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The Other Problems of Corruption By Moses E. Ochonu

April 14, 2012

But ask the same Nigerians what they consider corruption and you get a muddled, confusing set of definitions and explanations. Their understandings of corruption are often circumscribed and hijacked by a myriad of factors: personal loyalty, ethnic solidarity, complicity, and politics.

Corruption, for Nigerians, is an external vice perpetrated by those outside their circles. Indict someone closer home and copious caveats, alibis, nuances, and equivocations emerge to clutter the definitional picture.

If we can’t call corruption by its appropriate name consistently, regardless of place, time, context, and who is involved, how can it be fought? If Nigerians cannot forge a consensus—forget unanimity—on how to name corruption, if they cannot agree on the indicators of malfeasance, how can they settle on strategies for combating it?

Naming is not the only problem in Nigeria’s struggle against corruption, of course, but it is one of the foundational ones, the other being the fact that we have become desensitized to, and have almost made peace with certain kinds of corruption that we now consider “small.” This essay discusses these two emerging problems of corruption discourse in Nigeria.


The problem of naming routinely manifests in the familiar scandals that are a staple of government business in Nigeria. President Goodluck Jonathan was recently caught in a self-confessed pay-to-play scandal. He announced at the commissioning of a renovated church in his hometown of Otueke that a government construction contractor, an Italian construction company by the name of Gitto Construzion, had renovated the church as a gift to him. Aggravating the audacity of the self-incrimination, he revealed that he had in fact told the managing director of the firm about the poor state of the church, a clear hint to the latter to use his resources as a construction contractor to spruce it up.

I read the report of this scandalous confession on, the, and other online news sources. The reports came complete with direct quotes from reporters who covered the church commissioning service. There is no ambiguity there. This was clear conflict of interest on audacious display. It was a sitting president cryptically asking a contractor for his government to do him a favor, a favor that was eventually done.

You’d think that Nigerians would rise in unison to denounce this brazen display of corruption. You’d be wrong. When I went to the comment section of the story on as I always do when I want to gauge the reactions of Nigerians to unfolding events, I was shocked that some Nigerians—enough to reaffirm the central problem of naming—found some wiggle room to defend, rationalize, and confuse the scandal. I came away confirmed in my belief that some Nigerians have the disgusting—and depressing—capacity to deny even the most egregious and obvious act of corruption. Where is the moral clarity? Where is the loyalty to conscience, to God, to inherited values?

Nigerians were recently treated to a theatrical display of dishonor among thieves in the spectacularly bungled and badly conceived probe of the failures of the Nigerian Stock Exchange and its regulator, the SEC. The public hearings, for reasons that now seem fairly clear, rapidly congealed into a set of revelations about the profligacy and vulgar indulgences of the SEC’s chairperson, Ms. Arunma Oteh. Among other revelations, documents displayed by the House Committee on the Stock Market indicated that Oteh had gorged herself on a daily menu of delicacies averaging about N80, 000 daily. She had also spent N30 Million on hotel accommodation. At the very least, this was misuse of government resources, abuse of office, and gross financial mismanagement—in short, corruption. Was she remorseful? What remorse? She boasted about sacrifices she was making on the job, “managing” with two cars instead of the five she had been promised!

You’d think that Ms. Oteh’s in-your-face corruption would attract the unanimous censure of Nigerians. You’d be wrong. Soon after the revelations and documents supporting them appeared in public, some Nigerians launched a full-scale defense of her actions on Nigeria’s vibrant cyberspace. Loud and shameless, Oteh’s defenders parried the damning scandal she engineered with a simple, repetitive mantra: leave Oteh alone! Unable to explain away Oteh’s documented vices, her defenders repeated this slogan to muzzle and muddle the message of those insisting on accountability and redress. It was clear from the ethical prevarication that followed that, with Nigerians, even if you had a visual image of a thief in the act, it would be a miscalculation to call it a slam dunk without first devising a strategy to answer those who would inevitably come to his or her defense.

The Chairman of the oversight committee, Herman Hembe, for his part, got a taste of his own accusatory medicine when Ms. Oteh fought back with her own explosive allegations. Hembe, Oteh charged, had approached her commission for N15 million as sponsorship of the entire hearing and was getting back at her for the commission’s inability to remit the money. Here was an oversight committee asking a commission that it oversees and whose activities it purported to be investigating asking the same commission to finance the investigation. The quid pro quo implications were clear, as were the ethical conflict, not to mention the disregard for the ethical oaths taken by the legislators. Everything about Hembe’s committee’s solicitations was corrupt. Then came the bombshell. Hembe had also requested and accepted a business class ticket and a huge per diem from the commission to attend a conference in the Dominican Republic. Not only was the solicitation corrupt, a clear conflict that undermined Hembe’s oversight integrity, and not only did he not attend the conference, he failed to return the largesse.

We have a clear case of corruption, right? Wrong, according to some Nigerians who curiously came to Hembe’s defense. Like the defenders of Ms. Otteh, they waxed lyrical with their own catchphrase of “leave Hembe alone,” as though Hembe, and not his odious conduct, was under scrutiny. They introduced annoyingly puerile red herrings and irrelevances to dilute the narrative of Hembe’s misbehavior. This curiously pro-Hembe crowd did not tamp down the intensity of its effort to deflect the heat he was getting even after documents surfaced to corroborate the allegation and after the legislator concocted a kindergarten story of why he neither attended the conference nor returned the cash advance to the SEC. In spite of the clarity of the wrongdoing, the pro-Hembe crowd doubled down, insisting on the lawmaker’s innocence and patriotic intensions.

Former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Malam Nasir el-Rufai, is currently being prosecuted by a court in Abuja for allegedly allocating choice Abuja lands seized from PHCN and other organizations to his wives, friends, and business associates. A recent testimony by the investigating police officer in the case traced some of the beneficiaries to el-Rufai’s many business investments. el-Rufai’s defense? He has committed no wrongdoing because his wives, family members, and friends are Nigerians and are, like other Nigerians, qualified to receive land allocations in Abuja!

Lost on el-Rufai are pesky moral and legal constructs like conflict of interest, nepotism, and abuse of office—all of which used to be unequivocally labeled corruption even in Nigeria. el-Rufai’s defense is remarkable for its lack of self-reflexivity, its lack of self-scrutiny. One is forced to wonder: are Nigerians genuinely ignorant of the ethical and legal implications of the acts that they defend and rationalize or are they simply, rationally committed to confusing the issues by feigning a lack of awareness of culpability?

el-Rufai, of course, is biased as a directly interested party, and one would be shocked if he were to have chosen a less escapist tack of defense. But what about his supporters, who can be found in small but vocal formations on numerous Nigerian cyber communities? They have incredibly and repeatedly clobbered those who object to el-Rufai’s self-confessed corruption with the same talking point: el-Rufai’s wives and family are Nigerians and there is nothing wrong with el-Rufai, as the FCT minister, revoking allocations and reallocating the lands to them. The legal and ethical escapism is mind numbing.

What does it say about Nigeria and its struggle with corruption when neither the corrupt nor his or her supporter is able or willing to recognize corruption and call it by its proper name?

In such a muddy ethical landscape, how is it possible to define and name wrongdoing? We have laws that should do the naming for us, neutral arbiters that should be unencumbered by the multiple loyalties and considerations that cause Nigerians to take curious ethical positions on clear-cut matters of misconduct. But laws are a product of society and are interpreted by judges and legal practitioners schooled in the prevailing ethical confusion or clarity of their societies. Laws are not stand-alone entities. They have to be summoned to do their job. They have to be interpreted and applied to particular cases by people with both feet in a society compromised by multiple primordial and self-interested loyalties. It is how people engage with or disengage from the law that matters.

If the defenders of Jonathan, Oteh, el-Rufai, and Hembe believe that those they are defending did not violate any laws or the ethical prescriptions of public office that indicates that the laws on our books have failed to shape some Nigerians’ understanding of right and wrong and of proper standards of public ethics. That would be tragic, for it would mean that the law is useless in this instance, for these folks. If these defenders of vice actually believe that the beneficiaries of their defense have indeed committed ethical violations and yet they are determined to defend and rationalize their actions as non-violations or as actions outside the law, this is even more tragic. It shows that these folks know what the law and our own religious and cultural moral codes demand and frown upon but have willfully chosen to disregard the law in order to scuttle its application. In this scenario, too, the law becomes useless as an arbiter of ethical ambiguity because some Nigerians willfully and mischievously ignore it.

A NUMERICAL QUAGMIRE : The second emerging problem in debates on graft in Nigeria is emblematized by the fact that corruption is now measured in billions of naira, well beyond the fiscal aptitude of most Nigerians. Million naira corruption schemes have lost their shock effect. Along with that is the fact that we have become obsessed with the numerical identity of corruption, and our outrage or lack thereof now correlates to whether the amount involved is “big” or “small.”

We used to be outraged by the theft or mismanagement of millions of naira. Not anymore. We have undergone a subconscious desensitization. We now react to corruption only when it’s represented in billions of naira or dollars. Even our capacity to be shocked by wasted billions is wearing thin. A small case in point: when the House committee on power sector investments accused former president Olusegun Obasanjo of wasting anything from $10-18 billion on power with nothing but a diminished generation capacity to show for it, one of his few defenders, Malam Nasir el-Rufai, argued that the amount spent was only 5 billion dollars and not 10 or 18 billion dollars as the committee’s report and other independent assessments estimated.

$5 billion is the entire annual budget of some countries. In Nigeria, the figure is little more than an exculpatory rhetorical number summoned to minimize a crime.

We have ceased being shocked by millions. We flip over newspaper pages that report on corruption involving millions. Soon, even billion naira corruption scandals, which are proliferating across the country, the latest one being the massive pension theft, will become so banal as to elicit only a shrug.

We have traded principle, which says that it’s not the amount that matters but the ethics, for an obsession with numbers; which will soon catch up to us because we may soon run out of numerical capacity to capture our ever-escalating corruption problem. Nigerians who are literate in the Roman or Arabic scripts may not notice this problem, but our unlettered folks, who number in the tens of millions across all regions of our country, will soon discover that they lack the monetary vocabulary in their languages to account for and quantify the wealth being stolen and mismanaged by politicians and bureaucrats at all levels of government.

Most Nigerian languages even struggle to grasp the numerical scope of a thousand, let alone a million. In many languages, there is neither a word nor a visual metaphor for a million naira, a million yams, or a million anything! Our unlettered folk used to measure money and currency in bags (akpo, apo, jekan kudi, and ekpa) or in the form of mounds, as in mounds of earth prepared for the planting of yams, cassava, and other crops. These were visual representations carried over from precolonial and colonial currency regimes and from agricultural systems. Lacking equivalent monetary constructions in their lexicons, this was the only way rural folks could make sense of large sums of money, and when I say large I am talking about hundreds or thousands of naira. Not millions. 

Because of this mental visual of bags and mounds, when they heard that someone stole or mismanaged thousands of naira, they went crazy with outrage and wonder: what is he going to do with those mounds of money? When corruption scandals graduated into the millions, our rural and unlettered folks could no longer comprehend the extent of our national problem of graft. Some Nigerian languages simply adopted and Africanized the word “million,” but only the speakers of those languages who were lettered in English really knew what a million was. Unlettered rural speakers only learned to say “million” in inflected and accented tongues because they could not imagine millions of naira as bags of alloy coins or cowries. How many bags would that kind of money fit into? They had no financial understanding of what constituted a million naira; it was for them in the realm of uncountable, unquantifiable money.  And, of course, their own languages have no semantic provision to account for a million. Now, as billion naira corruption scandals have become the norm, we have a large demographic group in our society, whose members are simply incapable of wrapping their minds around, let alone articulating in local languages, what successive generations of rulers have been pilfering from their patrimony.

With understanding comes outrage and action. In the absence of understanding among our unlettered compatriots and in the context of increased desensitization on the part of literate Nigerians to what are now seen as “small” corruption scandals involving millions of naira, our capacity to feel the pain of corruption and mobilize against it has receded. We only react now when the figure is in the billion naira ballpark, and we do so with an air of familiar, jaded disgust.

Only a few years ago, billion naira scandals were rare and were the subject of nation-wide sensation. Today, they are the norm, at least at the federal level. Those of us who are literate enough to understand the fiscal firmament of billions should not rest easy; at this pace, we will get to the trillions, a threshold that I confess I have no capacity to fully quantify in concrete terms. Do you say: “imagine a three bedroom house filled with cash from floor to ceiling”? What will happen when trillion naira corruption scandals become as common as billion naira ones? Will our general literacy prove adequate in equipping us with the financial literacy to understand the scope of what is routinely happening to our country’s revenue?

CONCLUSION: We need to tackle the bifurcated ethic that allows Nigerians, when confronted by the same corruption in two contexts, to offer radically different moral responses in each case, calling it what it is in one place and rationalizing it in another. We also have to find a way to translate the numerical magnitude of our corruption problem into locally understood idioms—tropes that can be expressed lucidly in our local languages. This is the only way we can generate the outrage that will power the fight against corruption. If the idiom of mounds and bags won’t do, or if it is outmoded for our increasingly literate and non-agricultural society, how about quantifying the thefts as classrooms, hospitals, roads, power generating plants, and water supply plants, infrastructures that the amounts involved would have built? Instead of saying that someone stole N5 billion—an abstract monetary construct that is beyond the arithmetic imagination of most Nigerians—perhaps we should say graphically that he stole 25 classrooms, 2 hospitals, two rural roads, one small IPP project, and one rural water scheme.

The author can be reached at: [email protected]

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