“We hang the petty thieves & appoint the great ones to public office” – Aesop. Was Aesop not talking about Nigeria? #UniPortFour – 11 Oct 2012
The tweet above was sent in reaction to the broadcast of the lynching to death by inferno of four University of Port Harcourt students alleged to have stolen a mobile phone. It was a major international embarrassment even though the international press did not run with it. Shortly afterwards there was another broadcast of a girl accused of stealing a Blackberry phone in a market in Lagos having a phone shoved up her vagina! On the other hand politicians and bureaucrats that are accused of stealing millions and billions of dollars from state coffers become more popular and powerful in the country.
Aesop was a true sage. Why is there such a mighty disparity between punitive extra-judicial justices small thieves receive for accusations of theft and impunity for big thieves popularly enjoyed all over Nigeria?
The small thief is perceived to be an immediate and tangible threat to the peace, security and stability of the immediate community where an incidence of theft occurs. It does not matter if what is stolen or alleged to be stolen is an orange, a currency note, a television, a CD, a pair of shoes, a wad of cash, a car, an electric supply meter or whether the theft is committed unarmed, with arms, in group or by a single person, it is customarily deemed to be a threat to the survival of the community. In primitive and non-modern societies or nations where the rule of law is non-existent citizens respond to and attempt to deter instances of theft with the “threat of violence”. The small thief is also accessible to mobs since they are very ordinary people looking usually poor and hungry. The small thief is a student or unemployed or young or desperate, perceived as a potential nuisance to society. There is no will to protect them or give them a fair trial. Even at police stations the extra-judicial killing of thieves especially armed ones is very common.
Exacting the threat of violence by a mob on small thieves has a very celebratory element to it. The mob cherishes and delights in catching and punishing an alleged thief. Every slap, punch, kick, whipping or belting of an alleged small thief by a mob is delivered with an intoxicating mix of anger and joyous sense of fulfilment. After the celebration of catching a thief is over he (almost exclusively) is burnt or battered to death. The cries of mercy or innocence by the small thief has no place in this celebratory violence perpetrated in the name of justice. Escaping the threat of violence means running from the mob and even thieves who got away undetected are vehemently “cursed” with “spiritual retribution” by the community’s members.
The big thief’s destiny is very different. He or she is mostly celebrated by the public for his or her profligate theft. Every lavish party he throws, every new house she builds, every child he sends overseas for education, every new luxury car she buys, every act of ‘spraying’ [throwing money like confetti] is celebrated with great relish and delight by the witnessing community. There are several anecdotes of a big thief being arrested for grand corruption and taken to a police station and saluted by the most senior officer and offered single malt whisky or champagne with courtesy. The logic behind such actions is “treat him nice when he is in trouble and when it is all over and he is back in ascendancy he will never forget you”. Stephen Akiga, an ex-prison warden while Olusegun Obasanjo was in jail became a minister subsequently in the latter’s government as an act of gratitude. The logic appears to work even though this was not a big thief case.
The big thief is usually a president, minister, governor, party bigwig, a big party financier, a big bureaucrat, perceived by many to be a “potential saviour”. The big thief is not perceived to represent an immediate threat to any community even when the great or small sums money intended for their development or sustenance is stolen by him or her. The threat the big thief poses is enduring backwardness and suffering for the communities he steals from. No community in Nigeria appears to demonstrate anger at a big thief for denying them allocations or complete projects that deliver functional education, clean water, heath services, electricity, jobs, social amenities to it. In fact, the same community the big thief has stolen from will go out of its way to defend the innocence and reputation of the big thief.
Is it that Nigerians have not evolved to the stage whereby they can understand and identify the people who determine their socio-economic fate of their immediate communities? Is it that Nigerians are gripped by learned helplessness due to becoming inured to the frequent exposes of incessant grand-to-petty corruption? Or is just collective cowardice?
Here one of the undying remnants of the primitivity of the Nigerian society is exposed. A Nigerian mostly sees civilisation in enjoyment and luxury; Western music and dance, Western and traditional dress, Western gadgets and “toys”, grammar, partying, travel and ‘posing’. Modern and post-modern civilisations were neither created nor reflected as such things. The civilised societies of the present era are societies with strong (apparently) self-enforcing modern institutions. It is not surprising that Nigerians cannot produce anything that requires enforceable strong modern institutions. Therefore, Nigeria with all its might and power cannot punish big thieves who hold the country ransom while their narrow interests are taken care of by modern via contrary institutions.
However, any casual or spontaneously gathered group of individuals acquire the agency to inflict death by the empowerment of primitive institutions on an alleged thief. Too many mistakes are made and many innocent people have died.
As the failure of institutions rears its head starkly in Nigerian society once again, we have to wonder why it is that when the big thief steals from state coffers [whether caught or not] the public celebrates his or her “success” and when the small thief is caught participating in his demise is also celebrated. Could the problem be an inordinate desire of Nigerians to celebrate virtually anything grand?