Before the age of computers, the internet and all forms of modern media generally, oral story telling was a big part of cultural integration processes, especially in Africa. Great story tellers existed and their traditional tales thrilled children and adults alike, with the many twists and turns crowned by the inevitable moral lessons inherent in them. Fables were especially popular, and the tortoise was at the centre of many funny tales. It now seems like a wave of nostalgia about those times has come upon the corrupt elements in our society.
Like many incredulous stories that have come out of Nigeria in recent times, the rave in the past few weeks has been about a few cases of missing beans, which is not in itself strange news to Nigerians. This time though, there has been an unexpected twist to the tales of corruption – animals. Like scripts from some of the many fables we used to be so entertained by, we have heard of how mysterious snakes and monkeys made off with staggering sums of money. The story tellers, of course, are civil servants and government officials who were confronted with questions to which they could not give any satisfactory answer.
In the first case, a sales clerk at the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) office in Makurdi, Benue State, produced an unbelievable account of how a mysterious snake made repeated trips into a vault that held JAMB’s money and swallowed a combined sum of at least N36 million. The clerk accused her house maid and other staff at the office of being accomplices or puppeteers of the mystery snake. The incredible storytelling was caught on tape, despite the fact that the story teller denied making the statement in an interview with CNN.
Without going into details of how a domestic help at the home of a JAMB sales clerk got caught up in the case of missing beans, one wonders why the clerk thought it wise to relay the tale to her superiors, truth or not. If the clerk believed the story to be true, why had she never raised alarm before the JAMB audit uncovered the deficit? Furthermore, there has been no word from the alleged maid or other implicated people, or the snake for that matter. Yet, the news spread like wildfire, intriguing the eventual victims of this very real theft – the Nigerian people.
In the next case, which is even more embarrassing than the implausible snake story, the now former head of the Northern Senators Forum, Senator Abdullahi Adamu has been implicated in the disappearance of the sum of N70 million. Senator Shehu Sani from Kaduna State spoke on the floor of the Senate after the letter of removal of Senator Adamu as leader of the forum was read at the Senate. He commented that there had been rumours that some monkeys raided the farm of Senator Adamu and carted away the millions. It was not readily clear whether the comment was serious or jocular, but the very fact that it wasn’t clear says a lot about where we are as a country today.
A country where looting becomes funny because some ridiculous tale has been told to cover it up, is not ready for real change. Soon after the snake and monkey episodes, other ridiculous stories have made the rounds, all supposedly in good humour.
Beyond the intrigues of this incredible storytelling, there are real issues of concern in these matters. First is the cash culture that is still prevalent in the country despite the supposed cashless policy of the government. In the JAMB case, at least, one is thankful that Ishaq Oloyede, the new registrar, has been able to phase out the cash transactions that enabled clerks in Benue to gulp down a whooping N36 million with no credible explanation. This is why the joke or no joke about N70 million and monkeys involving senators is a shame.
Government officials are amongst the most frequent handlers of large sums of cash, some of it coming straight from the Central Bank, as recent corruption cases have shown. With the knowledge that cash transactions increase the potential for corruption and minimises the accountability window in official transactions, one would expect that government offices and officials would be the pilot grounds for the implementation of the cashless policy. All evidence points to the contrary.
Another quite disturbing issue is the reception of the incredible tales by Nigerians. It appears that the weight of corruption has worn down the minds of Nigerians into a dispassionate state where we are majorly interested in the intrigues of corruption cases, while losing sight of the real issues. In this case, one can describe the reaction of Nigerians as that of fascination, rather than something like righteous indignation, in the least. Maybe the case of the clerk presented a scenario most could relate to as opposed to a governor making up the same story.
In any case, Senator Shehu Sani displayed this fascination the most while attempting to masquerade his delight with sarcasm. Before his likely-made-up statement about monkeys, which only served to disgrace the country further, the senator had been the one that visited the JAMB headquarters in Abuja with snake charmers to further make light jokes about a serious matter of embezzlement, while on the clock for his constituency of Kaduna Central. The man was simply so enthralled in the admittedly comic dimension of the whole affair that he lost touch of the real issue. Many Nigerians unfortunately mirror this reaction.
A country where looting becomes funny because some ridiculous tale has been told to cover it up, is not ready for real change. Soon after the snake and monkey episodes, other ridiculous stories have made the rounds, all supposedly in good humour. The fact that many other JAMB offices around the country had cases of missing sums that could not be accounted for became suppressed under the comic weight of the snake and monkey, and of course with assistance from a senator of the Federal Republic.
The world is always watching, and no matter the statistics, figures and charts we put out there, a foreigner wants to feel like they are in a civilised country when they visit, instead they pick up the morning papers and are greeted by these ridiculous tales.
Another disturbing aspect of the matter is the quarter of the population that actually believes the story. In a vastly religious country where older voodoo customs are still practiced by many, one cannot be too surprised that the clerk’s story of the snake sounds plausible to a section of the population. One can bet also that those who believe this will hold other ideas on how to move forward in the case now. There are many mysteries in the world, but civilised society cannot be run on logic-defying beliefs and notions.
The fables now being told by suspected looters and irresponsible lawmakers may rival the best stories we heard in old times, but there is no moral to these tales of corruption. The only lesson we learn is that we are not winning the war of greater accountability. Whether the clerk believed the tale she presented or not, the truth is that the mind-set of the custodians of the common purse at any point in time may be a barrier to accountability in official practices. If one were to believe the clerk, for instance, it is altogether possible that she was busy fasting and praying or visiting witch doctors of her own when she should have been reporting lost money.
It is indeed shameful also that these tales are getting international attention. That CNN interviewing the clerk is a deeply embarrassing episode for the country. Whichever way one looks at it, it casts us all in a terribly bad light, just as the appointment of dead men into government boards and other sorry tales that have emerged from the country in recent times. The comedy must appear to never stop for observers in other countries, particularly neighbouring African countries who are in the same race for greater development as we are.
The world is always watching, and no matter the statistics, figures and charts we put out there, a foreigner wants to feel like they are in a civilised country when they visit, instead they pick up the morning papers and are greeted by these ridiculous tales. It is all at once sad and uninspiring that these are the kinds of matters that are generating the most attention in an election season. Too bad!