Pyrates: Original Anticorruption in Nigeria
In 1953, the Pyrates Confraternity (PC), an all-male campus fraternity, began at the University of Ibadan (then a college of the University of London) by seven men. The most famous of the seven being Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. University education in Nigeria was just half a decade old and was an uncertain colonial experiment. PC they were to establish several chapters at other universities ever since.
The motivation to form the PC was the logic of “expected” decadence and corruption in Nigerian society. They could see expected decadence and corruption as prescient. Because it was expectations of things to come in future Nigeria. Rather than a description of itself in the early 1950s. Nigeria was under colonial rule at the time and manage society was the responsibility of Westminster; Nigerians were not yet in power to govern the country.
However, the colonial power as a necessary strategy fostered a thriving community of an “indigenous” elite. An elite comprising pro-British politicians, public officials, educators, royalty, priests and entrepreneurs who kept the “indigenes” in check. Predictably, a sizeable proportion of the students at the university were the children of the indigenous elite. They were the “cub elite”. Not only were the cub elite extreme anglophiles (such attitudes granted them superior status in society). Many of them would demonstrate an unrelenting willingness to pervert the norms and laws of society to impose or preserve their elite status.
The future of Nigeria, the cub elite, was proud to discuss daily, was one in which they would rule like absolute monarchs. Whether the nation would ever gain independence from Britain. Some of the cub elite even flirted with extreme ideas such as eugenics and debt-prisons; they were capitalist and right-wing in their worldview–they had a lot to “conserve”. (It is surprising to see today that many leading Pyrates are self-styled “Conservatives”). We explained social justice more in terms of social Darwinism and with good reason; they were the “fittest”.
In contrast, the average person was with condescension praised for his ability to “survive” as if by magic. Nevertheless, the disturbing aspect of their behaviour was suspect. It included their keen proclivity to secure or adopt secrecy, complicity and impunity when they were to discover to have partaken in serious wrongdoing. The cub elite would pay bribes to get choice rooms in halls of residence, offer “inducements” to be elected student representatives. Or host lavish parties whereby they would exclude the “unworthy.” They would also offer money to poorer students to take notes in class on their behalf, etc. And to add insult to injury, they would brag about such exploits. In an informal sense, dinner jackets, cravats, the King’s English, pipes, scotch, listening to Mozart. Or reading Chaucer, singing God Save the King, etc. These were a sufficient cover or excuse for their decadent behaviour.
How could a young man who can quote Shakespeare by heart tell lies? Is it possible for a lady who sings in the choir of Father Gegan inform on her colleagues? How could a man always dressed in a blazer steal or commit rape? Needless to say, not all cub elites behaved in the ways I have described. Nevertheless, most did in varying degrees.
The founding members of the PC, i.e. the Pyrates Confraternity, were not cub elite, but for one or two of them. Pyrates were the “ones that rebelled” or “joined the rebellion”. The Pyrates observed the questionable behaviour of the cub elite, which had become fashionable to the common student who aspired to be like the cubs. One particular thing the common student liked about the cub elite was the secrecy, complicity and impunity they enjoyed in both formal and informal matters. The ability to get away with murder became an irresistible aspiration.
The Pyrates observed that there were two problems on campus. First, the cub elites may one day rule the nation (rumours of pro-independence were abounding then). And considering their behaviour, when such a time came, Nigeria would have an educated ruling elite that favoured despotism, repression and corruption. Second, it was disheartening for Pyrates to see most common students to approve of the decadent or corrupt ways of the cub elite. They even tried to imitate them, often willing to bear much humiliation and rejection to “belong”.
Thus, the Pyrates took it upon themselves to protect the future of Nigeria from bad rule and corruption by establishing the fraternity. And the sole purpose of stemming the influence of the cub elite.
The cub elite behaviours and their preferences were based on four ostensible aspects of coordination. (1) Cub elites sought disproportionate favour ceremonial over instrumental institutions. Dress codes, table manners, social etiquette, status, rank, clubs, the Arts, public speaking, church ceremonies got more favour over industry. Yes, unpleasant but necessary tasks, hands-on management, crucial techniques development, practical problem-solving and so on. They defended the colonial status quo and rejected the African way. (2) Cub elites were tribalistic in their outlook. Relationships and alliances amongst them are usual to form them along tribal lines; exceptions existed, but such ties were less stable and less enduring. Their parents were invariable regionalists, i.e. tribal elites.
And (3) Social justice was not something the cub elite cared about. The ethos was “every man for himself and God for all of us”. The only people the cub elites cared about were those for who it was expedient or beneficial to do so for. That is, their own kind or an electorate they were intent on conning. (4) West African society and the relations within it emerged from a deep sense and strong identity of societal togetherness. The atomisation of society West African experience today is a legacy of colonial rule.
Though such relations were based on clan and ethnicity in the traditional sense, the cub elites who with loudness and emphasis proclaimed broad-based modernism. And with tightness kept their localised pre-modern sense of brotherhood. They planned the antidote to the pervasive behaviour and preferences of the cub elites for the Pyrates as the four compass points;
- Against Convention. To promote institutions of instrumentality over the ceremonial, to create a flourishing society devoid of decadence and corruption.
- Against Tribalism. To overcome tribal divisions to promote unity and equity in both public and private institutions in society.
- For Humanistic Ideals, To promote genuine social justice and necessary moral standards in the public and private institutions of society.
- For Comradeship and Chivalry. To promote civic responsibility amongst every individual and prevent the conversion of necessary public goods to private personal private interests or property.
Original Pyrates were both potential fashioners and builders of institutions.
The expected decadence and corruption of the educated ruling elite in Nigeria turned out to be an accurate prediction of the Original Seven / Fifteen Pyrates. Considerations of the nature and scale of corruption in Nigeria need no introduction. One may ask, do the early Pyrates somehow blame themselves, though unjustifiable, for not fighting hard enough to realise their goal of stemming corruption in Nigeria? And not building the enabling institutions to realise it? This is just speculation. In the early years of the Pyrates Confraternity, it is quite worthy to note that their main active focus is . Fighting various forms of corruption and decadence in the society. They started such a fight on university campuses as new universities and later took it into mainstream society.
Pyrate-initiated probes of the were common. Corrupt individuals exposed, corrupt practices branded in public etc. with significant effect. For an unfunded voluntary organisation, their efforts were admirable, only superseded in the fight against corruption by state agencies. Agencies such as civil and military tribunals and commissions. Nonetheless, with all their paraphernalia and funding, produced derisory outcomes.
However, the reason the PC’s fight against corruption was not as popular as it should be is that they mainly conducted it as subversive underground acts. They were often most effective in the informal realm of institutions/society where corruption thrived. Early attempts made by the PC to liaise with the Nigerian police force in the fight against corruption end in quick failure; the police were often not interested, and they were not comfortable with independent anti-corruption anyhow. Journalists were much more cooperative.
Thus, the PC had to fight corruption from the underground in a limited but effective and successful way. Innumerable corrupt officials in the past dreaded the prying eyes of the PC in private. We note that the price for enforcing anti-corruption measures on powerful corrupt officials had grave consequences for many Pyrates. Yet, but they always affirmed their commitment to John Bunyan’s words “There’s no Discouragement”.
In recent years, the PC has not been the same; it is nothing like its former self. It has even become what it was supposed to fight. Ineptitude and incompetence backed up by venality and mediocrity have taken over from sterling high standards of its past. Even though some of the “Old Guard” remain as leeches and abusers rather than mentors and protectors. Furthermore, individual stand-alone corruption, which was easy to detect and punish, is no more. It now shapes itself (since the mid-1980s) on complex collusive corruption comprising vertical and horizontal integrated networks of corrupt officials and clients. Therefore, reducing the risk of detection. The unfunded PC is now facing having to handle problems of corruption in Nigeria. No other organisation in the world has tackled with success.
Maybe a reinvented PC with a focus on complex, elusive corruption can with success tackle misgovernance in Nigeria and perhaps elsewhere in the future. Who knows?
(Originally published on September 3, 2010)