My person of the year lacks the trappings of a world changer. She is not a person of power. She doesn’t boast universal renown. She is a commoner; an easily forgettable face.
Josephine Ugwu was a contract hand with a concessionaire that handled the sanitation of Murtala Muhammad International Airport, Lagos. She worked a grueling 12 hour a day job that paid her a measly 7, 800 at the end of the lunar month. But she labored in that humble station with a sense of dignity that recommends her highly.
Josephine reported for work on 23rd January, 2015. It was one of those characteristically normal days. She had come to clean her allocated spaces as usual. She wasn’t primed for the test of character that she met as she cleaned the floor of the departure lounge around 6: 30 pm. She stumbled on a treasure trove packed with US $ 28,000 and other foreign currencies that totaled about 12 million naira!
She dismissed the temptation to gift herself the money. She went the bag to the Aviation Security of the airport, reported the incident and dropped the bag there.
The distraught owner of the bag later scurried to lodge a complaint at the security post. He was told an angel of a cleaner found it and returned it. He was handed the money. He counted it and confirmed that it was complete to the last bottom bill. He cast a glance at Josephine who had been summoned to witness the collection, muttered the most grudging and least audible ‘’Thank You’’ possible… and walked away!
This was the umpteenth time Josephine was returning lost money. Two days to Christmas in 2014, she found and returned 3 million naira. Four days later, on December 27, she found and returned 600, 000. None of the owners rewarded her with any tip. They just walked away.
As you would expect, some of her work mates mocked her. They called her a fool. She had wasted another opportunity to transform herself into a millionaire in an instant. The money was manna from heaven. God had orchestrated the man's loss to be her gain.
Didn’t Josephine know that whoever could abandon such amount of cash did not really need it? The rich man dumped the money because he could afford to lose it. He left the money behind because money did not feature on his worry list.
Her fellow cleaners chided her all the more for her putative indiscretion. If she couldn’t muster the composure to manage the jaw-dropping discovery, why didn’t she hide the find and confide in any of them? They would have helped her conceal the fortune.
They told they wished they had Josephine’s streak of good luck. They would have disappeared the money if the lot of finding it had fallen on them.
They asked Josephine who she had meant to impress with her ‘’lost and found’’ stunts. Did she not know that Nigeria was a republic of thieves? Everybody steals in Nigeria. The President steals. Governors steal. Ministers steal. Senators steal. Local government chairmen steal. Councilors steal. Pastors steal. Imams steal. Doctors steal. Engineers steal. Accountants steal. Contractors steal. Everybody steals and cover their tracks.
They predicted that Josephine would die wretched. She has bungled many life-changing opportunities. She had contempt for riches. She enjoyed her poor existence. She came to Lagos to count bridges. Not to pursue a better life.
2015 ends with unfurling revelations of eye-watering thefts perpetrated by the kleptomaniacs who dominated Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency.
In the past week alone, we learnt how Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, split Abacha’s loot into two and threw half of it into the arms purchase black hole of Sambo Dasuki, the linchpin who was Jonathan’s National Security Adviser.
We learnt how Dasuki’s accounts officer, Ibrahim Idris Wambai, paid former Vice president Namadi Sambo a ‘’stipend’’ of 20 million naira every month.
We learnt how Wambai frequently paid millions of naira to sundry aides of Jonathan and his wife, Patience: Doyin Okupe, former presidential spokesman, former Deputy Chief of Staff to the President, the aide-de-camp to the former President, the chief personal physician to Jonathan, Jonathan’s personal assistant on Domestic Affairs, ADC to the First Lady.
We learnt how Dasuki uttered a terse open sesame and got the Central Bank of Nigeria to pack eleven suit cases with 47 million dollars. We heard how he handed the money to officials of the Peoples Democratic Party.
We learnt how Dasuki paid Nduka Obaigbena, publisher of ThisDay and president of the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria, 120 million as compensation for the seizure and stoppage of some national newspapers by soldiers in Abuja and other major cities. Four newspapers have affirmed that they did not receive a kobo of the money released in their name!
Nigerians reel as the pus of these revelations explode. We wrestle with the figures. We try to wrap our minds around the insatiable greed of this freemasonry of thieves. We identify their conduct as exclusive, incestuous philanthropy. We propose a Rawlings-style purge of the power caste: Liquidate the contemptible breed and burn their bones to lime!
Yet, we seldom repudiate the thieves because their acts are inherently evil. We vent outrage as the exclamation of the undercurrent of jealousy. We are offended because we do not belong to the clique. We imagine a counterfactual recast of the emerging fraud story of the day, with us as one of key beneficiaries.
So our lips denounce the thieves and our hearts covet their filthy lucre. In our daydreams, we wish their stars were ours. We wish that it wasn’t our destiny to filch few thousands of naira. We wish we could be admitted to the upper echelons where it is a natural privilege of members to cart away millions and billions of taxpayers’ naira!
Sometimes, expediency gets the better of our hypocrisy. And we go out on a limb and plead the innocence of thieves; not minding that they have admitted their guilt in plain language.
We seem to be apologists for thieves because they hail from our tribe or profess our religion. But the real reason we defend them is that they model success to us. They stole when they had the chance of a lifetime. They are who we wish to become.
When we come to it, Nigeria is essentially a nation of accomplished thieves cohabiting with aspiring thieves.
Accomplished thieves have had the day. Aspiring thieves are the beautiful ones waiting to be born, impatient ones rehearsing thievery in their little corners, expecting promotion to the big league.
Josephine, the cleaner, serves us a potent lesson on how we can sanitize Nigeria.
She was orphaned at the age of eight months. At 12, she was sent off to Onitsha to work as a housemaid. She struggled to see herself through an OND program at a private polytechnic in Enugu. She came to Lagos and started working the only menial job she got. She ate, dressed and moved around in Lagos by stretching a salary below the minimum wage over an entire month.
But she never for once counted her background or her condition a reason to steal. She always rose above every temptation to get rich on other people’s money. In the face of ridicule, she dared to stand alone and unpolluted. She prized her virtues above countable paper notes. She kept her turf clean.
Nigerians tend to thrive in blame transferral. We attribute Nigeria’s perpetual retardation to the greed of the cream of Nigeria’s political leadership. We presume that the root of Nigeria’s problem cannot be found in our own space. If only we could exorcise the demon of avarice from the powerful, Nigeria would be a never-never land!
We are inclined to discount our contribution to the overall mess. We reckon that the pittance we pilfer in our lowly posts is infinitesimal and negligible. We judge ourselves harmless thieves because we steal far less than the celebrity thieves whose names sprawl across newspaper front pages.
This psychology drives the pervasive meme of hunting for more malevolent thieves. Nigerians are in permanent search of the bigger thief. Every thief who is outed seeks refuge in the claim of persecution. He or she protests that there are bigger crooks walking free on the street. The anti-corruption agencies must first apprehend the ultimate thieves to prove its earnestness.
In this climate where thieves assert their putative sainthood, Nigerians look up to one man in Aso Rock to fix Nigeria.
It turns out that President is significant only to the extent that he inspires a refreshing moral zeitgeist. What’s more important is whether a critical mass of Nigerians would lend their buy-in. How many Nigerians would shed avarice and practice diligence and contentment in the civil service and elsewhere?
Dasuki and other thieves must be put of circulation. But a sustainably sane polity requires more than that. A clean Nigeria will require that Nigerians ‘change their name’ to Josephine!
Emmanuel Uchenna Ugwu