The very popular opinion is that Nigeria’s greatest challenge is corruption and that when it is effectively checked the nation’s development will progress more rapidly. Indeed the current APC-led Federal Government of President Muhammadu Buhari anchored its “change” campaign on three thematic areas namely – corruption, security and the economy. In fact, for the administration, corruption is the foundation of the problem. This is the thinking of most Nigerians and indeed foreigners. Nigerians have the unenviable reputation world-wide as being corrupt people. The recent labeling of the country as being “fantastically corrupt” by the immediate past British Prime Minister, Mr. David Cameron comes to mind.
It is true of course that corruption has become endemic in the Nigerian national life. It is pervasive and has permeated all facets of society and not just the public sector. But is corruption the problem with Nigeria or is it a symptom of a deeper national malaise?
In considering this question a number of real life scenarios come to mind. First, while I lived in Lagos I participated actively in my neighbourhood residents association, the Onikan Residents Association. These types of associations are very popular in residential areas in Lagos. All the residents of Onikan in Lagos Island were members of this Association. We contributed money to provide common services in the neighbourhood such as security in particular, waste disposal and sanitation sometimes electricity and water.
The Executive Committee of the association consisted of Nigerians. The Executive Committee never mismanaged the money contributed by members. In fact, they usually worked very hard to justify the confidence their neighbours had reposed in them. At the monthly meetings, they gave full and detailed account of their activities and how monies were expended on projects. If for any reason they failed to give account, the members demanded it of them. Everyone who aspired to the Executive Committee aspired to provide service and never to enrich himself or herself with the money of the association. The members also always tried to select the most reputable of their neighbours to lead the Executive Committee. Wherever there was a case of mismanagement or embezzlement which was very rare, the members sanctioned whoever was responsible. In fact, if a case of theft of the money of the association was established against any executive member, such a member would likely be ostracized from the neighbourhood!
Contrast this scenario with what happens, for example, the Lagos Island Local Government. The citizens of Lagos Island including Onikan residents actually expect the chairman of the local government council to enrich himself from the funds of the council. The more successfully he does so the more he is acclaimed as successful by the citizens. An aspirant to the office of chairman of council actually expects to enrich himself and his family members and cronies from that office. The occupant of that office will usually be invited to be the chief launcher at occasions and functions of family, friends, churches and other civil societies. People will say “it’s his turn to chop” and hail him for being “lucky”! Yet if the local government council functioned properly, associations like the Onikan Residents Association will be redundant or even unnecessary.
Secondly, I come from Ugep in Yakurr Local Government Council of Cross River State. It is a large town that has anecdotally been referred to as “the largest native village in West Africa.” One reputation of the town among many is that it is a town that has grown as a result of very strong communal cooperative effort. The town had a community development association known as “Ugep Union” (later Ugep Development Council). All able bodied and working men and women were expected to belong and contribute to this association. The proceeds were then used to undertake developmental projects in the town including training students in schools.
I recall the pride in my father’s voice when he told me what this association accomplished for the town – the Ugep Community Secondary Grammar School, the Girls School, the now general hospital in Ugep, pipe-borne water, scholarships and so on. It was a matter of personal pride and a sign of responsibility and accomplishment to be a contributor to this fund and so enforcement was usually not necessary. Those who did not contribute or tried to dodge this responsibility were looked down upon as failures and unsuccessful people.
The association had an executive committee which managed the money and made sure it was appropriately utilised for its purpose. There was no question of embezzling the funds. If you tried it and were still alive after that, you would be ostracized from the town and your family stigmatized forever. The most reputable people in the town were usually selected to be members of the executive committee.
The Federal Government in the course of time then created “Ugep Local Government Area.” This local government area included Ugep town and other surrounding communities. The irony was that anyone who was elected chairman of the local government council was expected by the community to enrich himself as much as possible from that office. In fact, if he did not, his kinsmen will call on him very early in the morning to query him! He was considered as “lucky” to occupy the office and so it was “his turn to chop.” I couldn’t hide my shock when a relative of mine was measuring the successful local government chairmen by the size and quality of their private houses which they built when they became chairmen.
The bigger your private house, the more “successful” you were adjudged to be. A particular local government chairman who was unable to build a house for himself after serving as chairman is till date the laughing stock of the town and the local example of a failure!
Nobody takes pride in paying taxes or levies to the local government council. In fact, the least tax you paid the smarter you were. Only second class citizens paid tax. The real “sons of the soil” cannot pay tax! They are too well connected to do so!
The third scenario that comes to mind is the situation with the national football teams of the country. Whenever any national football team is playing everyone in the country cheers the team to victory. Nobody cares or minds where the individual players come from. In fact, there has never been any cry of “ethnic marginalisation” when it comes to the national football teams neither has the principle of “federal character” ever applied. The only criterion that is important to Nigerians is that a member of the team can play well. So why do the forms of corruption such as nepotism, tribalism, religious bigotry not apply to the national football teams? I will say that it is because Nigerians for some reason have appropriated football as their sport! The game comes so naturally to Nigerians of all extractions and the personal love for this game is what is reflected on a national scale!
Usani wrote from Calabar.