Victims! The spot of ‘victims’ in my headline was sealed six months ago by one of the senior officers of Pedro Police Station, Shomolu, Lagos. It was Friday July 19, 2019, the night I was released from Ikoyi Prison at the end of my undercover investigation on corruption in Nigeria’s criminal justice system only to be abducted by Pedro policemen. A last-minute twist of seemingly impossible events had climaxed with an order for the Divisional Police Officer (DPO) to release me. With the DPO unavailable at the office, the responsibility fell on another officer, a man who claimed to have studied Law and built some level of media experience along the way. I’ll conceal his identity. Rather than promptly comply with the release instruction, the officer first launched a tirade against us. “You say you’re investigating the criminal justice system and you come to the Police?” he queried. “You’re investigating victims. Victims!”
This officer rambled on and on, first about low budgetary allocation to the Police, and next about how powerful politicians and officials at the presidency, National Assembly and the Interior Ministry take turns to divert the funds, such that only a pittance gets to the Police at the state level. The various police stations were getting mere crumbs, he argued, inadequate to run their day-to-day overheads.
“If you really want to investigate corruption in the administration of criminal justice, then go to Abuja,” he declared. “That’s where the real corruption takes place. But you’re investigating policemen; those are victims — people looking for N1,000 here or N2,000 there, to eat and feed their families.”
Familiar fable. I’d also heard that line at Ikoyi Prison the previous week. After my cover was blown in prison, a powerful warder — he alone ran the only two public phone booths serving more than 3,000 inmates in Ikoyi — wondered what manner of corruption among warders was worth investigating: “If you want to investigate corruption, is the prison the right place to come? Got to Abuja; that’s where the real corruption is happening.”
He hadn’t used exactly the police officer’s words but he was effectively saying the same thing: warders are victims. Just like the Police.
While I didn’t for a millisecond harbour any plausibility for their claims to victimhood, for the sole reason that the complainants were themselves beneficiaries of low-scale but high-consequence corruption, I’ve been more generous, thought wise, though I ultimately remained unmoved, to similar arguments by third parties. For instance, after last month’s undercover investigation on the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Yaba, Lagos, that, among others, exposed a staff member who demanded a N7,000 bribe to help a supposed patient secure bed space, I listened to a friend worry that a “small thief” could go down while the “big thieves” were roaming Abuja in all their splendour and resplendence. “This woman has a family to look after,” he lamented. “She has kids, probably has aged parents. She has liabilities she must cater to.”
Unfortunately for everyone who’s played the victimhood card around me, I’ve had so many encounters with oppressive victims. The Pedro police officer, for instance, didn’t know that two hours before his long-winding speech, while some of his men were preparing to hide me in their cell overnight, some of those ‘victims’ spent their evening harassing a motorcycle rider whose wife had just put to bed. This man didn’t deny that he rode against traffic or that he altercated with the traffic wardens who demanded bribes from him after apprehending him. He was taken to Pedro Police Station, where I watched officers ridicule him, repeatedly threatening to lock him up in the cell, which they did in the end. This was a man whose wife had just put to bed and was desperate to make all the money he could by shuttling as many trips as possible. He may have broken traffic laws but he had a legitimate livelihood. His offence did not warrant a night in the cell and the harassment and intimidation that preceded it. This bike rider, in my estimation, was the real victim.
It’s the same with supposed victims who extort others in the line of duty. The health workers who exploit patients to meet family needs must be the only ones with needs; it must be that victims of exploitation dropped down from heaven, with no need. The mortuary attendants who extort the bereaved do have their own problems and have been failed by the system, but the moment they demand bribes from the grieving, they’ve lost their rights to victimhood. How on earth does anyone even get to demand bribes from the bereaved!
There’s no disputing the ignoble role of Abuja in the numerous failures of the Nigerian system. I think there can be no denial of the leadership misfortune that has plagued this country for decades. But nothing can be more disingenuous than for the followership to assume no responsibility. Otherwise, why can’t local systems work? Let’s say the thieves in Abuja remain unrepentant, why can’t public universities operate at a level that justifies the subventions from the Federal Government, insufficient as they seem? Why, to mention a specific example even though this is a widespread practice, do some doctors at the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital Aro, Abeokuta divert, for private use, in trickles, drugs meant for patients? If you asked these doctors, they would consider themselves victims of Abuja corruption. It’s no secret that budgetary allocation to health has always fallen abysmally short of international standards, but what are hospitals doing with the little they get?
We cannot ignore the ignominy of large-scale corruption, but we must understand that low-scale corruption is almost as dangerous. We must view corruption not only in terms of the amount of money involved but also the scale of damage being done. The Immigration official who, for a paltry N200 bribe, grants an illegal immigrant entry to Nigeria from Niger Republic is paving the way for the introduction of small arms and ammunition to the country. Such action cannot be interpreted as a mere N200 indiscretion but a life-endangering misdemeanour with huge implications for hundreds of thousands of Nigerians. It’s literally as serious as murder! We must understand, too, that the small-scale thief will steal when occupying a big office in future. The policeman stripping the tricycle driver of his hard-earned N1,000 will also embezzle multimillion-naira constituency project funds if he ever makes it to the National Assembly.
If Nigeria must someday become a country that works for all, this claim to victimhood by every Tom, Dick and Harry must stop. The Nigerian people must hold themselves as responsible for this country’s failings as they do the leaders.
Soyombo, former Editor of the TheCable, the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) and SaharaReporters, tweets @fisayosoyombo