I’ve often doubted the insanity of one who’s able to tell the function of a hoe, and thereafter to proceed to make ridges in her own interest. But does it really matter? For to the extent that some of our proverbs (and, hence philosophies?) provide more than ample justification for bad behaviour, we’re not likely to make progress in the fight against corruption…


Most Nigerians agree that “corruption” is a major national headache — even when we still struggle to agree on what it is. To the extent that it considerably reduces the resources available to fix the nation’s many problems, it’s a huge tax on efficiency. But is corruption a cause or consequence of the way we are organised as an economy? You’re not likely to resolve this question by simply listening to the intense bickering that has arisen around the matter since the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) settled on Alhaji Atiku Abubakar as its presidential candidate for this year’s presidential election.

Alhaji Abubakar came off the years he spent as vice president in the Obasanjo administration with his reputation littering the salver like shredded beef. It matters, therefore, that he’d be running against a man — the All Progressive Congress (APC)’s General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd.) — who has come to epitomise “integrity” in these parts. This tension explains, also, why perceptions of corruption seem to matter more going into the polls, than do other aspects of governance where we’ve equally failed to move the envelope.

The virulent character of the debate over the relative integrity of the two leading contestants for president at the forthcoming polls does a disservice, though. It has concealed, or better still, ignored the fact that a part of the domestic case against corruption is the design of better governance structures (especially stronger regulatory institutions and competences), and a stronger criminal justice system. As a civil servant, many years ago, I came to understand the importance of the structure of local incentives. It was not just that the internal audit processes in the public sector were lax to non-existent. All you had to do to be accountable was to provide receipts for all expenses. You could, thus, literally, get away with murder once you had all your receipts in. It matters, therefore, that desirable conduct is seen to be rewarded; no less than behaviour deemed inimical to the commonwealth is seen to attract sanctions that enforce a conduct loss. Of equal importance is the requirement that the infraction code be simple enough in order that “corruption” doesn’t always require technical definitions.

Nonetheless, if our proverbs are, indeed, the palm oil with which words are eaten, is this not to argue that proverbs provide a shared worldview that aids mutual intelligibility between correspondents? Are they not, therefore, distillates of the wisdom of the ancients?


It does matter, then, the extent to which our apparent embrace of unethical practices has come to qualify our thoughts and associated forms of expression. Argued from a different perspective, this question simply would seek to understand how corrupt practices follow from our worldview. In a sense, there is a chicken-and-egg quality to this reading of the problem. It doesn’t help, though, that much of what in these parts could pass for autochthonous philosophies against which we could carry on this conversation are oral. And in this sense, may not have been bettered by the close, adversarial encounter with white colonialism.

Nonetheless, if our proverbs are, indeed, the palm oil with which words are eaten, is this not to argue that proverbs provide a shared worldview that aids mutual intelligibility between correspondents? Are they not, therefore, distillates of the wisdom of the ancients? If they are all of these and more, then I plead but one major downside in my intended use of some of our adages. The corpus of proverbs that I’m familiar with are Yoruba ones. In our multi-cultural society, a bias this severe is almost as good as establishing one’s lack of qualification to pursue this conversation further.

Yet, it matters that Yoruba is the most-spoken language in Lagos State; and that the State accounts for nearly half of the country’s gross domestic product. If, then, one was minded to interrogate the interstitial relationships between our philosophies and our practices, in so far as this is about our tolerance for corrupt practices, there’d be no better place to start than the Yoruba language. Which, incidentally, offers bromides aplenty.

“When you lend a madman a hoe, he’s likely to create the first ridges (for subsequently sowing seeds) on his own side of the fence”. “We attend to our needs from our places of work”. “We are all thieves. Only such are corrupt as are caught out by the rising sun”. How much of these helps support an amoral worldview?

“When you lend a madman a hoe, he’s likely to create the first ridges (for subsequently sowing seeds) on his own side of the fence”. “We attend to our needs from our places of work”. “We are all thieves. Only such are corrupt as are caught out by the rising sun”. How much of these helps support an amoral worldview? Because folks attend to their needs out of the munificence of the workplace, we struggle to distinguish between that which is rightfully ours, and all the rest which belong to the commons. The moral equivalence that is resolved only by sunrise? Does this not reinforce the biblical injunction against erecting a moral set of references with which society could be better organised — and the errant judged?

I’ve often doubted the insanity of one who’s able to tell the function of a hoe, and thereafter to proceed to make ridges in her own interest. But does it really matter? For to the extent that some of our proverbs (and, hence philosophies?) provide more than ample justification for bad behaviour, we’re not likely to make progress in the fight against corruption without addressing those aspects of our culture that conduce to this practice. We would instead continue to act in ways that ensure that our outcomes are familiar to our forbears.

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