Give Us This Day Strong Institutions, By Okey Ndibe
It’s all but clear that Nigerians, including highly educated ones, won’t shake from their position that the 2015 elections come down to two parties, PDP and APC, and two men, Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari. Despite the dubious benefit of a six-week postponement of polls, few, if any, have taken the trouble to look at any other political party. Everywhere you look, people persist in advancing the argument that Nigeria’s prospects lie in staying the course with Mr. Jonathan’s “continuity” or detouring into Mr. Buhari’s “change.”
I have gone hoarse shouting that both positions strike me as dead-ends. I feel deeply astonished when anybody essays to persuade the public that President Jonathan has done, or is doing, something known as “transformation.” I feel an equal measure of exasperation when former military head of state, Buhari, is proposed as the answer. Answer to what, exactly?
The dominance of the two least attractive parties in Nigeria’s political landscape says something about a troubling trait among that broad class of Nigerians to whom the identifier “elite” could be applied. For the avoidance of doubt, in case anybody think this is a case of self-exculpation, I count myself in that group. The Nigerian “elite” is, I propose, one of the most pitiful, mentally lazy such sub-group to be found anywhere. They are, as the American street lingo would say, a “sorry-assed lot.”
I think about men and women of mettle who led the struggle to reclaim Nigeria from the British colonial yoke. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Aminu Kano, Anthony Enahoro, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, Mokwugo Okoye, Margaret Ekpo, to name but a few, were in their thirties, forties or fifties when they emerged major agents in history, often as fighters against British colonial authorities or decadent traditional machineries of oppression. Some of them, like Zik, Awo and Okoye, produced books that laid out their social and political visions in a systematic manner.
Today, despite massive expansions in educational institutions, those we characterize as Nigeria’s political “chieftains”, “stakeholders”, “transformers” and “political icons” are unable to do a decent job of reading a speech much less writing one. Demand that they spell out their vision of society and what they give you is bland, cliché-ridden statements. They parrot such simplistic, worn lines as “moving the nation forward” and “delivering the dividends of democracy.” Ask why they wish to get into public office, and the heights of their mental response is, “to pay salaries by the 28th of every month,” “to build roads,” to “empower the youths,” or to provide boreholes.
The era of the grand plan seems to have disappeared from the public space in Nigeria when the old, but yet unfledged country, needs it most. Through a succession of military regimes and civilian pseudo-democracies, Nigerians have embraced a culture of lowered standards and wretched code of conduct. In the event, we have taken to declaring that the stealing of public funds is not corruption, that a governor who pays salaries is not only an achiever but has “totally redefined governance,” that the construction of roads is the acme of political genius, and that rigged elections are just fine because, at any rate, it is God that gives power, not voters.
Men and women who are older than Zik and Awo, and hold higher degrees than those two venerable men when they began their storied careers as leaders in the anti-colonial struggle, are content these days to function as apologists for impunity. Nigeria has become a terribly grotesque space, one whose public offices are plagued by the most reprobate and reprehensible elements who mistake their loot for dazzling achievement. What’s even more troubling, indeed tragic, is that much of the elite has abdicated its role as clarifier, illuminator, chastening agent. The elite are called upon to bring their intellectual and ethical light to bear on the examination of social and political processes, to point out when society’s trajectory portends danger or doom.
Instead, large sectors of the Nigerian elite have hired themselves out as defenders of all kinds of political treachery. Lending their puny intellects and eroded ethics to desecrators of public trust, some certificated Nigerians offer shocking apologias for every imaginable instance of corruption and turpitude. Speaking in the name of ethnic or religious solidarity—or in the name of mere shamelessness—these elite apologists come ready to do any somersault in order to satisfy their pay masters/mistresses. If you point to massive electoral fraud, they would counter, “No election is perfect.” When their renter’s hands are caught in the public treasury, they’d intone, a, that corruption exists in every society, b, that their oga/madam is not the first or only person to steal, c, that the stealer is a target of a vast, contemptible conspiracy by those who know that s/he is a wo/man of the people, or, d, that, any rate, the stealer already had a stash of cash before venturing into politics.
Nigerians have achieved a weird kind of political contingency. Few people are willing to take a position on any issue, however fundamental and significant, without first checking on the state of origin, political identification, ethnic address or religious affiliation of those involved. By a strange Nigerian logic, a thief is only a thief if, a, he belongs to the “wrong” political party, b, is from a “bad” state, c, hails from a “stinky” ethnic group, and, d, belongs to a “deplored” religious group or, worse, professes atheism.
The cure for this fairly pervasive malaise, I suggest, is not this political party or that, not Jonathan or Buhari—it is the conscious cultivation and strengthening of institutions.
A lot of Nigerians want Mr. Buhari to win the presidential election so that he’d handle the morass of corruption for them. Bad news alert: not going to happen! Mr. Buhari may have all the Olympian intention to wage war against corruption, but he won’t go far. In fact, his (we must emphasize corrupt) political sponsors have put their money on him precisely because they have figured out that he won’t pose a threat to them.
Corruption is a systemic plague, and it is best fought, not by one heroic individual, but through institutions. A culture that abhors corruption is key. Such abhorrence then tailors institutional tools that identify and prosecute acts of corruption, regardless of the name, religion and state of the perpetrator.
Can it be said that most Nigerians today are galled by corruption? Would we regale the exhibitors of sudden, inexplicable wealth in our midst with inflated praise names if we did? Still, I think Nigerians are in a position to grasp and embrace an argument about the perniciousness of corruption. That apprehension is bound to leave to acceptance of the imperative to mount the country’s first serious anti-corruption regimen since Independence.
If the Nigerian elite believes in the project, then they must lead the way—not by selling the fairytale that an anti-corruption czar is around the corner to save us all from the monster. No, they must stipulate that social consensus against corruption is the first step. And that step ought to birth a commitment to the building of institutions empowered to sniff out corruption and to go after the corrupt without first checking with the serving president. The cry should not be PDP or APC, nor is the answer Jonathan or Buhari. It is, “Let us create, this day, formidable, enduring institutions that can outlive mortals strong and weak.”
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