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Stealing from the poor

We entered a new low this week with the screaming headline of the online newspaper, Premium Times, “Boko Haram victims dying of starvation as Borno officials steal relief materials”, depicting how our public servants wade through pig slurry.

The news story tells us far more about how public servants are having a good time playing poker with the lives of poor citizens, and, perhaps more interestingly, about how they steal from the poor. Damning. Shocking.

Then the obvious question is, given the predilection for theft, can there ever be a limit to the thievery of our public servants? In a sense, the answer is NO. But in another sense, one can wager a bet that the question is more poignant than the answer.

However shocking the headline is, at least, the meat of the news story is damning enough for every discerning reader to take the depths of the new lows seriously.

Here is the news story, reproduced in part: “Officials of the Borno State government in charge of administering foods and other relief materials for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are in trouble for allegedly re-bagging and diverting rice donated by philanthropic organisations and well-meaning individuals. Thousands of IDPs in over twenty camps around Maiduguri are left hungry as officials enrich selves from the sales of diverted food meant for IDPs. Many have died of starvation while hundreds have been hospitalized… In Bama town, hungry and malnourished IDPs die on daily basis because of inadequate food supply. Governor Shettima had to visit Bama camp after receiving report that IDPs were dying rapidly due to lack of care and proper nutrition.  Sources in Bama said that before the governor’s visit on Wednesday, bodies wrapped in mats and being moved for burial sites were common sights at the camp “almost on a daily basis”. “We have lost count of people that have died so far in this camp”, said a concerned local camp official. “It was really a messy situation when you have to pick corpses of malnourished persons every day, sometimes some of the dead ones may not even be discovered on time”. The theft is not restricted to food items alone, medical drugs, toiletries, beddings and wrappers have been diverted to the market and sold by greedy officials”.

Aren’t you shell-shocked, lost for words, dear reader?

The least vicissitudes any heartless public servant would visit on a people who have gone to hell and back, witnessed the savagery and butchery of one of the most deadliest terrorist groups in the world- Boko Haram- yet survived only by the skin of their teeth to tell their sad stories from camps barely fit for habitation- is to steal their food stuff, drugs, toiletries, beddings to make them poorer.

For a people slowly picking up what is left of their lives, slowly finding their feet again, to be so cheated out of the goodnesses and mercies of Samaritans shows who we are and what we are as a nation of people.

To have survived the hellholes and sinkholes that war dug into their homes, only to die from hunger, starvation and malnutrition in IDPs camps in peacetime is one of the strange ironies that life in our country reveals when the guns are silent, is one of the great ironies we will have to deal with for a long time to come.

But, how can we in the face of the mindless thieving of the public good progress to somewhere caring and redeeming?

The conditions which made Boko Haram to fester were created in the first place by these thieving public servants. One would have expected them to seize the peace of the time to seek expiation of their wrongs, atone for their crimes, and show that they are truly sorry for the terrible things they had done by doing good to cancel their sins. No, they persist in their bad and terrible ways as they go on doing evil, despising the victims of armed conflict, doing what they know is wrong.

The behaviors of these upturned souls who steal from the poor while they preach love highlight some of the worrying aspects of governance in our country today.

The worrying aspect for me is the lack of compassion public servants show for the poor, for those who survived the hell and death unleashed by murderous warbands. The more worrying aspect which ties up with lack of compassion is the dearth of empathy and outrage inside governments at all levels.

Here, the dearth of empathy and outrage makes one wonders if those chosen to lead pretty understand what it actually means to lead, what it takes to provide leadership, to care and to love, to be close to where pain aches the poor rather than distance themselves from it, and to act when the urgency of the times demands urgent action. No more, no less.

Hear: true leadership doesn’t insist on the type of distancing from the moral urgency of the conditions of the times we experience with our leaders nowadays, it demands commitment and the courage of conviction of leaders to confront the miseries doing the poor in, doesn’t imbue leaders with the desire to seek only their “bottled happiness”, their lost but found sweethearts from the unbottled Chateau Margaux Bordeaux, to paraphrase the late Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, it invites them to take on the collective burdens by helping those who fall through the cracks of the iniquitous social system. Not here.

Certainly not here. Our leaders, unperturbed by the blood and the deaths around us, unthankful for the goodness of following and the value of active followership, are lost to the canvas of pain distorting our humanity, blotting the landscape, lost to the tears that soil the flag of independence, the flood of grief ravaging where we live in, and torn hearts yearning for healing and redemption.

We need leaders who do not rob Peter and Paul to pay themselves.

The Nigerian state rewards criminals and turns a blind eye to those who dip their filthy hands into the till of the state. Where there are no discernible sanctions for criminal infractions, where punishment doesn’t fit the crime, criminals who pass themselves off as leaders acquire a dubious sense of entitlement – an overarching right of possession- ownership and control of our patrimony.

It is this sense of entitlement that highlights the truth of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s “authority stealing”. It is this pervasive and overarching right of possession that makes the wives of ex-governors to empty the kitchens of our Government Houses out, stealing gold plates, pots, utensils, including wooden spatulas for turning amala and tuwo mansara. It is this right of ownership that makes political appointees to acquire their official cars at rock-bottom prices. It is this totalizing power of control that allows public servants to award “fantastically” humongous severance packages to themselves at the twilights of their tenures.

We have experienced the worst cases of public servants robbing Peter and Paul to pay themselves before. In 2012, “Delta state received N500 million intervention fund from the federal government to assist flood victims”, but the monies were instead cornered by public servants of that state. In Kogi State, flood victims were paid as little as N1, 500 as compensation- in spite of the colossal N500 million flood relief fund it received from the federal purse.

There can be no limit to the thievery of our public servants when they are not made to face the consequences of their criminal actions. Those who allegedly diverted the relief materials for Boko Haram victims merely took a few leaves out of the books of public servants in Delta and Kogi states who were never sanctioned for stealing the flood relief fund.

They know that this is Nigeria of anything goes, Nigeria of NO SHAKINGS, of NOTHING GO HAPPEN to those caught in the act of pilfering and stealing.

They know that the worst that could happen is to ‘chop a few knuckles”, then go scot free to rub the best balms money can buy on the small contusions on their cheeks, so they find other hideous trysting places where they begin daylight trysts with our public funds. Here is how the romantic affair begins: they open new frontiers of eternal pecuniary benefits for themselves by seeking new constitutional imprimatur that guarantees them either life immunity from prosecution or life pensions for their self-serving leadership.

I wish our public servants could find the time to read JD Salinger’s brilliant novel, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ for them to understand and appreciate how to be ‘the catchers in our own rye’- the protectors of the humanity of innocent children scathed by war, and the defenders of mothers displaced by armed conflict.

We place these public servants in the IDPs camps as care givers to protect displaced citizens from the vulnerabilities around them, catch them when hunger seems determined to snatch what is left of their lives and push them down the cliff of the post-war-life, and not as Judases who steal from them.

Can they ever give up crime and become like Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye?

 

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