery, aptly dubbed authority stealing,” that Fela intoned with characteristic clarity and forthrightness as far back as 1980. Fela highlights the costly class bias of the law that punishes pick-pockets (“Them fit put (jail) am for ten years” or “shoot am for armed robbery”) while not recognising the mighty thefts of “authority people” (You no go hear them shout / Thief! Thief! Thief! ... Robber! Robber!”). But why this dangerous duplicity? Because “authority man” steals in “civilised style.” Civilised because being in charge of the money in the first place, he does not need a gun. So Fela sings: “Armed robber him need gun / Authority man him need pen / Authority man in charge of money / him no need gun him need pen / Pen get power gun no get / If gun steal eight thousand naira / Pen go steal two billion naira.”
That the robber’s weapon is determined by his circumstances and need is underscored by a recent report in Vanguard (6 February 2013). After stealing N2 million from a Calabar politician’s car without having to fire a bullet, the robbers abandoned their AK 47 rifles! Listen to Fela’s cri decoeur and his anguished wail, a projection of the collective despair over corruption, will pluck at your own heartstrings: “Authority stealing pass armed robbery / We Africans must do something about this nonsense.” By law, we still hang armed robbers or execute them by firing squad. Well, then, let us punish billion-naira thieves like the armed robbers they are!