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Authority Stealing in Nigeria

Akin Adesokan confronts the ‘real world of Nigerian politics’ and comes to grips with the ‘universal seductions of authoritarian power’ that make for ever-thickening plots.

Two-point-eight billion naira,

Oil money issy missing

Dem set up enkwayary

Dem say money no loss-y o…

Money no loss, dem shout again

Enkwayary come close o.

E no finish? E no finish? E no finish….?

Fela Anikulapo Kuti, ‘Army Arrangement’

Oyinbo ko k’ole, afara ni ko fe.

[The white officer does not mind robbery, he only abhors tardiness.]

Lagosian saying

My first major publication was an Op-ed article titled ‘Not Unknown, But Unmentionable’, which ran in The Guardian (Lagos) sometime in 1989. It was a rejoinder to another piece, which sought to explain the October 1986 murder of the journalist Dele Giwa as a mystery, an ‘unknown’. Giwa was a flamboyant US-trained magazine journalist, who had been blasted to death upon opening a parcel that he believed came from the President. After nearly three years his killers had not been discovered, much less prosecuted. No one in Nigeria had ever died from a parcel bomb; only the truly well-informed knew of what the apartheid murderers used to eliminate Ruth First.

Famous Lagos lawyer and human rights activist, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, had tried to bring charges against two officials of Nigeria’s intelligence agency, and had experienced long spells of imprisonment for his trouble. At the time my article appeared, Fawehinmi was in preventive detention, a victim of the iniquitous Decree Two, which empowered the military regime to detain indefinitely anyone considered a security threat. He eventually published a book, The Murder of Dele Giwa: The Rights of a Private Prosecutor, documenting his argument.

My point in the article was that Giwa’s killers were not unknown, but that they were so highly placed in society that no one dared mention their names. As illustration I drew upon a story in Igbi Aye Nyi (1978), a Yoruba novel, with its theme the advent of colonialism and in which the absolute ruler of a town turns himself into a sheep at midnight to carry out burglaries.

This example of the sovereign as criminal appealed to me at the time because it was so spectacular. With a more complex understanding of the nature of power and powerlessness, other kinds of stories now seem more compelling. In Babatunde Olatunji’s Egbinrin Ote (1979), a set drama text for the West African School Certificate examination, the most visible characters are Ogaalu (Boss of the City) and Obakole (The King Does Not Frown Upon Stealing), both very powerful leaders of a Mafia-like group the king himself fears to hate. If I recall well, their group gets to decide who becomes king (a king in Yoruba literature is like the sheriff in the literature of the southern US: less powerful but just as ubiquitous).

Now, step back into the real world of Nigerian politics, colourful as a flower garden in bloom. Whether by the scent or by the colour, I’m drawn like a bumble-bee to the Ibadan-based godfather-kingmaker, Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu (d. 2008). This man caused the sitting governor of Oyo State to be impeached in 2006 because the governor would not let him go directly to Abuja, the capital, to collect the state’s monthly ‘allocation’. As soon as the impeachment procedures were concluded in the house of assembly, the former deputy-governor, now elevated to governor, took his retinue and a television crew to Adedibu’s house to thank him for putting him in office.

The following week, when the list of new commissioners was released, it emerged that Adedibu had handpicked 15 out of the 18 officials. All were swiftly confirmed by the state legislature which, the previous week, had voted 18 to 12 for impeachment. Adedibu patronised motor-park thugs, and broke up their unions – or widened the break already in place – as he searched for foot soldiers in his campaigns.

An equally dramatic plot played itself out in Anambra State, in the east. Chris Ngige, the man elected governor during the 2003 general elections, needed the support of Chris Ubah, a dropout and self-styled godfather, to secure the position. Although the vote was anything but fair, the godfather wanted his cut of the deal. Ngige dithered or balked, and for weeks, then months, in 2004, Ubah and his thugs laid siege to the State House and would not relent until both men were invited for a meeting with the President, Olusegun Obasanjo. During the meeting, Ubah confronted Ngige, daring him to deny that his election had been rigged. Obasanjo went public, claiming that he had ended the meeting by ordering the two combatants out of his house. Ngige was not removed from office, nor was Ubah prosecuted for his destructive brigandage. It took the Supreme Court to void the election, but on the basis of a suit filed by another candidate in the gubernatorial race.

Such is the state of politics in Nigeria, the predators’ republic, before, during, and after military rule. The president (did he know about the parcel bomb?) boasted to the television camera that ‘we’re not only in government, we’re very much in power’ in June and then, without explanations, ‘stepped aside’ in August. A former military prime minister was falsely accused of fomenting a coup plot, then convicted, jailed, and medically murdered by those supposedly caring for him. The doctor who’d administered the injections appeared, less than a month later, before a military tribunal trying another set of coup plotters. Two very powerful soldiers – the military administrator of Lagos and the chief of army staff – pointed fingers at each on the pages of newspapers as the one responsible for the bombs that animated the city with the explosive noises of an Xbox game-board, and both remained firmly in office. The said chief of army staff later starred as a suspect in the attempted murder of a newspaper magnate and former minister who once sat at official meetings with him. The minister of justice was killed by hired assassins and the politician detained as a suspect in the murder case was elected senator while still in jail. No matter who was in power in Nigeria, the state itself was a criminal.

According to Fela’s song, ‘Army Arrangement’, only USD2,8 billion of oil money disappeared without trace in 1982. In 1993, the amount more than quadrupled to $12,4 billion, money that Nigeria had raked in from the sale of oil following the 1991 Gulf War. In November 2012, the attorney general (AG) declared that he could not procure the report of the panel that had probed how the money was spent, and a judge ruled that civil society groups lacked the jurisdiction to sue the AG.

Africanist political scientists have invented a variety of evocative phrases to explain this state of things: ‘the modernity of witchcraft’, ‘private indirect government’, ‘neopatrimonialism’, ‘amoral public’, ‘the rule of the elders’, ‘la politique du ventre’ or ‘la politique de bas’. The Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembe, no small player in these namings, took a stance many find irresistible. As he wrote in an essay published in 2006, politics in Africa is a daily confrontation with death.

But let’s look at it differently, without turning away from Nigeria. The man in charge of the Ministry of Petroleum Affairs when $2,8 billion went missing was Brigadier Muhammadu Buhari. The press had given him hell during the investigations, but soldiers were not in power in 1982, so Buhari’s ability to be vindictive was limited. In December 1983, soldiers struck. And who became head of state? Buhari, now a major-general.

In one of his first interviews, Buhari vowed to ‘tamper with that’, ‘that’ being press freedom. By February 1984, Decree Four was Nigeria’s most fearful law and, before the year was out, two journalists were serving long terms in jail as its first casualties.  General Ibrahim Babangida overthrew Buhari after a year or so, and his first act was to abolish Decree Four. But he retained Decree Two, which he used to punish Fawehinmi and many others. It was under Babangida’s watch that the $12,4 billion went missing; the Financial Times journalist who first reported the story was promptly deported. Babangida began a costly transition to civil rule that, billions of Naira and half a decade later, only culminated in the terror of General Sani Abacha. Another of Fela’s songs from the 1980s has a name for them: ‘VIP, Vagabonds in Power’.

From the preface to the Penguin edition of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1986), I gather that a character like Peachum could intervene in the judicial process and implore judges to ‘peach ’em’ because corruption was rife in 18th century England, and judges doled out cruel and excessive verdicts. This was a ploy meant to strike fear into the hearts of hapless suspects – minor criminals such as debtors, pickpockets and brawlers – and the aim was to present the process as inscrutable and awe-inspiring. That way, the accused would fear the judge sitting farther up and away in court – a sort of Almighty – and be incalculably grateful when, following Peachum’s intervention, the tin god tempered justice with mercy. Thinking about this practice, I find myself drawn to two different situations.

In the first instance, a teenage boy is caught with a sack of live chickens near the house of a powerful chief. Neighbours fall upon him and are ready to lynch him for the malfeasance. But we know of the incident because it is being filmed, as a sequence in Chef! (1999), the disarming film by the Cameroonian director Jean-Marie Teno. The powerful chief in the story is Teno’s uncle, the leader of the secret society in Bafoussam. The presence of Teno and his camera saves the boy’s neck – people in the crowd are happy to be filmed arguing in favor of ‘human rights’, never mind what is going on inside Bell Prisons in Yaoundé. In the film’s final sequence, the powerful chief emerges holding a staff, heralded by his followers, some of them seen earlier mouthing ‘les droits des hommes’ among the lynch mob, and in the ceremonial call-and-response that confirms the chief in his place, we are made to confront the universal seductions of authoritarian power.

The second instance is the kind of executions which a district officer, Henry Ward-Price, carried out during his tenure in colonial southern Nigeria, as narrated in his memoirs, Dark Subjects (1939). Ward-Price was in His  Majesty’s service prior to the war and produced a personal account, told in the voice of a man reminiscing with friends after dinner, under the benign influence of port and cigarettes. I consider Ward-Price, a Welshman, a more conscientious chronicler of colonial service than the novelist Joyce Cary – the better writer, of course, but reading Dark Subjects, I marvel at the ease with which Ward-Price dispensed capital punishment for the most common crimes. Why did colonial government deploy capital punishment so frequently – death by hanging, for all grave crimes? Is there a trace here of the cruel and excessive treatment of criminals in Walpole’s England? On the other hand, in Ibadan, and specifically during Ward-Price’s time as district officer, chiefs routinely fined capital offenders, rather than executing them. As one of the Ibadan chiefs says, you cannot reform someone you have already killed.

Yet, down the years, could this kind of rationality have foisted the Adedibus and Peachums on society? Legalism is at its most developed since Moses took delivery of the Ten Commandments. Yet the world watches, entranced by the full light of irony dressed as norm, as the powerful conduct themselves in plain disregard of the rule of law.

It used to be ‘the usual suspects’ who were rounded up after the criminal state had done its bit. Now it is enough to trust the full light of irony. After all, the world thinks of it as norm, in Washington, in Yaoundé, and elsewhere.

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