– Late last year, I wrote a piece with the caption: The Street Theories That Destroyed Nigeria. It was widely circulated in the mainstream media, as well as online. The thrust of the essay was the tendency of Nigerians to allow their rulers get away with mediocrity, and corruption, and then justify it with some lines like, “De man dey try” “Chop-I-Chop”, “Chop, but do something” or “Do something for ya people”. I opined that such dangerous thought patterns were designed by the tribe of elites whose only chance of living the good life is guaranteed by a non-functional Nigeria.
I still hear people intermittently drop one, two or all of these lines into their discussions. I know it will take years of committed efforts to erase such thought patterns from the minds of the majority of our people. But we must begin now to educate them. If the journey of a thousand miles must commence with a step, it means the journey will never get completed without that first step.
We have to begin, but the workload has increased. Another dangerous theory from the same quarters is beginning to gain prominence among social commentators. In the last two months or so, I’ve been locked in a fruitless struggle to convince some of my friends on twitter that – contrary to what they have been made to believe – the problem with Nigeria isn’t that many Nigerians are corrupt. I told them that our problem is that our government is corrupt. They promote lawlessness and project the Nigerian case as one helpless situation that can only be corrected by just ordinary citizens. In the new theory that those who run Nigeria propounded from the comfort of their rambling mansions in choice areas, the solution to the Nigerian quagmire lies with the citizens, not the government. Once we stop the ordinary citizen from being corrupt, we will then have a government that isn’t corrupt. Those who unwittingly fell for this very dangerous scheme have had to tell me many times; “Don’t blame the government. We are all corrupt.” They cite instances of how the private sector bribes government officials to win contracts, and how Nigerian students bribe their way through school to land good grades.
On the surface, this reasoning sounds convincing. After all we all know how corrupt the Nigerian society has become. Bribery is systemic, and those who reject it are seen as abnormal. Blaming the society therefore becomes the most attractive thing to do.
But that reasoning isn’t particularly correct. It ignores the fundamental components of a modern society and negates the role the social contract confers on the government in the maintenance of law and order. The social contract theory, especially as defended by British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, is one of the most dominant theories within moral and political theory throughout the history of the modern West. Civil society as we see today is an offshoot of this theory which recognizes the tendency of man to be motivated solely by the desire to better his own situations, and satisfy as many of his own, individually considered desires, as possible. Man is infinitely appetitive and only genuinely concerned with his own self. Hobbes argues that in man’s natural state (called State of Nature) selfishness will thrive, crude competition and the notion of equality will lead to a state of confusion. The State of Nature, Hobbes posits, is unbearably brutal.
To escape this state, men will enter into a social contract. There are two key elements of this contract. The first is that they must agree to establish society by collectively and reciprocally renouncing the rights they had against one another in the State of Nature. The second one –which, to me, captures aptly what is wrong with the Nigerian situation – is that they must imbue one person or assembly of persons with the authority and power to enforce the initial contract. In other words, to ensure their escape from the State of Nature, they must both agree to live together under common laws, and create an enforcement mechanism for the social contract and the laws that constitute it.
This is how society is made possible. The social contract confers on the assembly of persons –in other words, the government – the authority to enforce the laws of the land to ensure the smooth running of the society for the benefit of all. In summary, if in the case of Nigerians, we are so lawless, the social contract demands that the government enforces our laws on the errant citizens. And the Nigerian government, by size and resources, cannot lay any claim to being disadvantaged here. First we have laws that spell out clearly what punishments should be meted out to people who commit certain offences against the state. Also we have apparatuses of state -which other societies use – to instill order in their own societies. We have the police and the judiciary. Why then do we advance the logic that we will only become better when ordinary Nigerians stop stealing? If Nigerians are corrupt, whose duty is it to bring them to justice?
Millions of Nigerians are plying their trades in many other countries of the world. Given the impression the blamers of the ordinary citizens carry about, one would erroneously expect that these Nigerians will simply corrupt the countries they reside in and convert them to Nigeria. From London to New York, Nigerians drive and don’t break traffic rules, and they live without bribing the police. In foreign schools, Nigerians perform excellently without having to write exams in “special centres”. They graduate tops without having to “sort” the lecturers there. If there are job vacancies there, they won’t need to get written notes from the president or minister or senator. Whatever they’ll become, they work for. What we have are very conscious and civil Nigerians many of whom have made marks in their countries of residence. Many of them come back home just to fulfill ancestral obligation, not because they are at home with the depth of state-patronized lawlessness that reigns here.
It is obvious that the Nigerian system is designed to be the corrupter of men and killer of honesty.
I’ve always held the belief that the problem with the Nigerian state is the government. Our worry isn’t about man’s natural tendency to cheat or have his way. We are worried, instead, that those whose constitutional role is to enforce punitive and or corrective measures on the cheating man in the Nigerian state are worse cheats themselves. The government breeds corruption and makes it impossible for criminals to be successfully prosecuted. The Nigerian judiciary, the third arm of government, has proven itself overtime to be the cemetery where the other two arms bury justice and fertilize evil. The stench that accompanies judgments from that institution steadily staggers every attempt by honest Nigerians to remain on the part of honesty. Every high profile case of funds embezzlement or diversion by criminal contractors or importers has the support of key people in government. Every case of election rigging has the support of key government figures. Those who plan to live a life of crime in Nigeria have observed – and rightly so – that the safest place to begin is to join the government, and remain there. That’s where men fail to draw a line between private pockets and state treasury. That’s where corruption is given state protection.
Let us be clear: Nigeria will not get better just because citizens are good people who do not steal money. There’s no society where man’s natural greed doesn’t stir in him the urge to act like he is in the State of Nature. If man sees any way of committing fraud and not get punished for it, he’ll naturally want to take that route. The gang of scammers who ran – and still run – the organized scam called Nigeria understand this human weakness and deliberately created – and still create – loopholes that would convert to a criminal anybody who gets into the system. At the end, the sweetest song to their ears comes from the mouths of unsuspecting Nigerians: “but we are all corrupt”.
We are not all corrupt. And even those who are get the inspiration from the government. Ours is leadership-induced corruption.
Leadership gives form and shape to a society. The society is shapeless until the leader gives it a shape. That’s why when the leader starts leading by example, the followers take cue immediately. The Nigerian citizen has been informed several times –albeit implicitly, by his government –that stealing is welcome, and that a national award awaits the man who steals larger amounts of money.
It is important that we hold government responsible for the state we are in. They created this mess, and created a seemingly suitable explanation to it: “Don’t blame the government alone, all Nigerians are corrupt”. The danger in buying into this falsehood is the capacity it has to worsen our situation, and absolve the beneficiaries of the rot –who incidentally are the creators of the false theory – of any responsibility in fixing the problem.
Demanding responsibility from our government is a duty we must perform daily. It is divine, and it is part of the packages that come with the social contract. Abandoning this duty to the dictates of emotions is an implicit way of stating our preference for the State of Nature. Well, the Nigeria we have today isn’t in that state yet, but I wonder who wants anything worse than this. If this is hell, then a Nigeria in State of Nature can only be imagined.
Chinedu Ekeke is a Columnist with www.ekekeee.com
You can join him on Twitter as @ekekeee