By Gimba Kakanda
In his song, The Poverty of Philosophy, the socially conscious Peruvian-American rapper, Immortal Technique, calls our attention to the dilemma of transitioning into the system one has previously antagonised. “The problem with always being a conformist,” he raps, “is that when you try to change the system from within, it’s not you who changes the system; it’s the system that will eventually change you.” This indictment is a familiar tragedy and a bewildering experience for Nigerians who’ve watched such demystification of the activists who once led their struggles against a dysfunctional system.
Not many who have transited, or committed “class suicide”—as it is called among the Nigerian characters who identify as Marxists—have succeeded in resisting the pull to conform to the practices they had opposed and about which they had fantasized redeeming. This is the reason the reputation of critics absorbed into the government, and neutralised—either by their inability to walk their talk or willing compromise—is a stigmatising reminder to their successors.
This generation is still haunted by the memory of Farouk Lawan, the lawmaker whose pyrotechnic activism at the House of Representatives as the self-styled Mr. Integrity, brought our hope in Nigeria to life. He charmed his ways to the heart of Nigerians and tricked them into believing the possibility of fighting the system from within. Lawan’s integrity test came in 2012, after 13 years as a voice of reason at the House. This was when Nigerians across classes mobilised for nationwide protests against the system of which Lawan was perceived as an ally. When, as Chairman of the House Ad-hoc Committee on Fuel Subsidy, Lawan spearheaded a probe that underlined the elite as recipients of billions of dollars in subsidies for the fuel they never delivered, he became the poster-child of the anti-system struggle.
Nigerians had not left the streets when this star of the Nigerian awakening who had exposed insanely huge scams amounting to $6.8 billion, was accused of receiving $620,000 as a part of a $3 million bribe he solicited to delist the billionaire Femi Otedola-owned companies implicated in the scams. His betrayal of that short-lived revolution was caught on camera!
The Lawans, therefore, are what we fear when tough-talking government critics proffer a solution or offer an alternative. The endless cycle of class suicides among yesterday’s critics, and their transformation into Lawans, is always cited by government officials to suggest that their critics aren’t any different. In a sense, they are right. The Nigerian intellectual elites are reservoirs of beautiful ideas that strangely fizzle out once they find a seat at the decision-making table.
We are always quick to point to the frailty of our institutions as the reason our intellectuals and technocrats misplace their ideas in government, without emphasising the reason they conform to the rules set by the predecessors they had demonised. As a panellist at a democracy day conference in 2017, we deliberated the reasons “good people” missed their ways in government. It began when, after a crossfire of fancy ideas, and interactions with the audience, a mischievous member asked if we would accept an untraceable bribe of, say, N50 million if occupying a political office.
Nigerians have an automated response to this: “No!” And my fellow panellists didn’t disappoint in advertising their incorruptibility. “It depends on the circumstance,” I said, amusing the audience. “It depends on what I’m going through when the bribe was given. If I’m dying of kidney disease with no support from the system, then…” An outburst of laughter. This joke was a true commentary on the system that has produced the Farouk Lawans, citizens who had also projected themselves as invulnerable and believed they would be upstanding even in the dark. Such insincerity has also supplemented the fiction that placard-carrying and the pen-wielding angry citizens are the answers to the Nigerian question.
These visionaries of yesterday were not indoctrinated by the system. They are inventions of our collective indifference to, and complicity in, the operations of the government. Our climate of corruption fits into the case study of criminology scholars who developed the WOE theory—that corruption prevails because of the will to perpetrate fraud by actors in the system, the opportunity discovered or presented and, third, the existence of an exit. This interprets Nigeria’s ruling elites, and the ease with which they abuse their offices is the inspiration for our clamouring for strong institutions.
But the mistake in building strong institutions to protect us from ourselves is our misunderstanding of how institutions are built. We tend to confuse them with government organisations and expect them to be built by the bureaucrats. This narrow definition is also why we think a change can only be instigated from within. But the institutions we desire to escape this corruption of our “messiahs” are, in fact, the patterns of established behaviours and interactions between the governed and the system, with a focus on the performance of all stakeholders.
Our default response to the moral demise of our allies in government has been that they are only revealing their true colours, and then we embark on the search for a “true” messiah. The Labour leader, Adams Oshiomhole, behind whom Nigerians had queued up to fight the government, is no longer the same after being baptised in the system as Governor and then a ruling party leader. His allegiances are no longer with the working-class, but the protection of his political capital as he fights to emerge as a provincial godfather and retain his seat at the table. The Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, was persuasive in developing education reforms for Nigeria as a Daily Trust columnist, but since absorption into the administrative web of the system, it’s hard to tell if he’s the same ideologue who claimed he knew “Why ASUU is always on strike.” Like Oshiomhole and Adamu, President Buhari is a product of mass expectation of the individual as a messiah. That seemingly ascetic politician whose theatrics were an assurance of salvation for the Talakawa, manifests in the system today as compassionately numb to the plights of the same masses his politics has misled into anti-rich populism.
We have not built strong institutions because we are underplaying the power of the citizen and focusing on the fancy speeches and promises of politicians performing for our emotions and applauses. The outcome is this tragedy that has turned us into philosophers of regrets. If, for instance, Buhari had not won these elections, the remaining decades of this century may be dedicated to analysing how he could’ve rescued this colonial start-up. But Buhari, like Lawan, Oshiomhole, Adamu and other “conformists,” is a mere reflection of the quality of citizenry in Nigeria. Our system is an experiment that no individual in government, left unscrutinised and unchallenged, prioritises the interests of the public. The system may be a graveyard of ideas, but Nigeria isn’t broken for lack of brains. It’s so because this dysfunctionality is more profitable.
Gimba Kakanda is a Public Policy Analyst.