In 1953 the Pyrates Confraternity (PC), an all-male campus fraternity, was founded at the University of Ibadan (then a college of the University of London) by seven men with the most famous being Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. University education in Nigeria was barely half a decade old and was an uncertain colonial experiment; many other universities have since been established.
The motivation for the formation of the PC was the logic of “expected” decadence and corruption in Nigerian society. Expected decadence and corruption could be seen as prescient because it was an expectation of things to come in the future Nigeria rather than a description of itself in the early 1950s. Nigeria was under colonial rule at the time and the management of society was the responsibility of Westminster; Nigerians were not yet in power to govern the country.
However, the colonial power as a necessary strategy did foster a thriving community of an “indigenous” elite comprising of very pro-British politicians, public officials, educators, royalty, clergymen 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 i.e. they were the “cub elite”. Not only were the cub elite extreme anglophiles (such attitudes granted them superior status in society), they demonstrated an unrelenting willingness to pervert the norms and laws of society in order to impose or preserve their elite status.
The future of Nigeria the cub elite proudly talked about on a daily basis, was one in which they would rule like absolute monarchs whether or not 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 after all very capitalist and very 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”). Social justice was explained mainly in terms of social Darwinism and with good reason; they were the “fittest”.
The common man, in turn was condescendingly praised for his ability to “survive” as if by magic. Nevertheless, the truly disturbing aspect of their behaviour was their keen proclivity to secure or adopt secrecy, complicity and impunity when they were found out to have partaken in wrongdoing in a formal sense. The cub elite would pay bribes to get choice rooms in halls of residence, offer “inducements” to be elected student representatives, host lavish parties whereby they would exclude the “unworthy”, offer money to poorer students to take notes in class on their behalf etc. And to add insult to injury they would go on to brag about such exploits. In an informal sense, dinner jackets, cravats, the King’s English, pipes, scotch, listening to Mozart, reading Chaucer, singing God Save the King etc. was a sufficient cover or excuse for their decadent behaviour. How could a young man who readily quotes Shakespeare tell lies? How could a lady who sings in the choir of Father Gegan inform on 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 but most did in varying degrees.
The founding members of the PC i.e. the Pyrates Confraternity were not necessarily cub elite but some were. The 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. Firstly, the cub elites may go on to rule the nation one day (rumours of pro-independence were abounding at that time) and by considering their behaviour, when such a time came Nigeria would have an educated ruling elite that favoured despotism, repression and corruption. Secondly, it was disheartening for Pyrates to see that instead of the majority of common students to disapprove of the of the decadent or corrupt ways of the cub elite they actually tried to imitate them often willing to bear much humiliation and rejection in order to “belong”. The Pyrates thus took it upon themselves to protect the future of Nigeria from bad rule and corruption by setting up the fraternity with the sole purpose of stemming the influence of the cub elite.
The cub elite behaviours and preferences tended to be based on four ostensible aspects of coordination. (1) Cub elites disproportionately favoured ceremonial over instrumental institutions. Dress codes, table manners, social etiquette, status, rank, clubs, the Arts, public speaking, church ceremonies were highly favoured over industry, unpleasant but necessary tasks, hands-on management, techniques development, practical problem-solving etc. they defended the colonial status quo and rejected the African way. (2) Cub elites were very tribalistic in their outlook. Relationships and alliances amongst them were usually formed strictly along tribal lines; exceptions did exist but such ties were less stable and less enduring as a rule. Their parents were invariably regionalists i.e. tribalists. (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 i.e. their own kind or an electorate they were intent on conning. (4) West African society and the relations within it were originally founded on a deep sense and strong identity of societal togetherness.
Though such relations are based on clan and ethnicity in the traditional sense, the cub elites who loudly and emphatically proclaimed broad-based modernism jealously kept their localised pre-modern sense of brotherhood. The antidote to the pervasive behaviour and preferences of the cub elites for the Pyrates was formulated as the four compass points;
- Against Convention i.e. to promote institutions of instrumentality over ceremoniality in order to create a flourishing society devoid of decadence and corruption.
- Against Tribalism i.e. to overcome tribal divisions in order to promote unity and equity in both public and private institutions in society.
- For Humanistic Ideals i.e. to promote genuine social justice and necessary moral standards in the public and private institutions of society.
- For Comradeship and Chivalry i.e. to promote civic responsibility amongst each and every individual and prevent of the conversion of necessary public goods in private personal private interests or property.
It is evident that the Original Pyrates were both potential fashioners and builders of institutions.
The expected decadence and corruption of the educated ruling elite in Nigeria did turn out to be an accurate prediction of the Original Seven / Fifteen Pyrates. The nature and scale of corruption in Nigeria needs no introduction. One may ask, do the early Pyrates somehow blame themselves, though unjustifiably, for not fighting hard enough to realise their goal of stemming corruption in Nigeria and building the necessary institutions to realise it? This is just a speculation. In the early years of the Pyrates Confraternity, it is quite worthy to note that their main active focus was fighting various forms corruption and decadence in society. They started such a fight on university campuses as new universities were established and later took it into mainstream society. Self-initiated probes were conducted, corrupt individuals exposed, corrupt practices publicly branded etc. with significant effect. For an unfunded voluntary organisation, their efforts were admirable only superseded in the fight against corruption by state agencies such as civil and military tribunals and commissions which with all their paraphernalia and funding produced mostly derisory outcomes.
However, the reason why the PC’s fight against corruption is not as widely known as it should be, is because it was mainly conducted as subversive underground acts and 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 ended quick failure; the police were simply 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 seriously dreaded the prying eyes of the PC privately. It must be noted that the price for enforcing anti-corruption measures on powerful corrupt officials had grave consequences for many Pyrates, but they always affirmed their commitment with John Bunyan’s words “There’s no Discouragement”.
In recent years the PC is not the same, in fact, it is nothing like its former self. It has even become exactly what it was supposed to fight. Ineptitude and incompetence backed up by venality and mediocrity have taken over most decisively from sterling high standards of its past even though most 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, has now been completely replaced (since the mid-1980s) by highly complex collusive corruption comprising of vertically and horizontally integrated networks of corrupt officials and clients, largely reducing the risk of detection. The unfunded PC is now facing having to deal with problems of corruption in Nigeria no other organisation in the world has been able to successfully tackle.
Maybe a reinvented PC with a focus on complex elusive corruption can successfully tackle corruption in Nigeria and perhaps elsewhere in future. Who knows? Miracles do happen.
(Originally published on September 3, 2010)