Too deep for mere outrage

Anticorruption activist, Chuma Nwokolo, reflects on the pervasive nature of official corruption in Nigeria.

Makoko, Nigeria. Image via Wikipedia

On May 27, 2015, on the eve of the inauguration of the Presidency of Muhammadu Buhari, the corruption watchdog Transparency International published a press statement meant to keep the incoming president engaged with the fight against corruption. Of the several figures published in that statement, perhaps the most staggering was that “more than US $157 billion in the past decade left [Nigeria] illicitly.” Persons or companies allied to the former President Goodluck Jonathan or his wife are currently under investigation or on trial for corruption enrichment. Earlier in March, the acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, was denied confirmation by the Senate, whose president, Bukola Saraki, is on trial before the Code of Conduct Bureau for alleged false declaration of assets. The following is an edited version of emailed questions and answers between Chuma Nwokolo, and myself reflecting on the pervasive nature of official corruption in Nigeria. The author of several books, most recently How To Spell Naija in 100 Letters, and the forthcoming The Extinction of Menai, Nwokolo is the founder of the anti-corruption initiative, Bribecode. He lives in Asaba, Delta State, Nigeria, the same state to which the convicted former governor James Ibori recently returned after serving time in a British jail on charges of money laundering.

Akin Adesokan (AA): Even before I saw your Facebook post “A Cashew Dies” on Friday, February 10, 2017, I had had this feeling, of a cruel, debilitating irony, that James Ibori should return to Asaba, the city where you live. An irony because of the particular sense of the comic absurdity in your fiction as I know it. So, this convicted felon returns to your city, which is also his city, as if fate wants to try your poetic patience, or gift you with an irresistible but also confounding tale. And it should happen that youre connected to BribeCode, the anti-corruption activist initiative. Tell me that the short post has no connection in the way I’m thinking.

Chuma Nwokolo (CN): My ancestral town is Ahaba, renamed Asaba by colonists. I like to think that the real Ahaba is dead and the new city represents part of a strange alien country still coming into being. James Ibori is indeed back home to Delta State. Although the rapturous reception reported in the news took place in his own hometown in Oghara, I have no doubt that he has popular support in the Delta State capital, Asaba, as well.

AA: So, you werent thinking of this strange, alien turn of things when you wrote the blog post? Im trying hard not to put you on the spot, but Im more taken with the challenge that the news of rapturous return and celebration ought to pose to anyone who is concerned about the scale of corruption in Nigeria, and is dedicated to addressing it, as you are. In short, do you wish to comment on Bribecodes outlook in relation to the confounding level of corruption? Not only Ibori, but others as well?

CN: I certainly do. In discussing corruption in Nigeria, we must appreciate that we have do not merely have endemic corruption, we have a pandemic on our hands. This is why a corruption conviction triggers no opprobrium from church pulpit to street corner. In tackling corruption, indignation serves us poorly. Like 17th century Euro-America embracing and defending the abomination of slavery, our public has embraced an anomaly which they perceive as essential to their survival.

The public has “normalized” corruption because government and the apparatus of state is still largely perceived as a colonial institution. We can process the legal fact of independence, but our heart ownership of state and country is still an emotional fiction. So state brigandage and the bilking of billions from a national budget does not hit the streets with the emotional punch of the theft of a loaf of bread from a trader. So we lynch the bread thief, and hail the budget brigand, “chief,” especially if he throws loaves at us as he cruises past in a stolen limousine.

This is to say that the most successful politicians operate a Robin Hood model with two defining characteristics: First, they never steal alone – they recruit a merry band to whom they bequeath power, such that, in or out of office, they control the treasury and operate a charismatic godfather network whose loyalty is cultic in intensity. In this way, the so-called developmental process of institutionalization is checkmated by the reactionary process of institution-capture. Second, they never “chop” alone, either – they are famously generous with loot and the sundry spoils of office, such that citizens who feel no sense of loss at the theft of a billion Naira (the Nigerian currency) from their public treasury feel doubly grateful at the “gift” of a thousand Naira.

Bribecode’s outlook is to take a systemic approach to this problem of a “post autocratic stress syndrome” that makes citizens to deify their politicians and public servants despite the constitutional sovereignty of the citizen state. Recognizing that our most egregious corruption offenders actually occupy statehouses across the land, the Bribecode introduces mechanisms that allow ruinous penalties to be enforced against them and their partners-in-crime. Without successfully instituting this mechanism, the anti-corruption campaigner is the would-be rescuer of a drowning man who is also drowned by the public he is trying to help.

AA: I get the analogy about saving a drowning man, but would you consider the proposition that the anti-corruption campaigner isnt necessarily helping the public, but is trying to fulfill his or her personal duty? One chooses not to be a thief or a robber because its not in ones nature. I wonder if this level of abstraction might be a counter to the extreme cynicism which fuels corruption in our country.

CN: Not really. In a society with endemic or pandemic corruption, an anti-corruption campaigner must act systemically or accept that his interventions are merely a lifestyle choice. An honest second class lower degree has little countervailing value in an employment marketplace awash with hundreds of first class degrees traded for sex. To stop sex for grades, you don’t merely offer your personal example of an honest degree, you act systemically in concert with others to change the system.

Another analogy is cannibalism: imagine that one were stranded on a desert island with no hope of rescue. If the only food available were human flesh, whether on day five or day fifty, most people will eventually become cannibals. Again, the solution is not the personal example of suicide before cannibalism. It is providing an alternative source of food.

Now, imagine a principled father with a daughter at death’s door, required to pay a bribe to secure a critical blood transfusion. It is the rare father that will stand on principle. Corruption is normalized at this existential crux when the request for a bribe crosses over into extortion. Imagine further, that the principled anti-corruption crusader of your example works in what is essentially a den of civil service thieves and he refuses to take his share of the bribes that are regularly divided. Clearly he constitutes a security risk to his corrupt colleagues and has inadvertently put his life on the line. The quiet, honest path is not always the safest.

Corrupt politicians and senior civil servants do not rely on their official salaries to meet their living expenses. They therefore have no incentive to ensure that national wages are living wages. Lower down the employment ladder, millions are forced to rely on their wages, which are sometimes unpaid for 12 months at a stretch. They are thus compelled into a lifestyle of petty corruption, or “executive begging.” You might find millions of Nigerians in this category, people who are certainly not corrupt by nature, corrupted by an immoral system.

We therefore take the view that the anti-corruption crusader who is merely doing his duty in an epidemically corrupt society is doomed to failure, if his goal is to achieve any kind of change. He would be similar to “ethical” companies who pay no bribes, but are happy to hire customs clearing agents who build bribes into their professional fees. We must act systemically to change the climate that fosters corruption, or concede that we are part of the superstructure of corruption, the valve that sustains the system.

AA: Maybe I phrased it too elegantly to give it the force I thought it required. It’s not merely just doing one’s duty, staying away from excreta but feeding on the maggots, like Chichidodo, the metaphoric bird in Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. The idea is that striving for transparency in all matters is an objectivity requirement that cannot be imagined outside of the force of example, personal or cultural. To cite an example that you might recall, of the men jostling for nomination for the presidential ticket in the People’s Democratic Party in 2006/07, the late president Umaru Yar’Adua was preferred because he was not corrupt. The system is corrupt, but there are individuals whose example might provide the basis for the kind of systemic confrontation you envision?

CN: I am afraid that “honest” leaders of corrupt systems are in fact chichidodos: they may wear their honesty as an electoral asset, but their blindness to the corruption of their staff, political party and political system is also a self-serving enablement of partisan slush funds to purchase elections, perpetuate their regimes and aggrandize corrupt friends and relatives whose loyalty can be monetized in the future when our “honest” leader has need for it.

Perhaps there are such individuals whose personal example can provide the basis for the systemic confrontation I envision but unless they act in concert to bring about that systemic change, all their honest, personal, examples will have zero impact on an endemically corrupt system. And I cannot phrase this more strongly. The personal example of a honest man that retires to a life of relative penury is not as persuasive to the young as that of a thieving retiree with billions of dollars of loot. It will be different, of course, if the thief were guaranteed jail time and ruin – as would likely be the case, when the Bribecode becomes law. Even if we conceded the personal probity of a Yar’Adua, what impact did that have on systemic corruption, even during his reign? The chief rationale of the Bribecode project is that all the money saved by an honest president in eight years of conscientious rule can be stolen in eight weeks of a dishonest president. In our context of course, we do not even have to wait for an honest president to retire. The corrupt superstructure of ministers, SAs, SSGs and DGs can steal whatever a president fails to steal. Our goal must therefore be to focus on creating good systems rather than merely throwing up the occasional good leader.

AA: What do you regard as the main strength of Bribecode? In other words, how do you envision it to operate as an activist initiative?

CN: Our current anti-corruption system is paternalistic. All the reins of anti-corruption enforcement and good governance are in the hands of the government. Victim-citizens sit back and wait on the current occupants of statehouse to enforce the law, even when they and their partners-in-crime are the principal offenders. The main strength of the Bribecode is that it changes the system by giving the citizen a strong role, while leveraging the engines of privatization, competition and self-regulation in the service of anti-corruption enforcement. The Bribecode has three main pillars:

First, it changes the penalty of serious corruption. After it comes into effect, serious corruption involving a million Naira and above will attract a penalty of liquidation for the companies involved (this penalty is modified for public companies). Convicted individuals who collaborate with companies will suffer Total Assets Forfeiture. This ruinous penalty regime will introduce self-regulation into anti-corruption enforcement.

Secondly, the Bribecode not only protects, but rewards whistleblowers who bring information leading to the conviction and recovery of assets with a percentage of the recoveries from their information. This puts the vigilant citizen in the driving seat of anti-corruption enforcement, and by allowing companies to earn this recovery commission, introduces the energy of privatization into the mix and assures every corruptocrat that ruin lies at the end of the road.

Thirdly, the Bribecode permits any of Nigeria’s 37 attorneys general to prosecute serious corruption and liquidate companies under the act. This means that – contrary to what has obtained from the inception of Nigeria till date – no single godfather, clique or senior politician or political party can protect any company in Nigeria. The fact that the recoveries from such litigations will form part of the prosecuting state’s internally generated revenue creates the incentive of competition in Nigeria’s anti-corruption enforcement.

Working together, these three principal strategies of the Bribecode will ensure the transformation of Nigerian society as we know it.

AA: Have you had any support from any level of government? 

CN: Our current focus is on advocacy to secure public awareness and signatures to our petition here. Yet, to become law, the Bribecode must be passed by the National Assembly and assented to by the President. Early in the life of this government, we submitted the Bribecode to their attention and while they are yet to embrace it fully, they have recently submitted a whistleblowers law to the National Assembly, which incorporates the second pillar of the Bribecode relating to the compensation of whistleblowers. There are critical differences between the Bribecode’s recommendation and the provisions of the government’s proposed whistleblowers system, but beyond those differences, it is important to note that unless the entire Bribecode is enacted as a system, piecemeal laws that shadow it will simply join the rest of the otherwise excellent laws in our statute books, which are only enforced against scapegoats, dissidents and members of the opposition. That is why there is always a floodgate-level migration to the successful parties after an election: they operate like mafia protection systems. However draconian the anti-corruption laws, a party membership and generous campaign donations will not only insulate the most rampant thief from prosecution, it might actually bag him a cabinet position or an appointment as a principal legislative officer.

For instance, the prosecution of the Haliburton cases under the American Foreign Corrupt Practices Act yielded a treasure trove of probative information against Nigerian officials and politicians. This is the sort of probative information that a Whistleblowers Act that paid rewards to informants could be expected to yield. Yet, years after the Haliburton information entered the public sphere and the American government earned some US$579 million in record-breaking fines, not a single prosecution against individuals has been triggered in Nigeria. It is confirmation that the government’s proposed whistleblower’s law will be useless against the politically connected. The beauty of the Bribecode is that once in force, political connections would be irrelevant.

AA: I still want us dwell further on the Ibori case. You don’t seem to feel any kind of personal affront about any of this?  Or do you think it’s too huge for metaphor? We had Tafa Balogun, Alamiyeseigha, Bode George all of whom were convicted and did time. There were several others whose cases have been stalled. This pandemic, as you rightly characterize it, this can’t just be because no one wants to feel responsible for Nigeria?

CN: There is a sense in which our funk is too deep for mere outrage, and an emotional response to our crises has to yield to a clinical and systemic response. Our airports and public buildings are named for war criminals. We have the faces of genocide perpetrators on the Naira. Our highest national awards are granted to men who have bilked our treasury of trillions, all this in a society that jails and lynches petty thieves. Add to this, a climate of sycophancy that converts our most brilliant degree holders into mere holders of meal tickets, who rise to the defense of the odious status quo for the mere aroma of a wage.

In this climate, personal outrage is actually counter-productive. Like an ejaculation, it yields only temporary relief, while the siren continues to shrill relentlessly. The effective activist is a foot soldier slugging though the killing fields of a genocide, who cannot afford the luxury of burying individual victims, not when there is a stuttering machine gun to overwhelm. The police and anti-corruption agencies must do their work, but the work of the Bribecode is to envision a future. Every convicted Ibori is a place holder for a thousand who are burrowing their way through a treasury right now, and who will never get their day in court. Those must be the focus of those who feel any responsibility for Nigeria. We are not called to the post-mortem of a dead nation, but as architects of a renascent one.

AA: To approach this problem from another angle of abstraction, how do we account for the claim that all of this indicates the slow birth of a strange society? 

CN: The birth has been a long time coming, and it is a global phenomenon, certainly not merely a Nigerian thing. Another way of viewing our world today is to plot all countries on the spectrum between commodified countries and countries where the interests of citizens cannot be bought at any price. I wrote about this at some length in my article for the Massachusetts Review, “The Extended Family & the Trojan Horse.”

In 1600, the East India Company ran India’s statehouse for about a century. Some North American state houses were run by governments of the company by the company for the company long before president Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in 1863 where he spoke of a government of the people by the people and for the people. Before the creation of Canada, the Hudson Bay Company “owned” 12% of the Earth’s land mass. Similarly, to the south, the staff of companies like the Massachusetts Bay Company and the Virginia Company predated politicians in America’s state houses and some modern American states started their voyage into the American federation as mere real estate assets on a corporate balance sheet. In Africa, charter companies like the Imperial British East Africa Company, German East Africa Company and the British South Africa Company traded in countries. From their “capital” in Ahaba, my village (as she then was), Taubman Goldie’s Royal Niger Company politically governed – and commercially exploited – the northern and southern protectorates of Nigeria until the turn of the century.

Today, the position is different – at least on paper. Constitutions up and down the world confirm that countries belong to citizens, not to corporations. Electoral laws establish that citizens have the vote, not corporations. But brush aside the paper tigers of our constitutions and what emerges is the fact that the interests of the corporations still drive the history of the world. Nowhere is this more apparent than with corruption. President Thabo Mbeki’s High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows in Africa established that political corruption accounted for less than 10% of the illicit US$50 billion that leaves Africa every year, while at least 60% (US$30 billion) of those illicit outflows were traceable to large commercial companies. In the US the funding phenomena of SuperPACS gives corporations the right to invest unlimited sums to secure the election of candidates who align with their agenda. It is instructive that one of the first actions of the Trump regime was the revocation of the anti-corruption Resolution H.J. 41, which compelled oil companies to publish their payments to foreign companies.

Lord Lugard, the first governor-general of a united Nigeria was an ex-employee of the Royal Niger Company, which “owned” Nigeria. There is a parallel with the business team in the Trump White House that leads America into her brave new world. We watch with interest, while trying to establish our bulwark of the Corporate Corruption Act (a.k.a. Bribecode).

Further Reading