El-Rufai, Corruption And The Mask Of Competence By Moses E. Ochonu

So, per Saharareporters.com, Nasir el-Rufai, governor of Kaduna State, who is perhaps Nigeria’s most intolerant and autocratic state chief executive, has apparently been presiding over a contract bazaar for his family, aides, friends, and associates, adding yet another dimension to his growing list of egregiously offensive conduct and abuses of office that include slyly justifying the genocide in Southern Kaduna, paying “compensation” to the perpetrators, recklessly inflaming the volatile ethnoreligious situation in the state, detaining critics, and opportunistically and hypocritically insulting former and present political benefactors, including Obasanjo, Jonathan, Buhari, Atiku, and others.

The said contracts, N3 billion worth, have been predictably abandoned because they were little more than fraudulent self-enrichment schemes, to begin with.

Nigerian politics is a den of thieves, but for at least a decade I have been warning Nigerians about a particular brood of thieves, which for lack of a more elegant descriptive idiom I will call the den of competent thieves. This specie of crooks comprises of thieving politicians who mask their corruption with ritualistic performances of competent leadership.

The competently corrupt are the thieves who speak well and have mastered the jargon of technocratic governance, becoming the darlings of NGOs, civil society, and neoliberal institutions. They are the politicians who say the right things, bamboozle the naive with the hifalutin language of good governance and transparency. They know what to do and what to say to impress their local and international interlocutors. They’ve mastered the pretentiously vacuous vocabulary of the NGO world and are adept at governance and development-speak.

They are the first public officials to challenge others to a public transparency contest, the first to declare their budgets to be public documents. They are lauded by BudgIT for crafting and implementing open budgets and make sure that they co-opt renown international and local developmental partners into their programs, knowing that these agencies would then become their unwitting propaganda arm. It is good political and technocratic theater.

The competently corrupt can make mesmerizing presentations with or without notes or PowerPoint slides and hide their thievery behind confusing numbers, graphs, eloquent speeches, and pie charts. When accused of corruption or other misconduct they do not retreat or perform contrition and are not rattled. Instead they arrogantly go on the offensive. They deploy counterattacks and counter-accusations as a tactic of deflection, distraction, and defense.

These gestures are all carefully publicized and calculated to reinforce the public perception that they are competent, intelligent, and different from the average Nigerian politician. It is an elaborate charade.

The competently corrupt are media savvy; they work the press and seduce and induce them into buying their obfuscation, sophistry, and glib rhetoric. The thing is that they do not believe that the laws and rules governing the conduct of public officials apply to them.

Almost a decade ago, I wrote to criticize the competent corruption of Charles Soludo, whom I took the liberty of inducting into the fraternity of the competently corrupt even as details of his shady dealings in office were emerging to complicate the emerging myth of his competent revolution in the Nigerian banking sector. That was before Sanusi Lamido Sanusi came and exposed the rot that Soludo incubated and nurtured as CBN governor.

Because of his reputation for competence, some people did not believe that Soludo was capable of corruption and not only rose to his defense but also accused Saharareporters, which published evidence of his corruption, of trying to sully his reputation. Some people said, “eh, he was corrupt but at least he did something good in the banking sector.” As long as there were some Nigerians who saw Soludo as a competent central bank governor and who believed that his competence and perceived or performed intelligence should cancel out his corruption in office, Soludo could not be held accountable. And he has not been held accountable.

Some Nigerians believe that politicians and bureaucrats perceived as intelligent and competent deserve different ethical rules, and therein lies the problem.

Nasir El-Rufai is perhaps the most illustrious member of the club of the competently corrupt. His articulateness and technocratic awareness relative to other Nigerian politicians have served to inoculate him against accountability. As a result, he has arrogantly continued to thump his nose at rules and laws while craftily and fraudulently playing the competence and “good governance” cards.

Remember when El-Rufai was accused by a Senate committee of awarding choice FCT plots of land to his wives and children? His response was neither denial nor contrition. Instead, he arrogantly told the committee that his wives, children, and friends were Nigerians and were thus entitled to said plots of FCT choice lands! This outburst exemplifies the audacious but toxic mix of corruption, arrogance, sense of entitlement, and unreflective indignation that one encounters in the competently corrupt.

El-Rufai didn’t see anything wrong with his conduct as FCT minister. He certainly doesn’t see anything wrong with distributing contracts to his family, friends, and aides as governor, contracts that have been abandoned according to Saharareporters.

That is how corrupt but marginally competent politicians behave. They know that their reputation for technocratic competence, deserved or not, will insulate them or at least confuse Nigerians. They almost feel entitled to a pass on account of their grammatical competence and choreographed, elaborate pretenses to governing ability. They are slick operators, hard to pin down because there are always compatriots who are taken by their polish and educated conduct and are willing to overlook all else.

Corrupt politicians perceived to be competent, enlightened, and well educated are the most dangerous kind of political thieves because they are the most difficult to hold accountable. Let me explain. The average Nigerian thieving politician attracts outright scorn because, in addition to being woefully incompetent, poorly spoken, unintelligent, pathetically under-read and uninformed, and incapable of understanding policy and poetics, he lacks the linguistic resources to express his thoughts clearly, lucidly, and persuasively. Nigerians tend not to accord these politicians any benefit of the doubt and do not try to mitigate their wrongdoing. Moreover, because they are inarticulate and unintelligent, their attempts to explain themselves or defend or deny their wrongdoing only attract more derision and unvarnished contempt.

When it comes to folks like El-Rufai, however, there are always Nigerians who will be seduced by the fact that they are better informed, more intelligent, and have better command of the English language than the average Nigerian politician. These Nigerians will extend multiple benefits of the doubt to El-Rufai and his ilk, refusing to see that intelligence and corruption can and do coexist and that in fact intelligence, perceived or real, is the perfect camouflage for corruption.

El-Rufai knows that he can always count on this cult of competence, this naïve group of compatriots, to dilute the ethical clarity that should inform attitudes towards corrupt but pretentiously competent politicians. All that needs to happen is for consensus on the latter’s corruption to disappear and for ambivalence to enter the picture. ¯

The competently corrupt are beneficiaries of ambivalence on the part of Nigerians regarding their corruption. That is precisely what they want and try to produce: ambivalence on their corruption profiles.

If we cannot call corruption by its only name because the perpetrator is seen as being more intelligent, informed, and competent than the average politician, we are essentially creating a special coven or category for thieves who are beyond reproach and cannot be held accountable. These crooked politicians are all too happy to dazzle us into complicit silence with their refined English and hackneyed policy jargons. El-Rufai personifies this phenomenon.

The author can be reached at meochonu@gmail.com