When I read the article titled ‘The Welcome Party for Ibori’ by Simon Kolawole, it was thought-provoking journalism considering the context of Delta State’s ex-Governor, James Ibori’s much-celebrated release from Belmarsh Prison, London, England. Many Nigerians mostly see Ibori’s celebrated release by mostly people from his home state of Delta as a national disgrace and most rightly so. However, when you consider Nigeria’s history of convictions for corruption, many who complain about Ibori’s smug prison release may simply be tribalists who would do the same if “their man” was convicted and eventually released. The real crushing national disgrace for Nigeria is that it still cannot convict her Big Thieves in her courts and rely on foreign governments to convict “selected” offenders. Yet, Nigeria celebrates Independence.
For starters, tribalism is the most secure “escape route” and “shield” from prosecution and conviction for corrupt Big Thieves in Nigeria, the bigger the tribe the better. Even millions of dollars in bribes and vast payments to international security consultants cannot achieve what tribal support can. Ask James Ibori or ask Bola Tinubu or Lukman Rilwanu or Jubril Aminu or Olabode George or Chinwoke Mbadinuju or Pius Anyim Pius; there are so many to ask. Tribalism is an exclusive blessing for a Big Thief in Nigeria.
Kolawole’s article has some subtle achievements which even if spoken everywhere in everyday Nigeria is not often written about. Firstly, Kolawole in his article effortlessly presents a simple (not simplified or oversimplified) analysis of a complex dichotomy that undermines justice and morality in the political economy of Nigeria; the relationship of the corruption of political leaders / elite bureaucrats and (a) the tribal support of their constituents that renders them to be seriously perceived innocent by default versus (b) unrelenting guilty verdict fashioned against them from non-constituents. In Nigeria, if a politician is from the tribe of the beholder, he/she is most unlikely to be considered corrupt even if convicted by a court of law; if from another tribe he/she is considered corrupt even without evidence or a conviction. Such is tribalism, such is a divided nation.
To most everyday Deltans today, James Ibori is a political giant (great leader, a hero, a mastermind, good provider and innocent); to the everyday non-Deltan Nigerian, Ibori is a Big Thief (a fraudster, a money launderer, corrupt) and unfit to be governor in the first place. How do we even begin to resolve such a dichotomy in such a divided nation? Most Nigeria want justice [when it is convenient] but tribalism no gree!
In the context of genuine justice and morality, Ibori is truly a convicted criminal and Kolawole competently explains why with a concise but informed history. Kolawole’s dichotomy then unbiasedly sets the premises for the unexpected. Is ex-Governor Bola Tinubu of Lagos State a Big Thief and unfit to be governor in the first place to everyday Lagosians? Lin Lin Kpililin! Is Ibori a Big Thief to the everyday Lagosian? Yes!!!!!!!!!! Repeat this line of questioning for ex-governors Rabiu Kwankwanso, Olagunsoye Oyinlola, Babatunde Fashola, Donald Duke, Chimaroke Nnamani, Bamanga Tukur etc. and one will predictably get the same pattern of reactions, accordingly. What constituents believe of their political leaders is very different from what non-constituents within Nigeria do in cases of corruption. Nigeria is so keenly divided and polarised that tribe and religion are the main determinants of innocence and guilt, not the rule of law.
Secondly, Kolawole presents another interesting possibility in his article which I call “innocence by comparative impunity” (ICI). ICI is simply a case whereby someone claims innocence because the crime he is being punished for is mostly ignored when most others commit it. If five out of a team of ten men are found guilty of violent rapes against women but get no punishment after facing due process, when a sixth man in the group commits that same offence and is appropriately punished, he and his supporters will see him as [comparatively] “innocent”. Legal judgements must be applied constantly and consistently to be effective institutions. Not in Nigeria. The innocence “foisted” upon Ibori by most of his people (not all) is not because he is innocent in a logical and just world but because other Big Thieves got away with it scot-free and are prospering.
Put another way, Ibori and his supporters cannot be seen to be complaining too much if they ask “why is it that when everyone else does it, it’s okay but when I do it I get severely punished?” The complaint of victimisation cum innocence though thoroughly perverse is logically consistent within the Nigerian system. O yes! Many of the Big Thieves of Nigeria not only got away with thefts comparable that which Ibori was convicted for are now ministers and party rulers in Muhammadu Buhari’s government.
If most of Nigeria’s Big Thieves were guaranteed to serve long sentences in jail for their corruption and have all their ill-gotten wealth confiscated Ibori will neither be celebrating his release nor be celebrated. This is the fault of successive Governments of Nigeria and the deliberated crafted the externalities that create and sustain corruption as a culture. As the government of Nigeria wishes for impunity for corruption so it gets it. The sanctified innocence of corruption and other crimes committed by Nigeria’s Big Thieves and Big Men is guaranteed by the impunity generously meted out by the government. Small Thieves of even small loaves of bread get burnt alive with joy when caught. Small Thieves are not only poor they are not blessed like Big Thieves are. That too is a monumental national disgrace.
Finally, Kolawole’s recommendation for thinking Nigerians to read Peter Ekeh’s I975 essay titled ‘Colonialism and Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement’ http://users.polisci.wisc.edu/schatzberg/ps277/Ekeh1975.pdf is a sincerely good one. I have not read an essay that has provided me with more enlightenment about mechanisms of governance and institutions in Nigeria.