President Buhari, Cameron and corruption by Reuben Abati
“We have got the leaders of some fantastically corrupt countries coming to Britain… Nigeria and Afghanistan, possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world”, UK Prime Minister David Cameron was caught on tape telling the Queen ahead of the anti-corruption summit organised by the UK Government, this week, which was attended by Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari.
This diplomatic gaffe rubbed many Nigerians on the wrong side, but most of the responses, coloured by overtly emotional love of country and a certain defensiveness is downright hypocritical.
We all know that indeed Nigeria is “fantastically corrupt”, and that is why the most profound reaction, the most honest also, is the statement by President Muhammadu Buhari who admitted that indeed Nigerians are “fantastically corrupt” and that Cameron is right, but the clincher was the rider added by President Buhari, when he said he would not ask for an apology but he would be glad if Great Britain can release all the stolen loot in its custody. I know President Buhari is often criticised for condemning his own people offshore, but no one can fault his sharp honesty, certainly not in the present instance. His reply to the Cameron statement is absolutely brilliant, diplomatic and loaded with a meaningful sarcasm that is yet to be properly defined.
Nigeria is “fantastically corrupt.” Yes, our President says. The dictionary defines the word fantastic to mean something so extreme as to be unbelievable, strange, most unlikely, extra-ordinary. Can any Nigerian in good conscience really claim that this is not true? We are probably one of the few countries in the world where corruption is the reality we grapple with, from cradle to grave. You go and try to have a baby delivered in a Nigerian hospital. You can’t escape the nurses, matrons and the security men at the gate who upon hearing that your wife had been delivered of a baby would start greeting you: “Oga we go wash am oh.” The really smart ones among them will even poke your ego a little: “Oga, this one wey Madam deliver bom boy, na big celebration. Oga you sef na sharp shooter. You just do am, hit am, commot bom boy.”
You’d be in serious trouble if your wife is fertile enough to give birth to twins. Meanwhile, this has nothing to do with your hospital bills, and the aggressive solicitation is beyond culture. Where else in the world do people have to pay bribe just because their wives have given birth? If giving birth invites corruption, dying has even become more expensive around here. If you have to bury anyone in Nigeria, there must be a special budget for officials and sympathizers whose palms have to be greased.
I attended a funeral recently where a dignified beggar insisted that since the deceased was his benefactor, he would really love to die too, and jump into the grave, but everyone at the funeral would do well to keep him alive by putting something in his pocket. People laughed and obliged. Every funeral in Nigeria is a source of income for all kinds of scammers and no matter how sad you may be, you are not expected to complain. When you go for a funeral in Nigeria, you have to hold your pockets, monitor your phones, and even watch yourself, otherwise your personal items could be stolen and you may yourself be kidnapped. The children of the deceased are usually special targets. What kind of human beings would go to a birthplace or a funeral only to add to the burden of the people involved. Fantastic? Of course, Mr. Cameron is right.
Between birth and death is a significant polarity. When you live in Nigeria or you visit, or you have anything to do with Nigeria, including something as harmless as just passing through, you would feel the air of corruption. You will be touched by it. And if you stay long enough, you will imbibe it. There is corruption in other parts of the world, of course. Corruption is an English word, not so? And it defines all human beings, doesn’t it? But in Nigeria and some other countries, there have been very fantastic manifestations.
Every foreigner or traveller who has walked through any Nigerian port in the last, say 40 years, would most certainly have been asked for a bribe, not clandestinely, but openly and frontally: “Oga wey the dollar for the boys? Oyinbo, correct oyinbo, we dey here for you oh. Anything. Nigeria na your own. If you wan be governor sef, just call us, or this my oga.” If the visitor is one of those difficult ones who do not know that a passport in Nigeria is supposed to be a sandwich at the point of entry and he is busy claiming that he has one funny visa, before he knows it, he will be detained. Uniformed officials will ask him: who is this bomboclat who is trying to teach us our job? Such officials don’t allow stingy bomboclats to cross the border, any border at all.
Bomboclats can’t access government institutions either. You have to bribe every government official in sight: to move a file, to get anything done, to have your rights respected. And you can’t hold government positions. You are expected to steal government funds and make returns to the community otherwise you are considered a bad or stupid person, who can’t eat national cake. Fantastic? Yes. America knows. David Cameron knows. Public and private Nigerian institutions are fully compromised. Petty corruption is encountered in ordinary places on a daily basis, grand corruption has also badly affected Nigeria as a state, country, and nation. President Buhari wants to deal with the latter, but he is overlooking the former.
Right under his watch, that other sphere is thriving. But the challenge of corruption is not just about grand corruption: the big money that is stolen, the mad men and women who turn elections into opportunities for theft and primitive accumulation, the greedy officials who manipulate the books big time and run away with the national patrimony or the civil servants who help to cook the books and later play holier-than-thou; it is certainly not about one particular administration, it is not about making examples and demonising some people while bigger thieves prosper within and outside the system. What is it about? It is about the Nigerian reality in which everyone is involved from servants to lords. It is the reason why Nigerians, living in an oil producing country now have to buy fuel at a “minimum” pump price of N145 per litre. It is about the collapse of institutions and societal values.
President Buhari has declared a zero tolerance for corruption. How does he define and secure that legacy? His strategists don’t seem to understand the implications of that question: that is what this is also all about. And it is why almost one year after President Buhari assumed office, David Cameron, the Prime Minister of Britain, would still say Nigeria is “fantastically corrupt”. It wasn’t an innocent remark, it may be wrong to describe it as a gaffe. And I also don’t think the leakage of that privileged and classified conversation with the Queen was innocent or accidental either. I imagine that Prime Minister Cameron despite the subsequent diplomatic fine-tuning was passing across a message. It should be noted that it was also at that supposedly confidential meeting that Her Majesty made a snide remark about the Chinese, our good friends, the Chinese whose economic expertise is supposed to help Nigeria, and who President Buhari visited recently.
International diplomacy is a game. It is high wire politics. The President’s team must step back from the recent trip to the anti-corruption summit in London and properly decode the signals. One signal is that Britain is probably not too pleased with the projected long-term impact of President Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign, and there may well be a lot that they know that they are not talking about in the open. Note the timing of that “caught-on-camera” comment. Note also that it is coming close to the first anniversary of the administration. The Archbishop of Canterbury reportedly smuggled in an aside in President Buhari’s favour but did either the Queen or the Prime Minister respond to that priestly, consolatory aside? The only response by Speaker John Bercow was even worse: “They are coming at their expense, one assumes?” Classic Britishism! Every nuance, every gesture, every inflection in diplomacy is to be taken seriously – what is said, or mentioned often has deeper meanings than what is not said. If it is not important, the subject will not be broached at all.
But I commend President Buhari for his confidence. He got the message from Cameron. Old age and experience can be an advantage sometimes. And he gave it back to the Prime Minister in full measure. Rather than accuse our President of putting his own country down, Nigerians should actually applaud his understanding of the game of international intrigue. By telling Britain to return the stolen loot hidden in Britain and its tax havens, President Buhari was actually asking Cameron to shut up and walk the talk. In other words, Britain cannot organise an anti-corruption summit and spend time bad-mouthing other countries whereas it is a principal destination for stolen funds. It is a trite point in law that the receiver of stolen goods is also a thief. Nigerians are fantastically corrupt, yes, but they take the proceeds to countries like Britain where they are fantastically and corruptly received.
The onus is on Prime Minister David Cameron who has not shown enough commitment to ridding Britain of stolen wealth, to take concrete steps to help fight international corruption. We do not expect that he will lie to the Queen, the sovereign whose government he heads. He knows certainly that there is so much Nigerian wealth inside Britain, money stolen from both the government and the private sector and translated into acquisitions in Britain. Nigerians own some of the most expensive houses in London and elsewhere in Britain, on the best streets even; they also have fat bank accounts and they have investments that are fantastically alarming. But Britain and its Prime Minister cannot just laugh over that when they too are complicit in an “ole gbe, ole gba (you thief am, I collect, help you keep am) arrangement. Prime Minister Cameron has all the records of our stolen wealth and all the Nigerian thieves hiding in Great Britain. Let him listen to our President and begin to show, beyond condescending gossip at the palace, and the rhetoric of talk shops, that Britain is indeed committed to the ideals of transparency, integrity and accountability.