The Phenomenon of corruption in Nigeria, nay the whole of Africa, is one that has become not only endemic but almost an accepted modus Vivendi. Each day, our news media carry mind burgling and almost incomprehensible stories of the disappearance, mismanagement or outright embezzlement of sums of money that are almost unimaginable even in richer nations of the world. Nigeria is a place where army generals, who originates from abject poor families, and who serve in the army for all their adult lives retire with such wealth that no one by any stretch of the imagination can earn from salary, nor from investments thereof, even if such investments were to return one hundred percent profit every day.1 It is a country where director-generals just pocket hundreds of thousands of Naira, and make the run for it. Nigerians enjoy to add the prefix “great” to the country even though it is constantly classed among the poorest nations of the world. Such a mismanaged country lives with the contradiction of ministers receiving gifts of up to half a billion Naira from the president of the country, and as much as one hundred and thirty billion Naira is spent carelessly.2 The legacy of the country’s last administrations is that in which a twenty six year old son of a head of state can fly into a banking haven with more that $200million to open an account3. Nigeria is rife with credible stories of how public officers stack in their houses sums of money in all currencies that are double the animal budget of many countries of the world. It does not serve our purpose to continue to recount the unimaginable incidents of corruption. It is notable however that, in some ways the sensitivity of the populace has been inured by these incidents. The last rating of corrupt nations by transparency international placed Nigeria as the second most corrupt country of the world. For many Nigerians, it is surprising that any nation can be more corrupt than their own.
Corruption in public is not just a Nigerian nor African phenomenon. There is in fact no society of men that is completely free from it. The recent uncovering of massive corruption in the whole of the Italian political landscape shows what level of political corruption the country was living with for years. The current stories of the long serving former German Chancellor Helmut Kobi and his party the Christian Democratic Union4 as well as the cases of former President Suharto of Indonesia and late Marcos of the Philippines are only cases in point. Two things tend nevertheless to be peculiar to the phenomenon of corruption in Nigeria. The first is that the perpetrators of corruption do not face the disgrace, for example, Helmut Kobi had to contend with in Germany in spite of the political height he has attained before the burble burst. Again, corrupt officials are in practical terms never rejected by the section of the country from which the originate. In fact, quite the contrary, they are often taken as heroes and illustrious sons or daughters of their town or village of origin, and continue to be relevant factors in political and social equations of their locality and sometimes even of the entire nation. Thus, while accepting the universality of the phenomenon of corruption, it seems necessary to still search for the reasons for its peculiar presence in the Nigerian society of today. The major thrust of the argument of this essay is that, in addition to all other reasons that explain corruption, the background of the present day. African is a major factor in the endemic corruption that is ravaging the continent. More specifically, our argument is that the African traditional background is one in which some major moral values are not universal, and that this reality encourages corruption in the policy.
The Meaning of Universality of Moral Values
Our purpose here is not to debate whether morality is linked essentially with universality. We are not following the position of R. M. Hare that it is only the universalizable that is moral.5 In the same vein, the view of Kant that the moral agent must act in such a way that he positions himself as a universal legislator,6 making laws that will apply to all humanity without the admixture of sentiment, emotion or passion, is not our immediate subject t of concern. Suffice it to say the Kant’s idea of dispensing with the humanity of the moral agent which entails his passion, his sentiment and other natural inclinations is too idealistic. To expect the agent to act while putting all these in parenthesis is to assume that moral act is the one posed by a disembodied spirit, not the human being. Philosophers like Hare who advocate the criterion of universality tend palpably to forget that such conceptions of morality in Western tradition was shaped buy the special circumstance of modernity. Before then casuistry, which concentrates almost exclusively on the merit or otherwise off the particular case, was the standard direction of moral reasoning. With modernity, however, casuistry came to be given a bad name, and the general applicability of principles tended to become the norm. Stephen Toulmin traces the enthronement of the abstract principle from the 1630 when formal logic came to suppliant traditional rhetoric, general principles and abstract axions replaced particular cases, and concreter diversities and the timeless came to replace the timely. It was thus not earlier than the 17th century that the abstract came to become a measure of the philosophical:
Procedures for handling specific types of problems, or limited classes of cases, have never been a central concern of modern philosophy: rather, it has concentrated on abstract timeless methods of deriving general solutions to universal problems. Thus from 1630 on, the focus of philosophical inquiries has ignored the particular, concrete, timely and local details of everyday human affairs instead, it has shifted to a higher, stratospheric plane, on which nature and ethics conform to abstract, timeless, general, and universal theories.7
The fact of such misconceptions underlies the superiority of the morality of such thinkers as Aristotle and Aquinas, which takes care of the apparently non-rational side of man, as Alasdaire Maclntyre has persuasively argued.8 Still it seems reasonable to think that any system of morality nudged slightly would readily integrate a certain level of universalizability of moral values. G. J. Warnock argues that in the general condition of the human predicament certain qualities or propensities are desiderata that would countervail the inherent liability of things to go badly. This negative liability is due mainly to limited sympathy, which results in maleficence, non-beneficence, fairness, beneficence and non-deception. Warnock argues that these are the fundamental moral virtues, and that they are necessary in certain measures for the human society even to start on the way of improving its almost natural predicament.9 Warnock was not referring to any society in particular, but it goes without saying that the general applicability of the human condition which he describes in his work also speaks for the universal reference of the moral values he enumerates as fundamental.
The position of this essay is not completely in consonance with the thesis that the moral values are necessarily marked by universality. It does not also subscribe to the theory of Henri Bergson to the effect that the universal, open and dynamic morality, is qualitatively higher than what he calls the static, particular morality of the closed society.10 The position of Warnock about the foundation and object of morality appears generally acceptable. It is in reference to that position that we define universality of moral values as the applicability of these moral values without essential reference to the unintrinsic particularities, circumstances of person, national origin, language, colour, political or religious leaning, etc.
The Context Of The Evolution Of African Traditional Morality
When we turn specifically to traditional African moral values, it appears axiomatic that, like all systems of morality, the emerged from a specific circumstance. Let us concentrate here on the society that formed the seedbed on which they had grown. Traditional Africa was divided into small independent political and social units. Though there were some relatively large kingdoms, these were small compared with others, outside the continent.11 And even if these, together with the medium sized political entities, were taken into account, it remains true that political fragmentation was the norm,12 one reason for this is the operative legal system. In much of traditional Africa, land was not made private property in any strict sense. Because of its abundance, due to thin population, there was no overwhelming interest in controlling land. Consequently, priced bodies of inter-tribal wars were slaves which were economically more profitable. The control of large expanse of land requires more efficient management, military garrison and better means of communication. On the other, human being could more easily be controlled.
Slaves could be captured in wars and in raids and carried back to the home territory by the victors and put to work, without the attacking armies having to conquer and occupy territory. For small states with small armies, this was a logical way to become richer.13
Still in Nigeria, there was before the advent of the colonialists, the Sokoto Caliphate that took in its embrace much of Northern Nigeria as well as adjoining parts of the countries neighbouring Nigeria today. There was also the Yoruba kingdoms which covered much of Western Nigeria and beyond, and the cohesion among the Igbo made possible by the ubiquitous Aros, and the Nri kingdom. While one recognizes these large areas with some political, religious and social cohesion, it should not be forgotten that the control they exerted was not so strong, and that people still lived in their original basic units. The emirates that emerged under the Sokoto caliphate maintained large measure of autonomy. Yoruba kingdoms were relatively small and competed with one another in wars and conflicts, while the hegemony of the Nri in Igboland did not detract from the independence of the small city states. It is true that the development of urbanization in West Africa14 in general generated the necessary conditions for the emergence of specialists and the expertise which easily leads to the possibility of administering larger areas, yet the absence of some vital factors like large animals to supplement human labour did not quite allow for the natural growth of what would have otherwise been engendered by such development. The fact of fragmentation meant that the exposure of inhabitants in traditional African political units was limited. For a section of Igboland, for instance, the people of the universe did not comprise more than the Igbo and the Olu (i.e. the Igala), the rest of mankind could as well be non-existent, as all the people of the world were designated by the term Olu n’Igbo. Systems of morality and values which develop in such circumstances are liable to be concerned with the survival and the well being of the particular group of an entity.15 On the contrary, with more contact and communication with other diverse groups, there is increased possibility of such systems having, as their reference, a larger number of individuals and circumstances than can be encompassed by smaller units.
Of course there are other reasons which might explain the transition from the particular to the universal. William Abraham holds that the general emerges from the concrete in the manner philosophy emerges from myth. Both have the same origin in the distress accompanying the human condition. However, while myth is still more concerned with immediate survival and founds a religion or a cult that takes man back to his origin to give assurance of a better future, philosophy, in accordance with Aristotle, emerges after the basic needs have been provided.16 “Once philosophy emerges, it is all-embracing: it proposes a general account of the world as a whole.” While myth aims primarily to control nature for the benefit of mankind, the aim of philosophy, according to Abraham, is not to control nature but to understand it.17 Such an explanation of the emergence of universality will tend to give credence to thinkers like Hare who accord premium to universality in morality. It will also imply that philosophy is synonymous with universality – something which S. Toulmin says is an imposition of modernity. However, the concordance of our argument with William is that however the universal is graded in reference to the particular, its emergence is very much dependent on a particular circumstance.
Some Foundations of Traditional Morality
To the special context of the evolution of traditional morality must be added the spiritual or religious foundation of that morality within the human society. The special positions and functions of some divinities in the human sphere are important means towards ascertaining on which sphere of the spiritual world the moral system is believed to be founded. In this regard, there is often the special difficulty of ascertaining the specific relationships between the divinities and their functions.18 There is also the problem of ascertaining what in fact belongs to the tradition and what has come to be coined because of foreign influences. Today, for instance, the Igbo say Chukwu ga-ekpe (God will judge). On closer examination, it is difficult to see how the supreme God (Chukwu) is regarded as judge in Igbo world view. This is wholly entrusted to Ala, and the question of final judgment does not seem to fit in proper into the vision of the traditional Igbo. Probably such a notion is derived from Christianity but many would today think it is part of the expression of traditional Igbo belief. In spite of this problem, let us take as examples two spiritual realities – the ancestors and the earth deity – whose functions in the moral sphere are not doubted by any.
The veneration of the ancestors is one that is very wide-spread among African people. The uniformity of this practice is probably due to the spread of the Bantu from West African hinterland in the pre-history of the continent.19 The ancestors have very aptly been described by Mbiti as the living lead20. They are the dead members off the human family part of which is believed to reside here on earth while the other part is constituted by dead relatives. The ancestors are believed to live in constant communion with the living about whom they maintain special interest. They form a pool from which life on earth is constantly replenished through reincarnation.21 With their new other worldly power, they protect the living, and prosper their undertakings. In return they are treated with deep respect by their descendants. The traditional African pours libation to his ancestors in which he addresses them in a way that shows they are believed to be all around with the territories of the earthly family. He does not drink palm wine without pouring some portion on the ground, not does he take his major meals without dropping a crumb on the floor as a way of inviting the ancestors to come and share in his meal. In many parts of Nigeria, there is the traditional morning libation with kola nut at which the father of the families, as it were, says his morning prayers, remembering the ancestors and asking for their protection. The living are expected to “feed their ancestors” during the annual ceremony of ancestor veneration and in special occasions in the family like marriage.
The relationship of the ancestors with the living in the family also extends to the whole community. In fact, the ancestors are regarded as the ultimate rulers of their specific community, and the living rulers or elders, are understood to do so in place of the ancestors. They are believed to be unseen presidents at meetings of the community,22 most communities have ancestral shrines where they commune in sacrifice and veneration with the ancestors.
In the specific issue of morality, the ancestors are the guardians of morality both in the family and in the wider community. They have the capacity to punish those who disobey the moral norms of the society with diseases or crop failure and to reward compliance with prosperity.23 J. S. Mbiti described their duties in the following terms:
They are guardians of family affairs, tradition, ethics and activities. Offence in these matters is ultimately offence against the forebears, who, in that capacity, act as the visible police of the families and communities.24
The earth is another notable guardian of morality. Among the Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria, it is regarded as the owner of all (ananwe madu), probably due to the fact that all go back to it, and the abode of the ancestors is probably found beneath it. Thus, the cult of the ancestors is closely related to that of the earth, and it is not therefore a coincidence that both are guardians of morality. In addition to her function in respect of morality, the earth is the custodian of customs and tradition. Serious offences, especially adultery, incest, homicide, unnatural birth and death, are regarded, not as offences against the community but as offences against the earth (nso ani or taboos). Such offences are expiated by sacrifices to the earth goddess. Homicide is usually punished by suicide or by expulsion from the community. In Igbo language customs and traditions are described as omenala, (which literally mean, what happens on earth). Where the cult of the earth exists, it usually serves as a very powerful integrating force in both the family and community levels.25
Implication For Traditional Morality
It is noteworthy that though the ancestors live as spiritual non-corporeal beings, they have strictly speaking no power beyond their families and communities. Thus an ancestor does not purvey and benefit except to those who are members of his lineage. It would indeed be senseless for a stranger in family to call on the ancestors of other families in prayer. This also applies at the level of the whole community. The collectivity of the ancestors are usually invoked in ancestral shrines of the community, but it would be most incongruous for the habitants of a neighbouring community to invoke the ancestors of this community. The ancestors thus operate like the personal or destiny spirits in most traditional societies.26 Such spirits are believed to possess the power to influence the fortunes, for better or worse, of the individuals to whom they belong, but can in no way do the same with regard to any other person. The ancestors are limited to their families and as a collectivity, to their communities in the same way. This implies that the foundation of public morality in traditional society is not universalisable.
What we designated as non- universalisability applies also to the earth goddess. There has been some attempts to present the earth goddess as a universal, supreme deity, even within the circumscription of the particular people who venerate it. Echeruo wrote that “if ever there was a supreme God among the Igbo, it was ala (earth)”27 Talbot who wrote long before Echeruo also stated that, in some Igbo communities, the earth goddess is taken to be a supreme divinity.28 Against such conceptions, it must be noted that, in practice, the Igbo never invoke ala as such. It is the earth goddess of the particular town, quite distinct from those of all other communities. M. M. Green noted this fact in the following words:
It is not easy to be sure of the implications of the cult of Ala. Ala is one, the people say, in the sense that a priest of Ala can learn his functions from another priest anywhere. But when Ala is invoked as it frequently is in prayer, it is Ala anya …. Our land – or Ala Umueke, that is called upon. I used to ask my staff what they thought people had in mind in these invocations, and they said it was the local Ala and not some general conception of the land.29
In spite of the initial hesitation of Green, the conclusion of the inquiry clearly indicates that ala is not a universal divinity. In fact, given that each community has its own guardian of public morality, designated by the name of the community, it is practically impossible to have an ala that is supreme. In fact the ala of a particular community does not have power over outside of the locality that venerates, it. This view is abundantly supported by the following facts:
? Offences regarded in many communities as nso ala are not punishable if they are committed outside the boundaries of that community. Even homicide committed in another town is not regarded in the village of the perpetrator as nso ala.
? In serious element of ala, like in case of homicide, the offender if required either to commit suicide or flee the land. It is willful homicide, he must flee for good, otherwise temporarily. Fleeing the land entails severing contact with the ala which one has defiled. It means then that the ala in which the person will henceforth be living has not been defiled and has therefore nothing against the fugitive living within its confines.
? In certain festivals of ala, all offenders against the land are required to avoid contact with their land, either by going to another community or by climbing a platform for the period of the celebration.31
These instances indicate that ala is not a universal, or a supreme deity. In fact the multiplicity of the deity speaks against understanding is as such; and the different practices enumerated above show clearly that it cannot be thought of as universal divinity. Once again, as in the case of the ancestors, another guardian of public morality operates in such a way that its subjects are in fact morally obliged only within the boundaries of their specific community. Given that the earth divinity has no power over someone who is not kits subject, there is a clear indication that, if indeed, as Mbiti said, such a divinity is regarded as a moral police, then the citizens are free where the jurisdiction of the police does not extend.
Sogolo attempts to explain this restrictive character of traditional morality by arguing that the traditional man discriminates against strangers because their behavioural patterns do not fit into the expectations of the ‘human’ as the moral agent understands this. Once his behavioural patterns show traits of human characteristics, the stranger is accorded moral evaluation.32 This explanation, seems to leave much to be desired. In real terms, the so-called stranger is not very much like the moral agent who refuses to accord him moral evaluation. Very often, he may even be an inhabitant of a neighbouring town with which the moral agent and members of his community do inter-marry, and engage in commerce. That they can relate to one another on such levels is an indication that it is not morally reprehensible when he becomes a victim of, say, homicide. It seems that the geographical and religious factors we have examined are better explanations of the absence of universality inherent in the Nigerian and African traditional moral system.
Influence on Contemporary moral Thinking in Nigeria
It is a truism to say that the society in which a person lives – with its cultures and traditions – has an enormous influence on the moral behaviour of the individual. It is a misguided effort to think of a morally relevant categorical imperative which is operated on the level of pure reason alone. The human agent picks the most fundamental content of his moral behaviour from the context of his development. On the general and incisive influence of the society on the individual. Bergson writes:
It is the society that draws up for the individual the program of his daily routine. It is impossible to live a family life, follow a profession, attend to the thousand and one cares of the day, do one’s shopping, go for a stroll, or even stay at home, without obeying rules and submitting to obligations. Every instant we have to choose, and we naturally decide on what is in keeping with the rule. We are hardly conscious of this, there is no effect.33
The overwhelming influence of the society is not limited to the society as it is in any one moment, for what is operative at any given moment is the accretion of years of practices extending to many generations. It goes without saying therefore that the Nigeria of today carries with it the influence of the traditional society which sometimes appears to have been completely abandoned. This influence appears to be shrouded by adherence to the religions of Christianity and islam on the other. However, the deeper the veneer of these new orders operate unseen, be more the dictates of traditional society from which the agent forebears were drawn. In that system, the fundamental basis of morality is circumscribed within the confines of the specific community. This is observable in behaviour of Nigerians till today. Our contention is that, it is none of the factors which encourage corruption. In Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, Obi Okonkwo was not blamed by the people of his town’s progressive union for taking bribe. They blamed him for not being crafty enough to hide what he was doing. He was a prodigal one before the union which trained him, yet they were ready to defend him and procure him a lawyer because he was their kinsman. In any case, their town Umuofia had only one person in European job, and that one could not be allowed to be lost: “our ancestors will not agree to such a thing.”34 It would have been a different matter if he stole from the people of Umuofia, then he took bribe from an outsider, and the judgment of the act is very radically altered. In Aluko’s kinsman and Foreman. Titus was harangued not to witness to the corruption of Samuel Oke his foreman because he was also his kinsman: “You must not throw him into prison,” pleaded Titus’ mother “I am afraid of the curse of the Oluokwun stream, my son, I am afraid of the Oluode, your ancestral spirit. You must listen to me, leave Samuel alone, my son.”25 What is at the centre of the discourse is not so much the issue as the ancestral link between the persons.
This way of moral reasoning is still very ingrained in the psyche of Nigerians. The reason for this is that they were thrown into a socio-politico-economic context from their different traditional backgrounds. Amalgamated into one country and ruled by foreigners for about fifty years; Nigerians still regard the operative structures left behind by the colonialist as foreign, and their attitude to it is still dictated by their pristine traditional moral system. It is no wonder that a civil servant or anyone involved in public service is still said to do European work: Olu oyibo (Igbo), Utom mbakara (Efik), Aikin bature (Hausa). The employment of these descriptions is not neutral since language in a special way reflect or is affected by the way people think.
Given the influence of our traditional background, one tends to see why corruption is not really seriously condemned by most people when the perpetrator is a member of one’s town, clan or ethnic group. In fact what is not acceptable is that a person in position refusing to use that position to attract benefit whether justly or unjustly to the members of his particular community. Thus, politicians accused of monumental corruption keep on winning elections kin every part of Nigeria. Those who are fugitives for even stupendous embezzlement return to thunderous applause and red-carpet reception by their communities. In general, Nigerians behave as though they were still held up in their tribal enclaves and engagement in important public offices is regarded as an opportunity to grab whatever is possible by any conceivable means. If by any stretch of the imagination a minister, a governor, or a president discharges his duties and leaves office a poor man, he will most likely be regarded as a stupid person who was unable to make adequate use of the opportunity to become wealthy. The celebration that accompanies appointment to his offices is accompanied by the expectation that the office holder will provide employment, positions in government boards, better choice of conditions of service, donations of large sums of money to community projects. Usually all these are done with the full understanding that other citizens will in the process be short changed by the advantages the office holder will procure. Appointment to such positions is therefore not generally viewed in terms of what the office holder can do to improve the lot of the nation, but more because of what his people will gain whether by fair or foul means. To resist the prodding of these expectations, to perform one’s duty without regard to them, is to possess a level of moral conviction that is very rare in any human community people will think. In this way, the influence the society aids and abets corruption by expectations. The justification of which is founded on the restricted application of traditional moral values. Needless to say where corruption is discovered, it is very easily overlooked and its perpetrators retain their position as respected and important members of their communities, states and ethnic groups of origin.
Given that each group in the Nigerian political equation basically thinks in aforementioned manner, corruption appears to be an endemic disease that would be hard to cure in Nigeria. There are of course many other factors the presence of which encourages corruption. These include poverty and political instability, failure of leadership, absence of the rule of law, etc. Our claim in the foregoing is indeed very limited. However, among all other factors, the discriminatory scope of our traditional morality should be counted as a portent factor which fuels corruption in public life.