Why Looting Persists In Nigeria - Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye
The Nigerian state thrives on a very a solid foundation and enduring, pervasive culture of very crude selfishness. Maybe, 'selfishness' is not the most appropriate word to convey the exact meaning I have in mind. But there is this consuming desire and deep craving by the average Nigerian to always have an unfair advantage over his neighbour, to ensure and emphasize the exclusive nature of whatever he does or possesses, and ultimately become the envy of others.
This should, however, not be confused with healthy striving for excellence and distinction. Rather it is this mindset that makes someone to value whatever he has, only when he has been able to establish that no one else has it, or that only a select, privileged few have it. I have observed that the average Nigerian derives peculiar animation, and in some instance, consolation, from constantly calling to mind some evidences of the advantages he has over his neighours, and some privileges he presently enjoys which his neighbour can only dream of.
Mind you, this is not an exclusive habit of the affluent and highly-placed in society. Even the very marginal advantage the poor, suffering fellow thinks he has over his neighbour automatically constitutes the little flame that keeps his heart aglow, and makes him feel like a king in the neighbourhood. He derives profound, refreshing feelings of joy by the fact that he has, and can, at least, flaunt what his neighbour doesn't have.
Many years ago, when heavy traffic on Carter Bridge consisted of several new Raleigh bicycles racing along, some motorcycles and a couple of cars, a man returned to his village from Lagos, with a well tailored new dress, with which he hoped to cause a stir in Church the following Sunday. As his kinsmen converged to welcome him, he brought out the dress and told them he was sure no one had won that dress in the entire community. In fact, only very few people, he declared, had at that time acquired it in the whole of Lagos ! On Saturday, as he basked in the pleasant expectation of how he was going to be the centre of attraction in the small village Church on Sunday, he decided to take a leisurely walk towards the marketplace. Along the way, he saw an old wine-taper on an old rickety bicycle, heading to the market to sell his palm-wine. As the man got close, he discovered, to his utmost shock, that the man was wearing that same cloth he was hoping to flaunt on Sunday; but the difference was that the wine-taper's own was now well-worn and terribly stained, meaning that he has been wearing it for months, long before our Lagos man even thought of purchasing his own. He was thoroughly disappointed and pained. His flag of pride automatically dropped. The cloth instantly lost all its value and glamour, for the simple reason that a wine-taper had won it before him. And, so, he refused to wear it again. That is the Nigerian!
I don't know whether it was the British that planted this insidious seed in Nigerians or merely helped to water and tend it, for their own self-serving reasons. The British had during the colonial period created the Government Reserved Areas (GRAs) and several other segregating and divisive facilities, and took some special 'natives', the educated and privileged few, away from their own people, put them in those secluded areas and planted in them a mindset that made them regard themselves as 'special' and 'different' from the rest. This may have helped the British to perfect their divide-and-rule policy, but it also succeeded in engraving in the minds of those lucky natives that they were indeed better than the others. And so, when the British unwillingly granted what they called Independence to Nigeria , they ensured that this iniquitous status quo remained. Through this privileged class which they had created and successfully alienated from their own people, the British still ruled Nigeria . That is why our rulers live in fortresses, far removed from the people they claim to be serving.
In Nigeria today, a successful man is one who has 'left the others' to join the privileged, eating class. In several cases, this may not be as result of hard work, but merely because the 'lucky' fellow has some acquaintance with some other fellow in the corridors of power. The truth we all know is that one may suddenly start swimming in boundless opulence tomorrow just because he had got the 'right connections', which may merely be that he is a distant to cousin to the hairdresser of the girlfriend of the ADC of one of our rulers. When that happens, the person quickly leaves his fellows behind to 'join them' to enjoy. And what gives him the real pleasure is each time he looks back, and sees the people he once suffered with still writhing with crushing poverty, not just the new opulence he is swimming in.
This situation exists in degrees and categories, as I mentioned earlier, and it has created a craving in everyone to strive, not just to better his lot, but to show how he is 'better' than he his neighbour. And that is why, at the slightest opportunity, anyone with access to the common wealth will seek to use it to corner all the juicy advantages to himself, and create another world of limitless comfort for himself, his relatives and cronies, which would automatically place them far above the rest of the people, instead of providing essential amenities for the benefit of all. This is the situation that produced the 'big-man' syndrome.
A few years ago, one of the ardent readers of my newspaper column sent me an email t o say that in Warri where he grew up, what they call these toy generators from China is: I-Better-Pass-My-Neighbour . So, when NEPA/PHCN envelopes everyone with impenetrable darkness, and those who have these toy generators put them on, what they are hoping to demonstrate to their neighbours choking with thick, oppressive darkness is that they are better than them. Yes, I better pass my neighbour !
This mentality appears to be what guides the conducts of public officers in Nigeria . And when you look at the situation closely, you then begin to understand why Nigerians are suffering in the midst of plenty. For those in authority, it is a complete insult to suggest that the rest of the people should enjoy basic amenities like electricity, good roads, potable water and security. No, that would make everybody equal. The GSM was a huge mistake that must never be repeated. Initially, they collected so much money from telecom operators and unleashed them on Nigerians to cut their necks with prohibitive prices, so that only the rich can afford GSM phones. But, the era of exploitation did not last. Globacom, just came into the market, overthrew the heartless, inhuman cartel, (though, merely in attempt to create market for itself and put its competitors to disadvantage) and today, the poor man in Lagos can call his poor mother in the village. Now, the rich can only emphasize their wealth by the number and type of expensive handsets they carry at the same time.
I-better-Pass-My-Neighbour . That's the mindset that rules the average Nigerian ruler's mind. A Nigerian ruler was once asked why he banned tokunbo vehicles during a phone-in radio/television programme some years ago. He did not know when he let out his grouse, which was that there were too many cars competing for space with his convoy on the streets of Abuja ! 'Everywhere in Abuja , what is you see is Golf, Golf and Golf!' he fumed. Now 'Golf' is that small Volkswagen car they call ' pure water ', which the poor man, at his own level, too, flaunts, to show that he is better than his waka-waka neighbour. Now the Oga up there was not happy that cars were becoming too common, that it was no longer the exclusive preserve of rulers and the rich, their children and cronies. And so, a ban had to be placed to put the poor man back in his place, in the spirit of I-better-Pass-My-Neighbour .
If the intentions were genuine, we would have seen plans to build local plants, and create enabling environments for them to flourish, so tokunbo could go, and many Nigerians could have brand new cars? Who no like better thing?
Today, the roads are so horrible that each time you ply some of them, you may have to visit your mechanic. But in order to rub in his marked difference from the rest of us, former President Olusegun Obasanjo had refused to use the roads to get to his home while he was in office - an odious tradition that has now been adopted and glamourised by rulers that came after him. In those unmissed days, once he arrived at the Murtala Mohammed Airport , Lagos , a helicopter would pick him up and drop him gently on his farm in Ota. How else could his neighbours be made to know that the 'big-man' was returning if not with the flourish that the helicopter noise ushered him in? I-better-Pass-My-Neighbour!
So, in Nigeria today, instead of a ruler to provide social amenities to benefit for everyone, he uses public funds to create limitless advantages, privileges and comfort for himself, so that anyone looking at him, his wives and children would really realize how unlucky he was to not have been born into such a family. That is why a state governor can have the heart to steal N126 billion from state coffers. While public schools here are left to decay, children of rulers are flown out of Nigeria to attend quality schools in Europe , America , South Africa and even Ghana ; they regularly hop across to see 'their' doctors in far away Canberra to treat common cold, and could boast of how they just went to Kuala Lumpur to see 'their' dentist. Nigerian public officers steal so much money to buy themselves houses in France , UK and the United States . Yet they have not asked themselves how many Americans have homes in London or France , or even how many people born in Boston have ever visited New York , let alone own a home there. People steal and accumulate even more than they would ever need, just to ensure that forever they can always say: I-better-Pass-My-Neighbour.
Like I said, this mindset is at play virtually everywhere in Nigeria . Go to any embassy and see how Nigerian Security men employed there will treat you. One day, while conducting an investigation for a story on the thriving visa racket then flourishing at British High Commission, I was reading a notice board outside the High Commission's gate in Lagos when a Nigerian Security man, with haughty, crude arrogance, came and told me that I had stayed too long at the notice board and should leave. In fact, I had been there for less than five minutes. As I looked at him, proudly flaunting his badge of slavery (uniforms), I knew exactly what was at play. He was working at the place where Nigerians scrambled to get visas to Mars or Jupiter, and so must advertise his assumed importance! I-better-Pass-My-Neighbour .
Until we kill this spirit, looting will never stop in Nigeria . The rulers would always ensure that mass poverty continues in the land because that is the only situation that emphasizes how 'lucky' they and their families and cronies are. That would also ensure that during elections, the poor can easily be manipulated with little gifts to sell-off their votes. In many countries there is nothing like 'inferior' or 'superior' hospitals. Everybody, whether President, Governor, Senator, the jobless school graduate or school boy, is entitled to quality healthcare. But here, the craving is to show our advantage over others.
Some even ensure they prepare their executive graves before they die, so that even in death, they would still be able to make the repulsive statement: I-better-Pass-My-Neighbour.
By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye