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Fighting Corruption with Hometown Outrage

December 17, 2009

As we grope for direction and purpose in the fight against corruption, the recent gestures of Chief Edwin Clark may point us to a potentially effective strategy: the naming and shaming of corrupt politicians and businesspeople by their own kinsmen. Whatever we think of Chief Edwin Clark, his politics, and his motivations, let us acknowledge that the man has, perhaps inadvertently, crafted a template for intensifying the moral pressure on corrupt politicians. 

In the last two months, a group of Delta State elders led by Chief Clark has trained its critical gaze on a fellow Deltan, Chief James Ibori, who, along with his associates, is facing a raft of corruption charges at home and abroad. Their rebuke of Ibori could not be shaper, or more stinging: Ibori ought to come clean on his alleged acts of corrupt self-enrichment and abandon the predictable canard of blaming “enemies” for his ethical and legal troubles.

Dismissing Ibori’s tantrums and newly minted rhetoric of victimhood, the group counseled the hounded ex-governor to take his predicament in the chin like a man and chalk it up to the inescapable karma of egregious political vice. To Ibori’s widely publicized claim that he is being persecuted for his position on “resource control,” the Delta elders retorted with unsparing outrage: his new resource control profile is a fable with purchase only in the ex-governor’s alternate reality. Then this zinger: Ibori “merely stole the money to enrich himself.”

Chief Clark raised his outrage a few more notches recently when he protested the University of Benin’s choice of Ibori as its convocation speaker.

This is a side of Clark that we have rarely seen: the willingness to go after political vice on the home front even while staking out a radical position that rejects federal fiscal overreach.

This is a new phase in Clark’s activism. He has now recognized that while federal malfeasance is implicated in the plight of Niger Deltans, the local brokers and agents of federal might have, with impunity, also dealt the region a devastating blow. Ibori has come to symbolize this convergence of federal might and local fiscal despotism in the Niger Delta. Clark and his group should be commended for calling attention to locally entrenched forces of corruption and waste.

They should also be praised for rising above the seduction of ethno-regional solidarity and hanging out one of their own to dry under the luminescent scrutiny of corruption-weary Nigerians.

This template needs to be cloned for nation-wide application. We need to plagiarize the moral angst of Chief Clark and his group of Delta State elders and redesign it into a bottom-up program of national moral reclamation.

We have watched as politicians accused of corruption have invoked and conscripted the primordial appeal of ethno-regional empathy, running under canopies erected for them by the he-may-be-a-thief-but-he-is-our-thief crowd. The proclamation of ethnic ownership over corruption has corroded every effort to confront our corruption problem.

The ethno-regional refuge has proven, time and again, to be the trump card of morally-depraved politicians. It has blunted the efficacy of shame as a deterrent to corruption and bad political behavior.

In the period when shame (or the threat of it) was our first line of defense against egregious political conduct, the ethnic group was the primary institution through which the ethic of shame was enforced. When a politician misbehaved, the first rebuke came from his own kinsmen and ethno-regional allies who felt sufficiently embarrassed to call their erring kinsman to order in the interest of preserving the collective integrity of the group.

That was then. The shame factor has since receded from our politics. It is no longer a moral deterrence. As corruption has mushroomed and culpability in it has proliferated, the shame of being labeled corrupt no longer carries the sting that it once did. But the biggest culprit in the undermining of shame as a firewall against political vice has been the expanding political boundaries of ethnic solidarity.

Did perverse ethnic solidarity spread the virus of impunity, or did the expansion of the corruption industry produce ethno-cultural toleration of political vice? It is hard to tell which caused which. No matter. We are now in a stalemate and we need a novel strategy to de-incentivize corruption.

We saw a typical exculpatory ethnic solidarity on crude, filthy display during the recent trial of Chief Bode George. In the elaborately choreographed theatre that accompanied the trial, a crowd of ethnic loyalists, rented though it may have been, constructed a cordon of moral approval around George, deluding him of his invincibility but also undercutting the unanimous ethical chastisement that his crimes call for.

The national institutions designed to shame and punish errant politicians have proven ineffective in the face of ethno-regional approval of crimes committed by ethnic citizens. In the clash between national citizenship and ethnic citizenship, the latter wins every time. Nigerians are wedded and beholden to the ethnic constituency, and so they dread the possibility of rejection by trusted kinsmen and women. The moral censure of a politician’s own ethnic group is thus a plague to be avoided. Conversely, politicians arrogantly mock the generic outrage of national critics when placard-carrying kinsmen are available to mitigate their moment of national disgrace.

We should clone the Edwin Clark model of kith and kin outrage and use it as a platform to treat our larcenous politicians to a dose of hometown hostility. The most legitimate unit of social identification and cultural association is the ethno-regional space. No Nigerian wants to lose face with their ethnic constituency. The moral outrage and disapproval of the ethnic base is thus a potent safeguard against corruption, and the shame of ethnic ostracism an effective deterrence against political crime.

So, here is how the Clark model should unfold across the nation. Whenever David Mark engages in his favorite pastime of haughtily rationalizing the unacceptable status quo, his Idoma kinsmen should lead the chorus of critique. Only when they have sufficiently shamed their son should they expect their non-Idoma compatriots to pile on the outrage.

In this spirit, the only critical commentary that would sting Yar’Adua into action or resignation will have to travel from Katsina to Abuja, not vice versa. The anti-Yar’Adua groundswell must be birthed in the disappointment of his Katsina kinsmen. Then, other Nigerians, seeing that the president has lost favor even among his kith and kin, will rise to take up the home-grown critique and give it a national resonance.


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