Bode George, ex-military man and ex-chairman of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), left Kirikiri prison last Saturday – having served a two-year sentence for corruption and earned the addition of ex-convict to his CV. From prison, Mr. George headed straight for the Cathedral Church of Christ in Marina, Lagos. He was reportedly joined at the church service by, among others, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, Governor Gbenga Daniel of Ogun, Minister of Defense, Adetokunbo Kayode, and numerous former governors.
That trajectory – from jail to a church – turned out to be profoundly instructive, though not for the reasons one might expect. A prison is where convicted criminals do time, atoning to society for violating one law or another. A church is where sinners, through acts of contrition, seek to make themselves spiritually whole. In church, a penitent beseeches God for grace to stay on the path of righteousness.
Mr. George, who is often addressed as a PDP chieftain (even though thieftain applies far more aptly to him), was dispatched to Kirikiri, Nigeria’s most famous prison, to pay for crimes he committed whilst overseeing the NPA. In simple language, he and five other (equally convicted) board members gutted the agency’s accounts.
The former NPA chairman’s trial was, from beginning to end, the stuff of high drama. Mr. George was vacationing abroad when the investigative website, SaharaReporters, wrote that he had fled Nigeria to elude officials of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission who had compiled a dossier on his quick-fingered, illicit financial deals.
Days after the report’s appearance, Mr. George, ever brash, boastful and chest-pounding, arrived in Nigeria. Addressing a press conference, he ridiculed the notion that a man like him would ever run from anybody. He dared the anti-corruption agency to arrest him.
The EFCC took up the offer. It mounted a vigorous prosecution of the ex-NPA chairman. Mr. George, used to fawning deference, apparently did not take his trial seriously. In fact, he turned the courtroom into a sartorial circus show cum carnival. He arrived in court each day with a retinue of women adorned in gaudy, lavish dresses, complete with ceiling-brushing head ties. A man with an apparent hedonistic temperament, he seemed to have mistaken the courtroom for another party venue.
Sadly for him – but wonderfully for Nigerians – the strutting embezzler was in the hands of Justice Joseph Oyewole, an intrepid judge who didn’t find foolish show-boaters funny or interesting. On the day of the verdict, the former NPA chairman showed up with his usual contingent of women, determined to make it the most colorful, exuberant outing yet.
Justice Oyewole rained on good ol’ George’s parade. He found Mr. George and his co-conspirators guilty, gave them a dressing down, and ordered that they cool off their heels in Kirikiri for two years.
It was a fitting comeuppance. Yet, Mr. George went off to Kirikiri in an ebullient spirit. In a country where the high and mighty operate by a different set of rules, he was all but certain that some appellate court would strike down his conviction. Alas, no appellate justice was impressed. As Americans are wont to say, the man had done his crime, he had to do his time.
That time ended last Saturday. The style of George’s exit from prison buttressed the deep ethical blight that reigns in certain quarters. The performance – for the man’s release was every bit a veritable production, conceived, designed and staged – that performance was part-farce, part-tragedy. To read about the festive air that surrounded Bode George’s release, you’d think that this certified rogue was Nelson Mandela’s moral mentor!
A country where a criminal emerging from jail is greeted adoringly is not simply in deep trouble – its case is grave and perhaps terminal. Doubtless, many of the PDP officials who thronged the prison to embrace George are hardly different from him. In a society that respects law and order, they, like George, would be jailbirds too. But the George release was also carefully choreographed to leave the impression that a thief was a heroic figure.
The Punch of February 26 captured the unseemly spectacle. In a report titled, “Go and sin no more, priest tells Bode George,” the paper wrote that George walked out of prison “looking very ebullient and refreshed.” The paper reported, “Clad in white flowing lace with his luscious moustache and sprinkle of grey hair on his head, the bespectacled Peoples Democratic Party chieftain who was jailed two years ago on corruption charges beamed with smiles as he breathed air of freedom once again” (sic). For a man whose impulse pushes towards material possessions, it is appropriate that the paper paid attention to the “convoy of vehicles” that welcomed Mr. George, plus the fact that “he waved to his supporters before entering a metallic black Toyota Land Cruiser”.
A writer – I believe it was the late Ken Saro-Wiwa – once suggested that many Nigerians had become conspicuous consumers of other people’s ideas. In treasuring metallic black Toyota Land Cruisers, the Bode Georges of our world hardly remember how puny they appear in the eyes of those whose disciplined hard work and enterprise we fuss over so.
If Bode George’s prison gate drama was a sorry spectacle, his outing in a church combined the sublime with the absurd – and even broached the profane. Thank God that the presiding prelate, Tayo Aduloju, addressed words of courage to the ex-convict who came calling. The Punch quoted the priest as admonishing George: “If you are involved in any shady deal; if you are found anywhere elections are rigged; and partake in any form of manipulation, it means you have not learnt anything from your experience. Real power belongs to God. It does not belong to PDP. It does not belong to any president. ?
“As from today, you are expected to represent Christ. You are an ambassador of Christ. Never again will the name of God be soiled through you.”
As exhortations go, this one was clear and direct. But Mr. George, its recipient, appeared to have other plans. If he learned any lessons in prison, he took care to conceal them. Instead, he was in a hurry to serve notice that his time in prison was comfortable if not luxurious.
The Punch wrote that Mr. George told journalists that Nigerians made him comfortable by visiting in prison everyday. These prison visitors “had made me to reposition my mind. I will reposition my mind and serve my party normally.” What does “normally” look like to George? The clue lies in his words: “Now there is a job at hand for us to do and now is the time for us to win Lagos State with this kind of loyalty we have seen. President Goodluck Jonathan will be around on Tuesday, we have to cause tsunami in Lagos so that other parties will (get the) jitters.”?
The foregoing language bespeaks a man who is far from repentant – and even far less reformed. Mr. George comes across as a man seized by messianic complex. He and his ilk sound as if mastery of the art of pillaging a nation’s resources is an exemplary form of virtue.
Mr. George may delude himself that he is a tsunami-triggering colossus. Who’s to blame an ex-convict who’s given a welcome worthy of a minor rock star? Why won’t good George bask when he’s about to resume his seat as a member of his party’s sanctum sanctorum, a man who shares a podium with Mr. Jonathan? Emboldened by the cheers of fellow thieftains and a hired crowd, the ex-prisoner must think that the people of Lagos are in
a haste to entrust their lives and cash to his care.
However, voters ought to leave no doubt that they neither share George’s delusion nor wish to see a felon taking charge of their future and (mis)shaping their lives.