By ABALI O. ABALI
ANYONE reading Chinua Achebe’s novels cannot fail to observe four broad stages in the development of corruption in Nigeria. These are the stage of innocence or unawareness by natives that they were taking part in corruption; the stage of awareness but reluctance to participate; the stage of active participation; and the stage of internationalisation.
At the stage of innocence, the officers of the colonial courts took advantage of the language barriers between their European bosses and the largely uneducated native Nigerians to feather their own nests through inflation or padding of court fines. The uneducated natives did not even understand the working of the colonial court system and did not have access to the District Commissioners who were usually Europeans, because they neither understood nor spoke English. The court messengers, interpreters, clerks and police, who acted as intermediaries between the natives and the European administrators, inflated court fines without the knowledge of the natives. Such inflated court fines were paid by the natives unaware that they were participating in bribery and corruption. A typical example was the incident involving the six leaders of Umuofia narrated in Chapter 23 of Things Fall Apart. The six men were charged with arson and summarily sentenced to a fine of two hundred bags of cowries. But the court messengers increased the fine to two hundred and fifty bags of cowries. As Chinua Achebe narrates:
“On the morning after the village crier’s appeal the men of Umuofia met in the market place and decided to collect without delay two hundred and fifty bags of cowries to appease the white man. They did not know that fifty bags would go to the court messengers, who had increased the fine for that purpose.”
After the stage of innocence came the stage of awareness. At this stage, the colonised natives of Nigeria were fully aware that the local agents of the colonial administration – the Africans who serviced the colonial machinery – demanded bribes (kola) in the performance of their duties. However, the natives were reluctant to give such bribes or “kola” unless they were threatened or unduly influenced. The incident that occurred in Arrow of God between Ezeulu (the Chief Priest) and the District Commissioner (Captain Winterbottom). We read in Chapter 12 of the novel that Captain Winterbottom sent a court messenger to summon Ezeulu to his office at Okperi (the District Headquarters). The court messenger came to the house of Ezeulu at Umuaro village and delivered the message. He did not stop at delivering the message but also designed a disingenuous means of extorting bribe from Ezeulu by means of undue influence. Writes Achebe:
“There is one small thing I forgot,” said the court messenger. “There are many people waiting to see the white man, and you may have to wait in Okperi for three or four days before your turn comes. But I know that a man like you would not want to spend many days outside his village. If you do me well, I shall arrange for you to see him tomorrow. Everything is in my hands; if I say that the white man will see this person, he will see him. Your kinsman will tell you what I eat. He smiled and put his fez back on the head.”
Of course, Ezeulu understood what the court messenger was asking him to do, and he assured the latter: “That is a small matter, ….. it will not cause a quarrel. I do not think that what you will put into that small belly of yours will be beyond me. If it is, my kinsmen are there to help.”
Meanwhile, following Ezeulu’s initial reluctance to answer the summons, Captain Winterbottom despatched two policemen to Umuaro to arrest and bring him to his office at Okperi. As fate would have it, the day the two policemen left Okperi for Umuaro to arrest Ezeulu was the same day Ezeulu left his house very early in the morning for Okperi to answer the summon. The two parties passed each other on the way unbeknown to the policemen that the person they were going to arrest was the same person they passed on the road. When the policemen arrived at Ezeulu’s house at Umuaro, his friend and family members told them he had gone to Okperi to answer the summon. Even when the policemen were convinced that Ezeulu was the person they passed on their way to Umuaro and that he was probably at Okperi already, they still found a way to extort bribe from the family.
In Chapter 13 of the novel, we read the following comment from one of the policemen, “But we cannot come and go for nothing. When a masked spirit visits you, you have to appease its footprints with presents. The white man is the masked spirit of today.” The message in that comment was well understood by Ezeulu’s family. They responded by handing over two cocks and two shillings to the policemen after serving them food and wine. Thus, at this stage of awareness, the natives had come to understand that the language of the colonial administration, at least from the perspectives of its local agents – court messengers, interpreters, clerks and policemen –was bribery. They were willing to give only when asked to do so by these officials.
The next stage is the stage of active participation in corrupt practices by the natives. At this stage, the natives no longer waited to be asked for bribes but offered same to the colonial agents as a means of obtaining whatever they wanted. Even the few public officers, who had scruples with corrupt practices, found themselves at the mercy of the rampaging unscrupulous natives who saw in every public officer, rightly or wrongly, a reflection of the court messengers and policemen (the forbearers of bribery), who came to their villages to deliver the white man’s messages or to execute his orders. A typical example is the case of Obi Okonkwo, a British trained bureaucrat, secretary to the Scholarship Board in Nigeria and the hero in No Longer at Ease. Obi Okonkwo never asked anyone for bribe in carrying out his duties. He was in his house at Ikoyi, Lagos, when an unexpected visitor came calling. It turned out to be a rich man desperate to secure scholarship for his son even though the Scholarship Scheme was set up to assist the poor. In Chapter Nineteen of the novel, Chinua Achebe writes:
“My son is going to England in September. I want him to get scholarship. If you can do it for me here is fifty pounds.” He brought out a wad of notes from the front pocket of his agbada. Obi told him it was not possible. “In the first place, I don’t give scholarships. All I do is go through the applications and recommend those who satisfy the requirements to the Scholarship Board.”
“That is all I want; said the man. ‘Just recommend him.”
“But the Board may not select him.”
“Don’t worry about that. Just do your own.”
Once Obi Okonkwo succumbed to that first temptation by the native, he was fully indoctrinated into the bribery and corruption culture. He started receiving similar offers from other natives until he found himself in jail. The point here is that at the stage of active participation, the colonial had learned enough from the local agents of colonial administrators and became masters of the game itself. They became bold enough to offer bribes public officers, because they believed rightly or wrongly that all public officers were corrupt or at least were gullible and would give in if the offer was right.
The last stage in the development of corruption was its internationalization. Having conquered the public service in Nigeria, corruption began to seek foreign partnership or alliances. This took the form of the emerging political class aiding foreign multi-national corporations to secure lucrative businesses in Nigeria in return for gratification or bribe. The gratification or bribe might be in cash or in the form of a building donated to the politician by the multi-national involved. Chief the Honourable M. A. Nanga, M. P., Minister of Culture and the hero in A Man of the People, was a typical example. He awarded a foreign firm a contract to build a national institution and the firm, in return built a four storey building and gave him as a gift. According to Chinua Achebe:
“The house in question was the very modern four-storey structure going up beside the present building and which was to get into the news later. It was, as we were to learn, a “dash” from the European building firm of Antonio and Sons whom Nanga had recently given the half million pound contract to build the National Academy of Arts and Sciences.”
It is noteworthy, that it did not matter whether it was Chief Nanga who demanded a four-storey building private house from the foreign firm in return for the contract or the foreign firm which offered to build a house for Chief Nanga to secure the contract. What is important here is that there was an alliance between the local politician and the foreign multinational. The cost of such contract would normally be inflated by the foreign firm to cover the bribe to the local politician. Note also that in choosing the gift of a house instead of cash, Chief Nanga cleverly hid the bribe not just from the public but from his political party. By convention, the politicians were supposed to donate part or all the bribes to the party. Chief Nanga alluded to this in Chapter Ten of the novel when he was reacting to the allegations that he was taking 10 percent commissions from contractors. According to him:
“All these young boys who are saying all kinds of rubbish against me, what do they know? They hear that Chief Nanga has eaten 10 percent commission and they begin to break their heads and holler up and down. They don’t know that all the commissions are paid into party funds.”
The military coupists, who seized power from the political class, strengthened rather than abated the internationalisation of corrupt practices in Nigeria. They extended the frontiers of corruption by introducing two modifications. First, unlike the politicians, the military coupists did not ask their foreign collaborators to build houses for them with the bribes or commissions, rather, they requested these foreigners to help them open bank accounts in foreign countries and pay the bribes into those accounts. Secondly, the military coupists built alliances with the local bureaucrats (probably the so called super permanent secretaries) to administer the country, thereby drawing the already corrupt bureaucracy effectively into the international dimension of corruption in Nigeria. Chinua Achebe exercised great restraint in describing corrupt practices by the military coupists probably because his last novel, Anthills of The Savannah, was set and published at the peak of military rule in Nigeria. In chapter 11 of Anthills of The Savannah, he summarises the situation thus: “Public Affairs! They are nothing but the closed transactions of soldiers-turned politicians, with their cohorts in business and the bureaucracy.”
Couched with so much restraint, the foregoing comment reveals that the military coupists narrowed public affairs to membership of a select few from the military, business and bureaucratic elites.
The five novels examined so far have revealed that corruption started from the judiciary and crept into the bureaucracy. It spread from the bureaucracy to the political class and from there to the military.
Two questions may be agitating the mind of the reader at this juncture. First, is Chinua Achebe implying that pre-colonial society was a spotless moral paradise which only got stained after its contact with colonial institutions? Second, what prescriptions to the problems of corruption did Chinua Achebe provide in these novels?
In response to the first question, it is instructive that Chinua Achebe was under no illusion that pre-colonial society was morally perfect. In Chapter 7 of Things Fall Apart, for instance, Okonkwo (the hero) was chatting with his friend Obierika about the value placed on the Ozo title in different clans. Obierika told Okonkwo that, “In Abame and Aninta, the title is worth less than two cowries. Every man wears the thread of title on his ankle, and does not lose it even if he steals.” One major implication of that comment is that, at least, it was not impossible to find delinquents (or more correctly, thieves) among even title holders. The titled men were the lords of the clan and were expected to be epitomes of virtues and moral uprightness. If delinquents could be found among the titled men, then it could not be said that the pre-colonial society was perfect. But whatever imperfection that characterised the pre-colonial setting paled into insignificance in comparison with the brigandage and irredeemable moral decadence that ensued from the colonial contact. That is exactly the point Chinua Achebe was making through his novels.
Moreover, the pre-colonial setting had very strong measures against anti-social behaviours. In Abam, for instance, there was public shaming against theft. It did not matter whether or not the offender was a titled man or woman, he or she would be subjected to public shaming. In Idima Abam, in particular, the youth, wielding their whips menacingly, would storm the offender’s home on an eke market day. They would drag the offender out and strip him or her stark naked. They would start singing the “Kperendudu” song for him or her to dance:
Okwere gi ekwe
Uwa – Uwaya
Okwere gi ekwe
Uwa – Uwaya
Okwere gi ekwe
Uwa – uwaya
The offender would dance along, accompanied by whips-wielding youths from one end of the village to another, including a dance before the open market, while traders and other on-lookers jeered. Of course, before the offender would finish dancing round the village, he or she would have received more than a fair share of lashes from the whips wielding youths. By modern day standard, this type of public shaming might be considered too harsh and an abuse of human right (that is, right to dignity of human person), but the truth is that, it worked for the pre-colonial setting. Little wonder there was rare cases of people engaging in theft until the colonial contact.
On the second question about prescriptions for the problem of corruption in Nigeria, one can easily conclude that Chinua Achebe did not provide any prescriptions in his novels. In fact, Chinua Achebe spoke through one of the characters in Anthills of the Savannah that writers do not give prescriptions. In Chapter 12 of that novel, Ikem Oshodi, a major character and former editor of the National Gazette, presented a public lecture. The chairman of the occasion thanked Mr. Oshodi for a well delivered lecture, but pointed out that the lecture had merely documented the social problem but failed to proffer prescriptions. Mr. Oshodi retorted, albeit, in a lighter mood, “Writers don’t give prescriptions, they give headaches.” If this was to be taken as a piece of Chinua Achebe’s mind, then it could as well be said that he was not concerned with prescriptions. In other words, he focused more on taking us to “where the rain started beating us and when our roof came tumbling down,” than on showing us how to dry ourselves and repair our roof. Nevertheless, if one takes the pain to read between the lines, one could still find semblance of prescriptions in those novels. For instance, the comment earlier cited from Chapter 7 of Things Fall Apart, where Obierika told Okonkwo that in Abame and Aninta that “every man wears the thread of title on his ankle, and does not lose it even if he steals” has two other implications. The first is that a person of questionable character (at least in Umuofia) would not qualify to be given a title by the community. The second is that if a titled man debased himself to the extent of stealing, he would be stripped of his title.
Hence, the implication for modern Nigeria is that national honours must not be awarded to persons of questionable character. More importantly, if an awardee or holder of national honours debases himself or herself to the extent of stealing public fund or even duping any private person, he or she should immediately be stripped of the national honours. Lastly, a public officer who demands or receives bribe should be given the Idima Abam pre-colonial treatment. He or she should be stripped stark naked and made to dance round the Federal Secretariat and all the markets in Abuja (in case of a Federal officer); the State Secretariat and all the markets in the State capital (in case of a state government staff); and the local government secretariat and all the markets in the local government area (in case of a local government personnel). That will go a long way to curb bribery and stealing among public office holders. Please let no one lecture me on barbarism. Nothing is more barbaric than stealing public fund.
ABALI O. ABALI practices law in Lagos. He can be reached on 08034361825 or [email protected] yahoo.com