Opinion

Opinion: How Civil Society Groups In Nigeria Encourage Corruption

By Levi Obijiofor

Rivers State Governor Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi once gave chilling insights into how an uncritical civil society can aid politicians to continue to raid the public treasury. What Amaechi said was already known in the public but it was his boldness in making that declaration openly that marked a major difference.

Up until that admission, it was difficult to find any politician who would admit candidly that they enrich themselves through stealing of public money and other fraudulent practices. A politician will sit on billions of naira illegally acquired and will still throw his hands in the air declaring that he is as poor as a rat that resides in an empty warehouse.

A weak civil society is not only evidence of a dead society, it is also proof that we are all complicit in the way politicians ransack the treasury unlawfully and boldly, making it look like they are entitled to dip their fingers into the nation’s reserves. Amaechi said the citizens must scrutinise and hold political leaders to account. He was right.

In statements aimed directly at civil society and President Goodluck Jonathan’s government, Amaechi said in December 2013 at an occasion meant to honour Nelson Mandela: “If you see a thief and you allow him to be stealing, what have you done? You have stoned nobody; that is why we are stealing. Who have you stoned?… A few individuals are going away with the money and you have done nothing. You are mourning Madiba, who lived up to 95, and he was very angry with Nigeria when he died.”

The astonished audience could not believe that a member of the political class was not only criticising his peers but was also encouraging the public to take ownership of the country through civil disobedience or any other means possible.

Amaechi continued: “You’ve heard that $50bn is missing and you have done nothing about it. In some countries people will go on the street until they return that money. It is N8trn, it can change Nigeria. Me I want to steal only $1bn, let them bring it… If you don’t take your destiny in your hands, we will go and other leaders will come and continue stealing.”

It was a powerful but self-critical speech. Essentially, Amaechi made the point that if civil society remained apathetic to how politicians amassed wealth illegally, no one had the right to complain that the political was grossly corrupt and morally depraved. In the end, Amaechi’s public address fell on deaf ears. That’s what you can expect from a gutless civil society, a society that loves to live life to the fullest without sacrificing their lives.

A country without an active and effective civil society is like a democratic country without opposition. Without a strong civil society, political leaders will abuse human rights with impunity. They will operate without financial prudence.

By his political office, Amaechi should not expect civil society to regard him as a man without blemishes, particularly as his statements could be construed to be a kind of self-indictment. Certainly, he did not exclude himself from other members of the school of kleptomaniacs who believe they have the divine right to raid the treasury and acquire government property illegally.

In his critique of the languid state of civil society in Nigeria, Amaechi outlined the serious consequences for the nation of a weak-willed civil society. If civil society fails to question people in authority and hold them to account, what you get is unbridled corruption. That was a true lecture but it should not have come from a man whose antecedents are tainted.

In light of our experiences with political leaders, you could say that Amaechi’s message was correct but the messenger has his own baggage to clear. It is the responsibility of civil society to insist that political leaders must perform. It is a question of responsible governance, about ridding political leaders of the culture of corruption that has reduced every official business to the brown envelope syndrome in which money is consistently demanded and paid for before any public official or political leader will perform their official duty. This is how we consecrate corruption.

Part of the reason why politicians continue to treat the citizens with supreme contempt and regard the nation as their personal property is that no one wants to die for the good of society. People wonder why they would sacrifice their precious lives so that the rest of us can live and benefit from other people’s sacrifices. It’s a smart position to take but it is also the kind of argument that cowards are made of.

In the land of lily-livered men and women, you will hear too many people criticise the nation’s political leaders for their unparalleled corruption and uninspiring performance but no one will actually take the first step to commence non-stop non-violent protest, the kind that a poor man started in Tunisia in 2011, or the type that is currently unfolding in Hong Kong. We look at what is happening in other countries, how citizens have successfully challenged their political leaders, and we wish we could do the same in Nigeria.

I am still hearing today the same angry complaints and yelling that I heard in my youth many years ago in regard to lack of transparency in government, corruption and embezzlement of public funds by military dictators, elected politicians, and senior public officials. If you replay in 30 years time your video recording of today’s public expressions of anger, you will be surprised by how markedly similar things can be.

Just last Saturday, 4 October 2014, businessman Arthur Eze described Nigerian politicians as morally bankrupt and selfish. He said “our politicians do not care, they are criminals, and they are greedy”. There is nothing new in Eze’s remarks. Everyone knows that politicians are conspicuously crooked and live exaggerated and deceitful lifestyle. The question is who will lead the campaign to change the situation?

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Article written by Levi Obijiofor

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