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Pat Utomi: Abuja, the center of the stealing Olympics

by Pat Utomi

I have become shameless in tagging a line to the words of the masters. Lord Acton said that power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. I have for years added that prolonged absolute power makes mad.

Again Albert Einstein has had his definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result; subject to my add-on.When doing the same thing and expecting a different result is systemic, you define a colony of the mad, an asylum.

Nothing gives more life to these tag – ons than our disposition to corrupt enrichment which many who know agree is worse today than at any other time in Nigeria’s history to the point that there now exists an entitlement mentality to corrupt enrichment in the country. So why should we wonder that in spite of the much trumpeted growth, the jobless growth economy produces a misery index so palpable, and so fertile for crime, terrorism and a general state of anomie that depresses the confidence index. Corruption clearly tops the reasons Nigeria has so much misery. But we continue to pretend about it.

Two things in my personal experience from 2000 stand out in indicating how not being reflective on a simmering social problem like corruption can bring collapse to the doorsteps of a people and show them as being of little consideration for their children’s future. One, well-documented in the 2001 revised edition of my book: To Serve is to Live: Autobiographical reflection on the Nigerian condition, was a chance meeting with a Delta State Commissioner. I was in company with a colleague, Chris Ogbechie, when the commissioner asked why I complain so much about corruption. He said one of his colleague-commissioners walked into his office with a newspaper in which I had talked about the effects of corruption and proclaimed “In Jesus Name” that I should not come into a speculated position and disturb people. The absurdity of the prayer by that commissioner and the person relating the story, who was urging me to forget this hopeless idealism such as reducing corruption, was not apparent. The person relating the story has gone on to more higher positions in the party leadership as corruption became more and more part of the DNA of public life in Nigeria.

At the time of the encounter, I was the Chairman of a panel appointed by the President to review the institutions of integrity in the Federal Government. That panel, serviced by Ambassador Emeka Azikiwe who was the Senior Special Assistant to President Olusegun Obasanjo on Transparency Matters, and had such notables as Gen. Ishola Williams (retd); Alhaja Latifat Okunnu; former NACCIMA President, Dr. Ngoka Okek; Prof. Assisi Asobie of ASUU; Soji Apampa of Business Integrity, DIG Abang Wushini, and Neville Linton from Transparency International, among others spent months pouring through evidence that indicated clearly that Nigeria was heading for a serious tragedy if nothing serious was done. And nothing was, characteristically, seriously done after its work.

The same Ogbechie, who, by just sheer coincidence, was with me when the Delta State Commisioner urged me to ignore corruption matters so that I could be appointed to a position that could “help our people” was part of a team several years later, to deliver a seminar on ethics to Federal Permanent Secretaries. During the course of the seminar, as another of our colleagues from the Lagos Business School was speaking, one of the Permanent Secretaries leaned across to him and said in pidgin English, “Which one una dey waste time with this people wey don chop belleful?”. She was of the opinion that if anything meaningful would be achieved, the target should be much lower down the ladder as the Permanent Secretaries were far gone in the tradition of corrupt abuse of office.

In the last week, travelling in Bangladesh where a senior foreign executive who had worked in Nigeria told me the culture of “speed money”, the Bangladesh slang for bribe, was worse than in Nigeria, I had the privilege of the company of some senior Nigerian civil servants and diplomats. The consensus is that the state of corruption has even reached a situation of entitlement. Security agents despise and undermine bosses that take away their access to graft. The story of the National Assembly even before the current mess of the fuel subsidy probe was a national disgrace they agreed. I have yet to meet one parastatal head who does not have unbelievable stories to tell about extortion from the National Assembly in spite of the undisclosed “official” payments of that body. I have hidden my face in shame many times as I listened to foreign envoys speaking about National Assembly remuneration and practices of abuse in “enlightening” visiting delegations from their countries.

Is it the judiciary we can hold our heads up for as the common man looks to a last place of hope? A former Governor exhausted by delivering sacks of dollars to judges in election tribunals was relieved to be away from the governorship desk, if the price was continuing that level of bribery.

It seems Abuja has become the headquarters of the Stealing Olympics. The internet has an amazing record of who will out-steal the other in Abuja. Pensions have provided billions to private pockets but forced savings have not done for Nigeria what it did in Asia. Ministers are said to ask parastatal heads for monthly returns. Now the young bribe to get the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination results, and become certified illiterates. In a competitive world, how can such a country make progress? Calling attention to where emerging practices could lead us 14 years ago now seems like a gift of prophecy as it is all coming home to roost.

A sad thing about taking these much discussed trends and corroborated facts, and making generalisations is that in this same arena of systemic corruption are honest and patriotic people in public life and the bureaucracy who get tarred by this necessary sweeping generalisations. As corruption always fights back there is also the tendency to find those who fight it being dressed in togas worse than the corrupt have been robed so as to discredit them and the campaign for a more just and orderly society. Many times, these champions of abuse mobilise those who are the bigger victims of corrupt practice, the weak and the poor, in prosecution of their war against whistle-blowers and those who point the destination of a rampant culture of corruption the refugee camp. This is where disrupted social order finally unites former Senate Presidents, Chief Judges and their mechanics in the desperate longing for a bowl of rice, as Somalia teaches us.

The failure of citizenship to bring light to the fact that a few, in the pursuit of corrupt gain, have frustrated the advance of the common good of all is perhaps one of the more painful aspects of the Nigerian condition. Nowhere is the shortsightedness of corruption more obvious than in the direct comparison of Nigeria’s power sector in the last twelve years with that of South Africa, the Philippines under Fidel Ramos and Vietnam in the rebuild after the war in Indochina.

How can the greed of a few punish so many? Corruption despoils. Pervasive and systemic corruption yields economic genocide, and prolonged systemic corruption, a failed state makes. But the unreason of the culture leaves many in denial regarding the consequences. They should read stories from Somali Refugee Camps of yesterday’s super rich fighting for a bowl of rice or ask Prof. Yemi Osibajo who worked on a United Nations programme there. They could also try out Liberia where yesterday’s boss man was the limbless refugee. A friend of mine in the ECOMOG officers corps could share amazing tales of desperation.

I fear for Nigeria. The problem is not so much that Nigeria’s corruption is systemic as Hope, and Chukulo suggest, in their book on corruption and development but that those with the duty to see a vision away from it and lords of corruption, are setting us up for a Jared Diamond type signature collapse. I fear for Nigeria.

*This piece was still published in The Punch


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