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“Awuf” No Be Bribe, I Swear! By Sonala Olumhense

It is pretty easy for me to understand why President Goodluck Jonathan seems unable to comprehend the uproar over the church donation made to him by the Italian company known in Nigeria as Gitto.

It is pretty easy for me to understand why President Goodluck Jonathan seems unable to comprehend the uproar over the church donation made to him by the Italian company known in Nigeria as Gitto.

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Remember, it is only a church, a place of worship.  In the view of Mr. Jonathan and many other Nigerians: how can that be a bribe? 

The general argument sounds like this: If he did not take money, where is the bribe and where is the harm?  To make the situation even clearer, such Nigerians would argue, Gitto never said it was a bribe, did they? 

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By mid-last week, Mr. Jonathan’s troubled spokesman, Reuben Abati, offered the “clarification” that Gitto gave the 2,500-seater church gift as a “corporate social responsibility.”  Predictably, that turned out to be the fuel in the flame.

In my view, this matter is considerably simpler.  Mr. Jonathan is a very simple man.  He does not speak a lot of English.  I conceive of him as a man who equipped himself of the language no more than he needed to travel to Lagos.  That he earned a Ph.D degree is a mystery.

Perhaps it was in that simplicity of language, which comes across when he speaks, that he announced that Gitto donated the church to him.  And he was right.  After all, Otuoke is one of Nigeria’s smallest villages, and without presidential intervention, who would have remembered his people.  So, Jonathan thought he was just expressing his gratitude for a favour.  That may not mean he had read the law.

As a nice man himself, Mr. Jonathan must have done a few favours to others in his time.  I remember one, in December 2010.  That was the month that Pastor Tunde Bakare and his Save Nigeria Group (SNG) visited Aso Rock.  On their way home, they were given a parting gift of $50,000 which the group, convinced it was a bribe, returned. 

State house was aghast.  “A bribe?” they asked, dizzy with disdain.  Whoever said it was a bribe?  Of course that was only “Transport Fare,” they told SNG.

As busy as he was, Mr. Jonathan must have taken the time to wonder how people as educated and eloquent as his SNG guests could have mistaken a mere $50,000 Transport Fare so much for a bribe they decided to return it.  Did they not know of the N10 million “Transport Fare” that Ibrahim Bademasi Babangida gave to visiting journalists at his Minna hideout only weeks before? 

The truth is that people in the corridors of power and privilege in Nigeria understand this culture very well, and they are horrified when someone starts to quote the law. 

To them, how can it be wrong when the wife of a powerful man goes abroad and spends in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in one store, some of it given as lavish gifts by contractors seeking appointments with her husband?  How can it be wrong when a man in power takes gifts given to him in appreciation of the wonderful work he is doing?

Well, in 2006, I recall that the man who is now President of Nigeria was indicted for false declaration of assets by a Joint Task Force (JTF) on corruption that was set up by the government. That powerful panel was headed by Nuhu Ribadu in his capacity as the chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

Mr. Jonathan’s crimes, the JTF said, included possession of illegally-acquired property such as homes and exotic cars he could not explain within his legitimate income (he had testified he bought them from his “savings”).  Some of the properties involved were listed as: a seven-bedroom duplex worth N18 million at Otuke Ogbia LGA acquired in2001; a four-bedroom duplex, valued at N15 million at Goodluck Jonathan Street, Yenegoa, acquired in 2003; and a five-bedroom duplex, at Citec Villas, Gwarimpa II – Abuja, valued at N25 million, also acquired in 2003.  There were also two cars: a Lexus Jeep valued at N18 million; and a BMW 7351 Series worth N5.5 million. 

I am sure that Mr. Jonathan must have been surprised at that time when he was told he was going to be facing the Code of Conduct Bureau because bribes violated the law.  “Ehen?” he must have exclaimed, “I am telling you they were gifts, not bribes!  I will never accept bribes!!”

To be fair, he was not the only big man whose name was dragged around in the mud by that panel.  There were 14 other governors, including the current leader of the Action Congress of Nigeria, Bola Tinubu, who was indicted for operating at least six foreign accounts in his name, his wife’s, one Zainab Abisola Tinubu, and in the name of Compass Finance and Investment Ltd. 

As is the case with Nigeria, however, we are discussing the Otuoke Church question today because all of those charges were practically dismissed on the way to the court.  Paradoxically, Jonathan himself was rewarded by the same Obasanjo with a spot on Umaru Yar’Adua’s presidential ticket.  I have to presume he gave back all those bribes…I mean, gifts, to Jonathan.

When you think about it, this kind of understanding must be behind Jonathan’s dismissal of the monumental corruption cases, reports, allegations and petitions that date from Halliburton down.  And when you think about it, Mr. Jonathan would be perfectly right: how do you justify prosecuting others who received gifts just because Nigerians think they were bribes?

Let us also remember that in 2011, we experienced all those startling revelations from Wikileaks about the desperate depths to which the Nigerian state had sunk not only through corruption, but also outright treason by top officials who were giving away our country’s deepest secrets?  Did Jonathan pursue the investigation or prosecution of anyone?  How could he, since he was also reported to have sprawled out on the American ambassador’s confessional more than once.  It was just “beer-parlour gossip,” he said dismissing the corruption charges.

That is all by way of background to Gitto.  It has become perfectly normal for men in power in Nigeria to take as it is to receive.  They budget for themselves and for those around them.  They solicit, and they collect.  There is no difference between the coffers of the state and theirs; just as there is no difference between what is possessed by contractors and what they desire. There is no illegality, only power and privilege.

Does anyone remember the Petroleum Development Trust Fund wars between Obasanjo and his VP, Atiku Abubakar, and the way Obasanjo splashed the funds around as he pleased?  The import is that when our rulers violate the law, it is no violation; it is anywhere between “beer-parlour gossip” and corporate social responsibility.   The track record of our so-called anti-corruption agencies provides easy proof that, in Nigeria, the law is a strong respecter of persons. 

This monster is a yawning ethical and legal vacuum.  It is not against the law if Oga Patapata takes another man’s wife, it is a blessing.  It is not 419 if the crook is the governor, it is government at work.  It is not a bribe if the President receives it, it is corporate social responsibility. 

This is why, although Nuhu Ribadu confessed that Obasanjo was far more corrupt than the vilified Sani Abacha, he has never been invited by anyone to answer a question about anything.  In Nigeria, the law is an irritating irrelevance contempt, as weak and insincere leadership nourishes the impunity that ravages our soul.  Transformation, aaahhh!
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