This Present Darkness

Before he died in 2015, the late Professor Stephen Ellis wrote his last book titled ‘This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organised Crime.’ Going through this book left me with several thoughts, most of them unpleasant.

It is a fascinating read covering, not just organised crime, but the evolution of the Nigerian state (or maybe they are the same thing?). At any rate, I want to share eight random things I found interesting in the book, and I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.

1. In 1947, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo wrote that “Corruption is the greatest defect of the Native Court system.” He complained that not only did judges take bribes, but people also used their connections to enrich themselves and avoid punishment for their crimes. He also wrote that in the north, a new Emir always removed all the people appointed by the previous Emir and replaced them with his own people. He wrote all these as a complaint against the Indirect Rule system favoured by the British.

2. In 1922, the Colonial Secretary in London, one Winston Churchill, wrote to Nigeria’s Governor General at the time, Sir Hugh Clifford, asking him to ban certain types of letters called ‘Charlatanic correspondences.’ This was because J.K Macgregor who was Principal of Hope Waddell Training Institute in Calabar for 36 years, had discovered hundreds of letters written and received by his students ordering all sorts of books, charms and even potions from England, America and India in particular. Most of the charms were nonsense and the students were invariably asked to send more money if they wanted more powerful ones. A total of 2,855 such letters were intercepted by the Posts & Telegraph Department between 1935 and 1938.

3. In 1939, a Nigerian businessman based in Ghana named Prince Eikeneh, wrote to the colonial government in Nigeria complaining about the number of Nigerian girls who were coming to Ghana to work as sex workers. He said the girls were usually taken there by a Warri-based Madam named ‘Alice’ who told the girls they were going to learn a trade or get married. He concluded that the trade was very well-organised and profitable for the ring leaders.

4. In 1950, Abubakar Tafewa Balewa said, ‘the twin curses of bribery and corruption pervade every rank and department of government’. At that time, the word ‘awoof’ was already being used to describe how civil servants used their positions to enrich themselves. In 1952, an anti-corruption campaigner named Eyo A. Akak from Etinan in today’s Akwa Ibom State complained that Nigerians were abandoning farming for trade due to materialism and consumerism. He said that every ex-serviceman now wanted to own a Raleigh bicycle before going back to his village while every civil servant wanted to own a car. He even blamed women (partly) for this because all of them only wanted to marry rich men.

5. In 1959, there were 60,000 school graduates in the Western Region. By the following year, the number had increased to 200,000. However, this led to a now familiar problem. By 1963, primary education was turning out 180,000 graduates a year but only 80,000 of them could find jobs, according to the Regional Minister of Finance. The same minister also said he was ‘looking for a method to crackdown on school principals who were collecting money from students for a variety of services.

6. In 1968, a Polish-British sociologist named Stanislav Andreski coined the term ‘kleptocracy’ to describe the system of government he found in Nigeria. He said, ‘Nigeria is the most perfect example of kleptocracy since power itself rests on the ability to bribe’.

7. In 1975, a report of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the shortage of petroleum products found that a lot of the petrol being imported into Nigeria (due to the inability of the Port-Harcourt refinery to meet local demand) was being smuggled to Chad and Niger Republic. As soon as NNPC was formed, people swarmed around it and all sorts of people got crude oil lifting contracts. The US Embassy in Paris reported in 1973 that a random American walked into the Embassy and showed them a contract he had to lift 2 million tons of Nigerian crude oil. He told the Embassy that ‘a great deal of under the table payments were taking place in Nigeria to obtain crude oil’.

8. Around 1979, a British bank, Johnson Matthey collaborated with the Central Bank of Nigeria to export huge amounts of forex from Nigeria on behalf of politicians like Alhaji Umaru Dikko in contravention of foreign exchange controls. The bank later collapsed due to unsecured loans to Nigeria and had to be bailed out by the Bank of England with £100m in 1984 – the first time the Bank of England had ever rescued a private bank in British history.

It also led to the passing of the Insolvency Act by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1986. One of the directors of the bank, Vasant Advani, ran to Nigeria in 1986 but returned to the UK in 2008 for treatment when he was diagnosed with cancer. In 2011, at the age of 67, he was sentenced to 16 months in prison for the fraud that brought down that bank. No official on the Nigerian side, to the best of my knowledge, was ever convicted. What do these stories tell us? Is Nigeria hopeless or cursed? Can things ever change? Have we always been this way or is it a recent thing? The answer is what you say it is.

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