Voices of history 2: Corruption is good

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Corruption has held this country in thrall for a very long time. No other national affliction comes even close. I am fascinated by the literature on corruption. It tells you fascinating stories of exposed cases of corruption in very high places as well as the titanic struggle, genuine or cynical, by our political leaders in agbada and khaki to put the worms back in the can. Listen here to the voices of history each big and important person took corruption to the cleaners only to see it emerge undefeated.

I offer you a brief tour of the literature on corruption. The British colonial authorities opened the can of worms on corruption long before they granted us independence in 1960. The Storey Report on Lagos City Council, published in 1952, found widespread cases of corruption “in hospitals, where the nurses  require a fee from every in-patient before the prescribed medicine is given, and even the ward servants must have their ‘dash’ before bringing the bed-pan; it is known to be rife in the Police Motor Traffic Unit, which has unrivalled opportunities on account of the common practice of over-loading vehicles; pay clerks make a deduction from the wages of daily paid staff; produce examiners exact fee from the produce buyer for every bag that is graded and sealed; domestic servants pay a proportion of their wages to the senior of them, besides often having paid a lump sum to buy the job.”

            Do you see anything contemporary and familiar in the report? 

In a lecture given to Nigerian students in London in September 1961, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, said: “Bribery and corruption, especially in high places, are alarmingly on the increase. A large percentage of monies which are voted for expenditure on public projects find their way into the private pockets of certain individuals.”

Do you see anything familiar in his assertion more than 61years ago?

            The late Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, leader of the January 15, 1966, coup, had good reasons to declare “political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 per cent,” the enemies of his stillborn revolution. But in drawing public attention to corruption, he inadvertently achieved four unintended objectives. One, he made it possible for the country to keep corruption on the front burner and watch it morph into a way of life wired into the nation’s DNA. Our news media are inundated with corruption cases daily, most of them involving top men in government; they are named but they refuse to be shamed. 

Two, he made it compulsory for our public officers at all levels of government to decry and fulminate against corruption. Three, he compelled all our leaders in khaki and agbada, to declare war against corruption as a patriotic national duty. And four, he made allegations of corruption a good enough reason for ambitious military men to change our government outside the confines of the constitutional provisions. Corruption is thus the change agent, the excuse and the whipping boy cynically manipulated by our political leaders to achieve personal political ends. 

The federal government-owned Morning Post predicted the end of corruption with the military takeover of government on January 15, 1966.  Its banner headline in its issue of January 27, 1966, screamed: “Bribe? E Don Die-O. Chop-Chop – E No Dey.” But so many years later, this country has not been able to out-run corruption. Bribe dey; chop-chop dey.

            The late Chief Ernest Shonekan, head of the Interim National Government, lie other leaders before him, identified corruption as Nigeria’s number one ill. In his inaugural speech on August 31, 1993, he said “…the total disregard for uprightness in our society which has enthroned wealth by all means is quite worrisome  to me. Thus, not only are those who defraud our public treasuries honoured, even armed robbers and drug barons are able to buy respectability. Rampant corruption and get-rich-quick mania, therefore have become cankerworms in all spheres of our national life. I have come to the painful conclusion that to forge ahead as a society we must extirpate corruption from our public life. Therefore, I am serving notice here and now of the determination of the Interim National Government to launch a crusade against corruption in our public life. I shall strive to live by personal example.”

            He did not last long enough in office to launch the anti-corruption crusade. 

            President Obasanjo earned that pip. On assumption of office as president on May 29, 1999, Obasanjo said of corruption: “Corruption, the greatest bane of our society today, will be tackled head-on at all levels. The rampant corruption in the public service and the cynical contempt for integrity that pervades every level of the bureaucracy will be stamped out.”

            He went on to launch the anti-corruption war with the setting up of EFCC through an act of parliament in 2003. The commission, first headed by its very zealous chairman, Nuhu Ribadu, exposed the suppurating underbelly of government at national and sub-national levels. But corruption is still rampant in federal and state governments. Almost every state governor is tainted by it and on leaving office, EFCC calls their excellencies to account before the courts of law. But they laugh at us and thumb their noses at us because corruption has made them wealthy men able to bend the law towards their innocence. Their wealth makes them important and untouchable.

Why is corruption endemic and impossible to dislodge in our national life? It is an important double-barrelled question, and one the egg heads can intellectually answer. Some Nigerian scholars, under the aegis of the Nigerian Anthropological and Sociological Association took up that challenge. They met at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, from May 10 -13, 1982, to crack their heads on this national affliction. 

Professor Ango Abdullahi, vice-chancellor of the university at the time, reminded them that “…corruption has eaten deep into the fabric of Nigerian society, so much so, that I believe it is at present one of the greatest obstacles to national development.” I think he urged them to see that the meeting was not an academic talk shop. They must help the nation understand what it is up against with corruption running riot and poisoning everything and turning the indecent into the decent and acceptable.

The egg heads cracked their heads, as egg heads are wont to do, and came up with the shocker that corruption is actually good for the country. Professor Otite offered six positive uses of corruption. They are:

·      Widespread corruption could provoke resentment and promote the chances of a revolution beneficial to society in the long run.

·      Corruption and the challenge to excel others in competitive bidding and payment of high bribes by businessmen and entrepreneurs may produce efficiency in commodity production.

·      Where government is inefficient or unwise in its spending and priorities, or where it lacks the capacity to tax excesses, corrupt practices including avoidance of tax may help accumulate capital which may be better utilised by entrepreneurs for  development purposes.

·      Where aliens are critical factors in socio-economic development, such as the Asian minority in East Africa, corruption may help sustain this factor of development.

·      Opportunities for corrupt practices may promote the willingness of businessmen and developers to take risk, and also politicians and bureaucrats to implement policies and development programmes.

·      Corruption provides a chance for groups other than political parties to articulate their interests, maintain a channel, and get represented in the political process.”

Haba. We turn to Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardaunan Sokoto, and Chief Awolowo for their views on corruption and the anti-corruption war waged these many years with bells and whistles. Sir Ahmadu Bello said, “Corruption is a big matter and one that had given us a lot of anxious thought. It is all very well to say abolish corruption as though it was a thing that can be cut off by turning a tap or pressing a switch. No, it is a matter which springs from the very roots of human nature. Is there a country in the world which can honestly and convincingly claim to be absolutely free of corruption? I doubt it very much. In my opinion all that a government can do is to frown on these practices and endeavour to keep them in bounds…. (so that corruption) does not become a by-word among men.”

            Chief Awolowo said: “It will, I believe, be generally agreed that eradication of corruption from any society is not just a difficult task; it is, without dispute, an impossible objective.”           

 The voices of history