Pangolo Junction
Life, arguments, and kunu... with Max, Nat and Zack

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Gift of Philanthropy

(Nat and Zack are in the Junction with Jonah who is telling them about the latest story in town.)

Jonah: So the chief threw this massive party to celebrate. You should have been there - the food and drinks were overflowing, the music was the kind that just dances you - in short, the atmosphere was simply p-a-r-t-y!

Nat: Really? It sounds like you had a great time.

Jonah: Of course! The high point was where they revealed this really elaborate cake that had been sculpted to be like a statue of the celebrant. They even had the statue wearing clothes made of edible material. I don't know how they did it - but it was fantastic! Everyone was amazed!

Zack (disdainfully): Typical money-miss-road Nigerian. Why are you boring us to death with what another Nigerian big man does with his ill-gotten gains?

Nat: Come on, Zack - you don't know that these gains were 'ill-gotten'.

Zack (snorting): To say a rich man in Nigeria hasn't made his money by dubious methods is like saying that a night-soil man has been able to carry out his duties without ending up with a bad smell about him. Of course they were ill-gotten gains!

Jonah: So... you're saying that you would have less of a problem if Chief Onitiri's wealth was acquired legally? Not, of course, that I'm saying that it was illegally acquired.

Zack: No - they're both wrong. Stealing money is bad enough - but to rub people's face in it by lavishly spending it is to add insult to injury.

Nat: Of course it's wrong to steal money, but I don't understand your problem with people spending their money as they want.

Jonah: Don't mind your friend. He wants all of us to celebrate by eating groundnuts and gari!

Zack: Come on, Jonah! We're talking about someone who is throwing a lavish party because his child was promoted from primary three to primary four! What is that supposed to tell those people who are struggling to make ends meet? I really think it is time that the government banned, or at least levied very punitive taxes on these kinds of lavish parties!

(Just then, Max enters the Junction, catching the tail end of Zack's rant.)

Max: Who's throwing a party? And how come I wasn't told?

Jonah: Ah Max, come and help me o! Your friend wants to crucify me because I'm supporting the right of people to spend their money and have fun.

Max (dismissively): Oh, you know Zack and his controlling instincts. The only thing that he would love more than drawing up a list of Rules and Regulations governing our behaviour for everything from Picking Your Nose to Scratching Your Behind is installing cameras in our houses to monitor us for compliance with his rules and regs.

Zack: I'm not surprised at your reaction. But I think that such an attitude is very short-sighted. If you were a rich man in today's Nigeria, would you really want to live in a society where people are so poor that they are constantly looking at your wealth with envy, malice and thoughts of criminal activity?

Max: Well, as a rich man, you can always move to one of those exclusive estates that are being built around town these days - that way, the stench of your wealth is kept away from the pure noses of the poor.

Nat: Hmm... I still don't agree with Zack that people should be made to spend their money in 'authorised' ways, but I see his point about it being stupid to be so ostentatious in the middle of poverty. Wouldn't it be better to use your money to try to lessen the divide between yourself and the poor? That way, there is less likelihood of social unrest.

Zack: That is exactly what I'm saying, but these two (gestures contemptuously at Max and Jonah) cannot see past their noses what I'm talking about.

Jonah (raising hands in surrender): Hey, Zack - I only deliver the latest gist - I don't judge the way people spend their money. If you have any issues, don't shoot the messenger - go and complain to Chief Onitiri himself.

Nat: So how would you spend your money if you were that rich? Don't tell me that you wouldn't throw lavish parties like that - the way you were reporting the chief's party sounds like you were really enjoying it!

Jonah: Ah - but there's a difference between attending a party that someone else is throwing, where you don't have to spend a kobo - and attending a party that you are hosting, knowing that you are going soak gari for the next few months!

Nat: Jo-nah! How selfish! (Shakes his head in mock despair) Anyway, that doesn't answer my question. If you wouldn't spend your wealth on parties, what would spend it on?

Jonah: I'm not like you, Nat - my head begins to hurt if I start dreaming up elaborate plans about the future. But if you give me a billion naira, I will be able to answer your question in detail.

Max: In other words, you are afraid of Mr. Attack Dog here (gestures at Zack) who is waiting to pounce on you if you dare say that you intend to have fun with your wealth.

Zack: What about you - no, don't tell me, let me guess - you wouldn't spend it on making life better for the poor, would you?

Max: Brother Zachariah, I don't know where you have got this totally false idea that I'm some sort of monster. Of course I would spend my money in a way that would benefit the poor.

Nat: Really? Now that's a surprise.

Max: Yes! Think of all those caterers that will have to prepare food, all those fashion designers that will have to design new clothes, all those musicians that will have to perform and all those refuse cleaners that will have to tidy up the mess left after the shamelessly extravagant parties that I hold. Of course thousands of poor people will benefit! And for those who are even too poor to do those kinds of work, they can always eat the remains of any food that is left over.

Zack: If that is your idea of making life better for the poor, then may God not let us see what your ideas for making life worse for the poor are. (Crosses himself.)

Max: I tell you, my parties will set new benchmarks of decadence and opulence. The plates and cutlery on which my food will be served will be solid gold and for one time use only. And the food we will serve will be the most exotic, out of this world cuisine! In fact, we will literally chop money at my parties - there will be meals in which crisp, mint naira notes are seasoned and sautéed for guests to eat.

Zack: Disgusting! (Shakes his head.) Absolutely disgusting.

Max: I'm glad you approve, Zack. By the way, for entertainment, I will put you in a cage and hoist you high above the revelry. That way, the partygoers can be amused by your facial expressions as you watch all this going on.

Jonah (laughing): That would definitely make your parties the must-attend event of the town!

Nat: What would you spend your money on, Zack? Something tells me that it wouldn't be parties.

Zack: Of course not. I would spend my money on charitable causes, building schools and clinics and sinking boreholes. Things that would actually make a lasting difference to people.

Max: How very dull and unmemorable. I'm sure your sainthood is waiting for you in Heaven, though.

Nat: How are you sure they would make a lasting difference?

Zack: What do you mean? If poor children have access to schools and clinics, then they can be educated and remain in good health so that their chances of living a good life are improved.

Nat: But you're forgetting one thing, Zack. Schools don't teach students - teachers do - and clinics don't heal patients - doctors do. I'm sensing that from the way that you've talked about schools and clinics rather than teachers and doctors, you feel that the buildings are more important than the people in the buildings in the same way that Nigerians believe that a showy church building is more important than the congregation in the building.

Zack: Well, you do need a well equipped school and clinic if you are to provide education and healthcare. But I get your point - the people are more important than the buildings, and I would certainly include spending money on staff too.

Jonah: Yes, I agree with Nat, too. You may not even have buildings, but you can have well motivated staff teaching students under trees.

Max: I tell you, the real reason our budding philanthropist wants to build schools and clinics rather than spending money on staff is that he wants to be able put up a big sign saying "the Zachariah Kwashi Memorial School" on his building - he knows he can't do that with teachers. He may try and deny it, but he wants to show off as badly as those of us who want to host lavish parties - except he's being hypocritical.

Jonah: What's your problem? Even if he wants to put up signs everywhere in his school, at least he's still contributing towards improving people's lives - that's better than those redundant attempts at philanthropy that you see around town, like those road signs that have name of the road in tiny letters and then have "DONATED BY AMULUMALA SOCIAL CLUB" in gigantic bold letters.

Nat (laughing): Or those stupid city beautification initiatives where they plant flowers on a traffic island in the middle of a busy road. When I see this, I wonder what the donors are thinking - if the traffic fumes don't kill off the poor flowers first, then the local area boys will harvest them for firewood.

Max: All right, I agree - Zack is a holy man, and I'm a selfish bastard. (Grins) But I don't like the idea of giving people these things, even if it looks like they can't afford them. First of all, if you give some thing to someone free, it makes it harder for them to appreciate the value of what you're giving them. Secondly, if you give someone something and they can't give you something in return, it makes them feel of less value. And lastly, I think that giving breeds a dependency culture where people feel that someone will take care of them rather than trying to stand on their own feet.

Zack: So you would charge people? Then how are you using your money to help the poor?

Max: No - I wouldn't charge them full fees. I'd subsidise the service - and I'd accept payment in kind. And it means that the school would be more sustainable than if I was giving everything.

Zack: Even if I didn't charge, the school would still be sustainable, because those people who have benefitted from the school's free education would themselves be motivated to donate money back to the original school.

Nat: I don't agree with you there, Zack. For one thing, even though education will improve the chances of students being materially comfortable, it won't guarantee that they will be rich enough to contribute money back. And even if they are, you can't compel them to contribute money.

Jonah: And you, Nat? What would you do as a philanthropist?

Nat: I'd follow Zack's example and try to improve the lives of the poor - but I'd focus solely on spreading ideas rather than erecting structures.

Zack: Eh? What do you mean?

Nat: I think that what really makes a difference to people's lives is information and knowledge. Imagine how people's lives would be improved if they knew simple measures they could take to prevent illness. Imagine how much more productive they could be if they had a better understanding of how to run small businesses. Imagine how much more powerful they could be if they had the knowledge of how to form and organise civil groups to protest against violations against democracy.

And the great thing about knowledge is that with the right tools, you can spread it faster than you can build buildings. With buildings, you have to wait for the beneficiary of your building to become rich enough before he builds for others - and this may not even happen. But with knowledge, once someone understands something well enough, he can start spreading it to other people within weeks or even days. And because it can be spread in this way, it has great multiplier effects - its benefits don't just stop at the first person you tell.

So my main goal would be to spread simple ideas to improve the lives of people in the area of health, technology, business and political awareness. I wouldn't teach the ideas like they are taught in school - I think that this is a real turn-off. Instead, I would use creative methods to spread my ideas - examples, analogies, interviews, cartoons, competitions, jingles and drama.

Zack: If you're trying to spread all these different ideas, your organisation will lose focus and nobody will know what it stands for.

Nat: Ah, well I'll use different organisations for different kinds of ideas so that they don't lose focus.

Jonah: Sounds interesting... but the problem is that unlike parties and buildings where people can see your achievements, you might not get much credit for the benefits that spreading your ideas brings.

Nat (shrugging): Well, I guess I just have to accept that that may be the price of making people's lives better.

Max: It doesn't have to be that way. What you could do is to tie all these ideas that you want to spread into one bundle and call it a new religion - NathanielEkpenyongism. That way, it'll last for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Nat: Sorry, but I don't fancy myself as a cult leader. I'll be happy just to spread the ideas as they are.

Jonah: Well, that's very interesting - all those ideas on how you'd spend your wealth. Of course, I can't see an end to the hosting of lavish parties, though. There will always be some rich people who want people to know how wealthy they are.

Max (looking at Nat): Oh well - I guess as long as that's going to continue, it looks those organisations of yours might want to concentrate on spreading ideas such as "Musical Performances That Unlock Celebrants' Wallets" or "Getting Big Men Addicted To Your Catering and Cooking"...

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Bribery and Corruption

Good day. Once more, you are privileged to be privy to the goings on in the Junction as our friends meet up after a hard day's work to discuss what has been happening in their lives.

(Max and Zack are listening to a very animated Nat talk about a workplace incident.)

Nat: ...So I was bored of being in the backroom trying to figure out what script to write to retrieve the data, and I decided to wander down to the banking hall to chat with one of my colleagues at the front desk.

Zack: Do they allow you to do that at your bank, then? Weren't you telling me that since the consolidation exercise, your MD had declared 'Operation One Hundred Percent' where he was aiming for a one hundred percent year-on-year increase in the bank's profits? If that's the case, shouldn't they be monitoring staff to ensure that nobody takes an unapproved break?

Max (scornfully): You can talk! We all know that when it comes to ministry officials, it's not so much a case of having rest breaks during a 9-to-5 period of work - it's more a case of having work breaks during a 9-to-5 period of indolence!

Zack (blustering defensively): Nonsense! If you measure the amount of work done per naira paid for the work and consider the pittance we get paid as civil servants, you will find that we do far more work than so-called businessmen who engage in dubious deals. (In a raised voice to drown out the start of Max's retort) Aaaaaanyway Nat, you were telling us about your unauthorised break.

Nat (relieved at the fizzling out of a potential war of words): Yeah, so I was in the banking hall looking for Tunde, and I noticed this very well dressed lady...

Max: What? You're now looking at ladies other than the lovely
Jennifer? She won't like that o!

Nat (laughing): No, this was a much older lady. She looked like a big madam - like the wife of some 'big man'. She also looked somewhat lost - like she wasn't quite sure what she should be doing.

Zack: Not a proper Nigerian big madam, then. If she were, then she would have been throwing her weight around, pounding on desks, shouting "Do you know who I am?" and demanding to be served this instant.

Max (mockingly): Hm... sounds like someone is talking from his rich experience of having to deal with irate citizens who are quite rightfully annoyed at his lackadaisical attitude to his work.

Nat (hurriedly interjecting to forestall another war of words): Well, I don't know who exactly she was... but as I said, it was obvious that she needed help. So I walked up to her and asked her if I could help her. It turned out that she wanted a bankers' draft prepared for her. She had asked a cashier to help her, and he had gone away and disappeared for over fifteen minutes, and she had no idea of where he had got to.

Anyway, I got a description of him from her and told her I would look for him to find out what was happening. It turned out that the reason he was taking so long was that he had been hijacked by a manager to do some other work while in the back. He hadn't thought the manager's work would take so long, but unfortunately... Anyway, I helped to get someone else to sort out the woman's draft, and in five minutes it was ready. She was so grateful to me that she offered me a gift of five thousand naira. Of course I refused, saying that I was just doing my job, but she insisted, so... (he spreads his arms outwards, shrugs and smiles).

Max: Lucky you! No wonder you're so happy today. Of course, as your friends, we must celebrate your good fortune with an extra glass of kunu - not so, Zack?

(But Zack slowly shakes his head disapprovingly.)

You mean to say that you went ahead to accept money from this woman?

Nat: Yes, I did - what's the problem there?

Zack (still shaking his head): That is as good as accepting a bribe.

Nat (surprised): What are you talking about? I didn't ask her to give me the money before I helped her. For heaven's sake, I didn't even know she was going to give me money before offering to help. And I even refused her offer of money at first. So how can that be like accepting a bribe?

Zack: Think about it. Supposing she returns to your bank in the future and you see her waiting around the hall looking for help, are you not going to be more disposed towards helping her? And would that be fair - giving precedence to one customer over another?

Nat (slightly annoyed): Zack, honestly I think you're overreacting here. First of all, you wouldn't normally find me in the banking hall anyway - so it's not likely that she would see me there. Secondly, even if I did see her on a subsequent occasion, my decision to help her would have nothing to do with whether she had given me money in the past.

Max: Don't mind Zack. To hear him talk, you would think that his ministry people were paragons of virtue who even paid you for allowing them to serve you. And even if you chose to be partial to the woman, whose business is that? After all, we are all partial to different people for different reasons. I mean, if Jennifer was waiting to be served, are you honestly telling me wouldn't give her preferential treatment?

Zack: Come on, don't talk nonsense. Nat knows that he is supposed to treat each customer fairly and equally. If he now starts favouring customers who have given him or who may likely give him money, can you not see how this will warp his sense of duty? Instead of him thinking "Who needs the most help?" he will start asking "Who is more likely to reward me with a tip?" And worse still, after a while he will start expecting that he should be rewarded, rather than regarding it as a possibility. He might start hinting that payment for his service should be obligatory rather than voluntary.

(Max begins to retort, but Zack holds up a hand to continue.) And before you bring up Jennifer, it's not the same - even if he treats Jennifer preferentially, the reasons he does so are very specific. So he isn't likely to extend the same treatment to other customers in the same way that he would if he was only interested in serving 'paying' customers.

Max: I still don't agree. By Nat focusing on wealthy customers, he is performing a valuable service. Think about it - when customers who are too poor to offer a tip see that they are spending a longer time waiting at the bank, they'll withdraw their services and leave. Conversely, richer customers who offer a tip will notice that their service improves, and they will spread the word to their friends about "this fantastic bank where you're in and out in five minutes". That means more rich customers, which means bigger profits. There will also be the side benefit that such customers will no longer have to mingle with the riff raff and endure their terrible sense of fashion.

Zack (disgusted): Oh, you think you are too good for us now, eh? Talking of banning poor people from banks because of the way they look! I suppose you'll be telling us that you're too good for this place, and that we should start meeting at 'Nite Lights', that fancy restaurant on the other side of town!

Max: Cool down. You know that I have no problems with anyone's social status - but I can tell you that this is how rich people are. They want to keep themselves to themselves, and that's why they live behind big fences in secluded estates.

Nat: Anyway, your argument is flawed on so many levels. For one, since consolidation, banks have to be more competitive to make money - and that means making money not just from a few rich people but also from the emerging middle class in Nigeria today. Secondly, you're assuming that all rich people will want to tip bank staff. They might note that the staff of other banks don't ask them for tips and still give good service and wonder why should they offer tips at this bank.

Zack: Abi o! Then our money-mad friend here is forgetting that sometimes, rich people may send someone to make a bank transaction on their behalf, and that person may not be disposed to pay out tips. But the worst thing about this idea of a bank saying that it's all right for its staff to solicit tips from customers is that it now makes the whole process of doing business with the bank unpredictable and arbitrary. If I go to the bank hoping to cash a cheque, I don't know how much money I need to take along in tips to ease the process. I haven't even spoken about the stench that will hang about the bank's public image when it is perceived as "that place where they encourage their staff to take bribes".

Max (hotly): I object to that last sentence of yours, Zack! A tip is not a bribe. In fact, there are very subtle distinctions between these financial transactions that you should take care to make instead of confusing issues.

Nat (amused): Oh? Would you care to share?

Max: Of course. First, you have the reward, which is something you give after a service has been rendered to you. It may be unsolicited - in which case, you offer it to express your thanks at having the service rendered - or it may be solicited - in which case you offer it so that you don't get cursed for being an ungrateful bastard. Then there is the tip, which you offer in advance of a service being rendered - usually 'to induce promptness' of service. Again, this may be solicited, if you think it'll speed things up for you or it may be unsolicited, in which case you know it'll speed things up for you.

Nat: Interesting... please, go on.

Max: It gets a bit murky from here. There's the dash which is what you give to forestall the possibility of hassle, even though you may be on the right side of the law. This is almost always solicited, and it is what most Nigerians refer to as a 'bribe' even though it technically isn't, really.

Zack: Hold on, Professor of Bribery and Corruption! What's the difference between a solicited tip and a dash then? After all, if I don't offer a tip that has been solicited, my service is going to be poor.

Max: That's a good question. Well, it's a question of degree - if you don't offer the tip, you won't get bad service. You'll still get the normal level of service, only that it won't be as good as it would have been if you offered the tip. On the other hand, if you don't offer the dash, you might end up being unbearably delayed or you might not get any service at all. And of course, if it's a law enforcement officer asking you for a dash, you had better make sure you know your laws and rights inside out, else he'll find a way of turning the situation from one where he asks for a dash into one where you have to offer him a bribe.

Nat: I guessed you were going to get to that soon.

Max: Oh yes. The bribe - which again may be solicited or unsolicited - is where you offer something to cause Black to turn into White and Wrong to turn into Right. In other words, the bribe is like a magic wand that causes irritating laws and regulations to disappear in a puff of smoke. You may offer a bribe for two main reasons - first, because you want to obtain something good, and there's a law standing in the way - and second, you've misbehaved and want to avoid the full weight of the law falling on your head.

Zack: From the lack of condemnation in your voice, I'm sensing that you've given a few bribes in your time.

Max (in a hurt voice): Zack, how can you say such a thing about me? I'm just an honest businessman trying to make ends meet in this harsh country of ours. If I have ever given a bribe - and I'm not saying that I have - then the blame lies not with me but with the federal and state governments that introduce ridiculous and counterproductive laws which serve no purpose except to hamper and frustrate businessmen so that they are forced - yes, forced - to bribe government officials.

I mean, look at the other day when the state government enacted a law decreeing that all business premises must have a portrait photograph of the State Governor. Of course they conveniently added that only officially approved photographs should be used, and such photographs could only be obtained at the Ministry of Information at an exorbitant price. Tell me which businessman wouldn't be tempted to make that law vanish with a wave of a wad of naira notes?

Zack: Don't use the excuse that the government passes lots of stupid laws to justify giving bribes in order to escape sensible ones. If that was the case, we might as well abolish laws altogether - and you know where that would get us. And really, the right thing to do is to publicly campaign for the stupid law to be scrapped. If you choose to bribe your way round it, then you're just encouraging the government to come up with more of these stupid laws to make more money for government officials.

Nat: So Max, are there other kinds of payments we should know about?

Max: Just one more - the extortion payment. This is pretty much as near to robbery as it gets without it actually being robbery. Here, it is made clear to you from the outset in no uncertain terms that you are expected to give something, sometimes in return for performing a service of dubious value, sometimes in return for nothing. The important distinguishing factor is that failure to give could result in something very unpleasant like property damage or physical abuse. In fact, the only thing that stops me from calling it robbery outright is that the people who make the demands are not as aggressive and threatening as an armed robber might be - indeed, they can be quite polite.

Nat: I guess you're talking here about those area boys who converge on your vehicle at night if it's broken down and 'kindly' offer to push it to safety, right?

Max: Yep, Brother Nathaniel - that's a good example.

Zack (dismissively): I think all that you've just said about all these categories is just an attempt to create confusion. For me, all of them are branches from the same stem - the stem of corruption. Once you try to excuse one type, you are opening the door to excuse the rest - and that is wrong. We must adopt a zero-tolerance approach towards these kinds of behaviour if we are ever going to eradicate corruption from this country!

Max (shrugging): Well Zack, that's certainly your point of view - but you won't get many people who will share your view that someone accepting an unsolicited reward for services provided should be dealt with in exactly the same way as someone seeking a bribe in order allow someone to dump toxic waste on farmland. The reality is that a lot of people weigh up the benefits against the costs of either giving a dash, bribe or tip on the one hand - or dealing with the hassle of going down the legal route on the other. And in a country like Nigeria where law enforcement is weak and arbitrary, the former option is often more attractive. (Clears throat) Anyway, enough of this talk. Nat, how about those two celebratory glasses of kunu?

Nat: Two? Who isn't drinking?

Max: Who isn't drinking? Our incorruptible civil servant, of course. The last thing we want is for him to be sacked for enjoying the ill-gotten gains of corrupt practice!