Corruption – it’s not them, it’s us

All week, Nigeria has been buzzing with news of the latest and most spectacular discovery of illicit cash, stashed away in an apartment on the 7th floor of a building in Ikoyi, a posh, leafy suburb of Lagos. The Internet was awash with video footage of EFCC* officials, sweating as they counted hundreds of $100 notes in bundles of $10,000 each – still freshly minted and wrapped in plastic. Speculation mounted until the results were in – an astonishing US$44 million, plus thousands of pounds and millions of naira to add variety.

The find was prompted by a ‘whistle-blower’, encouraged by the federal government’s promise of a generous percentage of any money found looted from the treasury, ‘chopped ‘ from a ministry or agency, or received as a bribe for doing government business. The new policy has created another opportunity for marginalised citizens to achieve their financial dreams, while getting their revenge on those chiefly responsible for their poverty. 

Social media was alive with curses for the unknown culprits, who are likely to be punished by God for their wickedness, if the chatter is to be believed. Soon there were various unsubstantiated reports of who was to blame, thanks to a largely inept media and the readiness of social media pundits who thrive on rumour. Unsurprisingly, one of the suspects, the owner of the apartment building, is a very powerful politician and known to be spectacularly wealthy, despite a career in low-paying government and politics. Another rumoured suspect is a former state governor – his successor is claiming quite confidently that the money is part-proceeds of an asset sale that went missing and should be returned immediately. The only thing that is certain is no one will go to jail.

However, none of this is news to me. I remember telling friends well before the last election that, with looting at an unprecedented high over the last few years, Nigerians will never know how much money has been stolen or taken in bribes by government officials. Never. As news trickles in about huge bales of cash found in overhead water tanks, outhouses, hidden safes and strong rooms in residences, the rest of the money is hiding in plain sight. 

The people agog now, because they can see images of piles of cash, are the same ones who have never questioned the huge mansions, private planes, extravagant lifestyles and legendary profligacy of politicians whose only legitimate income is supposed to be quite modest and open to public scrutiny. Instead, the wealthy politician is an accepted part of society, feted wherever he goes, with a gaggle of hangers-on and apologists anxious to do his bidding, all in exchange for a few crumbs from his overladen table. 

In my home country of Jamaica, the politicians have the same corrupt tendencies and we’ve had our fair share of scandals over the last forty years. Although it’s on a much smaller scale, the result is the same – an incalculable damage to society, in terms of lost opportunities, high unemployment, poor education, inadequate healthcare and unfair business practices. In fact, the roots of Jamaica’s violent crime lie in the desperate struggle for political power in the 1970s, when youths in impoverished, inner-city communities were armed and set against each other. 

Today, Jamaica is an apparent island paradise, with some 4 million visitors projected this year; but that violent underbelly has continued to hinder economic and social development for the masses. The only thing that has kept us from the brink of abject poverty is the stubbornness of good people who refuse to give in to the corrupt few, holding them to account and publicly chastising them on talk radio, in newspapers and online. A vigilant media investigates scandals and keeps going until there’s a resolution, even if it takes years.

Who can forget the expenses scandal in the UK, a few years ago, when MPs and Lords were found to be lying about their claims for housing and travel? Even though it involved thousands, not millions, of pounds, the British public was incensed. The guilty had to pay back every penny and apologise publicly; some went to prison; others were de-selected by their local constituency parties before the next election or forced into early retirement. None escaped. 

My point is, it’s not them, it’s us. Politicians will be politicians, even in countries where they come from the professional, middle and upper classes. Power has the tendency to corrupt those who possess it and it’s only the honest citizens who can hold them to account. Nigerians are inclined to bow to power and position – it’s a cultural thing, I’m told. However,  does tradition dictate that even as your leaders are robbing you blind, you will continue to bow? 

I’m always fascinated by people who characterise a rich politician as a ‘good man’, simply because he has tossed a few thousand naira to them from the billions he has taken illegally. One of the rumoured owners of the $44 million was well-known for dispensing $100 tips to any workers he saw in the grounds of the afore-mentioned apartment building – a very ‘good man’. Now everyone knows one possible source of his largesse, although anyone with an enquiring mind would have guessed the truth. 

It’s not them, it’s us. We continue to hold common thieves in high regard and call them ‘honourable’. We excuse the signs of ill-gotten wealth, saying it’s ‘just the way things are’. We accept that our senators live like millionaire playboys, with flashy cars, huge, tasteless houses and well-groomed harems. We smile at the antics of a First Lady who became a multi-millionaire in just six years of a presidency, with no visible business interests. We boast when any of these reformed touts and dubious characters in public office grace our events with their presence. And, given that we all work so hard while they live this gilded lifestyle, we long to be them. We would take their place happily, knowing that we too would be accepted, no matter how heinous our crimes.

It’s not them, it’s us. We are the only ones we can rely on, if we are serious about reducing corruption in society. The security forces are on the take, the media has been bought and the judiciary has been seriously compromised. 

So, who do you rely on? Who do you trust? Who else will hold elected officials, public officers and political parties accountable? If it’s not you, then who? And if not now, then when? 

There’s only one answer and it’s not ‘them’, it’s ‘us’.

“Democracy must be built through open societies that share information. When there is information, there is enlightenment. When there is debate, there are solutions. When there is no sharing of power, no rule of law, no accountability, there is abuse, corruption, subjugation and indignation.”  – Atifete Jahjaga

“We’ve seen over time that countries that have the best economic growth are those that have good governance, and good governance comes from freedom of communication. It comes from ending corruption. It comes from a populace that can go online and say, ‘This politician is corrupt, this administrator, or this public official is corrupt’.”  – Ramez Naam

* Economic and Financial Crimes Commission 

13 thoughts on “Corruption – it’s not them, it’s us

  1. As usual my son, you have spoken the unvarnished truth. Too many of us leave it to others to correct things, to clean up messes, not willing to face the fact that we, as much as our neighbours, the folks in power, the church, society, we, as much as anybody, have a responsibility to do whatever we are able to hold our leaders to account, to improve our little corner of the world, to make it better for our children and future generations. Thanks Michael. All of us need to think on these things.

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  2. Whenever I read about the corruption that impoverishes the mass of the people and stunts the growth of Nigeria, it leaves me feeling angry and in despair. The despair lies in what you say “it is us”. This is so true. The vast majority of Nigerians ‘seem’ to be incapable or unwilling to to confront the truth that in accepting the status quo, or as you describe it ‘traditional behaviour’ they are simply maintaining the impoverishment of their country. What they seem incapable of understanding is that by cow towing to the rich and powerful (and in this I include the many fraudulent mega rich pastors as well as politicians) the vast riches they steal for personal enrichment does not get invested into the infrastructure, that would help develop the country economically. The result is an oil rich country with a few obscenely wealthy people at the top and a majority who live in abject poverty; imagine leprosy and polio has existed in Nigeria long after these ancient diseases have been eradicated in almost every other country in the world.

    Yes, angry and despairing, thats how I feel as I cannot see change happening any time soon…apathy and a culture of obsequiousness maintains the status quo.

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    1. Hi Charles. I feel you – it’s hard. However, I believe that your anger and despair stems from a feeling of helplessness, but you are far from helpless. You can influence the people around you and far more people online. Good people who do nothing are just as guilty as the perpetrators. Real change lies in our small, everyday actions. Rosa Parks didn’t know that her refusal to give up her seat and go to the back of the bus would help to end segregation in America. She was just tired. Eventually, Nigerians will get tired of this nonsense but someone has to lead the way.

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      1. Ah, madam, good to see you here! The course of history has often been changed by an accumulation of small actions by everyday people, despite the fact that written history usually celebrates leaders only. All protest movements, all resistance, all elections are won by the small actions of ordinary people.

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      2. I guess you see right Michael but this has been going on for so long. Also oil is a finite resource which when it ends will plunge the country into a far worse situation.. ..God help us.

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      3. Yes, Charles, it has been going on for far too long. I guess it’s easy for me to say because I’ve grown up in a developing country with many of the same issues but when the people have had enough, they push back. Politicians are held accountable by ordinary people and the media. Institutions are strong – the judiciary, civil society organisations, business groups, the church, etc. Ministers are called out on talk radio and often have to respond live on air. If a road or bridge remains in disrepair, local people block the road and protest until the news cameras arrive. A former prime minister gave a statement in parliament and was later found to have lied – there was pressure from all the institutions and media for him to resign, but he refused. He apologised and remained in office, until opinion polls showed that his party would lose the next election if he remained in charge. He didn’t have to resign, the party demanded that he should step down. Nigerians have the same power but don’t believe they do. Others put short-term gain of a few thousand naira in ‘dash’, over the long-term investment in education, health and infrastructure they deserve. Someone has to lead until the rest follow.

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  3. It is sad to see how much of our money has been hidden away, out of sight but in plain sight. One can barely imagine how many more of such houses exist in parts of Nigeria.
    Corruption in Nigeria is so ingrained into everyone at a very subconcious level, such that it has infected our values. We value the desire for plenty cash over the vast possibilities of what we could use it to achieve as a society. Our taste for big money overshadows our need for accountability, good education, and infrastructure.
    We need to revisit our values and find a means of propagating the right mindset that will birth ‘out-of-the-box’ thinkers, freedom fighters and proper role models. Although it will be a much easier feat if we could have a couple good people as leaders to create an enabling environment. Nevertheless we are left with ourselves to begin with, it is a psychological battle.

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    1. Hey Mike, you are so right – it’s ingrained in the culture. People are in shock over these huge stashes of cash, when it’s simply visible evidence of what we have always known. When Nigerians travel to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Dallas or Houston, they don’t even realise that these fabulous destinations are examples of what Nigeria should be – an amazing magnet for investment and prosperity, fuelled by the proceeds of oil. Until the mindset changes, we will continue to bow to power that impoverishes everyone.

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  4. Good lesson from the case story. I believe it’s an ordinary courageous whistle blower that brought this up, we must give thanks and welcome government system that may not exactly know the how-to but is clear about what it must achieve…When systems are put in place, initiatives such as the whistle-blower will at some point spring up to support clear and focused government anticipated output/outcomes. But who exactly is government, “US”, like Michael strongly put. “US” is “US”.
    Proffering more solutions to corruption and other social evils must also come from “US” in spite of the ephemeral comfort zone we are in presently.

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    1. Very true, Clement. For some reason, Nigerians are content to wait on government to change things. However, if it is government that needs to be changed, it’s doubtful that it will be the source of change. A friend of mine recently decided to run for office because he wants to be part of the change – we need more people like him.

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  5. Michael you’re so on point. I hope this sets all of us thinking. Corruption thrives in this country because good people believe there’s not much they can do arrest it or are just plain afraid of the consequences of resisting the status quo which in Nigeria, with nearly every institution compromised, can be grave.

    Another thing, like you mentioned, is Nigerians traditional inclination to bow to power and position. I observe that many wealthy and not so wealthy Nigerians expect this as a matter of right. I think this is also part of the reason why even the police, most often, are ready to defend the rich against the poor. This habit has given tacit approval to “thieves” of our commonwealth cheering them on. I believe it is time we all,in our little way, say “enough is enough.”
    So I concur with you, Michael,it’s not them, it’s us.

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    1. Hi Godwin. You’re right – resistance comes with consequences. Unfortunately, people all over the world pay the price for resistance because they believe their cause is just. What made Nigerians so timid – was it military rule? I ask because the consequences were graver then. Nowadays is less draconian but by no measure is it risk free. Remember, one of the reasons we are celebrating Easter is because someone questioned authority and challenged the status quo on our behalf.

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