One of the more colourful tales of corruption out of Nigeria, “Clean Sweep Ignatius”, was written by Jeffrey Archer. Admittedly, The Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, may himself have had a more relatable story to tell: accused by Kathleen Burnett in 1988 of plagiarising one of the short stories in the anthology in which the Nigerian tale was included, he eventually was jailed in 2001 after having been found guilty of “perjury and perverting the course of justice” in an earlier trial. His fictional narrative on Nigeria, however, was an interesting read.
In it, “Ignatius Agarbi”, a new Nigerian finance minister arrives Switzerland, riding on his impeccable anti-corruption credentials. And armed with more than a fistful of dollars. He ends up threatening to shoot a Swiss banker who, in keeping with the best traditions of Swiss banking discretion, had refused to let on about details of Nigerian account holders with his bank. Satisfied that the Swiss would keep secrets up to the point of death, our “fictional” finance minister then proceeds to deposit about US$5m cash which he had brought with him.
In 1988 when “A Twist In The Tale”, Archer’s collection of short stories, was published, I was young enough to have been incandescent with rage at the English peer’s slur on the national character. The sense of schadenfreude I felt when he ended up in prison was no less intense by the dudgeon from being told a cautionary tale on corruption by one who was not himself above board.
That was then. In the intervening years, my personal experience of how venal our people are makes Lord Archer’s account read, today, like stuff one reads to children to put them to bed.
One of my favourite new telling of how venal we are, was related to me by one of the more upright Nigerians I ever ran into, and he also swore on his integrity that there was nothing fictional about the narrative. The story was of a Nigerian professional who was invited to fill a senior vacancy that had opened in one of the financial services industry’s regulators. Competent, he was. But none of that mattered when he was informed that the post was only available to candidates who were willing to pay US$8m. Of course, he did not have US$8m. But then, it is in the nature of such appointments in Nigeria, that a creative office holder ought to be able to find ways of skimming much more than that from his/her post over the four-year tenure of this office.
First, though, he had to raise the prince’s ransom. Eventually, he found 3 patrons willing to back his candidature. But the US$3m that they were willing to put down was not enough blood in the water. The fourth patron, though, presented a different value proposition altogether. He was both willing and able to put down all of the US$8m. However, a couple of niggling details were to be resolved before the money was remitted. This would-be benefactor wanted to know whether the would-be regulator had a case pending with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). “No”, was the answer. How about one with the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC)? “None”!
“Have you ever been at the receiving end of an investigation by the Nigeria Police Force?” the “good Samaritan” asked. “No”, again, was the response from our candidate. “How about in your places of work?” the benefactor asked again. “What about them?”, our candidate replied. “Have you ever been at the wrong end of an administrative panel of enquiry?” the benefactor-to-be asked, again. “Not at all”, Mr. Candidate replied. “Then I cannot find it in me to support your candidature”, the now reluctant benefactor said.
What was the problem?
Without dirt on our Teflon-coated candidate, a benefactor would lack the leverage necessary to keep him in check. And any sums spent in pursuit of such candidates might as well back a throw of the die.
Between 1988, when Lord Archer published his tale, and today’s Nigeria, “corruption” has evolved. The Swiss’ renunciation of deep levels of banking secrecy mean quite a few felons would now quibble at taking their loot to Zurich. And even in the U.K., today’s haven of choice, the “unexplained-wealth orders”, part of the Criminal Finances Act of 2017, came into effect at the end of last month. Making it that much difficult to hide loot in U.K. properties via nominees. Nonetheless, the sums involved are undoubtedly larger, today. So even if external terms of trade may not be as supportive of the industry as it once was, the domestic terms have not changed significantly.
Indeed, in a most macabre way, “Clean Sweep Ignatius’” modus operandi presaged a key ingredient of corruption in Nigeria, today: hypocrisy most cynical!