I research corruption in Nigeria/Africa. I have written and published scholarly papers on the subject. It is a topic that fascinates me immensely, both on a scholarly and a philosophical level. I constantly want to know why people are corrupt (the psychology of corruption), and why Nigeria's corruption problem persists and is reproduced through time and space. I want to know what drives corruption and why people are willing to do or tolerate diabolical things to acquire wealth and satiate their greed.

My "obsession" with corruption means that I am attuned to mundane and quotidian incidents that, unknown to many, provide profound insights into corruption and why it endures in our polity and society. I read social relations to find meanings that might shed light on Nigeria’s problem of graft and diabolically acquired wealth.

Last Sunday, during Bible study in church, we were learning about wealth, divine wealth. At some point, the teacher asked if anyone had a question and a young man stood up and posed a question. He asked about a hypothetical person who acquires wealth through "occult means" (his own words) and then repents. What should such a person do with said wealth, he asked.

There were several illuminating responses from the congregation about restitution (to the extent possible), apologizing to those that the person may have hurt in the quest for this illicit wealth, repairing relationships and people damaged by the quest, and making other kinds of amends. 

The answers were good and consistent with Scripture. 

The teacher wrapped up the segment with his own insights. He then told a very instructive story — a true story, he said — to illustrate a point, a story whose non-religious import is my point of departure for this treatise. He said a wealthy relation of his became a born-again Christian and confessed to him and other family members that he had acquired his wealth through illegitimate and "occult" means (again his own word). 

Meanwhile, this man had recently completed a huge mansion in their village, to the delight of his kinsmen. To reaffirm his new Christian faith, he decided to give away all his ill-gotten wealth to charity. He also wanted to demolish the mansion in the village, since he couldn’t sell it to donate the proceeds.

That was when all hell broke loose. When he brought in the earth movers to commence the demolition and announced his intention to the villagers, they vehemently protested. He insisted that it was his property and that he had a right to do whatever he wanted with it. He also told them that the property was the proceed of a sinful life and that he had recently accepted Christ into his life, hence the decision to tear down the mansion. He found little sympathetic understanding. Instead, his kinsmen told him that the mansion should stand as it was a source of pride to the village.

After village elders tried to no avail to make him change his mind, they told him unequivocally and belligerently that he and his earthmover would have to go through them to demolish the building, that he had to choose between their dead bodies and the demolition. Quickly, a human cordon of villagers formed around the building. They would never allow him to demolish the building, his kinfolk proclaimed. He gave up, and so this conspicuous reminder of his illicit wealth stands to this day in his village against his wishes.

The teacher drew the usual spiritual inferences from the story. For me though, the story illustrates the ways in which many Nigerians are, through their actions and inactions, complicit in crime and corruption.

The story substantiates Peter Ekeh's classic theory of the "two publics," of Nigerians simultaneously and contradictorily upholding two moral codes. One, forgiving, ambiguous, and capacious, is applied to insiders and kinfolk; the other, narrow, unforgiving, unequivocal, and self-righteously demonstrative, is reserved for outsiders — members of a different ethnic community.

Most Nigerians practice this moral relativism and many commentators have touched on it in their commentaries. It is a familiar, banal fact. We not only forgive corruption and vice when the perpetrator is “our own” but we also actively help them hide the loot even when this loot, as in the case of the aforementioned mansion, has only a symbolic, vicarious benefit to us.

We are proud of the “accomplishment” of our kinfolk because it brings pride and prestige to our village, our community. The pesky issue of how the money that financed the accomplishment came about is secondary. That issue becomes magnified only when the protagonist in the story is not “our own.”

We abet corruption and vice in our own ways and justify same with a dubious, relativist take on morality.

A close friend once told me of his relative who was appointed a local government chairman in one of the Northcentral states and decided that he would not “touch” a kobo belonging to the government. His tenure completed, he returned home to his village not to the rousing welcome of his kinsmen but to curses and condemnations of his “foolishness.”

Of course, we know that many pastors do not ask tithe-paying people of means in Nigeria how and where their wealth originated, for to do so would be to drive the tither into the waiting, welcoming arms of another, less inquisitive, pastor. In fact, when challenged about accepting tithes and gifts from corrupt, compromised donors, the pastor may invoke Psalm 24:1 (The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof….) to justify his refusal to take a stand against the dirty money. Theology is manipulated to spiritually launder filthy money and justify corruption.

I have never heard of a Babalawo asking a client where the expensive “items for the sacrifice” came from — whether they were bought with clean or dirty money. And, of course, many Babalawos prepare charms for a wide variety of criminals to escape being caught and punished, to get away with their illicit and bloody loots.

Our Islamic institutions, too, abet corruption. Some Islamic clerics strategically declare the secular Nigerian state illegitimate, or haram, and thus authorize the looting of its assets as halal, a kind of permissible theft, if you will. Here is how Aliyu Tilde, a popular Northern Muslim intellectual, puts it:

“The notion among some learned traditional Islamic scholars [is] that “government” is haram and public property and finances belong to nobody, so they can be looted whenever possible. I came across this idea in Sokoto in the aftermath of 1983 coup. The mighty who lived fat on public funds were arrested. It was then I heard someone justifying stealing public funds in a private discussion: to, malammai sun ce halal ne cin dukiyar gwamnati tunda bat a kowa ba ce [Islamic clerics say it is legitimate under Islamic law to appropriate Government resources since such resources belong to no one]. My effort to present the contrary was futile.”

Nigeria has three main religious heritages and all of them tend to unite in this duplicitous approval of corruption and illicit wealth.

Even our secular discourses promote corruption and illicit acquisition of wealth. Ever heard popular pidgin English sayings such as “na where man dey work na im man dey chop”? Or the popular axiom that “gofment property no be anybody property”? The implications are that government resources are fair game, since they belong to no one in particular.

If you want to push the logic further to rationalize theft, you can even say that since the resources belong to all of us, including me, I would merely be taking my share and that I cannot be said to be stealing from myself. Thus, by this elastically perverse logic, government resources can be appropriated with little or no qualm. To not do so when one has the opportunity is to bring shame to one’s community.

And if you’ve already stolen or soiled your hand in blood to bring “prestige” to your village and you suddenly find religion, which then causes you to want to undo the prestige, God (pun intended) help you with your village people.

The author can be reached at [email protected]

Professor Moses Ochonu

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