Moses Ebe Ochonu:

The Good in the Alami Story

For all his villainy, Alamieyeseigha has done Nigeria some good. Through the criminal ingenuity of his escape from London, he has exposed the underbelly of several claims of the Obasanjo dictatorship.

Alami's daring escape from the not-so-watchful eyes of British security services, illustrates once again that if we do not emplace the legal and constitutional mechanisms to punish corruption and reward accountability, the British and other European countries will not do our dirty job for us. They will do our bidding in the anti-corruption department only to the extent to which they believe in the sincerity (or lack thereof) of the fight against corruption. And they will most certainly not prioritize this over pressing national problems in their countries. Fighting other people's war against corruption cannot be an attractive or rewarding proposition for any country.

The British are no fools; they, like Obasanjo, value impressionistic acts designed to project a façade of intolerance for the abuse of power. Their involvement in the anti-corruption campaign, to the extent that we need them to deputize for us, will be guided by a desire on their part to use their participation to garner undeserved moral capital. Having benefited from the initial moral indignation that Alami's arrest generated, the British hardly had any stake left in the man's plight.

Whether or not they colluded in Alami's escape therefore, the point is that the British were more eager to score cheap initial points than they were willing to get into a neocolonial game of mobilizing Britain's legal and law enforcement resources to destroy an ultimately insignificant governor of one of Nigeria's many states. This was one outsourced task whose benefit did not extent beyond the feel-good moral sanctimony of the immediate arrest aftermath.

The other instructional good of the Alami's saga is that, by sneaking back into Nigeria unnoticed, the fugitive governor put a lie to the statist and centralist posturing of Mr. Obasanjo and his clique of fascist patriots. Here is a president whose only claim to political usefulness lies in his inordinate and inexplicable belief in the centrality and immutability of the Nigerian state, and the sanctity of its borders. It is indeed ironical that the one thing which Mr. Obasanjo claims he most effectively represents-the protection of Nigeria's territorial sanctity-was the first casualty of Alami's sneaky return. Without realizing it, Alami has struck a blow for centrifugal forces. He has given official validity to de facto separatist activists, who have routinely operated outside the postcolonial territoriality of Nigeria and without respect for its organs of territorial guardianship.

The dissonance between the rhetoric of territorial sanctity and of official commitment to this sanctity on the one hand, and the on-ground reality of a porous, poorly policed, and largely malleable national borders on the other, has been exposed for all to see.

The other good in the utter perverseness of the Alami situation is more subtle. We now know that despite the demonstrations which occurred in Yenagoa against the fugitive governor, there was a great measure of support for him among his ethnic Ijaw kinsmen. Many of them valorized his criminal escape as an act of assertive heroism. This was a thing of shame, the display of a double consciousness that is at once inexplicable and morally inexcusable. That, however, is the pedestrian, orthodox interpretation of the outpouring of pro-Alami sentiments in the wake of his return to Yenagoa. It hardly captures the subtleties of these confusing expressions of seemingly amoral sentiments.

The puzzle is a simple one. The folks who celebrated Alami's return are not people who are bereft of morals and ethics. Their behavior must be understood as a product of a bifurcation of the moral sphere into a private and public morality. Professor Peter Ekeh's enunciation of this distinction allows for this dual sphere of morality in which the private rarely intersected with the public. This moral bifurcation may be mediated by political or ethnic considerations, or both.

In the behavior of the pro-Alami demonstrators, we see how a strong private morality was held in check, undermined, and swamped by an overriding desire to uphold a public morality constructed around the concept of resistance to selective justice. The people of Bayelsa who continue to support Alami do so by suspending their private moral sensibilities and by embracing a public morality that only interfaces with a war on public corruption which is neutral in political and ethnic terms, and which spares no one. It is a philosophy of all or none, a totalizing, absolutist vision of anti-corruption cleansing which should be understood rather than hastily condemned. It is a vision of morality and anti-corruption which many may not agree with. But it is no less valid than the crudely pragmatic vision of a piece-meal, anti-corruption campaign in which motive and selectivity are irrelevant and in which any effort, no matter how flawed and counterproductive, is better than no effort. In short, it is a more revolutionary vision of anti-corruption.

Through his notoriously selective and politically-motivated war on corruption, Mr. Obasanjo has fostered the chasm between the private and public moral realms, ensuring that private moral judgments are kept out of the evaluation of public officials. Mr. Obasanjo's half-hearted anti-corruption campaign has made common thieves into ethnic heroes and into modern caricatures of Robin Hood. It has bestowed undeserved ethnic sympathy on offensively corrupt fugitives. It has made it possible for people who should have no defenses for their thievery to adopt the lingo of political persecution and of targeted victimization. Such is the ironical negativity of half-heartedness.

This is the ultimate paradox of Mr. Obasanjo's anti-corruption campaign. Its biggest targets may be its biggest beneficiaries. They are able to claim, with perversely valid reason, that they are being picked on as scapegoats or as convenient political guinea pigs in an experiment carefully choreographed to give off an anti-corruption fervor while leaving intact the structures, practices, and constitutional impediments to accountability.

What Alami has unintentionally done in this respect is to put the government on the defensive, forcing it to examine the drawbacks of a selective and politicized anti-corruption war. Whatever the outcome of the multiple political maneuvers currently going on in Bayelsa, the price of selectivity, and the cost of politicizing what should be an all out campaign to stamp out a national malaise would have been paid by the time the political dust settles.

Alami may not be around to witness or celebrate the unintended consequence of his criminal actions, but the counter-productive results of half-heartedness and policy ambivalence has been insinuated irreversibly into future discussions on the failures and successes of this government's anti-corruption campaign and on how to stamp out the menace of corruption in Nigeria.

In this context, Alami may have been a force for good, a vehicle through which certain hard questions were forced on us. Love him or hate him, Alami has forced this government into a strategic rethink, and thinking is not usually the province of the ruling political clan. To save face, the government may remove Alami from office, an event which I and other Nigerians will celebrate. But such a face-saving act will be cast against a background of self-recrimination. Hopefully, self-reflexivity leads to an honest assessment of the damage done to our chances of succeeding in a real anti-corruption campaign by these selective and botched attempts.

Whatever happens, Obasanjo and his henchmen now know that they now have to make a choice between stoking the flame of corruption by encouraging the disappearance of private moral outrage under the weight of a permissive but rational public morality. They have to choose between replicating the Ijaw reaction across the country and forcing a national, ethnically-blind, and politically-neutral consensus against official corruption.

The choice has always been there, but it took Alami's criminal ingenuity to restate it. This is perhaps the most important instructive good in the Alami's saga.