By Elnathan John
If gold rust, what will iron do?- Geoffrey Chaucer
I begin this short essay by stating my credentials: I am only a new lawyer, having qualified barely 12 months ago. I am very young. Very inexperienced maybe. Perhaps that is why these things shock me enough to write about them. Perhaps that is why I have not yet come to terms with this solution-resistant affliction.
The word corruption in Nigeria has become cliché and all the more so when speaking in general terms. I thought of this just a few minutes before I began typing. But I also thought of Bess Myerson who said that the accomplice to the crime of corruption is frequently our own indifference. Perhaps this quote alone is my biggest motivation. I do not expect that things will change after I publish this. But I expect to feel better for nothing in my estimation is worse for a human with a conscience than to lose the ability to be surprised and shocked at impropriety.
When the very learned lecturers at the Nigerian Law School taught me the procedural law, they prepared me for a career where precedent is ultimately more important than creativity. One of the things they taught me was the procedure for registration of companies at the Corporate Affairs Commission. One thing they didn’t teach me was that there was an easy way to fast track things. As easy as one thousand naira squeezed in someone’s palm to get my company name approved in one day while others could sometimes as long as two weeks.
They didn’t tell me how aggressive the court bailiffs would be if I insisted on not giving more than a fair price for serving my processes. They didn’t tell me I’d have to bargain with officers of the court to do things that they receive a salary to do. I wonder why there are no standard rates for services in courts such that lawyers are left to the whims of officers of the court; left to haggle as if one was in a second-hand goods store. I remember trying to serve a Writ of Summons on some defendants within Abuja. I was going to provide transport for the bailiff- an air-conditioned car, something he surely was not used to. I was asked how much I was going to give to the bailiff. I asked back: “For what?”. The bailiffs job, for which he receives a monthly salary is to, among other things, serve court processes. What did I get for this suggestion? The lady at the desk said to me in Hausa: “Wannan lawya, kana da mako.” My translation: that I was a stingy lawyer. Eventually another lawyer in the office suggested I offer two thousand naira which was turned down. Apparently, this is a common practice, for none of the lawyers in the room found anything strange about it. Some lawyers were even irritated because I was wasting time and they were waiting for their turn. So, I should have just made a good offer and gotten the hell out of their way.
So, what is the big deal, you would ask. Well, the big deal is that there are some sectors that cannot afford corruption. The big deal is that lawyers who ought to be above reproach are mostly silent about this while they scream on about national corruption and injustice. They appear on AIT everyday and grant interviews talking about unconstitutionalities and corruption and injustice. They claim their place as ministers in the temple of justice but would gladly give that extra one thousand at CAC or not argue when the bailiff demands some money because his matter is urgent. We cannot be champions of free and fair elections and human rights and freedom when we give little bribes while we work.
I believe the legendary statesman Awolowo when he said in 1975, that the eradication of corruption from any society is not just a difficult task: it is without dispute, an impossible objective. However, it is also not acceptable to have corruption as the norm and all other things as exceptions- especially not among lawyers. Indeed it should not be acceptable anywhere.
I am sad each time I perceive the overwhelming heavy stench of rottenness that permeates everything Nigerian and indicts us beyond defence; beyond defence every time we lie to ourselves with those four misleading words: good people, great nation; beyond defence every time we add our superficial smiles to the odd number of happy people. It has become clear to me, at least in the past year that this country is in trouble. A friend of mine once said that it is wrong to say Nigeria is a failed state; Nigeria is not even a state, but a huge disorganized village. I laughed when he said it but everyday and with every case of impropriety I come across, I reconsider his statement.