By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
News of corruption used to outrage our moral susceptibilities. Now they excite our faculty of humor. In Nigeria’s increasingly dreary and despairing political and economic climate, people now look forward to news of bizarre acts of corruption as a source of cathartic hilarity.
We thought politicians faking illnesses and enacting histrionic displays in the courtroom to evade justice was the ultimate comedic mockery of justice that nonetheless helps us purge the ever-increasing emotional tensions that governmental ineptitude activates in us.
Then in February 2018, a JAMB employee in Benue by the name of Philomina Chieshe took it a notch higher. She alerted the nation to the existence of a moneyvorous “spiritual snake” that mysteriously swallowed 36 million naira realized from the sale of JAMB scratch cards. Her story stimulated mass psycho-therapeutic laughter in the country and inspired countless creative memes on social media. The national laughter her story stirred drowned out the outrage of her theft.
Exactly two years later, on February 7, 2020, the bursar of the University of Ibadan by the name of Michael Alatise told the House of Representatives Committee on Public Accounts that the university hadn’t submitted its audit report to the Auditor-General of the Federation since 2014 because the external auditor it hired to audit it went blind in the course of doing his job!
Perhaps, the fraud the external auditor discovered was so blindingly eye watering it caused him to lose his visual sensibilities. Seriously, though, as House Public Accounts committee chair Oluwole Oke said then, “That somebody went blind does not mean that the firm
into extinction.” Instead of striking the nation with revulsion, the story became another laughter tonic to relieve stress.
Since then, of course, more consequential government officials and private sector operatives that have direct dealings with government have discovered that the most artful way to elude consequences for corruption is to be so inordinately outrageous in your justification for corruption that the nation goes from indignation to bursts of deep loud hearty laughter.
For instance, on April 10, Maryam Uwais, Special Adviser to the President on Social Investment, told Channels TV’s Sunrise Daily program that she couldn’t account for the billions that she and the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs minister putatively gave to weak, poor, and vulnerable Nigerians to ease the hurt of the coronavirus pandemic because, “Those who benefit from the conditional cash transfer of the Federal Government as palliative to cushion the effects of the lockdown caused by the deadly Coronavirus don’t want to be addressed as poor people. That is why we can’t publish their names.”
As I pointed out in my April 10, 2020 column, “Anyone who is too proud to be called poor is clearly not poor. The pangs of hunger are stronger than the vanity of self-esteem. That’s why there are hordes of Nigerian ‘e-beggars’ who drop their names and account numbers on social media without shame during social media ‘giveaways’—and sometimes without ‘giveaways.’ “But the whole point of asking for the identity of the people who benefited from the government’s ‘palliatives’ is to be able to authenticate government’s claims.”
However, as is now the norm, instead of being outraged by her explanation, Nigerians found it a welcome source of therapeutic mirth. And nothing has been heard about it since then. When a video circulated on social media showing the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy telling what appears to be a white woman from an unidentified Western country that government uses the top-up data on phones to determine the economic needs of Nigerians and to wire money to them to relieve the economic burden of COVID-19, there were loud cyber guffaws all over Nigerian social media.
But an infinitely more hilarious moment of governmental corruption was to come later during the probe of multi-billion-naira corruption at the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). For example, acting Managing Director of the NDDC, Daniel Pondei, “fainted” in response to questions about the enormous corruption in the commission. This earned him freedom from further scrutiny.
This event has become a goldmine for inventive humor, memes, and laughter therapy. So was the spat between the former MD of the NDDC, Joi Nunei, and Niger Delta minister Godswill Akpabio. Nunei’s claim that she slapped Akpabio when he attempted to sexually assault her provided grist for the humor mills and overshadowed the corruption allegations both of them are mired in.
The comedic entertainment that modern Nigerian corruption provides was also fully realized when Akpabio said members of the National Assembly committee probing the sleaze in the NDDC were beneficiaries of the corruption they were probing. “It’s OK,Honorable Minister!” members of the probe panel could be heard pleading. “Off [turn off] your mic!” The songification of this tragicomic encounter has gone viral on social media.
Sadiya Umar Farouq, Buhari’s minister of humanitarian affairs who has become a byword for audaciously aggressive and hard-boiled corruption, also said a few days ago that she spent more than half a billion naira to feed non-existent schoolkids in their homes in Lagos, Ogun, and the FCT while schools were shut!
She said this to “correct” a viral social media message that suggested that she’d spent 15 billion naira to feed schoolchildren nationwide. Her “clarification” said nothing about how much she spent to “feed” school children in other parts of the country—or why only school children in Lagos, Ogun, and the FCT were “fed” to the exclusion of others. Or, more crucially, what she has done to the money budgeted to “feed” children under lockdown in other parts of the country if only kids in Lagos, Ogun and the FCT were fed.
Of course, if she spent more than half a billion to feed phantom schoolkids in just two states and the FCT, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that she spent 15 billion—or more— to “feed” children all over the country. Again, instead of crying, Nigerians laughed about what I characterized as the minister’s explicit and unapologetic governmental theft by outrageousness.
Finally, on August 10, it emerged that the CEO of First City Monument Bank (FCMB) by the name of Adam Nuru told the Ayo Salami panel probing Ibrahim Magu’s corruption at the EFCC that he paid N573 million into account # 1486743019, which is the church account of Magu’s pastor Emmanuel Omale, in error, and only discovered the “error” four years later after the panel summoned him. This humorously infantile lie provoked another round of comic excitation across the country and inspired lots of creative editorial cartoons.
The bank’s face-saving “clarification” of what it meant was another exercise in comically obscurantist verbal buffoonery. “To provide further clarity, during a maintenance upgrade of our systems in 2016, a defective file led to the aggregation of multiple unrelated entries into a single balance under the affected customer’s name in one of our reports,” the bank’s head of Corporate Affairs said in a statement. “This aggregation occurred only in the weekly automated report to the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit. It had no effect on any customer account balance or statements and therefore was not immediately identified.”
Obviously, Nigerians are laughing to keep them from crying. But the corrupt will continue to intensify their theft while we laugh at the innovative wackiness of their corruption. Perhaps American journalist and author Erma Louise Fiste Bombeck was right when she said, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”
Nigerian Politicians: Pampered in Life and in Death
Nigerian politicians are the world’s most pampered and protected species. When they’re alive, you can’t criticize their misdeeds without contending with darts from their legions of daggers for hire on social media and in the news media.When they die, people who know them are also not allowed to speak unflattering, publicly available FACTS about them; the society blackmails them into feeling guilty for “speaking ill of the dead.” This ensures that they get away with iniquities in life and in death.
That’s why; in spite of being the absolute worst leader Nigeria has ever had since independence, Buhari confidently says history would be “kind” to him. Of course, Nigerian “history” is always kind to every dead politician.
Farooq Kperogi is an Associate Professor of Journalism and Emerging Media at Kennesaw State University’s School of Communication