Several years ago, at a conference on Coastal Piracy in Nigeria’s Territorial Waters, I admonished a senior member of the Nigeria Customs and Immigrations Department that the Customs was the most corrupt sector of the Nigerian public service.
As a result, the Customs receive by far the largest number of job-applicants in the entire service. The reason, I maintained, was because it is widely understood that Customs officials are Nigeria’s richest public-servants, given the fact that they are well-positioned to extort and receive bribes.
Big-man lawlessness: The unfortunate Customs official at whom my reprimand was directed was not particularly offended. Rather, he observed solemnly that the Customs receive mixed signals from Nigerian officialdom. These indicate that laws are to be honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Therefore, Customs officials have few qualms about being corrupt when, daily, they observe first-hand the corrupt practices of the powers-that-be
He noted that, on the one hand, the government issues a directive stating that a certain item is banned, or is to attract a certain amount of duty. However, on the other hand, some “big-man” in the same government contradicts that very directive by giving instructions to Customs officials that Mr. So-and-So should be allowed in with 53 suitcases of the same banned item, or is to be exempted from duty payment.
Inevitably, Customs officials recognise that even members of the government are not interested in promoting their own laws. So why should they, as lowly officials, be expected to be more Catholic than the Pope?
The same logic can be applied to the high propensity towards armed robbery in Nigeria. Why should lowly paupers not resort to grand larceny for the sake of enjoying the “high life” when, day-in day-out, big-men steal millions and billions of public money with strokes of the pen and go unpunished?
Indeed, why should a Lawrence Anini be arrested and prosecuted for robbing an Agbor Bank of N50,000, when Chief Big-man, in the form of an Inspector-General of Police, is allowed to go virtually scot-free despite stealing a whopping N17 billion of public funds?
Nation of big-men: Bigmanism is a chronic national malaise in Nigeria. It is a disease whereby members of a highly visible segment of society are paraded as higher breeds beyond the pale of the law. These big-men flout all conventions and they break all the rules. In Nigeria, bigmanism is the key that opens all doors. You are either a big man or you are not. If you are, the world is your oyster. If you are not, you are the scum of the earth. In order to protect your rights, you will need to secure the good offices of a big-man.
The influence of the big-man in Nigerian society is without all bounds. To date, we have yet to define any areas of merit or excellence immune to the nepotistic influence of our big-men. If, for example, a man obtains a first-class honours degree in Economics and a Masters in Business Administration from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and subsequently secures employment at First Bank in Lagos, people would still want to know how he got the job.
Yes, he obtained a first-class degree in the relevant field alright but, tell me: is the Managing Director of First Bank his uncle? Did one Chief Big-man push the right buttons for him?
Cheating the small-man: Bigmanism is also invaluable in Nigeria as a means of protecting your rights. Some years back, Yinka, a friend of mine, was arrested for obstructing traffic, when all he did was move out of the way for an ambulance with blaring sirens.
He was fined N7,500 and also charged N1,500 for car radio license. When he asked the arresting officer if he could see any radio in his car, he just smiled at him then put a sticker on his windscreen stating that he had paid for his non-existent car-radio.
When Yinka got home, he felt so cheated. He knew what happened to him was nothing but daylight robbery. On reflection, he concluded that the reason he was robbed so blatantly was because he was a “Nobody.” He was driving an old ramshackle car which did not even have a radio. He was scruffily-dressed and was subdued throughout his ordeal. So he decided to fight back. He understood that, in order to do this effectively, he had to become “Somebody.”
Big-man’s redemption: So the next day, he went back to the offending office. But this time, he went as a big-man. He put on a pompous suit-and-tie. He went in a posh saloon car. He did not drive himself; he went chauffeur-driven.
Immediately he got out of his car, a gentleman accosted him and greeted him lavishly. “I seem to know you from somewhere,” he said. He stared at him for a moment then asked: “Did you use to own a business at Ikoyi Hotel?” “Yes,” he replied. “That’s right,” he said, “my office was at Glover. What can I do for you, Sir? My name is Onikoyi and I am in charge here.”
“You are the man I have come to see,” Yinka replied. “Yesterday, one of your men arrested and fined me N7,500 for making way for an ambulance. On top of that, he charged me N1,500 for car radio license. When I protested that I did not have a car radio, he simply laughed at me.”
Mr. Onikoyi asked: “Can you recognise the man involved if you see him again?” “Yes, I can,” he replied. At which point, he directed that all his subordinates should line up for Yinka’s inspection. But before they could do that, his nemesis of the day before walked in. “This is the man,” Yinka declared.
Mr. Onikoyi did not waste any time with him. “That is the end of your job here,” he said. This man, who had been Yinka’s arrogant oppressor the day before, now started rolling on the ground at his feet, begging for his job. Mr. Onikoyi said to him: “Look at you, useless man.” Then he turned to Yinka: “The man has two wives!” Yinka’s N7,500 fine was refunded to him. Unfortunately, his radio license fee could not be refunded for administrative reasons.
Yinka could not confirm if the man was actually sacked in the end. All he knows is that he prevailed on that occasion by becoming a “big man.” That is how the system works in Nigeria. If you are not a big-man, you are likely to be cheated with impunity.
A few weeks later, Yinka was arrested yet again, in the same vicinity. This time, the traffic warden stopped him, and then told him to proceed. But when he did, he arrested him, insisting he only told the car in front of him to go. When he refused to play ball by offering a quick bribe, he jumped into the front-seat with him and took him to the same office.
As Yinka got out of the car on reaching there, he was immediately surrounded by a number of the arresting officer’s colleagues. “What are you doing here, Sir,” they enquired anxiously. Before he could answer, they insisted he must leave at once. “There’s no problem, Sir, no problem at all,” they chorused, determined that he should not, under any circumstances, see Mr. Onikoyi. That was apparently the last of his problems with them. I believe he must have been classified thereafter in their office as an untouchable big-man.
Former-big-men: Nigeria is not only the country with the largest Black population in the world, it is also, in all probability, the country with the largest number of big-men. This number is swelled by the large retinue of ex-public functionaries, fondly referred to in some circles as “ex-this: ex-that.”
The high turnover of government in Nigeria has brought many Nigerians into high public office, only to turn them out soon afterwards. High government turnover itself is compounded by administrative devolution. There are now 36 states, with people still clamoring for more. And then there is township bigmanism, represented by the obas, the emirs and the plethora of chiefs.
There are so many big men in Nigeria that the British government was constrained to send to Nigeria a list of the few public functionaries they recognise as big-men. Those big-men not on the list should not expect diplomatic protocols when visiting Britain.
Former public functionaries
Part of the problem here is that Nigeria’s former public functionaries continue to act as big-men, and expect to continue to be treated as big-men, even after they are out of office. What this means, in effect, is that the more the turnover of government, the more the big-men there are to flout the law.
The more states we have; the more public officers we have, the more our streets, offices, banks and airports are littered with big-men, former big-men and “acting” big men, always at the ready to ask: “Do you know who I am?”
And then there is yet that other category: those Nigerians who are big-men by extension. They are the brothers and sisters and uncles and aunties of the big-men.
These people are likely to ask the bureaucrat or the law-enforcement agent whether he knows that so-and-so is their relative. This approach works, for the simple reason that superior authorities are not inclined to back up their subordinates who deny special privileges either to big-men or their relations. In fact, denial of those privileges is one of the surest ways of losing your job.
Future big-men: So, after listening to the simple rationalisations of the Customs official, I came to the conclusion that, while most young graduates may wish to become Customs officials, most Nigerians have one burning ambition: to become big-men. Very soon, if you were to ask a Nigerian boy of five years old what he would like to be when he grows up, don’t be surprised if he replies: “I want to be a big-man.”