I am not really sure of where to start telling the story, but tell it I must. It says a lot about who we are, how we got here, and why we might continue to circle this mountain for some time to come. A people lost, and in need of a compass. It is the moral compass of Nigeria that is lost and in urgent need of retrieval, corruption is merely a byproduct of the loss of direction and purpose.
I was driving to the office a few days ago, and just as I got onto Admiralty Way, the warning light indicating a loss of tire pressure came on. Now, there’s a vulcanizer at the junction of Wole Olateju Crescent and Admiralty Way, just across the road from the Diamond Bank before Ikoyi Link Bridge, and it was to his perch I headed, once I had satisfied myself I could make it to him sans stress. I had more than a tire to fix with him.
I found a motley crew of three young boys, one in his late teens, and the other two, aged between 12-14 years old. Their oga wasn’t around, I was told. I asked that they inflate the tire, and no more, whatever the main problem might be with the tire, I was determined not to have it fixed there. I would be talking to their boss to fix the other issue, on another day I surmised. What do I know?
Tire being pumped, the kids were listening to some music, and one of them was singing along, doing his best karaoke impression, and the refrain of the song caught my attention “ki n’sa ti lo’wo, ole lo bo’mo je” I must be rich by all means. It is stealing that is bad. The more I listened to the youthful voice, singing loudly, lustfully, and shorn of innocence, the angrier I got at the oga who was not around.
Tired pumped, and time to pay up and head my way, I gave the gang leader a thousand Naira note. By now seething with suppressed rage, all the more exacerbated by the lyrics of the song that they had been listening to, I was determined to get my change in full. Something I have avoided doing in my dealings with the Nigerian artisan class for a while, in empathy for the general poverty of the class, and in recognition of the blessings of God in my own life. I had used the same vulcanizers before, and had always left more in tips than the amount due for the job done.
Seeing his befuddlement at my insistence on being given my Seven Hundred Naira change, I was incensed to the point where I forgot all about the absent oga. I told him how he and everyone working there, are thieves. The young man was taken aback. Thieves! I repeated again, and then I unloaded and told him what they had done, and how they had stolen from me. That was the other issue that I was looking to resolve with the Oga.
A couple of months earlier, and on a Sunday evening, I had had the same tire warning light come on, and I had stopped at the same spot and had the tire checked. I was told I had a bolt embedded in the tire, and I had one shown to me for good measure. Long and evil looking. A cold patch was recommended, and the tire was fixed in no time. I paid for the job, gratefully left a generous tip, and I was happy to be on my way. Problem was, the warning light was back on the very next morning, and it was the same tire again.
I sent the driver off to the Dunlop Tire Center close to my house, to have the tire fixed again, I was convinced that the earlier job was botched, and I was also convinced that they did so because of the late hour, and perhaps my impatience to be done also served to rush them into making the error. The driver returned from the Dunlop Center with proof of how I had been conned.
Turned out I had no nail, bolt, or any other object stuck in my tire from the night before. The road for which the Jagaban and his crew daily put their thieving hands in my pockets, had simply supplied the potholes to crack my rim. ‘21 inch alloy rim, cracked by Lekki potholes, and I was conned into parting with my money, by the thieving vulcanizers,and my time wasted.
I was tearing into the young man and the other apprentices, telling them how what was done to me, amounts to nothing short of stealing. I was still rhapsodizing, when the man who appeared to be the Oga came. I had a good time lecturing and counseling the Oga. I explained how the “ole” a thief, is not just the man who robs another with guns, but is inclusive of the ones that obtains by sleight of hand, and by deception. I explained how my trust was abused, and over the Oga’s strident protestations of innocence, I explained how he has a duty to reform, if he is the one responsible for the corruption of his apprentices, or to work to reform his workers, if they did not learn the duplicitous ways from him.
The episode left me in a rather perplexed state, and that is what has led me into this introspective mood. How useful are Nigerian labels, in the task of assigning responsibilities and culpability for our serial failings? What do we consider stealing? How do we define, and or contextually understand stealing? The man on the street, the vulcanizer, the mechanic, our doctors, we the lawyers, our judges, teachers, the civil servants, our police force, how do we define honesty? How have we come to the point where we have lost our moral compasses so completely, that our capacity to identify right and wrong, have been lost, and societal mores, undermined? How?
The Nigerian vulcanizer, is not different from the Nigerian tailor, who is related to the ones pretending to teach, kith with the doctor who treats patients with placebos, whilst claiming to be treating both malaria, and typhoid. The gradual subjectivization of truth, has seen us labor to interpret events in light of the person involved, a bye-product of the general loss of confidence in the system and in the Nigerian society. So, Buhari is fighting corruption, even as the evidence suggests a privatization of the scourge, rather than any attempt at the eradication of the problem. Tinubu is a visionary leader, even when the evidence says he’s just a common thief.
The truth is, we are a lost people, and the truth is that we can never be found until we acknowledge that our country requires moral regeneration, before we may begin our journey away from the brink of the precipice. We hide a lot of evil behind lying tags, we call stealing, corruption, and we thereby help the thief to normalize the despicable act. The Yoruba language does not have a word for corruption, and I doubt that any Nigerian language does either. My studies of the language and literature of the English, would also suggest that the use of the word: corruption, as used in Nigerian discourse is fraudulent.
If we would be honest with ourselves, the lies we have told ourselves, have multiplied to the point where our very lives as individuals have been devalued, and the very existence of our country, undermined and threatened. When I was in the university, you stood a higher chance of being suspended, expelled, and or imprisoned, as a student unionist, than as a member of a confraternity. In pursuit of the agenda to undermine student unions, some school authorities collaborated with cults to wreck student solidarity, and the several breaches of the laws, including murder, were blithely labelled student cultism. Wole Soyinka did not birth the monsters of today, the Nigerian state did.
It is high time we told ourselves the truth, and the truth devoid of varnishes. We have with scant exceptions become a nation of crooks and survivalists. We expect everyone else to cheat us, from the driver we underpay, and who then augments his wages by conniving with the mechanic, to the patient that the doctor fleeced, to pay the school that is pretending to teach the student, his son. The policeman who is sold the fake drugs, by the fake chemist, who bought his fake certificate from the fake school.
When Buhari is done fighting his fake war on corruption, and the night has come for all who reads, and I, the writer is no more, just how many more lies, would have been birthed by our current lies, and the inherited ones? How easy would it be, for our children, to identify, not to talk of tackling these lies?
How many unnecessary cold patches have you fixed, in your own vulcanizer shop?
First published 30 December, 2018.