Thrilled as we all are whenever one of the dinosaurs gobbling up our national wealth is interdicted, we tend to accept as a fact of life the many gnawing cases of corruption that dog our every step from sunup to sundown. We have come to accept that it is okay if the little man devices illegal means and barricades to augment his salary. We simply shrug. At times, we even condemn those who refuse to accept the culture of palm-greasing. “This is Nigeria”, we say in justification of petty bribes as if there is a general consensus to change the country’s name to Briberia.
Even if, by some magic, we are able to put all the eminent thieves in the country out of circulation, the millions of daily cases of petty bribes will still drag us down.
A visitor’s first encounter with routine bribery, Nigerian style, is at the entry point. At the land borders, it’s a bazaar of sorts. Just pay the routine bribe and cross over. Veteran smugglers know the going rate for every illegal item. All the uniformed officers at the border post are involved in the game. It is almost formalised.
At the airport, a first time visitor would be embarrassed when, instead of a professional interview, an immigration officer is asking what gift the fellow brought for the boys on duty. I have been asked such a question before. I told the officer that he was misusing the uniform the federal government permitted him to wear and that he was giving the country a bad image. He sniggered and made an unsuccessful attempt to turn the whole thing into a joke: “Oga, can’t somebody joke with you?” I replied that he wasn’t employed to joke with travellers but to examine travel documents.
If you thought some immigration officers constitute a problem, wait until you clear immigration and collect your luggage. The Customs are waiting for you, whether you have something to declare or not. Nigeria is the only country in my travelling experience where customs officers waylay passengers with nothing to declare. They insist on opening your bag with the hope of finding something they can use to blackmail you — or they simply beg for whatever item catches their fancy.
A friend once came in with a new wheelchair for his ailing relative. When the customs could not find anything else to blackmail him with, they said he was required to pay duty on the wheelchair. It was an attempted shakedown. Their calculation was that my friend would ‘do the needful’ and bribe his way, but he asked to speak to their boss. Fortunately, the boss was a good man. He apologised to my friend and lectured his boys that a wheelchair is a medical requirement not subject to duty.
When you travel all over the world and have pleasant experiences at their entry points, the trepidation you feel on landing in Nigeria is not caused by the big thieves who loot the treasury but by the small man wearing a uniform and determined to pick your pocket through whatever stratagem he can devise.
Even cleaning staff employed to take care of the toilets think that the airport is some kind of money-minting institution. They waylay you at the urinal with tissue paper, many times breaching your privacy. Only in Nigeria! Tissue paper that is supposed to be stacked in a place where toilet users can help themselves is now turned into an item for supplicating ‘dash’. When you’re handed the tissue with an unctuous, “Happy weekend, sir”, you’re expected to ‘drop something for the boys’. If you didn’t know better, you would think begging for alms or asking for bribes is in our DNA.
Out on the streets, you’re confronted by all manner of petty thieving. God help you if you stay in your car and order the attendant at the petrol station to fill the tank. You would find out that our petrol attendants have mastered the art and science of manipulating the pumps to under-dispense. They would pick your pockets with your eyes wide open.
Some of the worst specimens of these cheats are to be found in various government offices rendering services to the public. That is why you have all sorts of middlemen hanging around government offices. They work in cahoots with the public servants as conduit for bribes and ‘consultants’. If you’re the stubborn type and you want to beat the bribery ring, your file will either disappear or some technical reason will be concocted to deny approval. It is not for nothing that many of the eye-catching properties in Abuja are owned by civil servants.
Has anyone wondered why most of the CCTVs installed at the Federal Secretariat, airports, border posts, sea ports and immigration offices are now unserviceable? The staff don’t want them. Why allow a device that could capture evidence of your crime? That is why a country as big as Nigeria does physical inspection of 60-foot containers. Everywhere else in the world, massive scanners do the job. But over here, we damage the machines so that human beings can be put in their places — Aha! You can’t bribe a machine, but a human being can ‘negotiate’….
The more you remove the human element the more you eliminate opportunities for corruption. That is elementary logic.
There is nothing like a minor case of corruption for, as Jennifer Lawrence notes, “We need to tell each other our stories. We need to show that everyone — our neighbours, our families, our community leaders — everyone we know is touched by corruption.”