Recently, the video of a policeman, Sgt. Chris Omeleze, who was demanding a bribe, went viral. Nigerians registered their anger and indignation, calling for the head of the man. Predictably, the Nigeria Police Force reacted by sacking the man.
In the last week of July, a Nigerian-born judge in the Gambia was sacked for demanding a bribe from a Dutch businessman in return for a favourable judgment in a land dispute case. Again he was unfortunate to have been caught on tape.
Last year, a video clip of a member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Farouk Lawan, demanding and receiving a bribe from Mr. Femi Otedola, Chairman of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Limited, to exclude his company’s name from those that were guilty of the oil subsidy scam, also went viral.
The case has been charged to court, but like other such cases before it, involving top politicians and VIPs, it will most likely drag on until it is forgotten by most Nigerians.
A few weeks ago, the Edo State Governor, Mr. Adams Oshiomhole, revealed that audit on the public primary schools in the state showed that 91 per cent of the teachers had issues of falsification of age, results, etc. Oshiomhole added some humour to it: “Some of the records show there were a few who were particularly gifted and finished primary school before they were born.”
Any time Nigerians register their anger over a case of corruption, it amuses me. It amuses me because it sounds hypocritical. We sit on corruption (or put more appropriately, we wallow in corruption) and yet point the finger at others as corrupt. It is difficult to mention one aspect of Nigeria’s life – whether public or private — where bribery is not demanded and given. You then wonder if we all complain about corruption in public and private sectors at a time when corruption has deeply permeated our national life, who are the people demanding and offering the bribes if not the same people who complain about bribery.
What you notice is that the average Nigerian sets up a “roadblock” wherever he is in charge and ensures that he does not attend to anybody unless his palm is greased, and yet he regularly complains about the bribery perpetrated in higher places. That simply shows that if he gets the opportunity to be in a higher office, he will simply collect large bribes and still pretend to be a saint.
This issue bothered me again recently when I visited the Ikoyi Prisons, Lagos to see someone who was detained. It was my first time at any prison in my life. And I was with my wife. At the reception office of the prison, we were told to register our names in a book. Each of us was also told to fill out a form. I saw people handing over their forms with N100. I handed ours over to the man, and he asked me to bring N200 for both of us. I asked him what the money was. He told me that it was what everybody paid to go in. I asked him if it was official, and he told me flatly that if we did not pay it, we would not go in.
He returned our forms over to us and continued to attend to other visitors who were willing to play ball. Most of the visitors were people who had brought food to their relatives who were either in prison or awaiting trial, given that the food given to inmates is nothing to write home about. If they did not pay the little bribe, they would not be allowed to see their loved ones. And they were not sure if complaining about this extortion would result in their loved ones being victimised by the prison wardens.
When it was obvious that the man would not let us in, I told him that I wanted to see a superior officer to confirm what that payment was for. He told me to go and report to whoever I liked. I stepped out and approached the men at the gate to ask them where I could register my complaint. They asked what the issue was. Upon hearing my complaint, the first thing one of them asked was: “Who are you, sir?” I said I was just a common Nigerian. “Where do you work, sir?” he probed further. “I work in a Lagos office,” I responded as nicely as I could.
The man took us to the man at the reception office, whispered to him, and he accepted our forms without collecting the “gate fee”. Something told me that the man at the gate must have told the other man something like: “Please let this troublemaker pass with his wahala. This is how they will be going about looking for trouble.”
While inside the prison, we were ushered into the office of the prison warden where a prison official took the name of the person we wanted and went to call him. When he emerged and we were about talking with him, the prison official – with the prison warden watching – asked us to pay N100 each again for the visit. The process at the gate was repeated there again.
By the time we left, I shook my head in sadness. I made enquiries and heard that the “gate fee” is also collected in other prisons across the nation. The same men who had set up toll gates at the prisons for visitors would rant with indignation about the corruption among the political office holders, civil servants or the police. The same people who demand a bribe before any service is rendered would go to church or mosque, thank God for blessing them and pray for more blessings!
The lame excuse is that there is a difference between a small bribe and a big bribe. Another excuse is that their salary is small. But small salaries are no justification because those in higher offices, who receive fat salaries, still collect fat bribes. The higher the office, the fatter the size of the bribes received. The difference between us and that sacked policeman or judge is that we have not been caught on tape yet!
It is a terrible situation. From teachers who demand bribes from their students, to customs officers who collect bribes from importers, to journalists who demand bribes before they can publish a story, to the manager who collects a bribe to award a supply contract, to your neighbour’s little boy who would not buy a bottle of drink for you across the road unless he receives something in return, our nation has become a land of roadblocks. If you turn right, you run into a roadblock; if you turn left, you run into a roadblock. If you do not want to pay to get the road opened, someone behind you would shout at you and call you Mr. Holier-than-thou, and tell you to leave the way for serious people who want to take care of their serious business.
Those in authority know that bribes are demanded at every turn, yet they look away, because they are also involved. They only react when someone is caught on camera, just to give the impression that they don’t condone corruption. But a nation that has zero tolerance for corruption will not be reactive to corruption; it will be proactive: setting traps for people and arresting them; sending agents provocateurs and undercover agents to different sectors to sniff out culprits; and making the penalty for corruption no child’s play. That way, people would know that corruption does not pay. But because nobody cares or bothers, corruption worsens.
In the distant past, bribes were demanded subtly and received discreetly. But today, they are demanded boldly and received brazenly. They are no longer seen as bribes. They have become rights and entitlements. And the very tiny few who refuse to give or receive bribes are called fools living in a fool’s paradise. And yet, everyone complains bitterly about corruption in the land and prays for the country to develop: a classical case of everybody wanting to go to heaven but nobody wanting to die. We are indeed an interesting people!
By Azuka Onwuka