There is corruption in Nigeria. But corruption is not the real or the major problem of Nigeria. The real problem of Nigeria is a systemic failure.
The collapse of the public institutions that should make government effective and functional leads to corruption.
Let me quickly say that all nations who have aspirations about creating real societies and building on their powers establish their institutions and protect them with the highest codes of laws.
In every nation of substance, the heavens might collapse, and the economy with it, but they do not toy with three areas of national life: they protect them and secure them, irrespective of what happens in the body politics.
But once these areas or zones of national life become compromised, no nation ever rises – they become slaves of other more organized states. That is if they still manage to hang together, which often is never the case.
These three areas of national life are the educational and research infrastructure of the nation; the national civil service; and the justice system.
These are the critical, strategic trinary of national life. Touch them, and the nation collapses into anomie and nothingness. The reasons are pretty simple: education and research are the basis upon which the idea of a nation exists. National civic life is designed through the school system. The classroom of every nation is its first site of propaganda and recruitment.
I watched my own mother as a schoolmistress, every weekend, sit on the dining table and do a weekly review of her ‘Notes of Lesson’, plan her lessons on the planner, evaluate students’ homework, and do her weekly readings of the class texts.
At the end of the term, she graded or ‘marked’ papers; prepared the students to report cards in which she wrote her reports about every student in her class: her professional observation of the students; their strengths; their prospects, and her concerns, in very short, precise, articulate language.
The report cards are handed without fail, come rain or sunshine to the students, at the end of term, and a copy of the students report is sent to the head teacher’s office and kept in the students’ file.
When my mother became headmistress, at the end of the school year, she would carry the students’ files to the offices of the Divisional Education Board, where they were kept in the records of the School Board.
In one year, my mother was Zonal Coordinator for the extramural preparatory classes organized in the district for students in Primary Six preparing to take the Common Entrance exams – state and federal.
It was non-remunerated, but it was the teacher’s work, and it was of course in the Sam Mbakwe era. In any case, my mother’s generation of teachers was highly trained professionals, properly educated in the English teacher tradition.
In the 1950s when my mother went to Teacher’s College, selection to teachers training was still remarkably elitist! The best students were usually kept back to teaching, bonded and retained in the schools.
In my mother’s case, her father was about to send her off to the Cornelia Connelly College, Uyo, a grammar school for girls, in 1953, when Mother Mary Coleman, the Irish Catholic nun and educator, intervened.
“Mother Mary” – as my mum often called her – was the Principal of the Regina Caeli College in Ogbor Nguru, and she was especially fond of my mother, who not only came tops of her class but was also the youngest in her year.
She convinced my grandfather to send my mother rather to Regina Caeli College – which was a Preparatory Teacher’s College (PTC) – to train as a teacher.
Thus From Preparatory Teacher’s College, she went on to the Elementary Teacher’s College (ETC), and from then on to the St. Joseph’s Women Teacher’s College (WTC) Aba for what they then called the High Elementary Teacher’s Certificate; and years down the line, she went to the Institute of Education of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, for the Teachers Certification program, which qualified her to teach at every level of public education – from Early Child Education to the Higher School – other than tertiary education.
What I have sketched here, using my mother’s example, is the normal course of training for the professional teacher, who was also not only a civic leader, but was also an embodiment of the cultured society.
The teacher was Scoutmaster. The teacher was a games master. The teacher was the bandmaster. The teacher was the local organizer of Community Emergency Services as coordinator of the local Red Cross Society.
The teacher was a referee for local district football and athletics meets involving schools and communities in the district.
The teacher was an umpire at cricket. Teachers organized the local AAAs and the cross country; and the art and craft fairs. They organized drama societies.
They led student marches during what was then called ‘Empire Day’ which became ‘Independence Day’ and the ‘Children’s Day.’ The local teachers were, in short, at the core of the civic life of the various towns where they lived. But above all, the teacher in the classroom also functioned as a first-line intelligence agent for the state.
All that record-keeping was intelligence gathering, which gave governments access to the background of available talent who self-selected, and who were to be recruited, given scholarships, and directed to future public service of the nation.
The public school – which is the basis for the selection and training of the critical servants of the state, and for grounding national consciousness in citizens who must have buy-in to the nation – has been destroyed by merchants of infamy at the head of contemporary Nigerian political life, more interested in the culture wars than in human development.
Once, the schoolyard, with its gardens, and fields, and teachers cottages, was the most modern and most beautiful architecture in every town, but, today, it is the ghetto.
That is a measure of the condition of this nation today; why we are adrift. As with the public school, so it is with the civil service.
I could give a personal example of my father who I also saw closely at work as a civil servant. But let us use a more famous example – say Phillip Asiodu – who joined the Nigerian civil service in 1957.
Educated at both King’s College and Oxford, Asiodu was among that young cadre of Nigerians recruited into the Administrative Services when it opened up to Nigerians, following the full implementation of the 1954 Adebo-Philipson report on ‘Nigerianization’, by Sir Ralph Gray, the Chief Secretary, at the cusp of Home rule in 1957.
It was a cadre that included the poet Christopher Okigbo, who was sent as Private Secretary to the Minister of Information and Research; Peter Chigbo who later became Principal Secretary to the President; Leslie Harriman was appointed ADO, Lagos, Cornelius Adebayo; Allison Ayida, and Asiodu himself among a very highly selected few. A year later, a few of them transferred from the Home Service to the Foreign Service.
Asiodu was among these, and he was sent up to Washington DC. But a year later, he was back to the Home Service. He was properly selected, trained, and deployed in the civil service.
One of the greatest evils on Nigeria is that no Nigerian university was imaginative enough to offer Asiodu, Ayida or Chigbo, for instance, visiting positions – either as Senior Fellows or Visiting Professors, to mine their experience, and debrief them, as would have other serious nations at the end of their jobs in the civil service.
Many a Nigerian today may not understand what I’m cackling about, but the point is, Nigeria inherited a formidable civil service at the end of colonialism. Possibly the best in Africa. Two factors destroyed it: the civil war, and later, the coup of 1975 when a terrible purge occurred.
The civil service limped along, barely sustained by its institutional memory and certain remnant traditions, until the Dotun Philips reform under General Babangida, which not only politicized the status of the Permanent Secretary (which they began to call Director-General for a brief while) but fully monetized, privatized and corrupted the civil service.
There was a Thatcherite strain in that move. But what fully hobbled the Nigerian civil service was the criminal thing they called ‘quota system.’ It destroyed the basis of merit. There were too many square pegs in round holes.
Its leadership collapsed. Its ethos collapsed. It became a servile institution at the beck and call of its political masters. The Public Service Commission was weakened, and the institutional capacity of the service to check the excesses of power is lost.
The President can now hire and fire Permanent Secretaries. Because they can no longer contain the power of politicians, civil servants now initiate and abet the immense corruption that has undermined and crippled Nigeria. Yes, there can be no corruption without the complicity of the civil service.
A well-established, well-oriented, well-remunerated and merit-based civil service will end systemic corruption in Nigeria. And so would an effective system of sanctions and law enforcement. Today, there are no recourses to the law. Nigerians do not trust their justice system.
The legal system of judges and sworn law officers – a civil police system – has ceased to exist in Nigeria. Police and judicial system at the beck and call of those it should keep in check with hawk eyes criminalizes itself.
In attacking the judiciary, and destroying the legitimacy of the Supreme Court by his midnight raids on the justices of the court, which he followed with his illegal imposition of the current Chief Justice on the Supreme Court, Buhari put the last nail on the coffin of the magistracy in Nigeria.
But he forgot something: where laws fail, neither the rich nor the poor survives. In such situations, societies slide into Hobbesian traps. That is precisely what has happened to Nigeria.