The most corrupt officials are often the most generous, but letting this system continue only preserves the giver's power
Former Nigerian state governor James Ibori was sentenced by a British judge to 13 years in prison. He is guilty on two counts. One is corruption – a crime of which many other Nigerian leaders are guilty. But the second is his belief that some people are "somebodys" who are born to own, control and enjoy while others are "nobodys" whose lot is to serve, toil and endure – a mindset shared by most Nigerians, at every stratum of our society.
Here, the politician can't accept that "nobodys" like his driver and cobbler are expected to appoint him to the throne. Instead, he seeks the anointing of powerful godfathers, and then arranges to rig the elections. The nurse takes home the bedding donated by charity to the government hospital wards; she knows that the wretched patients are used to sleeping on sheet-less beds in their homes anyway. The newspaper editor would rather make a lead story of the minister's mother-in-law's 80th birthday ceremony than of the fact that 400 children died of lead poisoning in Zamfara state. The wealthy madam doesn't bother that the nannies accompanying her prim children are dressed in rags; she can afford to clothe them nicely, but then, she can also afford to cast pearls on swine. The dead body lies in the street until it bloats and bursts, because no person of worth has reported a missing relative.
Is it then surprising that many Nigerians will do almost anything to rise just that one more level higher than someone else? All in the hope of more dignity and more respect. And as soon as someone on a lower rung edges that one level up, they immediately claim their licence to disparage and abuse as they have seen others do, and so the cycle of oppression continues.
But being "somebody" in our society is not all about barking orders and being waited on hand and foot. It's a role that comes with great responsibility. The "nobodys" look up to you for solutions to all their problems. They consider it their right to reach out to you for aid. And the more people reaching out for your help, the more highly you are regarded. Public officers even tend to view their jobs – when they bother to do them – as an extension of their philanthropy. TV stations constantly show grateful citizens expressing their appreciation to the governor or council chairman or minister for "what he has done for us". These acts of charity include building roads, renovating schools or drilling boreholes. The masses don't realise that these good works are their entitlement, the natural functions of a government.
And so some of the most corrupt government officials are the most generous, preferring to dispense their state's budget directly from their pockets rather than from the public treasury. The stories of Ibori's "generosity" are enough to fill the pages of an encyclopaedia. Some I've heard could bring tears to your eyes. This false charity preserves the giver's power, keeping the people ever grateful and indebted. No wonder Ibori's squadron of supporters are ready to bite anyone that threatens the hand that feeds them.
On the same day that Ibori was sentenced, a group calling themselves the South-South Grassroots Coalition took full pages in some Nigerian newspapers to announce their unwavering support for him. They drew comparisons between their compatriot's current "persecution" by Britain, and that of Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi of Benin and Jaja of Opobo, two traditional rulers from the same Niger Delta region as Ibori whose historic resistance to the British colonial government fetched them exiles in foreign lands. The Urhobo Youth Leaders Association, official representatives of Ibori's 14 million-member tribe, also threatened to sabotage Nigeria's oil production when a Dubai court decided in 2010 that he was to be extradited from the UAE to Britain. The previous year, three days after Nigeria's defunct NEXT newspaper published documents showing evidence that Ibori was indeed an ex-convict, he was the chief speaker at a Nigerian Institute of International Affairs event. His talk was something along the lines of "how to move Nigeria forward".
Even if all our leaders were to be immediately marched off to British jails and a new set took over, very little would change. There is a multitude of latent Iboris temporarily keeping themselves occupied with noisy calls for reform. I wish my country could show other Africans the way forward by bringing in experts who can advise how to change the attitudes of our people. That is our only hope for permanent, long-term deliverance from degeneration on this continent.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is the author of I Do Not Come to You by Chance, a debut novel set amidst the perilous world of Nigerian email scams; winner of the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book (Africa). She lives in Lagos, and works with Nigeria's groundbreaking NEXT newspaper. The article first appeared at Guardian UK.