The question to this phalanx was “Who would you rather resemble by your actions?” Would-be reformers of our space were warned not to take for granted the fact that were you to give a mentally-challenged person a hoe, s/he would create the first ridges on her or his side of the divide.


“This is whom we are. And it will matter for properly setting out the markers for a proper conversation around ‘corruption’ in the country that we concede this fact up front”. Thus, began (last week) a lengthy conversation around the country’s policy options for dealing with the huge (no longer hidden) costs to the economy of the (popular?) expectation that office holders must leave office wealthier than when they went in. According to the other side of the conversation, our biggest failing in trying to deal with the raft of unethical behaviour that this begets is two-fold. First, we treat “corruption” as if it were mainly a “law and order” problem. This, it would seem, then allows us to posit it as something others do, which we must join in condemning and, when and where necessary, punishing.

Once, however, we step aside from this conceit and admit the possibility that “corruption” in Nigeria is a “cultural” (“the way we are”) problem, then, we are allowed recognition of how complicit we all might be in its enthronement. This exchange had senior bankers in on it, and so it was inevitable that someone would describe this process as the “de-risking” of the national corruption discourse. The big point, though, was that, by de-risking the debate around “corruption” this way, we remove the hypocrisy that characterises the way we have argued this problem, so far.

How does this cant work? Nearly always, our conversation around “corruption” is focused on the public sector. Whereas we all pay lip service to its unacceptability, our expectations as family and friends of persons in the public sector is of a different vintage. Especially of political office holders, they are required to appoint significant others into sinecures, make contracts available to some others, and regularly dole out hand-outs to the rest. Apropos the latter, anecdotal evidence abounds of “royal fathers” reaching back to their “sons” in the governors’ offices asking if “that is all?” And reminding the newly-elected governors that their last “sons” who occupied those offices were of a more benevolent turn.

Unanimously, it was agreed that a failure of governance is the biggest drag on private sector ethics. Apparently, members of the boards of Nigerian companies are in the habit of making demands of management that once acceded to, ensures that the former’s oversight function is in want of a good leg to stand on.


As expected of a chat with private sector players, the fowls eventually came home to roost ― as the conversation turned on the practice outside government offices. The conclusion here was, however, more telling. For almost without exception, agreement was that the Nigerian private sector space is worse, that is, more corrupt than the public sector. Unanimously, it was agreed that a failure of governance is the biggest drag on private sector ethics. Apparently, members of the boards of Nigerian companies are in the habit of making demands of management that once acceded to, ensures that the former’s oversight function is in want of a good leg to stand on.

Managements provide cars to convey board members’ parents from airports in distant places, offer protocol services for children travelling abroad, and in some instances, pay school fees for board members’ wards in schools outside the country. One of my interlocutors put the challenge these practices pose pithily, when she described the Nigerian’s attitude to office (public or private) as activated by a need to transfer all costs to whatever non-self institution(s) that would accept these costs (but which are not necessarily able to bear them). This, according to her, is why Nigerian parents will pay top-dollars to get their kids into private primary and secondary schools locally, and then strain themselves to get these institutions to bend over backwards, and grant to their wards a slew of unearned advantages.

He reminded us that “We are all thieves but for the unfortunate who is unwise (or unlucky?) enough to continue plying his trade as the sun rises”. How, he wondered, are a people to lay out moral markers, and abide by them, who are thus minded?


This conversation wasn’t done yet. One of the team went through a litany of local proverbs, which according to him, proved the cultural provenance of these practices. He reminded us that “We are all thieves but for the unfortunate who is unwise (or unlucky?) enough to continue plying his trade as the sun rises”. How, he wondered, are a people to lay out moral markers, and abide by them, who are thus minded? At best, any such folk will “proceed as their progenitors were wont to, in order that they will achieve the outcomes favoured by the latter”.

The conversation concluded with an adjuration to those of our compatriots who might be minded to set themselves against the system. The question to this phalanx was “Who would you rather resemble by your actions?” Would-be reformers of our space were warned not to take for granted the fact that were you to give a mentally-challenged person a hoe, s/he would create the first ridges on her or his side of the divide.

foraminifera

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.