The proverbial excuse of the lazy American student is ‘‘the dog ate my homework.’’ We now have an analogous fable of the corrupt Nigerian official: ‘’the snake ate my loot.’’

Philomena Chieshe, a female cashier at the Makurdi office of Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board, told auditors who asked her to account for the 36 million naira she had collected from sales of scratch cards a self-exculpatory cock and bull story that harks back to Eve scapegoating the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Mrs. Chieshe told her interrogators that some phantom python consumed the money.

The Nigerian daughter of Eve improved on her great grandmother’s blame-game. Eve blamed the serpent for deceiving her into eating the forbidden fruit. Philomena blamed the serpent for eating the forbidden fruit.

Eve confessed that she reached for the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, plucked it, ate it and passed it on. But Philomena would not enter the mitigating plea that the devil beguiled her. She declares her absolute innocence. She was never tempted to touch the cash. She did not have an appetite for the money. A malicious mystery snake ‘’ate’’ it... to incriminate her!

Two headed python

The legend of the money-eating snake exemplifies the ridiculous height the imagination of a crook can leap, under pressure. In order to escape punishment, Philomena’s mind created a special species of a voracious snake that fed on the staple of Nigerian naira notes. Her flight of spiritual fancy separated her agency from the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the money and placed culpability on the invisible snake.

This snake-ate-the-money fable shows that corruption works from the inside out. It first twists the mind. Then, it perverts behavior. And finally, it primes a defensive readiness to emit lying vanities.

It is worthy to note that prior to the visit of the hard-nosed auditors, the cashier had been coexisting with the snake. She never raised alarm about the routine visits of the snake to her vault. She wasn’t spooked that a strange snake had become a frequent caller. 

The cashier also did not worry about a snake eating her up. It stands to reason that a snake capable of ingesting millions of naira might swallow a human being on a luck day. But she didn’t send for a snake charmer. She didn’t feel threatened in any way. She kept showing up at work. She kept doing her job with poise. She kept being the snake's nanny, feeding the beast money.

As much this fable is a product of a stupidity, it is equally an indictment on the very system that cultivated it. Philomena’s fairy tale was authored by an ergonomic environment which empowered her to receive cash revenue and stash it anywhere she chose. The heists that occur in corruption-friendly arrangements naturally match the available opportunities to steal without fear of consequence.

In 2017 alone, JAMB remitted 8 billion naira to the coffers of the federal government. This amount is out of proportion to the meager 50 million –less than 1% –which is the total sum the selfsame organization paid in annual returns between 2010 and 2016. Interestingly, the increase in revenue didn’t arise from any hike of UTME registration fee.  The wide difference in the remittance figures was simply due to the transformation of the revenue collection architecture. The former registrars of JAMB maintained a regime of loopholes. The new man, Ishaq Oloyede, blocked the leakages.

The 36 million naira was found to be missing only because the federal government ordered an investigation into the outrageous disparity between past and present remittances. Without the probe, the theft would never have come to light.

To be sure, this snake food bill of 36 million naira is only a tiny dot in a scam constellation. Only after the auditors have toured all the JAMB offices and thumped all the books can the big picture of the snake feast in JAMB emerge.

The most neglected truth is Nigeria’s putative war against corruption is that many public establishments in Nigeria are hardwired to run on graft. The rules, operations and transactions in countless public offices in the country are designed to maximize freedom to perpetrate fraud.

An effective war against corruption must dismantle structures that provoke greed and taunt the instinct to steal. It must prioritize the institutionalization of sensitive internal mechanisms that police transparency; so that loud and disruptive warning automatically go off whenever there is an occasion of a violation of the standard procedure. This is the way to disincentivize stealing of public funds. 

In many government offices, particularly revenue-generating agencies, the system suggests corruption to officials who function within it. When a new recruit is introduced to that system, he can only maintain his good breeding for a short while. Over time, exposure to the permissive culture of that milieu and the habits of colleagues will re-socialize him and crumble his moral defenses. His conscience will blend with the convention. And he will be another damaged man.

The working of Philomena’s office literally made it difficult for her to do only kosher official duties forever. She could not have restrained herself from stealing when she was free from supervisory scrutiny, regular auditing and any obligation to provide regular statements of account.

It was only natural that, in the absence of checks and balances, she came to the point where she advised herself that the money in her custody was hers for the taking. If she left the treasure trove to gather dust, she would be the loser. A transfer would take her out of that station and her replacement would reap the fallow fortune.

Here’s the most subtext of this improbable snake story. It is that corruption does more than deepen the misery of the poor. Corruption is a potent attack on the life of the poor. It imposes a sentence of doom on their future.

Many Nigerian parents cannot obtain a JAMB form for their children because the cost is way beyond their means. Some brilliant kids have been driven to artisan apprenticeship because their family could not afford it. Thousands have to skip an entire year to toil at menial jobs to earn the money in order to sit for the university entrance exam.

It is a shame that some ‘civil’ servants steal the sweat of these poor kids. And it’s a bigger shame that we are just waking up to this protracted robbery. It goes to show that how inured we have become to wickedness.

In a broad sense, the the-snake-ate-the-money fable of the JAMB cashier is a product of our myth building heritage. Our ancestors were wont to articulate allegories to explain and extract meaning from nature. They conjured up legends about why the tortoise has a ‘’broken’’ shell.

It is sobering that, in this present civilization, we do not have a better light to shine on our realities.

We cast our broken country within the framework of fable metaphors. We call Nigeria a ‘’zoo’’. We codename our in-country military operations ‘’Crocodile Smile’’ and ‘’Python Dance.’’ We lament our territory as an Animal Farm where ‘jackals and hyenas’ prey on ‘small animals’. We say we are a nation where rats evict the president from his office.  

I can't think of anywhere else in the world where a civil servant would make bold to say that a demon snake ate public funds in her care.

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