EFCC, NDDC, NSITF: Why the anus of those in power smells too badly —Prof. Toyin Falola

•‘Why Nigeria is being conquered by local buccaneers and external profit seekers’

Toyin Falola is a Professor of History, a University Distinguished Teaching Professor, and the Jacob and Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities, the University of Texas at Austin. He is an Honorary Professor, University of Cape Town, and President of Pan-African University Press. He has received three Yoruba chieftaincy titles, over thirty life-time career awards, and fourteen honorary doctorates. His two memoirs, A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt and Counting the Tiger’s Teeth capture changing Yoruba societies in the 1950s and 1960s. In this interview by KEHINDE OYETIMI, he addresses issues of both national and global importance.

 

Nigeria is at a major point in its political history as October 2020 makes it 60 years since Nigeria’s independence. How would you say the country has fared so far, given its present sociopolitical realities?

There have been changes since 1960, no doubt. However, there are disappointments with virtually all the sectors and institutions, including the houses of Gods where pastors wear Satanic uniforms. The current mood is that of hopelessness. The current group of politicians is not the set of leaders any country should pray for.  Nigeria, like every other African country, sought first the political kingdom, as widely promoted by Kwame Nkrumah, only to find out that the socioeconomic component of the state is a ready-to-launch torpedo above every other thing to be added unto it. Although every other thing was added to the political kingdom, none was as envisaged by the people. Independence, to the people of Nigeria, like their brothers elsewhere in Africa, suggests a period of total liberation from foreign oppression, economic prosperity by default, responsive governance, and a just society. Instead, what the people got close to this vision of an independent country was indigenous representation at the highest level of government and societal formation. But then, racism was replaced with ethnicism and foreign oppression with indigenous oppression. These two restricted the hope of independence as they created divisions within the polity; division along ethnic lines and between the led and the leaders. Religion also began to feature prominently in the divisions since each ethnic group is dominated by either Islam or Christianity. All sorts of favoritism and corruption soared within this structure, thereby increasing the inequality in the polity and limiting the hope of a just society.

None of the events in the post-colonial era came as a surprise or in a vacuum of events in the previous epochs; both the colonial and pre-colonial. The colonial history of Nigeria was founded on the history of divisions, rivalry, and competition for domination by one cultural group over the other. Colonialism emerged on the scene of Nigerian history in the twentieth century. A century before this time— the nineteenth century— the peoples and cultures of the area that were declared the British colony of Nigeria in 1914 were going through fundamental changes. From the movement of the Jihadists in the north to the Yoruba internecine wars in the west, and pockets of other revolutions and changes taking place at other locations, all happening almost simultaneously, nineteenth-century events in different parts of Nigeria promised to change the sociopolitical landscape of the society. Among other things, larger city-states and empires were expected to emerge from events of this period and the twentieth century was meant to usher in a new era of major sociopolitical changes. It was this process that was hijacked by the British colonial powers in that century. The history of the sociopolitical changes in Nigeria in the twentieth century would now be written not just as a project cast by indigenous actors, but by greedy leaders and foreign players from across the Atlantic. This has been very disastrous for Nigeria in that the country is no more than an entity to be continually conquered by local buccaneers and external profit seekers. And that is the current reality we are now facing as a “nation.”

 

In a recent article, you talked about the “need for Africa to look inwards and, in the process, to redirect its energies,” especially with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. What would you suggest in concrete terms as a solution to the problem of underdevelopment in African countries?

If there is anything I’ve learned over the years from experience and in books, it is that development is perpetually cultural. Japan, China, Taiwan, Singapore, the United States, Germany, and other developed nations developed differently according to the pattern of their cultures and historical antecedents. These are the two beds that lay the concrete structure of society: there is nothing wrong with a square peg until you start putting it in a round hole. The colonial state-operated an exploitative enterprise, it wasn’t in its dealings to create the right context within which the society could flourish independently. European taxonomic modernity was to perform this miracle. It did, and everything African became devilish, archaic, and unworthy of study. Post-independence governments followed suit and even went as far as ejecting history from the school curriculum. Tell me how a child that knew nothing about history as a core part of the curriculum at elementary up to senior secondary school level, would be so determined to study history as course at the higher education level. That decision killed the study of history in Nigeria as the departments of history in universities began to turn to accidental- students-centers. Many wondered what they were doing in the department, others asked about the relevance of history to the nation building process. History was on the defensive, telling the nation how relevant it is; so also, were the traditional medicine and traditional heritages. And this is only a microcosm of the anti-intellectual culture of African states. Development cannot take place on this template.

As it is, the present structure needs a systemic change. But the problem is that it is the one presently clogged-on to by the vast majority of the population in each African state; from the elites to the common men. The connection between these two is the naked wire that political scientists refer to as patron-client ties. The patrons will fight to keep the dangerous structure. How the minority few intends to break this jinx is, to me, a question of the extent to which alliance could be formed across strategic communities of stakeholders in the states’polities, especially the Civil Society Organisations, Labor Unions, NGOs, and professional bodies.

 

You’re also of the view that Western influences have contributed in no small measure to driving African countries further aground beyond the grasp of true development. Do you think our indigenous capabilities are enough to provide the needed platform for all-round development?  If yes, why has it become almost impossible for us as a continent to transcend our pressing shortcomings?

Our people will say, Igikanki n da’gbo se (a tree cannot make a forest). It is the clusters of trees and birds that we call a forest. A culture is nothing more than various clusters. What we refer to as culture includes a structured dynamism of ideas. This is why they are malleable to ideas from the outside. Africa has all it takes to develop, but this can only be done through the technologies that we do not produce at the moment. Those with these technologies are the ones still exploring the riches of Africa.

Our indigenous capacities are rich and useful. But we have not fully explored its vast richness. However, all countries do borrow and adapt. The USA relies on millions of foreign workers, both skilled and unskilled. So also, are the Chinese and Japanese. We have to borrow external ideas that are useful to us while maximising the promises of our indigenous capabilities.

 

Today, Nigeria, in particular, appears to recede in whatever gains it makes. Five years into the Muhammadu Buhari administration, the Nigerian landscape has come under the putrescence of corruption and a general sense of apathy. How did you feel when you read and watched the revelations emanating from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission after its boss, Ibrahim Magu was arrested by the same Attorney General working for the same administration? What does this portend?

Like many Nigerians and Nigeria observers, it was a mixture of pity, embarrassment, and sarcasm, hearing about the whole evolving drama in the political space. This is a testimony of a state not governed, but consistently under conquest. What do you do when you conquer a territory? So, for me, there is nothing in the whole saga that came as a surprise. You don’t hear about corruption at the highest places of governance in this magnitude until there is a disagreement between the looting partners. Ali Baba and his forty thieves keep the leader and disciples together until greed takes over! Ole gbe, ole gba is what the Yoruba say in the Magu-Malami imbroglio: a thief has stolen something, wrongly transferred to another thief for safe-keeping!!

The stranger than real situation, however, is in the development at the NDDC where a senior public servant was sacked for not bending to the de facto rules of service and yet, state authority was deployed to intimidate and coerce the victim into submission. This, somewhat, limits the viability of the Looters and Co Limited. The current structure of the anti-corruption fight in the country cannot function beyond what we have experienced so far under this administration. Buhari’s campaign remains political and half-baked.

Magu was in that position for over four years and there have been accusations of systemic relooting of the recovered loots flying around for many years. He would go to the media to tell the world they made billions of recoveries today, and tomorrow the number changes. The account had never been balanced, neither were the cases handled. What went wrong at this time that made the Attorney General suddenly begin to see all these is what calls for good interpretations, but fascinating innuendos have taken over the internet. None of this speaks to the concern for public good, but personal gains and ego. All the same, it is a good development to be reminded that, indeed, tables turn and when they do, what is thought to be hidden is brought to the open. The anus of those in power smells too badly.

 

Accusations and counteraccusations have trailed the public hearing of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and most recently the N48 billion misappropriations at the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF). What is Nigeria’s biggest challenge: is it corruption that enervates; an inept leadership or followership that is jaundiced?

You captured it all, the malaise in our current social engineering. Corruption in Nigeria is not an isolated practice or phenomenon. It permeates our social fabrics because it has been entrenched over the years as a well-established norm. The pervasive form of a social contract between the leaders and the led is dangerously founded on a corruption cycle so much so that a break in this cycle could remove the leader from his/her position. The Nigerian sociopolitical system of patron-client relationship and the political-economic system based on patronage and a prebendal understanding of holding positions of responsibility, especially in government, are the systemic structures that sustain and reproduce corruption. You can’t just act professionally in this kind of environment. In fact, as in the case of Dr. Joi Nunieh, the former Acting Managing Director of the NDDC, you might have to forfeit your integrity and honor to stay in office. Indeed, hers is a litmus test which at the moment has shown that even the people of Niger Delta the woman claims to be protecting are more inclined to the corruption that has become the de facto rule of the Commission. No EFCC can fight this without putting a structure that, at least, reduces the possibility of the practice.

 

You sometimes infuse the Yoruba element into your works. When you consider the current realities where teenagers find ways to modify indigenous languages into Western alternatives, do you think the Yoruba language risks extinction?

In any given population, there will be a segment that will keep fidelity to the language tradition. They are born into it; they live the language; they feel the language. But there are others whose need of the language is minimal—the purity of the language is not tied to their daily survival or even life’s aspirations. Maybe the modifications the youth do is even one small alternative way of preserving the language.

That the language, like many others, is extinction-threatened is not in doubt. But Yoruba native speakers are in millions, some figures as high as 40 million people. It will take more than a generation for 40 million people to lose a language. Nevertheless, they must remain conscious of the possibilities of loss. I do think with the power of technology and the media agencies, Yoruba, one of the most widely spoken African languages, has the capacity and potential to survive. Remember, aside from the online presence and accessibility of the language, through Google and other platforms, the common trend among Nigerian music acts is to blend Yoruba with English and these sounds are heard worldwide. The language might not go into extinction, but its form might change along with current usage.

 

Your essay, “An Ounce is Enough” is about illegal mining in Ijesaland in the 1940s, how do you feel to learn that the same evil is still ravaging the area 80 years after and also that the characters who are into this pillage are foreigners, mostly Hausa-Fulani with their local collaborators?

The narrative is quintessential of the illegal activities going on all over Nigeria, and at the same time, it offers a paradigm within which the tale of foreign domination could be understood. In some cases, it is the local collaborators that invite their foreign partners for a pillage sharing; in others, it is the latter who promises largess to the former from the pillage. It is happening in the Niger Delta, it is trending in Zamfara, and other places. Money lost to illegal mining in Nigeria is more than that gained as revenue from the same. This implies that Nigerian resources have been serving a tiny population.

 

Your birthplace, Ibadan, is a historical city founded by people one can call ‘hardmen’. Now, hearing about the menace of ‘One Million Boys’ and other roguish ‘militants’ in town, will it be right to say the city is simply living its history?

We should be careful not to equate honorable military men with common militants that smell like the corruption that has so much stunk the society. ‘One Million Boys’ is a manifestation of the frustration with and rot in the current structure we hope to build a nation upon. Those “hardmen” you referred to were agents of sociopolitical reengineering that was already taking place in Yorubaland before the colonial incursion. The boys are purely a manifestation of our consistent break from our past.To live its history, the honorable “hardmen” must confront the thugs on the streets.

 

In February 2020, you donated books to Fountain University. With increasing attention turned towards social media, do you think there is a need to worry about the interest of the younger generation in the quality of what they read?

It is a serious issue to be worried about, indeed. Reading is generally becoming a culture of necessities: preparing to pass that examination or this test, not for knowledge acquisition. Wikipedia and other quick search engines have made this a lot easier. In a situation where one person is active on over three social media handles, such a person might find it hard to cope with his/her intellectual growth. Reading becomes tiresome if at all there is a dire need for such. Worst still, the educational system is so weakened that the majority of the teachers are only interested in their monthly salaries and not in the development of the intellectual faculty of the students. Thus, you find cases where lecturers and students are bargaining marks, lecturers teaching with a decade-old notebook and expecting students to give him back this note during tests and examinations, and other anti-intellectual practices within the system itself. In light of this, we should be concerned about the quality of what the so-called leaders of tomorrow are reading and being taught. And this still boils down to the need to rejig our educational system.

 

In no particular order, what three books/authors would you say have left the most impact on you?

Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole by D.O. Fagunwa; The Autobiography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo; and books by W.E.B. Dubois, notably The World and Africa. The book by Fagunwa was introduced to us at the elementary school and it was a gift of language and story-telling. Through Fagunwa’s book, I became interested in orality and performance. The book by Awolowo actually followed the theme in Fagunwa’s book—men would rise who would seek skills, knowledge and wisdom from near and afar and use them to transform their societies. The books by Dubois united the fragmented and divided people of Africa and those in the Diaspora and suggested the paths to our liberation and greater future.

 

You’ve experienced both sides of the divide when it comes to lecturing within and outside Nigeria. How would you compare both experiences when you compare Nigeria’s response to the educational needs of its growing population?

Both experiences have similarities in terms of the overall goal of the academy that are connected to the development of human capacity. I am located at the capital of the global academy with the opportunities to shape the conversation. I am able to project Africa to the world and not the world projecting Africa to Africans.

Differences begin to emerge in terms of resources, passion, and commitments by those who fund the universities. The ambiance at the Obafemi Awolowo University where I was before I left Nigeria was relatively conducive for my research work and teaching. However, over the years, when you compare the opportunities here in terms of facilities needed to enhance my responsibilities and the experience this offer, it’s nothing compared to what now exist in Nigerian universities. The system in the United States rewards diligence and productivity; in Nigeria, it does both: it promotes and rewards mediocrity, while not providing enough resources for the researchers to excel. A Nigerian professor does not need to be productive to earn the same salary with his productive colleague; if at all he needs to be productive and exceptional to become a professor in the first place. This culture does not aid intellectual growth; it kills it. The anti-intellectual orientation means that there are cases where the knowledge is not enough, and when the knowledge is adequate it is not put to use.

 

You’ve been actively involved in mentorship, scholarships, and other such projects for scholars across the world. Do you think the academic community is providing enough motivation to build an impressive line of future scholars?

I’m not sure about that. The mentor has to be productive to impact and mentor others. Where a professor is primarily concerned about the opportunities the title confers, he or she cannot be a good mentor. Mentorship culture in the system is also weakened if salaries have to be augmented by pursuing other ambitions. Nevertheless, Nigeria is now producing higher degrees more than ever before, although there is a need to review their quality and relevance.

 

Who were your mentors while growing up?

Well, I can put this into three categories and in the order in which they impacted my life. Firstly, I had the hardworking mothers in the neighborhoods, some of whom served me delicious meals on a visit to their homes without invitation or notification. They taught me the value of hard work, calmness and honesty. Going to school, I was inspired by the ethical roles of school teachers in the society. They loved the students and they worked hard. Lastly, by visionary leaders like Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, and Nelson Mandela who had expansive visions of the place of Africa in the world.

 

You have built such an enviable brand around your work. What’s one thing people would find a little hard to believe about you?

I sleep less than five hours in a day. I play hard. I love companies where jokes, from raw to the well-done, generate laughter without end.

 

If you had to choose a different career path, what would it be and why?

I don’t see myself working outside the educational system. I don’t like formal power. I cannot do business. Most certainly, I would have been an elementary school teacher if I had not been a University Professor. I started as an elementary school teacher. To me, the future is more important than the present, and being in the educational system provides me with the opportunity to impact that future.

 

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