Opinion: Looting The “Looters”

People carry bags of food on their heads during a mass looting of a warehouse with COVID-19 food palliatives that were not given during lockdown to relieve people of hunger, in Abuja, Nigeria, Oct. 26, 2020. Photo- VOA

By Dapo Akande

Still on the Lekki Massacre, the Nigerian Army quickly denied it was anywhere near where the tragic incident took place. When it became obvious that narrative was no longer tenable, it admitted it was there after all, but only on the behest of the Lagos State government. Next, it vehemently denied shooting at the unarmed youths only for it to capitulate again and say it did shoot but only used rubber bullets. The Lagos State Governor on the other hand denies he invited the army. Reminiscent of Pontius Pilate, he too publicly washed his hands by saying the murderous acts were carried out by forces beyond his control. Thankfully, he at least admitted he was aware of two protesters who lost their lives. So which one is it? Everyone seems to be changing his story as often as a chameleon changes it’s colours. As I cast my mind back, I remember vividly as if it was yesterday, my dear parents (God bless their souls) telling me that truth remains constant. Always. I’ve come to learn they were right.

The Nigerian state has by it’s own body language and sometimes overt conduct, remained at the vanguard of insincere behaviour and many of our people have taken a cue from this; to the detriment of everybody including the state itself. In 1985 our country “won” the Under 17 FIFA World Cup, fielding men already in their early and mid twenties and we all celebrated our astonishing victory even when we all knew the shenanigans that had gone on.

There was a time too, several decades ago, when a European football club boasted of a superbly talented Nigerian player they had discovered. They had high hopes of this young sensation. They just couldn’t disguise their excitement and were already dreaming of what this prodigious talent would grow up to become in the future. The only little thing they needed to work on was his diminutive size which needed to be robust enough to cope with the physicality of the beautiful game played at that level. So, they drew up a special diet for him to achieve this goal. After several months, they were confounded by the results they were seeing. Instead of becoming bigger and stronger, his stomach began to protrude. They couldn’t understand it. Little did they know baba’s midrib bulge was just the beginning of a middle age pouch because of all the extra food they were pumping into him. The man became sluggish and could barely carry himself around the pitch. His rise to football stardom ended as abruptly as it began. In the end, deceit didn’t pay.

I find it a little hypocritical for me to lecture my children and other people’s children too, when invited to speak about the evils of cheating. How do I reconcile that with boasting about our Junior World Cup victories when I’m in the know of what actually transpired? We must be careful about the things we espouse because once the majority support it, it automatically alters our collective moral code.

Cultural Relativism, as an ethical theory describes morality as behaviour accepted as good conduct by the majority of people in that society; which means moral values will naturally differ across cultural divides. A good example could be how most Western countries have evolved their moral code over the years to accept same sex relationships as okay, to the point where many have enshrined it in their laws. Abortion laws too vary from country to country, often influenced by the views of the majority in that particular society. This is not a discourse on those issues but an attempt to illustrate how a society’s moral code is often determined by what the majority consider to be acceptable.

If a large section of the Nigerian populace continues to implicitly encourage lying and cheating as a way of life, then it could soon permeate (if it hasn’t already) to the point where it not only becomes the social norm but is no longer even considered immoral. You may think you’re clever by passively supporting it when it pays you but then a day will come when it won’t.

Returning to the football Junior World Cup victories; at the end of the day, did we really win? The nation may have earned a World Cup title and basked in the euphoria of hoisting up the winner’s trophy but in the process, our society lost more than it gained. Of course, our reputation suffered when we eventually got found out but we still lost more than that. The institutional fraud and the people’s failure to call it out only succeeded in lowering our collective moral standard. In our haste to celebrate a clearly fraudulent victory, our values began to evolve; no longer clearly defined and settled, they became confused and somewhat nebulous, changing from one instance to another.

Our perception of right and wrong would typically depend on who the agent or beneficiary is. Winning at all cost became the name of the game and this quietly seeped into our culture. “All’s fair in love and war” seems to have become the unwritten motto. It’s unfortunate because like so many things in life, once you get a taste of it and it tastes good, it becomes difficult to stop hence the admonition to run from anything that appears evil. Evil is seldom ugly on the outside. If it is, everyone would scamper. No, it’s beautiful and enticing much like the forbidden fruit.

Jonathan Schulz, an experimental economist at Yale University co-authored a study which examined the theory that in societies where high level institutional corruption and fraudulent conduct persists, the citizens will likely toe the same path. His discovery was that, “what individuals justify as honest seems to vary according to their environment”. Schulz went on to say, “It seems that people benchmark their dishonesty with what they’re surrounded by in their daily life”. Labelling this, ‘justified cheating”, this may help us to understand why many of us, just like those who looted the homes of perceived looters, bend the rules at times and feel justified in doing so because we live in an environment where everyone else seems to be doing same. Having witnessed how an averagely well off government official became a multi billionaire overnight, coupled with the constant barrage of nauseating stories of executive looting, it’s not too hard to see how the hungry and angry man may have justified his actions in his mind. He merely benchmarked it against institutional behaviour and saw little wrong in looting the “looters”. What a shame.

Changing the nation…one mind at a time.

Oladapo Akande is a Surrey University (UK) English graduate with a Masters in Professional Ethics. He’s an alumnus of the National Institute for Transformation and a two time author; The Last Flight and Shifting Anchors. He writes from Lagos.