It is baffling to observe that the “419” crime that was once well-understood by most Nigerians has surprisingly become well-misunderstood by even more of them. Around the world, corruption was once very clearly defined and well-understood, but has now become a rather ambiguous phenomenon, especially since the global economic crisis of 2008. The situation of Nigerians ‘losing the meaning’ of something that has come to co-define their international image is very exceptional.
Meaning and contexts of words do change with the times and can occur, besides numerous reasons, due to cultural or political manipulation, from minor tweaking to Orwellian proportions. ‘Losing the meaning’ has so much more to do with emotions and sentiments than logic and reason. How a story makes a person feel can be much more important than its facts and logic. The ambiguity of what 419 is, perhaps, is a reflection of the psyche of people and their leaders.
Nigerian society is far from one with clear metrically-defined sensibilities thus permitting fact and fiction to compete with each other on equal terms. The good old ‘beer parlour’ remains, perhaps, the best place to disseminate truths and falsehoods alike in society within this context. Social media platforms are supposed to be incomparably much better information hubs but are also subject to instant, often devastating, critiques that very quickly send most falsehoods into pitiable irrelevance and the dustbin. Some falsehoods survive in social media due to the inordinate passions of their propagators.
One consequence of losing the meaning is the affirmation of fallacious statements as great truths by influential figures. When President Goodluck Jonathan famously claimed recently that “stealing is not corruption” it was a fallacy that reeked of scandalous and hubris. It brought back memories of Yakubu Gowon’s: “money is not Nigeria’s problem, but how to spend it,” and Olusegun Obasanjo’s cop-out: “anyone who can prove Babangida is corrupt should provide the evidence.” In the several major taxonomies and typologies in the literature of corruption, direct stealing or theft in the form of embezzlement, graft and unauthorised sale of State assets are definitively categorised as corruption.
While most authors claim corruption involves at least two people, Syed Hussein Alatas persuasively insists it can be undertaken by one individual alone, and many people agree. Why would a highly educated president lose the meaning of corruption and stealing or try to de-conflate them? It is also amazing that those who engage in ‘armed’ and ‘legged’ robbery when caught are subject to some form of instant extra-judicial execution, while paradoxically public servants that steal fabulous amounts of money from the treasury are seen as admirable and imitable heroes. The primitive fear of physical theft coupled with the neo-heroic awe of grand theft via corrupt practices by the very same people is a truly disturbing social anomaly.
Extreme generalisation is another consequence of losing the meaning. Look at the pervasive “representative singular form,” habitually common with religious, tribal and political differences. Some document the fact that President Ibrahim Babangida was responsible for introducing the “settlement culture” of corruption into Nigeria. Settlement was simply the offering of significant rents (bribes) to a broad base of clients to buy legitimacy. Thousands of public service elites and their clients helped entrench the settlement culture as a rogue instrument of governance in Nigeria and personally made their fortunes therein. However, only “Babangida” seems to be held responsible for the settlement culture; his proxies, advisers, henchmen, collaborators, abettors, beneficiaries, runners and agents all hide in anonymity under the umbrella of “Babangida.”
The same applies to all presidents of Nigeria that permitted massive corruption under their watch. An outcome of such has been that many elite corrupt public officials have secured a sort of “moral impunity” from suspicion and prosecution and returned to office under the umbrella of a new president. The cycle is self-repetitive. The meanings of non-transparency, complicity and impunity, the drivers of persistent corruption, are lost on one man at a time.
The singular representative form also appears with the phenomenon of “cocaine barons.” Anyone (male or female) in the 1980s Lagos and elsewhere in Nigeria whose source of large income was obscure was readily ‘branded’ a cocaine baron based on suspicion alone. A former senior official with the Nigeria Drug and Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) confided that many Nigerians that were reported to be in the cocaine trade were, on investigation, actually people engaged in legitimate businesses that Nigerians were not familiar with.
Nigeria is a thoroughly information-averse society where most people hide the secrets or sources of their wealth. Legitimate importers and exporters of lucrative, but obscure and exotic products, corporate and government consultants, market speculators and opportunists, major NGO principals, heirs to wealth, highly specialised service providers as well as criminals who never had anything to do with the narcotics trade were branded cocaine barons. A disastrous outcome of this loss of meaning relating to enterprise was the NDLEA could not rely on volunteered “intelligence” and eased the way for real cocaine barons to ply their trade without detection, using countless mules that sometimes ended up being jailed or even executed overseas.
And there is the 419 thing. Can anyone really remember what it was and what it means nowadays? Maybe 419 is not even stealing.