To characterize a scale of mass murder that defied the English lexicon, Raphael Lemkin cobbled together a new word, “genocide.” He pieced the word together from the Greek word, geno, meaning tribe, nation or people, and the Latin word, cide (from the conjugation of caedo) meaning to kill. With his new word, Lemkin highlighted the methodical and systematic slaughter of entire peoples and nations by the Nazis in Axis-occupied Europe.

The scale of corruption in Nigeria defies the English lexicon. In the early days of Nigerian independence, Nigerians were corrupt. Then, corrupt politicians and public officials misappropriated about 5 percent of funds earmarked for public projects, and the notoriously and shamelessly corrupt amongst them were accused of stealing 10 percent.

The disappearance of $20 billion from government coffers; stealing, sharing and salting away of $2 billion, slated for the war against terror, into private accounts; padding of the budget by up to N40 billion; presence of  $20 million in a former first lady’s bank accounts; and other similar instances of outrageous financial dishonesty and brigand are not just corruption. Such cases illustrate the piratical depredation of a country. They are the looting and tearing down of a country by buccaneering deviants. There is a need to coin a new word that will fittingly characterize this orchestrated plundering by a band of freebooters masquerading as public servants. Experts of etymology and lexicography can help us on this.

Ostensibly, Nigerians abhor corruption, and are stridently opposed to it in all its shape, form and hue. But paradoxically, most Nigerians have a soft spot for corruption.

Due to the cultural shocks of colonialism, we expect that government and corporate employees, justifiably, should exploit “Olu Oyibo” (in the Igbo language, “Olu Oyibo” means professional, government and corporate employment; i.e., the Whiteman’s jobs), and make some money off it. This is because our earliest encounter with modern government, corporation and professions was in dealing with the colonials, a foreign and exploitative power, whose primary objective was to further the pretensions of the British Empire and not the well-being of the native peoples. Nigerians were cynical of the colonialists and their newfangled and exploitative institutions, and consequently, could neither trust them nor commit wholeheartedly to them. During this time, certain habits became ingrained, such as civic indifference and the attitude that only the dim-witted unreservedly labor for the government without exploiting it for personal gains. The colonials are gone, but the cynicism towards the government and its institutions persists.

The cynicism towards the government and our penchant for corruption persevere because, among other reasons, Nigeria remains an artificial sovereignty – an agglomeration of cultures, languages and ethnic groups roped together purposely to advance the colonial interests of the British government. There is a desperate need to redefine the object of Nigerian nationhood. It is the responsibility of our leaders to redefine and clarify the purpose of the Nigerian union, and thus, give Nigerians a unified sense of purpose and a national consensus. Without this redefinition, Nigeria remains vulnerable to the plagues of artificial sovereignties, like civic indifference, and its doppelganger, corruption.

Secondly, the Buhari administration has, thus far, failed to elevate the moral and ethical standards of Nigerian society and to get the people emotionally attuned to the war against corruption. As such, there has not been an attitudinal change towards corruption amongst Nigerians; they remain relentlessly and remorselessly corrupt. Essentially, the only weapon available to the Buhari administration in its war against corruption is fear, that is, the fear of arrest and imprisonment. Fear is not a very effective deterrent to crime. But, as it is the only weapon it has, it might as well, wield it in a big way.

Raphael Lemkin’s new word, genocide, resonated; it struck a responsive chord in the minds of so many around the world. It spotlighted a gruesome phenomenon and engendered deep disgust for it. Like genocide, the new name for Nigerian-styled corruption will not be merely semantic. It will contrast corruption, as we knew it in the past, with the present Nigerian rendition of it. It will also prepare us psychologically for the draconic penalty Nigerian-styled corruption should attract.

Nigeria should borrow a leaf from China. China executes those convicted for corruption, if the amount misappropriated or stolen is over 3 million Yuan, that is, $463,000.00 (about N160,000,000). The income per capita in China is higher than that of Nigeria. Adjusting for the differences in income per capita between the two countries, the threshold for such executions in Nigeria should be about fifty million naira (N50,000,000.00). It is obvious that many Nigerians would object to this proposed borrowing of some aspects of the penal code of a dictatorship by a democracy. However, it is important to note that there is no textbook democracy in practice anywhere in the world. Different countries of the world have had to adapt their democracies to their peculiar needs and circumstances. Democracy is antithetical to monarchy, but Britain, a democracy, is also a monarchy. The adaptation of her democracy to her cultural and historical peculiarities demanded an amalgam of antithetical political institutions. The exigencies of the war against corruption demand the adjustment of Nigerian democracy to the Nigerian reality, even if it means appropriating some cachets of authoritarianism.   

The Buhari administration should set up special courts to try corruption cases. The statutes establishing these courts should restrict the legal shenanigans of pettifoggers given to lying for a pittance that suffuse the Nigerian legal profession. It should make it very hard for them to frustrate the prosecutorial process with their lawyerly sophistry and Jesuitical exegesis. This will enable swift trials, and those convicted for corrupt activities exceeding N50,000,000.00 will be executed, like armed robbers, by firing squad. For that indefatigable iconoclast, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, was right when he sang that, “authority stealing (worse) pass armed robbery.”   

Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos. You can reach him at [email protected].

Anti-Corruption walk in Lagos

You may also like

Read Next