In June 2005, a former Inspector-General of Police, Tafa Balogun, was being tried for corruption. It was the era of Mallam Nuhu Ribadu at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the over-sensationalised anti-corruption trials were Nigeria’s equivalent of gladiatorial shows. Ribadu, convinced he was the Sheriff of a new order that would supposedly purge the nation’s soul, turned his mandate into reality TV, the kind that occupies spectators while its lack of substance drains them of productive energy.
During one of Balogun’s court appearances, the inhumane manner he was treated by overzealous EFCC operatives whipped up dollops of sympathy for him. Shortly after, a national newspaper published a post-ordeal picture of Balogun in hospital, his face covered with a respiratory mask. When the judge ordered Balogun to be brought back to court, he mournfully narrated his plight, describing himself as a “victim.” He had deftly matched the EFCC in their game.
The trial of Bode George was another media event. He initially did not portray himself as a victim. Rather, he practically gave the society’s mores a middle finger by carnivalising his trial. The media could not get enough of it. They lapped up the audacity of shamelessness of the Aso-Ebi wearing crowd that faithfully accompanied him to court to be fed a mess of pottage. George was jailed and his eventual release was another feast, hosted for the public by the media.
You wonder at the irony of a society trying to rid itself of the likes of George yet thrusts a microphone under his chin to ask his opinion of how the same society was being run. The media, by celebrating what it counters, became Ouroboros, the serpent that eats its own tail.
George was not the only one who put up a “nothing-do-me” attitude at his trial. Former Lagos Governor, Bola Tinubu, did the same when his team of supporters – including three sitting governors – swaggered to Abuja for his trial with the Code of Conduct Bureau.
Since then, those accused of corruption have shifted to a “something-do-me” posture to satiate the audience that gorges on their staged misery.
If somebody is arrested in Nigeria for corruption today, chances are that the EFCC will make a show of it. Chances are also that the accused too will match the EFCC by concocting an appearance that evinces victimhood. These days, people resort to playing sick because it gives them a veneer that compels the rest of the society to show them some moral consideration. That way, they appeal to our collective cultural values regarding conduct towards people who, through no fault of their own, are in a condition of infirmity. They saunter on the walkway of justice, propped by moral clichés that seek to shift the ethical burden of their sin onto the public.
Take the example of Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke who, in a manner uncharacteristic of Nigerians put out her condition for public consumption. Nigerian public officials never reveal they are sick even when they are obviously falling apart. Both former President Umaru Yar’Adua and the late Prof. Dora Akunyili are ready examples. If a former First Lady, Patience Jonathan, had not been garrulous, we would never have known the truth of her condition.
Alison-Madueke was not only different, the timing of her exhibiting her cancer-ravaged body was curious. If Dr. Goodluck Jonathan had been re-elected, would she have granted an interview in such a condition? Would the woman who almost always appeared impeccable have agreed to be photographed without attenuating the starkness of her condition with at least some makeup? Why would she risk memorialising herself in such an abject manner and dissemble previously existing images of her beauty and glamour? A few times, I have wondered if the shift of public gaze away from her has to do with her brandishing of her condition such that talking further about her “sins” would task our cultivated cultural values.
Alison-Madueke is not alone.
From Ibrahim Lamorde, to Sambo Dasuki, to Raymond Dokpesi, to Muhammed Bello who went to court in a wheelchair and an added prop of praying beads, playing the sick card has become the game. Rather than the accused be the sinners, they want to control the narrative instead. They therefore stage themselves as the victim of nature (and consequently, God and fate), that gave them not only their now failing bodies but also their human fallibility of which corruption is just one. We – thanks to both the EFCC and the media who are obsessed with selling details of their interrogation – are supposed to look at the sick bodies (which is no fault of theirs) and conflate them with their character that led them to allegedly plunder public resources. That way, sympathy for one invariably extends to the other. They are pushing the society-spectator to suspend reason for emotionalism, and the way to play the game is to position themselves as weak, helpless imperfect humans deserving of our mercy.
There is a reason judicial processes are supposed to be somber events, not brash display of machismo or spectacular nonsense. Corrupt people sin against the soul of the society and trials are supposed to be a redress of collective violation. It should never be starved of meaning by turning the spectrum of activities into popcorn, to be munched like an illiterate goat eating newspaper.
For months, corruption is the loudest music being played in the country and the cacophony, the discordant tunes, the hypocritical chorus of zeal, blasting from false ideological radios that merely pander to an orgiastic public are making us deaf to the higher good and possibilities within us as a people and as a society.
If Governor Adams Oshiomhole is not yelling about $6bn stolen by a single unnamed person, Senator Shehu Sani cries about $200bn in Dubai. Lai Mohammed – who has since replaced the EFCC spokesperson – cries about $2.1bn arms fund or N1.4tn stolen by nameless 55 people. Mohammed knows that among the citizenry is a school of sharks that get sated with the occasional red meat of corruption scandals he throws at them. Meanwhile, they forget that he is a shark killer too.
None of these accusers, mind you, feels compelled to produce evidence.
The counter-effect of these noises is the erosion of Nigeria’s image especially before an international community. The United States Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcing to the world in Davos that $9bn meant for the Nigerian Army was stolen is immense negative publicity. A powerful white man telling the world the degree of violability possible in our system could be counterproductive. We – as a nation – would look like unevolved barbarians, too unsophisticated to lead ourselves. The kind of cynicism such an astounding revelation will spawn among his listeners discounts our humanity.
The corruption game being overplayed by this administration will haunt them too, sometime. Depending on how 2019/2023 goes, President Muhammadu Buhari’s successor could subject him to similar corruption probes, not in pursuit of higher truth or to restore social systems vandalised by corruption but to deflect attention from other faults. Corruption in Nigeria is not going to be resolved the way they are going about it because inquests have often been more of thieves investigating thieves rather than the harder, farsighted task of systemic restructuring. Jonathan’s ongoing public crucifixion will be a lesson to future presidents: To be popular, especially in the height of an economic recession, first make your predecessor look bad and ramp up the noise. The $2.1bn arms fund allegedly stolen is a huge scandal, no doubt, but does not match the $16bn allocation for power mismanaged under Olusegun Obasanjo. Yet, the same public that tolerates Obasanjo’s relentless moralisation crucifies Jonathan. The lesson? To drown your sins, make the loudest noise about someone else’s. You have little to lose. The audience has less to lose either. The game at least keeps them from worrying about the economy.