The Bleeding of the Niger; Justice, Bribecode, and the War Next Time

Chuma Nwokolo delivered an early version of this essay as a Keynote Lecture at the Benue Book & Arts Festival, Makurdi, on 20th June 2019.
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Justice Murdered

When the war started, my mother was not ready. At twenty-nine, she had four children under six and was pregnant with her fifth. Then, something happened in a Northern Region she once called home: thirty-thousand men, women and children were lynched by neighbours in an orgy of death for the crime of being Igbo.  Justice was clearly one of the corpses being trucked in lorryloads to the Eastern Region, for with so many murdered, no one was arrested.

No one was tried.

This was a collaborative massacre of innocents by citizens enabled by government.

Yet, ready or not, war was here. Ezinnebuno fled with her family to her hometown. It was the wrong move, for the Nigerian Army’s 2nd Division was marching on Asaba, intent on punishing the crime of being male, while Igbo, with death. (Women – especially Igbo ones – had their uses in wartime). Destiny had located some Igbo towns in the non-seceding Midwest region, west of the River Niger. So, although they were in name and in fact loyal citizens of Nigeria, although they dressed up and danced out to their village square to welcome ‘their’ Nigerian Army, they were to pay with their lives for being Igbo. The military murder of unarmed civilians in non-seceding Igbo villages continued across Anioma in villages like Utagba Uno and Isheagu – whose traditional ruler was buried alive with his courtiers.

For these war crimes no soldiers were arrested. None were tried. Indeed, in 2001, before the Oputa Panel, a general officer commanding said, with respect to the Asaba massacre, that in retrospect he had no regrets. This was a collaborative killing of innocents by the army enabled by government.

Mams survived the Asaba massacre of three thousand males but her familiar streets and fields were bloated with decomposing friends and relatives. This was clearly neither the time nor place to birth children.

But ready or not, her baby was kicking to be born, unaware it was coming to Hell. This baby, Ezinnebuno knew, would see no maternity ward like its siblings born in peace in Ibadan, Jos and Benin. It would have no Dad at hand to dote on it, for her husband had been shot in the massacre and was healing in hiding. But she found a midwife who promised to attend her. Unfortunately, Mams went into labour on a shrapnel Sunday in December 1967, and the streets, raining with death, were too dangerous for midwives to ply. The baby, clearly mistaking the staccato of shells for Christmas fireworks, picked his moment, and crashed the war party.

Ezinnebuno was on her own, for in wartime, birth – like death – was DIY. Her son arrived safely and survived the shelling. There were Igbo cries of God has done well, which gave the plucky lad his name. In time he would make the transition from war child to child of peace.

When the war ended, my mother did not believe it: even villagers knew how to properly reconcile feuding parties, how to console the wounded, rebuke wrong-doers, and ensure that the community moved towards healing. Could a war of this magnitude be wrapped up with neither justice for the innocent dead nor the mildest of censures, even for the most egregious mass murderers? Should the dispossession of life and limb also be followed by loss of property? Could three million of our dead be cremated in memory without the dignity of a wake that enrolled their names for ancestry and posterity? What was this strange peace in which history was smothered, wisdom garrotted, and pogroms buried in pus-infested silence?

So, her war never ended. Not on 15th January, 1970 when the surrender was signed, not in October 2001 when a decorated Nigerian army general justified the Asaba Massacre, and certainly not on shrapnel Sunday on 27th January 2002, when thousands of tonnes of leftover bombs from the civil war exploded in the arsenal of the Ikeja Cantonment near her retirement home in Lagos. The earth quaked and vulcanoed, and molten magna rained death from the skies, killing over a thousand more innocent Nigerians in the noon of their lives. Lagos burned through the night. For days afterwards, preternatural clouds rained soot from the skies, asphyxiating the faint of breath, like my mother. I was thousands of miles away when the bomb blast happened. I called her. We are fine, she wheezed, but she lied. The next day, on 29th of January, 2002, Ezinnebuno succumbed to complications from a terminal asthmatic attack. She was 64. It was thirty-two years after the ‘end’ of the uncivil war.

But she was killed in war.

So, we know what happens to evil incubated: it blows up eventually. It snakes, full-grown through the country, burning villagers in their homes, abducting and raping travellers at will. It dons hijab and detonates self and others in busy markets. The war this time is a new type of war, executing death sentences deferred, decades after the seeds of injustice were sown. The harvest multiplies: Odi, Kaduna, Jos, Mubi, Agatu… A war whose munitions are now too voracious to discriminate between ethnicity and gender: Yelwa, Maiduguri, Ogaminana, Madalla, Lassa… A war whose shrapnel slaughters her own children as readily as the children of strangers: Shendam, Kano, Damaturu, Okene, Aba…  The war this time.

All over Nigeria, leftover bombs from the unresolved injustice of the civil war boom, claiming a fresh generation of victims, as the blind eye turned to the massacre in towns like Asaba, Utagba Uno and Isheagu blinds new towns and villages: Gamboru, Gwoza, Zaria, Konduga, Tse-Kuma…. The children of killers were killing, and being killed, anew: Gujba, Mamudo, Buni Yadi, Wusasa, Jalingo… Again and again, entire towns were wiped off the map, leaving nobody to bury the dead. Again and again: Baga. Baga.

Baga.  

The war next time is upon us now. The fire we refused to quench when it was burning our neighbour’s house is now a wildfire, ravaging our land. The ‘I’ word, impunity. Ordinary citizens find the reins of public office and give the middle finger to nation: I can do what I like, when I like, without consequence. One by one, from one end of Nigeria to the other, the bombs of impunity boom, blowing lives away. And in place of justice, in place of punishment and censure, killers and thieves are paid and patronised, appeased and bribed. Mass murderers and feckless kleptomaniacs receive national honours and induction into our hall of heroes, giving our children new career goals as honesty becomes a dirty word. From the leadership galleries of our institutions, from our currency notes, grin and glower the faces of our greatest despoilers.

The war this time is a retail war: one by one, casualties of corruption fall to the sniper fire of pot-holed roads, drugless hospitals and the brutality of our police and military. One by one, casualties in their hundreds of thousands are picked up from the battlefield of negligence and buried in the cemetery of indifference. Across the land, wounded Nigeria groans, bleeding, as thousands of vampiric public servants drink our lifeblood. A new generation of Nigerians have inherited a country that has normalised murder, that has valorised genocide, that has decriminalised anomy. A new generation innocent of the blood and naivete of their fathers cry out for justice.

But Justice is fifty years a corpse, ferried in a lorry of dead men, buried in an unmarked grave in the dead Eastern Region.

Justice Reborn

Some will seek justice abroad, risking leaky boats that drown them, transit countries that enslave them, and xenophobic states that burn them in their streets, risking the very odium their motherland once reserved for the Igbo. But to achieve true home-grown justice, we must return to the foundations of nation, to an incident in 1900 that predated the Asaba Massacre.

Let us call this the “Asaba Transaction”.

Britain abolished slavery in 1833, starting the moral phase of European civilisation when it was barbaric to enslave and exploit humans, though perfectly legal to enslave and exploit countries with millions of humans. European companies ended their centuries-long trade in slaves and began a new trade in colonies. The star players included Cecil Rhodes’ British South African Company, the Imperial British East African Company, the German East Africa Company, the Portuguese Guinea Company, and George Taubman Goldie’s Royal Niger Company (RNC).

In 1886, Britain gave the RNC a monopoly charter to exploit much of the area that would later become Nigeria. The company operated out of its ‘capital’ in Asaba, employing Captain Lugard for the ‘pacification’ of Borgu. The idea of Nigeria took root here, as a business vision, with country, peoples and resources as assets on the balance sheet of a business whose capital was originally won from the slave trade. The RNC set the prices for commodities it bought from Nigerians as well as the goods it sold to them. Independent-minded Nigerian leaders like King Jaja of Opobo and King Koko of Nembe who tried to continue trading as freemen were deposed and replaced. In 1895, following the Akassa raid by the Nembe to assert their ancestral right to free trade, the RNC retaliated with a raid on Brass in which whole towns was burned and over three hundred people killed.

In 1900, the British government acquired the RNC’s Nigerian investments for £865,000 and formally established a government of colonists, by colonists and for colonists. This was the Asaba Transaction.  

In 1914, when the Lagos Colony was amalgamated with the northern and southern protectorates to form one country under the Lugard Constitution, the terms of the Asaba Transaction did not change. None of the next four constitutions, (Clifford’s in 1922, Richards in 1946, Macpherson’s 1951, or Lyttleton’s in 1954) changed the nature of the Asaba Transaction.

The 1960 Independence constitution could have transformed the fortunes of Nigeria. For the first time, government was in the hands of Nigerians, elected from among the people. Yet, something interesting happened: our leaders found common cause with the exploiters, rather than the people. Our leaders ratified the Asaba Transaction by replacing the colonists. Instead of creating a government of the people by the people and for the people, the independence ceremony simply became, like the earlier constitutions before it, a change of baton from colonists to colonists.

Enter the black colonists.

Nigeria’s four republican constitutions of 1963, 1979, 1993 and 1999 are paper tigers. Despite their grandiloquent words, they allowed as much impunity as the military dictatorships in Nigerian history – the white ones exemplified by Fred Lugard and the black ones exemplified by Sani Abacha. They all ratified the spirit of the Asaba Transaction that transferred Nigeria into the hands of a government of colonists by colonists and for colonists. Upon taking their oaths of office, our public officers, whether freedom fighter, politician, soldier or civil servant, acquired impunity and picked up the RNC’s colonial baton of self-aggrandizement. The prime reason for their existence was the exploitation of the territory, peoples and resources of Nigeria.

The war this time is the same old war for resource control. The Asaba Transaction is renewed every election. The prospective colonists say and do whatever is necessary to win control of state resources for themselves and their sponsoring godfather-colonists. The side contracts with missionaries and traditional rulers are renewed – for their centuries-old mission: the pacification of the Nigerian mind to the end that the Nigerian body might actively collaborate in its own exploitation. Intellectuals, activists and touts suffering the oppression of the system are bribed by the centuries-old promise: collaborate with us and defend the colonial system and you too can become Supervisors of Slaves, with privileges that will elevate you above the suffering masses. From stark illiterates to PhDs, all are driven by the same promise: If you defend the iniquity of the colonial system, we will make you Supervisors of Slaves.

Nigeria’s ‘war’ against corruption is a party game.

The powerful Nigerian private sector traces its umbilical cord to an RNC that once ‘owned’ Nigeria. UAC Plc, currently quoted on the Nigerian Stock Exchange, is ‘descended’ from the RNC. Yet, in addition to the billions of US$ annually looted by public officers, the Thabo Mbeki High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows established that in the 38 years from 1970, Nigeria lost US$217 billion revenue to illicit commercial transactions with foreign countries. Annually, public revenues the equivalent of a national budget is looted through the private sector.

The test of the Asaba Transaction is simple: can the public servant act with impunity to prosper self, family, friends and business partners, without consequence? To enthrone justice in Nigeria, we must terminate the Asaba Transaction.

We must tear up the business plan that makes Nigeria the property of a colonial class of public administrators and their collaborators in the private sector. We must recreate Nigeria as a country that belongs to, and works for, her 200 million citizens. We can do this by ending the reign of impunity by those in control of public power in Nigeria. We must ignore (for the moment) the distractions of thousands of petty injustices that are mere symptoms of the Unjust System, and focus on the root solution: we must devise a system that subordinates Nigerian leadership at all levels to the People they serve, by systemically connecting devastating consequence to serious abuse of public office.

One such system is the proposed Bribecode.

The solution must be systemic. We must not subscribe to the cult of charismatic leaders who merely present a more marketable face to the same colonial phalanx of unrepentant looters carrying the colonial baton that the Royal Niger Company transferred in the Asaba Transaction. Our challenge is to create a system that is immune to corrupt public officers. The magic bullet of the Bribecode utilizes the reformative powers of privatization, self-regulation and commercialization to energize good governance by recruiting every Nigerian and public institution into an active front in the battle.

  1. Privatization works by monetizing information, such that every whistle-blower is rewarded for any information leading to the recovery of public funds by a percentage of that recovery.
  2. Self-Regulation works by creating the penalty of Total Assets Forfeiture for private individuals and Liquidation of private companies for serious corruption. This will make both individuals and companies proactively eschew corrupt behaviour as a self-preservation mechanism.
  3. Commercialisation works by the principle of Universal Prosecution whereby any one of Nigeria’s 37 attorneys general have the non-exclusive power to prosecute serious corruption offences. Fines and financial recoveries are payable to any government whose attorney general successfully prosecutes the case. The attorney general for the federation loses his powers of Nolle Prosequi and the resulting competition for prosecutions will drive corruption into extinction in Nigerian public life.

The full Bribecode is available here: http://bribecode.org/a-bill-for-the-corporation-corruption-act/. The result of the proposed law will transform Nigeria through the agency of a reborn justice system. The Bribecode can, for the first time in Nigerian history, subjugate both the private and the public sectors to the interests of the Nigerian public. With the Bribecode in force, our national, state and local government budgets will become sacrosanct and potent forces for transformation. By attaching devastating and inevitable consequence to the abuse of power in the Executive, Legislature, Judiciary and every sector of Nigeria’s socio economy, the Bribecode will trigger a justice revolution that radiates from law and order institutions to end Impunity in Nigerian public and private life. This will impact every sector of Nigeria for the better.

Yet, the proposed law is contrary to the interests of any corrupt incumbent of public office who currently enjoys the dividends of the Asaba Transaction. The onus is therefore on citizens who want a change to make it happen, by visiting www.bribecode.org/signup, signing the petition for the enactment of the Bribecode, and persuading their representatives in the National Assembly – through every possible avenue – to support the enactment of the law.

Had our leaders the courage and vision to try the killers of the first twelve Easterners in the fifties and sixties, thirty thousand innocents would not have died in one month of the pogrom. Three million souls would not have died at war. Nigeria would not have failed. The war this time is raging around us. We must leave the mob. It is time to wake up and find the moral clarity to choose the right side in this war for the future of Nigeria. We must choose right for our present and our children’s future, to the end that Ezinnebuno, and all that have died in the wars of the past, from Akassa to Asaba, may not have died in vain.

3 thoughts on “The Bleeding of the Niger; Justice, Bribecode, and the War Next Time”

  1. Thank you for writing this poetic narrative, sir. Thank you for your insight into our collective failure and taking up the responsibility to see a better future through the Bribecode project.

    This land has seen a lot of innocent blood and we have walked on it almost mindless, that history keep repeating itself. And sadly, that history is of corrupt and wicked killers who perpetrate crime and the system does not question them.

    Imagine that the Asaba Massacre only exists as story and the manner the story is told with hush voices, and the dead see no reason why their lives were taken.

    Thank you again for reminding the African continent and the world of the big and fat failure that we are. And we are never changing.

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