Nigeria

Revisiting the corruption theory of a departed journalist

THE decibel of an average Nigerian’s public outcry (against government incompetence and corruption) is directly proportional to his distance from the opportunity to do exactly what he condemns— Pini Jason Onyegbaduo (1948-2013) Nigerian columnist.

When one of Nigeria’s most celebrated columnists, Pini Jason, died on Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 65, he was mourned as a writer who emblazoned our journalism with a rarity of language that surprised the reader with a simplicity of presentation. Pini Jason would pick a hot button issue. Turning it inside out, he would lay its entrails bare to reveal a promising feast. Then as you wondered where all this seemingly complex exposition of innards would take you, Pini Jason would build back the dismembered components into a new frame. He would have succeeded in giving you a delicacy, a diet of words, in just a couple of minutes. This astonishing language command wasn’t only the strength of our illustrious columnist. He also possessed the ability to refrain from interpreting events of the day merely  from his point of view. That’s to say he wasn’t afflicted with the plague that is the bane of most of us. We would attempt to force, by subtle means, our stand on others. Pini Jason wouldn’t. He might guide you to arrive at your own independent position on any given matter, even if it flew off at a tangent. It was a strange form of reticence that enabled Pini Jason to undertake a shrewd lifelong study of his country’s problems. He wasn’t afraid to declare his findings and convictions, most of which were considered unpopular by those in power.

So if we hail the departed columnist for his pen power and intrepidity, we must salute him more for bequeathing to us a badly needed Law of Corruption to help us exorcise the imp threatening to destroy us if we don’t kill it.

He propounded it in 1988 in his column in a now rested weekly magazine. Jason wrote: ‘’The decibel of an average Nigerian’s public outcry is directly proportional to his distance from the opportunity to do exactly what he condemns…The difference between many a vociferous, sanctimonious and pontificating Nigerian and the villainous, itchy-fingered kleptomaniac is probably the absence of the opportunity to steal…In all probability, should the opportunity occur, yesterday’s moral crusader is likely to crumble and disappear under the weight of corruption.’’

Twenty four years after the columnist gave his country the theory, he discovered nothing had changed under a civilian government. Therefore he came again in his Vanguard newspaper column on July 7, 2012. Under the title, Corruption and Nigerian hypocrisy, Pini Jason wrote: ‘’… I have hinted at what I call the ambivalence of Nigerians about corruption. Indeed, what I mean is that we are all hypocrites about our concern over corruption. Otherwise how is it that very often those who are ostensibly in pursuit of transparency or those fighting corruption are invariably caught in the very act of corruption? What I see most times are people who are incensed that someone else is doing the stealing, and not them. Given half a chance, they out-steal the people they were criticizing yesterday.’’

It was a disliked proposition. It remains so. However, with graft, nepotism, cronyism and other variants of corruption on the rise to warrant a dismal outing for Nigeria in the just published Corruption Perception Index (CPI) issued by Transparency International (TI), there is exigent need to draw on all fronts, popular or unorthodox, to rescue the country from its perennial nether ranking in the global log of probity. For their part, some concerned Nigerian journalists, Bisi Abidoye, Olugbenga Odulaja and a third compatriot, have in the past few days been drawing our attention to Pini Jason’s Law on Corruption. They have retrieved the columnist and his theory from his grave to be part of the conversation on how to outlaw corruption. The Social Media is brimming with their message. We all must be interested in this conjecture from a man who held his own as an unflagging journalist and an uncompromising patriot till he breathed his last. His hypothesis addresses the sociology of corruption, albeit at its empirically verifiable plane.

The main point of the Law is that all Nigerians in government are thieves; that those not in government are not better either; that they are only biding their time, waiting to displace those in power, so they can ‘out-steal’ them. It appears to be the sorry story of a sadist, a pessimist who sees nothing good about Nigeria and its government. The Theory seems certain that the country’s doomed destiny is in the hands of looters who have struck a pact with another incoming government of co-looters. The question is not if they would succeed those in power for the stealing spree to continue; it is when.

Is that all we can see in Pini Jason’s Law of Corruption?

We must look beyond the declared gloom, beyond the dark clouds, beyond the dense mass, and step into the obliging goal of the Law. Its objective is to warn against the evil effect of our winner-takes-it-all politics. That’s what leads to the embezzling craze. When the defeated are battered on Election Day they don’t pine away for long. The next ballot will turn the tables for more fleecing of the nation by their camp, pushing us deeper into an endless binge by the political class and those associated with them. By a simple extrapolation from Pini Jason’s assumption, you get the pith: as long as a sitting government lives only for its members and their families and hangers-on, all of whom are perceived to have exclusive and unrestricted access to the public treasury, there won’t be a death blow to corruption. Still more: the politicians and those in government stamp their image on the larger society, turning us into unpatriotic reprobates interested only in acquiring political power solely to loot and re-loot public funds. In the process the state is unable to meet its statutory responsibilities to the people. Recent reports of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Corruption and the National Bureau of Statistics have identified lawmakers and the executives of the centre and the states as ‘’conduits for embezzling funds.’’ This is money, running into tens of billions of naira, meant for education, health, potable water, agriculture, roads, railway, scientific research etc. Corruption, poverty and insecurity follow when we don’t adequately meet these simple needs of our people.

An understanding of Jason’s Law of Corruption therefore teaches that to tackle official and unofficial corruption and earn us an honourable place in the league of nations, we must halt the graft competition sparked by a government that runs an insular philosophy. We must have policies that accommodate every citizen in the spread of society’s boon. When we are all close to the wealth of the nation and generously exposed to what will keep body and soul together, no one will complain or resort to corruption to make ends meet. Conversely, when we are placed far away from the scene of prosperity, ‘’the decibel of our outcry’’ outmatches that of the loudest disco music.

Ojewale lives in Lagos