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In Port Harcourt, Rivers State last week, as guest of Governor Nyesom Wike, President-elect Bola Tinubu promised to fight corruption. To delink judicial officers’ minds from corruption, Tinubu’s blueprint of fighting this goblin, he said, would be to further incentivise judicial officers.
“You don’t expect your judges to live in squalor, to operate in squalor and dispense justice in squalor. This is part of the changes that are necessary. We must fight corruption but we must definitely look at the other side of the coin. If you don’t want your judges to be corrupt, you got to pay attention to their welfare. You don’t want them to operate in hazardous conditions,” he said.
Corruption has a long history in Nigeria, with some scholars submitting that it is buried deep down the skin of citizens. Indeed, one of the Africanist scholars whose commendable works tried to locate the connection between the African and corruption, late Stephen Ellis, found out that “bribery and corruption were rooted in (African) social networks and moral conventions.”
By 1970, however, as the Nigerian civil war was reaching its denouement, it had become obvious to the country’s military rulers that if the menace of corruption – with its twin manifestations as kickbacks and armed robbery – was not confronted headlong, the country was headed for ruins.
That generation of Nigerians deployed, among other means, popular music to combat the evils of corruption, stealing and robbery. Most of Nigeria’s famous musicians of the post-independence era keyed into this crusade and earned their stripes through social and political commentaries on the non-desirability of graft. One of the artists involved was Ilorin, Kwara State-born Salawu Woro Idofian. Salawu apparently hailed from Idofian in Ifelodun Local Government of the state. While the Cameroonian-Nigerian highlife musician, whose mother was Nigerian and father, Cameroonian, Nico Mbarga, struck the soft cord of many by eulogising motherhood in his blockbuster vinyl, Sweet Mother, the Yoruba sakara music deity, Kelani Yesufu, alias Kelly, intervened on the social menace that the near-epidemic venereal disease, gonorrhea, called atosi in his native homeland, was causing among young boys and girls of the era.
As the pandemic soared, its sufferers rationalised the affliction of gonorrhea as a popular disease that only the famous could contract. In that song he entitled “Atosi Atogbe”, Kelani deconstructed this widely held notion and submitted, via this fluidly racing track, that gonorrhea could never be a disease of the famous; gbajumo. How could a disease that causes so much pain and turmoil within the male genitalia, with the patient who was, most times, reaping the harvest of his libidinal rascality and thus forced to swallow several discomforting concoctions, be an affliction of the famous, he asked.
To combat armed robbery, in 1970, the military government enacted a decree which made the crime punishable by death through the firing squad. On 26 April, 1971, the first public execution of an armed robber took place. Armed robbery was so rampant that by 1976, about 400 of such executions had taken place. The rate of the executions was so frightening, especially with the realisation that the southern part of the country had recorded the highest number of executions, at 338, in 1984 alone.
Salawu Woro Idofian’s genre of popular music was Apala. Almost sharing the same cadence and singing pattern with the mellifluous voice of Epe, Lagos State-born Ligali Mukaiba, who sang a similar variety of music, Idofian stood in his own right. He was widely credited with having made those public executions of armed robbers the thematic preoccupation of his music. As he dramatised these harvests of executions, you could almost feel the pain, agony and sense of finality that the robbers felt as they were marched to the stakes.
One of such songs from Idofian was the title track his 1971 album, K’ehin S’okun, literally meaning, execution by the sea, in Yoruba language. The song goes that 24 April, 1971 was the day of execution of some condemned robbers. It was a Saturday and the crowd that gathered at the Bar Beach in Victoria Island, Lagos was massive. To Idofian, the public execution could be explained within the context of propitiation. Nigeria had offered the bodies of the condemned robbers to the goddess of the sea called Olokun, in exchange for her concession to spare the lives of the righteous. Since creation, the Olokun had never had such bounty of human flesh for the celebration of her annual festivity in the belly of the sea. However, that Saturday, Olokun was lucky as three robbers’ bodies were offered to her by the military government, in lieu of her ceaseless swallowing of innocent citizens who strayed to the beach on the rim of the Atlantic in Lagos. Idofian, in that song, expressed thus: “Ni’jo alaye ti daye, eti Olokun o gba ore ri/a’i pa’niyan kale si eti okun pe ko ri’un mu sodun ri/ni’jo Satide, o s’ori re, a ti f’omo jaguda meta rubo si okun ko ye gbe wa l’omo mo/jaguda kekeke to nt’owo b’apo la o fi bo’ya alaro.”
The condemned robbers had been found guilty by the Armed Robbery and Firearms Tribunal for having robbed an Alhaja in the Surulere area of Lagos. Williams Oyasima and Joseph Ilogbo were the robbers during that brutal encounter. Babatunde Folorunso, Idofian’s narration continued, had robbed a man of his car and £10. As a ricochet of bullets tore through the bodies of these robbers, their heads lost their hold on their necks and bowed in condemned surrender. The brutal epilogue of promising lives, Idofian warned, awaited parents who condoned stealing by stealth by their wards: “Nigba t’ota at’etu ndun mo barawo lara/won nsori ko… omo yin o s’agbafo/o nk’aso wo’lu/ki le ti lo ma ri?”
Since the menace of armed robbery went full throttle in the immediate petrodollar Nigeria of the early 1970s, it has grown further into becoming a social pandemic today. Rivaling it as another plague that metastasises like cancer, has been corruption. The spirit of acquisitiveness, the centrality and inclination that wealth enjoys today in Nigeria is mind-boggling. This spirit has taken over the heart of virtually all Nigerians. Mammon, today, enjoys a pride of place as the reigning god of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
The pervasion of Mammon didn’t happen in a day. Its reign began with the fad of bribery, which was common in private and government offices in pre- and post-colonial Nigeria. Polish-British sociologist, Stanislav Andreski, who lived in Ibadan in the 1960s, witnessed the affliction and coined the word “kleptocracy” fto describe it. This variant of corruption so galled the coupists of 1966, led by Chukwuma Nzeogwu, who gave the venom of his tongue for its perpetrators, who he labeled as ten-percenters. This appellation was derived from the tradition of demanding ten per cent kickbacks from every government contract awarded by officials. Today, Nzeogwu would turn in his grave to find out that awarded contracts running into billions of naira are most times not executed at all and their total proceeds are simply pocketed. In cases where they are executed at all, the heavy shellacking of bribery and kickbacks ensure that they are so peremptorily and haphazardly carried out. The result is that these projects last only in the now.
Last week in Port-Harcourt, Tinubu woke up the ghost of judicial corruption, an albatross that hovers over Nigeria like the Swords of Damocles. If Nigerian democracy suffers from spiritual legitimacy, the Nigerian judiciary is complicit in this. By the way, some scholars have reasoned that the lack of legitimacy, of perverted electoral justice, may be why Nigeria is this stunted and stymied in its development.
In theory, we all know that the fundamental principle of the independence of the judiciary and the courts underpins the Nigerian legal system. This fundamental principle is predicated on the belief that the courts are independent as an organ of government. Embedded in this assumption is the philosophy of the centrality of the judiciary. This is what the concepts of justice and the rule of law in Nigeria are based upon. With the role of the judiciary as central to the global concept of justice, built-in and implicated in it is the need to maintain the pride of place of judicial ethics.
There is no doubt that since its inception in 1999 till now, the National Judicial Council (NJC) has brought some measure of sanity into judicial practice in general and the operations of judicial officers in particular. However, there are still a lot of patent doubts about the impartiality of Nigerian judicial officers. There are flying allegations of the availability of judges to lend themselves to the whims of politicians. There have also been cogent and seemingly irrefutable allegations that the top echelon of judicial offices in Nigeria are not totally insulated from the activities and personal caprices of politicians. The influence of money in the determination of cases is also high.
One very potent case to back this up is the recent controversy following the Supreme Court’s judgment affirming the victory of Senate President Ahmed Lawan as the All Progressives Congress’ (APC) candidate in the senatorial contest for Yobe North. In a majority judgment, the apex court allowed the appeal filed by the APC against Bashir Machina’s candidature to be heard. The court then pronounced Lawan victorious against Machina, simply because it held that, where there is an allegation of fraud, it should not be commenced by an originating summons. There were weighty arguments to back up Machina’s allegations, however legal technicalities prevailed. While technicalities cannot be discountenanced in law, fastidiously sticking to them, at the expense of substantive arguments, can continue to impugn the reputation of the judiciary, especially when decided cases have spoken vehemently on the need to face substantive matters of law, while urging judicial officers not to be bound wholesale by technicalities. Although perceptions may not be real and could be misleading after all, conversely perception is everything, especially when judicial officers are dealing with Nigerians, who are not abreast of the rules of technicalities.
To combat this pandemic of corruption in the judiciary, Tinubu’s submission to tackle the epidemic is through what he calls the provision of “the right incentives.” It would seem that Tinubu was just being rather simplistic, or at worst minimalist in his conception of judicial corruption. It is laughable that his proposal for dealing with the octopodal dragons of judicial corruption is merely to throw money and comfort at judicial officers. This definitely will not work. First is that, corrupt Nigerians today have not succeeded in drawing a line on when enough is actually enough. They amass sickening wealth that fails logic and common sense. So, if you incentivise judges, would this be enough to deter them from corruption? Tinubu is apparently seeking judicial officers who live in a sequestered world, and who are pampered so much that they are insulated from the vermin of corruption, away from the rest of reality. This can only exist in a dream world.
Tinubu’s proposed intervention on curbing corruption provoked the cynicism of the Nigerian media on the second day his Rivers State epistle was delivered. Newspapers that led their next day’s editions with that thrust did so out of an amalgam of mockery and cynicism. Whether real or imagined, global perception is that a Tinubu presidency would battle everything but corruption. His pedigree is that of an insider-outsider in the sewage of corruption. Only during the week, Premium Times reported the linkage of the president-elect with twenty high net-worth properties in the United Kingdom, which allegedly belong to him and his close associates, and which were mostly acquired when Tinubu was the governor of Lagos State. As we march to 29 May, the day of inauguration of the new president, Nigeria will be transiting from the general perception (which was very likely to have been unreal) of an austere and incorruptible president, who is passing on the baton of power, to another general perception of a robustly corrupt president (which is likely real). While the former perception didn’t keep corruption at bay in Nigeria, the latter perception may likely make the atmosphere free for corruption to luxuriate, flower and flourish.
What can keep corruption at bay in Nigeria is leadership by example. Which Nigeria may not have from 29 May. In spite of the general global perception that Nigerians cavort with maggots in the sewage, a stern leadership that is ready to make examples of malefactors will scare corrupt people off their perfidy. That leadership must advertise itself as ready to throw anyone, including itself, under the bus if it is caught in any form of relationship with corruption. It does not appear to me that under the Tinubu presidency, Nigeria will have this. Only a few days ago, Bloomberg reported that Tinubu’s son, Oluwaseyi, is the main shareholder in Aranda Overseas Corporation, an offshore company which bought a controversial US$10.8 million UK property in 2017. In the two reported damaging stories, mum was the word from Bourdillon.
If you now compare these two stories with how petty Nigerian thieves get jailed for minor offences like shoplifting and larceny, an empire will seem to be on the verge of being constructed for corruption to reign in at least the next four years. It is comparable to the Yoruba conception of injustice and unfairness. This is aptly depicted in a short fable that talks of a sick hired hand who is disdained for his temerity to fall sick, in comparison with a sick son of the taskmaster, who is persuaded to sip a broth of peppery soup –
In my estimation, corruption will no longer strike Nicodemusly in Nigeria in the next four years, either in the judiciary or within the country in general. This is because the vultures that will surround power will fertilise the ground for it to luxuriate. The corruption to come will share the same template with the legion demons in that famous story of the Madman of Gadarene, told in the three synoptic gospels of the Bible. This story is about a demon-possessed madman inhabited by a thousand maddening spirits. When the mad spirits were commanded out of him, they pleaded to be sent into a herd of swine instead. If corruption played under the cover in the last few years under Buhari, going forward, the swine with a similar demonic spirit of corruption will be open about passing it around in the years to come. The newer herds will however not perish in the sea like the swines of Gadarene.
Festus Adedayo is an Ibadan-based journalist.
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