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The Billion Naira era of public stealing

The Nigerian story never changes. It undergoes purification in the furnace of public outcry and re-emerges with a new, acceptable face. Here is one case…

The Nigerian story never changes. It undergoes purification in the furnace of public outcry and re-emerges with a new, acceptable face. Here is one case that should be of more than passing interest to you.

Our redoubtable politicians of the first republic tooled around town in Mercedes Benz saloon cars and stretched American limousines. The Mercedes became the official cars at federal and regional levels. They and the American cars were the new symbols of political power and the newly acquired wealth. They matched the social importance and the new lifestyles of the men of the moment whose struggle won us independence from British colonialists. 

It had a short shelf life, sadly. By the time the majors did what they did to change the nature of our national politics and redefine political power and social importance, that lifestyle had a acquired a new, detestable appellation as conspicuous living. The phrase equated the lifestyle of our public officers with a needless and wanton display of either personal wealth or official position. It also underlined growing public disenchantment with official recklessness. 

We are talking of the time in our nation when our national economy was entirely agrarian, a burden that fell on the peasant farmers whose sweat built the famous groundnut pyramids in Kano province, the many cotton ginneries that spread out of Sokoto province, the oil palm produce in the Eastern Region and the rubber plantations in the Mid-West region. What the nation wanted so soon after independence was the modest lifestyle of our departed colonial masters. The new lifestyle did not represent the correct lifestyle in a peasant agrarian economy. More importantly, it was equated with corruption among our public officers. It survived in the military administration with moderated drums of whistles.

However, the Obasanjo military administration tackled corruption by tackling conspicuous living. It replaced the Mercedes saloon car with Peugeot 504 saloon car as the official vehicle at federal, state, and local government levels. It was a more modest vehicle. Its official use was supposed to mark the new face of a nation remade by the gun and the inculcation of modesty in our public officers. With the decreed end of conspicuous living, our country had emerged from the long winter years of military rule into the salubrious fresh air of democracy attended by the absence of arrogant power display symbolised by expensive vehicles when most of the country qualified for rickety bicycles.

When the civilians returned in 1979, the new decreed policy of conspicuous living began its inevitable return journey back to public reckoning. The late Sam Mbakwe, governor of old Imo State, was perhaps the first man to disagree with the policy. He swore he would not be seen dead in a Peugeot 504 saloon as official car. He was a rich man with a fleet of Mercedes Benz saloon cars. Replacing them with the lowlier Peugeot 504 was to him a social demotion. 

The circumstances of our national economy are still hobbled by contradictory policies, but the lifestyle of our public officers could not be more conspicuous. The new symbol of political power and social importance is now the SUV vehicle. It is the vehicle of choice at federal, state, and local governments levels. They are not regarded as evidence of conspicuous living because no one frowns at conspicuous living anymore. 

The phrase had its days of fame and descended into the graveyard of other forgotten efforts to demystify power so that the homes of the rich, the powerful and the influential are not turned into shrines where power and wealth seekers must go to seek miracles that turn around their circumstances in the time it takes to say, oga na you biko. If you have got it, flaunt it for all the world to see. It is the new social decree in our oil rich nation. 

And flaunt it, wealthy Nigerians do. Conspicuous living is good because in its new face, it engenders competition among fellow Nigerians. We make leaps where other nations crawl. We have made the leap from when corruption entailed relatively minor thefts under the table to the current era with billions of Naira stolen from our public treasuries daily. Questions are asked and the thieves escape to live well ever. Stealing used to be public and family shame. It is now celebrated evidence of smartness.  

Everything about our country is telling evidence that the new face of conspicuous living has shot the nation into the stratosphere. Everything in our country is state of the art, the latest and the best. Private mansions are states of the art; official and private vehicles are states of the art; our hospitality industries are states of the art; private jets in the country are states of the art. It does not matter that ours is the poverty capital of the world with more poor people than the population of all the countries in the West African sub-region. It is only a case of richer citizens and an impoverished nation.

Our new social ethos of power and wealth pulls the nation ever deeper into the vortex of corruption. It admits this: if you have not got, steal it. There is a constant raid on the national and sub-national treasuries. The news media are daily filled with stories of such blatant and arrogant theft with such mind-blowing impunity that would not be tolerated anywhere else but perhaps Bangladesh. The treasuries are deliberately made porous to make it easy for those who are entrusted with guarding our common wealth to help themselves to it – and call on God to bear witness to their innocence. God never takes the witness stand in the court of law.


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