By Adagbo Onoja
In the week in which the anti-corruption war brought within its orbit the third most powerful individual in Nigeria, it is apt to wonder how Nigeria could be on that war and the leading theorist of corruption in Africa, a Nigerian for that matter, is not in the news. Peter Ekeh shouldn’t be missing for two reasons. One, that would reinforce the gulf between theory and policy. Two, African academics like Peter Ekeh and the late Claude Ake, among others, have punctured the persistent but unstated belief that Africans are not into theorising. Theoretically, knowledge is human, not racial. That is, however, not challenged by Professor Peter Ekeh’s Nigerian background and from where the raw materials for his theory have substantially emanated. Against this background, it would not have been be too much if the on-going war on corruption had started with a national seminar on Ekeh’s theory of the ‘Two Publics’ as far as corruption in Africa is concerned. So, what did Ekeh say about corruption and why would that matter?
As many already know, Ekeh published an academic paper titled “Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement” in the Journal of Comparative Studies in Societies and History in 1975. Ekeh’s paper is as seminal as they come, difficult to do justice to it without ending up writing another paper. An interesting thing about the paper is the way its publication in January 1975 barely preceded the onset of the Murtala/Obasanjo onslaught on corruption in the purge and trial that followed. Could this have been a case of the problematic implication of the owl in the death of the child the next morning simply because the owl’s cry was heard the previous night? Yes and no. Yes, because Ekeh could not have prevented the military regime from utilising his analysis in their own way. They wouldn’t have to consult or seek his approval to do that. No, because the records show that corruption was a major issue in Nigerian public discourse around the time. That was most likely to attract the scholarly attention of someone teaching Colonialism and its social dynamics in a foremost African university as Ibadan where Ekeh was based. It is thus more likely to be the enigma of the scholar than any formal advisory role by Ekeh for the Murtala/Obasanjo regime. In any case, the paper contained no policy prescriptions along the line of the purge.
Rather, it says educated Africans have become citizens of two publics in a same society. S/he is a citizen of a primordial public – the traditional mooring to which the elite member is connected from the kindred to the village and to the clan and to the District and so on and the civic public – the Nigerian State and its expressions: from the three arms of government to the security sector and the bureaucracy – which the educated native is not bound by any exacting moral codes. He quotes the testimony of a non-African which best illustrates the dialectics of the two publics, “To put your fingers in the till of the local (government) authority will not unduly burden your conscience and people may well think you are a smart fellow and envy you your opportunities. To steal the funds of the (ethnic or kindred) unions would offend the public conscience and ostracise you from the society”.
At this level, Ekeh’s argument is still fairly straightforward. The civic public is the colonial state, it is alien, nobody likes it and it is nobody’s business. As the jargon goes, government business is nobody’s. Citizens seek employment there by all means but not so much to make that landmark contribution but cut their own part from the giant, useless carcass brought here by those who rode on the iron horse. The primordial public is it: it is the anchor of being. Ekeh uses psychological security to conceptualise what it provides. Writing today, Ekeh’s concept would most likely have been ontological security even as I cannot break down the word in a journalistic piece but it is wider concept in terms of what people derive from their primordial public and for which reason they fear to offend the moral bond. So, a Director in the bureaucracy or a minister would have no qualms stealing even from the budget for water or health clinics but would not contemplate doing so to the treasury of his village meeting kept with him.
Ekeh’s argument, however, gets more interesting and complicated when it gets to answering how we came to have the two publics. Where did that come from? Ekeh’s answer returns us to the distinctive debate that rocked the University of Ibadan decades back regarding whether colonialism in Africa has been an episode or an epoch. Where Ekeh stands on that debate rears its head in the article where he says that “our post-colonial present has been fashioned by our colonial past”, (p. 111). Ekeh traces the two publics to the clash between the colonial and the colonised elite in Africa, each of whom were struggling to legitimise its authority within the populace. In Ekeh, the politics of the colonial ruling class and the resistance of the educated Africans produced the two different publics. Each of them constructed the civic public to justify its politics. Ekeh has done a beautiful itemisation of how both the colonial elite from Europe and the educated Africans went about this and for which our ministers of information, culture, education, tourism and even foreign affairs might want to read Ekeh’s paper again.
If they do, they would laugh a lot about, learn from and love the essay. For example, they would meet a sentence grammatically splendid as this: Behind the serenity and elegance of deportment that come with education and high office lie the waves of psychic turbulence – not least of which are widespread and growing beliefs in supernatural magical powers”. And another one like this: The primordial public is fed from this turbulence”. And a phrase like this, “ungrounded in the ethics and weight of authority” or this, “amorality of an artful dodger”. All these have come from one page, (p. 107). The reader meets more in the other of the 21 page article.
This is the longest we can take from Ekeh. Those who find the time to read it in full would, of course, find many more exciting things he had to say beyond corruption. One of such has already been the subject of a debate between Ekeh and Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, former CBN Governor and incumbent Emir of Kano. It is where Ekeh had stated that “no ethnic group existed before Nigeria as a corporate entity with the boundaries now claimed for them and the loyalties now directed at them”, adding that what existed were “amorphous polities”. Lamido argued that Ekeh had gone back on such statements in his support for Niger Delta resource nationalism. Surviving NEPU-PRP activists would be similarly aghast at Ekeh’s analysis that colonised African elite protesting colonialism accepted the principles implicit in colonialism but only rejected the foreign personnel component. They would insist that if Ekeh reads The Sawaba Declaration again, he would reverse himself. Such tensions in the article are why it is a seminal paper anyway.
An academic paper written in 1975 cannot remain valid in all its claims by today. Dr. Browne Onuoha, a UNILAG academic pointed out in his 2014 academic essay on Ekeh’s theory how Ekeh’s binary – the civic and the primordial public- has even collapsed under the weight of Nigerian capitalism. He meant that the moral strictness in the primordial republic has also suffered the same fate as in civic republic. A few weeks ago, Balarabe Musa claimed in an interview with Tell that corruption was impossible in the First Republic. Although contradicted by the evidence in Professor Segun Osoba’s 1996 essay, “Corruption in Nigeria: Historical Perspectives”, that is also a critique of Ekeh from the position of those who see corruption not in terms of Ekeh’s argument but as something that came only with military rule. The claim is exemplified by those who swear that when the late Chief Awolowo resigned from the Federal Military Government in 1974, it was an anti-corruption protest rather than to prepare for the 1976 handover of power General Gowon had promised.
There is something of a paradox here: the military as the harbinger of corruption versus military leaders as fighters against corruption: Murtala/Obasanjo, Buhari in first and second coming, IBB (oh yes, he credits his regime with being the one that always removed any military governor who misappropriated as opposed to those who misapplied public funds), Abacha (remember WAIC) and Obasanjo in his second coming, (we cannot forget EFCC so soon, among others).
Notwithstanding these criticisms, there is something enduring in Ekeh’s analogy – the primordial trap in the politics of corruption. Why, for instance, is it still difficult for communities to disown their sons and daughters when they face corruption charges? We have heard said: is it not our own money? So what if our son chopped it? Recently, Gabriel Suswam, immediate past governor of Benue State, argued about how unnecessary it is to probe his regime when the matter can be settled as brothers. He was invoking the primordial ethos. Before Suswam, Professor Ben Nwabueze thundered in a major intervention that probing the GEJ regime would amount to targeting the Igbos. He was, by implication, entering the primordial shield against the civic shield. So, who says Ekeh is dated as far as our understanding of corruption is concerned? It is now such that Buhari’s anti-corruption war faces its strongest test in how ‘democratic’ or reflective of the Federal Character the list of those he is planning to put on trial for alleged corruption. Or it could suffer being discursively dismissed as a campaign of one tribe against another, one religion or one region against the other.
All of that make Ekeh still the starting point in theorising corruption in Nigeria, coming after all the much trumpeted globalisation. It means that in spite of capitalism or that its development in Nigerian has not escaped the primordial primacy. And it matters because the resort to the primordial sphere, to take it from Ekeh, is still the easiest way of undoing not only the anti-corruption war but just about anything else the power elite and their organic intellectuals do not accept. For instance, a more thoughtful power elite would ordinarily welcome any government that seeks to discipline capitalism in Nigeria at this point. It is in the long term interest and survival of the Nigerian establishment for that to happen now. It does not require any brilliance to see that the system is in trouble with around 40 million educated but unemployed youths and about a hundred universities from which more and more graduates are pouring out every year. Sooner or later, it won’t do to put on the gowns, attend the convocation ceremonies, deceive the graduands by declaring them future leaders and think that the job is done.
In the sense of disciplining capitalism in Nigeria, the anti-corruption war is absolutely in order. And Ekeh provides the government something to watch out for in going about it. That is not to say everything about the anti-corruption war is clear. One, is there any controversy about retrieving looted monies from whomever it might be traced to? And does that require a full scale war? Two, how would this war be prosecuted without injuring the beautiful coalition that brought this government into power? For the sake of unity, that coalition needs to be nurtured, more so in the light of that very nice aspect of the PDP (its national spread before its recent self-inflicted humbling by history) and the need for other parties to strengthen that. Two or more strong, nationalist parties should be a good democratic development for Nigeria. Three, when would this war be over as for Buhari to take on board the question of a legacy all in four years? I am referring to legacy in a more elevated sense. A retired military man who manages to pull his type of crowd in politics must take the concept of legacy more seriously.
However, having declared it as a key policy direction of the regime, the anti-corruption war is no longer a debate. But the theory according to Nuhu Ribadu is that when you fight corruption, corruption fights back. So, we are now talking about a battle line already drawn. Mister President is up to something big if he wins. He would have settled his place in history. If he fails, then he would weep again. The political economy of corruption in post-colonial Africa can be frightening. Corruption is the classic Big Brother! It is not enough to say they shoot corrupt people in China. The Chinese Communist Party is formidable in its penetration of society and the capacity to unleash its different wings – youths, farmers, intellectuals, cadres and party mandarins in a test of strength with any contenders of its power. In other words, the Chinese Communist party can speak power to truth. Here, the APC is a shadow of itself in that regard. Many of its ‘cadres’, intellectuals and even mandarins would wish the anti-corruption vocabulary is never heard, certainly not from the lips of a president elected on its platform. The politics of the anti-corruption war here is thus more complicated than the reality of corruption itself. Corruption and capitalism have the same parents. There is basis for waging a separate war on the direct stealing that constitutes corruption in Nigeria but the greater valour is still in that Nigerian President who develops much more advanced methods for disciplining Nigerian capitalism. But, as things are now, it is only the balance of power between the protagonists and antagonists that would now decide the outcome, not anybody’s opinion in support or against the war.
In all cases, it would be nice to listen to Ekeh again, either revisiting his paper at a forum in Nigeria beyond the campus or for some people to make that particular essay the subject-matter of some national discussion.
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