By Dan Hoyle, AlterNet
Posted on August 8, 2005
It would appear that capitalism is taught in its purest form in Nigerian universities.--Pete
"Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has said he will not be slowed in his crusade against corruption, despite what critics may say ... " The BBC broadcast waves in and out on my shortwave radio. I boil water on my gas cooker (electricity's out again) for my morning cup of tea, and can't help but chuckle. For me, it's just another day in my life as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria.
Obasanjo's crusade feels as remote as it might were I hearing it on NPR in my hometown of San Francisco. Coming from the monotony of middle class urban-intellectual America, where the biggest drama in the day is the after-work race to the organic vegetable market to avoid the six o'clock line, Nigeria is a jungle. Everyday is different, but I can be sure that today I will witness, and perhaps participate in, some form of corruption.
It won't be embezzlement of billions of dollars in oil receipts, or the manufacturing of multi-million dollar contracts that never get completed -- it is for those reasons that Nigeria is a perennial contender for the number one ranking on Transparency International's list of Most Corrupt Countries. It will be corruption as most Nigerians experience it, from pacification money to low-level extortion, from inappropriate hustling to small-scale fraud. Of course, it might even include a little gun-slinging crude criminal activity.
Two months ago, as I bumbled into town I saw my first evidence of "jungle justice" as it is called. A pile of charred corpses, a leg sticking up like a submarine telescope, a face frozen in anguish, craning up to the sky. They were five thieves, convicted and burned on the spot for allegedly stealing 4.2 million naira [$30,600]. Even in the relatively protected University environment, corruption, with the invention of the Internet scams -- now one of Nigeria's staple commodities -- will certainly live another busy day.
As I walk out my gate in the morning, I greet the guards, and because it's been a few days since I last dashed them, I pull out a couple of twenty naira notes (about 30 cents), and push them into their palms. "Something small to chop," I say. They press the notes to their forehead, bow ceremoniously and shout, "God bless you, sir! Oga Dan!" They are twice my age, but as the only white student among 25,000, it's impossible to dodge "Oga" or "Big Man" status. Always better to leave the guards smiling at their dash than wondering where in my room I keep my camera.
I hop on one of the intercampus buses -- rusted, wobbly Nissans whose cushy seats have been exchanged for smaller benches so they can carry 18 passengers. As I squeeze out at my stop, the conductor refuses the bill I offer to pay with. "It's been taken care of," says a voice from behind belonging to a student who introduces himself as Bright, an appropriately smiling third-year economics student. "I am secretary of transportation. I will arrange free transport for you, no problem."
I refuse, knowing in Nigeria's "nothing for nothing" culture of mutual back-scratching it's best to decline anything for free unless the person is substantially more rich and powerful than you. Making friends is always a potentially dangerous commitment. Several of my friends on campus (I have dared) admit to me that they don't have any friends, just associates. "I say hello to everybody, but I don't really want to get too close to you, "says Jacob, a first-year theater arts student. "Friends betray you."