What Is Inside That Can? By Akin Adesokan

Akin Adesokan
Akin Adesokan

It is quite easy to affect transparency in a situation where the conduct of much official and semi-official business is shrouded in mystery or occurs in a flagrant disregard of due process. Indeed, many would welcome that happening, since it suggests a breath of fresh air in an otherwise polluted environment. But to affect transparency is not the same thing as to be transparent. If anything, the point of “affecting” is to put emphasis on form, on appearance; while, deep down or farther off, all remains business as usual. This is the case with the kind of formal probity which Nigerians have learnt to trust, all in service of the institution of corruption.

I have seen many, many instances of this sanctimonious observation of rule, this need to be seen to observe formality, but just two should suffice. At the passport office in Lagos last May, I observed something both amusing and perplexing about the ways that this system works. (My experience trying to get a passport was a saga, but that’s a story for another day.) In the room where I waited to get my biometrics processed, there was a large campaign poster reminiscent of the days of Ethical Revolution and MAMSER. Sponsored by an outfit called Servicom, the text of the poster read: “Service Compact With All Nigerians. Ask Servicom? You have the Right/To Be Served Right.”

I was amused by this for the simple reason that most of the people in that room found their way in through a myriad of deals, contacts, loopholes, and protocols. None of us, at that stage in the process, would need to make a point of asking to be served right. It is a moot point: any service that could get you to the stage of waiting to finger-print could hardly be bettered, and if it was not good enough, you knew to take it on the chin and not make unnecessary trouble for the clean-crisp men and women of the Nigerian Immigration Service.

It also perplexed me, however, because it betrayed how natural and deeply embedded corruption was/is in our system. The form is all we need. Ceremonial facades, elaborately constructed, painted over and displayed outdoors as a matter of course. As we know from the ancients, ceremonies were performed at regular intervals (weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, annually, etc.) because they were meant to mark situations that people had resolved to live with rather than change. It is said that in the time of the Roman emperor Caligula, the senators caused the promises he made on ascending the throne to be ceremonially repeated every year, ostensibly as a homage to flatter him, but actually so that he was not allowed to forget them.

The other instance is even more astounding.  In an interview published in ThisDay newspaper of August 5, 2012, the managing director of Nigeria Export-Import Bank, (NEXIM), was discussing the details of how the bank planned to disburse the loans it was administering for the so-called Nigerian Creative and Entertainment Industry Stimulation Loan Scheme (NCEILS). After lauding the government’s efforts at improving the lot of Nigerian artistes and ensuring growth in the entertainment industry, the managing director stipulated: “[A]ll prospective applicants should collect and complete the NCEILS Application “form obtained directly from NEXIM. The completed form should now be forwarded, supported with a copy of the project’s brief/feasibility study and certified true copies of the following documents: Company’s Incorporated Documents – (Certificate, Memorandum and Article of association, Forms CAC and CAC7, audited Statement /Statements of Affairs/Cash Flows, Budget(s) Bills of Quantity, Pro-forma invoice(s) etc. where applicable, Completion Bond where applicable, Proprietary Rights/Syndicated rights where policeable, collateral Security/Intellectual Property assets that are properly patented, trademarked, copyrighted etc to be pledged/assigned, Executed Contracts Agreements (rental/lease, Retail/Sales Agency, Cast Crew and any other document that maybe required by the bank.”

I have copied this statement directly from an angry opinion piece published by filmmaker Ola Balogun, who I imagine also copied it verbatim from the said interview. I agree with Balogun’s main argument, which was that the kind of creativity which would help Nigerian artists was not likely to be productively fostered by this kind of scam, sorry, scheme. What interested me further was the confounding legalism of the MD’s stipulations. Who would come across a statement like this and not nod in approval that, yes, this is a thoroughly transparent process, creating its own paper-trail?

It is a beautiful façade. The thing inside the can is, as always, much more discouraging in its unrelieved ugliness. Few Nigerians can actually believe that anyone would get the loan on the strength of their proposals. But it is enough, for the sake of appearance, for the needful to be seen to have been done.

  • This is the second of a three-part piece on the theme of “false formality.”