There is a danger in equating corruption in Nigeria with the infractions of a single corrupt individual. At different moments of our national life, we tend to narrowly and naively unload our anti-corruption angst on one individual politician. We then pummel this individual like a piñata while seemingly forgetting that Nigeria’s political corruption is a group act, an orgy of theft involving whole groups of politicians and bureaucrats.
We inculpate some politicians while inadvertently exculpating others. We do so to assuage our emotional exhaustion at corruption’s stubborn persistence, and its devastating consequences.
In the second republic the individual stand-in for corruption was Umaru Dikko. In the PDP era, it was James Ibori. In the unfolding APC period, that personification of Nigeria’s corruption is Bukola Saraki.
To hear some people talk about Bukola Saraki one would think that the Senate President is the very embodiment of Nigeria’s corruption problem and that his removal from office and/or conviction would magically banish graft and restore probity in the polity.
Reading and listening to some of these folks one would think that Nigeria’s corruption virus originated with Saraki and would end with his conviction. You’d think that Saraki’s ongoing trial was some seminal event in a revolution against corruption and that the reclamation of Nigeria hangs on its outcome alone.
Never mind that Asiwaju Bola Tinubu was charged with exactly the same offense as Saraki in a similarly politically charged atmosphere and that over 70 lawyers invaded the courtroom to defend him and eventually succeeded in intimidating the judge into acquitting him. Mr. Saraki is rightly berated for trying to wriggle out of an actual trial, for seeking to have the charges corruptly dismissed. But it’s now a distant, rarely revisited memory that Tinubu, the architect and champion of change if you believe the hype, had used a mix of legal maneuvers, bully tactics, and other shady shenanigans to evade justice on multiple occasions when the late social crusader, Gani Fawehinmi, sought to subject him to an open court process. He, too, was afraid of a trial. Today, he issues periodic sermons about how corruption has hobbled Nigeria and needs to be defeated. Depressingly, many Nigerians cheer these sanctimonious pronouncements.
We are supposed to believe that Saraki is the only face of corruption in the APC, the lone compromised mole preventing President Buhari from articulating a coherent narrative of transparency, the internal APC saboteur of the president’s battle against corruption.
Never mind that Tinubu allegedly did worse to/in Lagos State as governor than Saraki did in/to Kwara. Never mind that Saraki’s reign of larceny was contained in one state while Tinubu has, as of this year, privatized and appropriated the resources and patrimony of five Southwestern states for at least five years (nine years in some cases).
Never mind that Saraki’s current judicial predicament stems not from any genuine interest in frontally taking on corruption in the ruling party but from his stubborn rebellion against the wishes of the ruling party’s power brokers.
Let’s be clear; I stayed in Ilorin for about a month last July. I have a lot of friends from Kwara State. I know and saw what Saraki did in/to Kwara State — what he continues to do to Kwara state through his handpicked successor and protege. It is not pretty. And, although his current travails emanate from his stewardship (or lack thereof) as governor, the man’s thievery actually has a longer life span, dating back to his looting of depositors’ funds from the defunct Societe Generale Bank, a financial institution controlled by his family.
So the man deserves and should get his comeuppance, which unfortunately in this case is only going to be the loss of his position as senate president and not the deserved time in jail. I’d wager my meager savings on this outcome. As soon as he resigns or is forced out, his CCT trial will slowly wind down and fizzle out. That is a sad, familiar pattern. But I digress.
My point here is that Saraki deserves all he is getting and more but that we need to put things in perspective. There are many former governors in the senate who did worse to their states but who are today the darlings of the APC leadership. My former state governor, George Akume is one of them. He cleaned out Benue State and has installed his two successors, including the disastrous Gabriel Suswam and his borrow-and-spend successor, Samuel Ortom.
Yet Akume, with the enthusiastic blessing of APC elders, including Tinubu, aspired to the position of Senate Leader before his and others’ ambitions were scuttled by Saraki’s leadership coup. Not only has Akume’s corruption case with the EFCC remained in limbo, dead for all intents and purposes for about eight years, today he is one of the revered APC godfathers in my area and in all of Nigeria. Unlike Saraki, his relationship with Tinubu and the party elders is peachy, and that confers immunity.
This is not to suggest that Saraki should be ignored or released from his ongoing trial unless other corrupt people join him in the dock. That would be a terrible logic. Rather, I am gesturing toward a certain strain of hypocrisy, a blind spot that allows us to glibly condemn Saraki’s vices while remaining silent about similar and worse crimes committed by a large coterie of former and serving public officials. There is some cognitive dissonance at play here.
Saraki is an easy, filthy, universally reviled target. He is expendable. It is easy for the APC to use him “to shine.” It is easy to sacrifice a rebellious and corrupt member of the family while protecting and making way for corrupt but compliant members.
The APC leadership has been talking in recent days about sacrificing Saraki and about their preparedness to lose the senate leadership to the opposition PDP in order to make a statement about their commitment to change. What a load of bullocks! Saraki defied the elders and he is a threat to their interests because he knows where the proverbial bodies are buried. Getting rid of him is a perverse partisan priority, not a nationalistic sacrifice for change.
My larger is this: we tend to be seduced into a faux populist hysteria by the power games of the political elite instead of keeping our focus on the systemic nature of our corruption problem. When the politicians ostracize a tainted, disavowed member of their fraternity, they project all of Nigeria’s corruption problems onto that individual.
On our part, we sheepishly and unthinkingly follow them to pour all our anti-corruption outrage into this individual. We then pretend that this person alone is corrupt among the political class or that he is the most corrupt member of that collective. We do it over and over again.
There was a time when this individuated symbol of Nigerian corruption was James Ibori. We created the fiction that Nigeria’s corruption malaise inheres only in the corrupt former governor. He became the avatar of corruption in Nigeria, and his name became interchangeable with graft. That obsession lasted for about five years.
Ibori was eventually nabbed by the British judicial system and put away. One expected corruption to end with the removal of the godfather of corruption. Logically, if our narrative was correct, Ibori’s demise should have signaled the demise of our corruption monster. Instead corruption ballooned in his absence, reaching its stratospheric peak during the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan. Corruption in the post-Ibori era threatened to beatify the former Delta State governor.
Then and now, the obsession with single corruption stories, with individual representative figures of corruption has the effect of shielding other equally corrupt and more corrupt members of the political class from scrutiny and recompense. The larger cult of corrupt officials obtains exculpation by cunningly redirecting our outrage from the entire corrupt political elite to a momentarily disfavored politician. We then soon discover that corruption does not begin and end with this individual. But we don’t learn from this realization. We keep repeating the same error.
Saraki’s “anointing” as a symbol of all that is wrong with Nigeria is shielding many of the corrupt people in the APC, including Tinubu, from justice. What’s more, it is allowing them to position themselves hypocritically as champions of transparency and probity.
Earlier, our obsession with Ibori had the effect of displacing responsibility and culpability from the father of corruption in modern Nigeria, former president Olusegun Obasanjo.
We must be wary of single corruption stories that unwittingly give a pass to corrupt people and allow them to further afflict us with insultingly hypocritical and self-serving preachments about fighting corruption.
Professor Ochonu can be reached at email@example.com