If you’re an enlightened Nigerian but don’t know who Chuma Nwokolo is, you should be sorry. He’s one of the most engaging people I have ever met in person, a man whose penetrating intellect is leavened by a soft-spoken but charming personality. He’s a lawyer by training, but a tremendously gifted and versatile writer by vocation. Whatever form he elects to work in—fiction, poetry, essays—his books (among them “Diaries of a Dead African” and “The Ghost of Sani Abacha”) are virtuosic performances, immensely absorbing. What’s more, the output of his smithy is hard to classify or to compare to anything else out there by any contemporary African writer. To read a piece by him—whether fiction, poetry or a travelogue—is to become entranced by his narrative verve, an eloquence that comes across as effortless, and his dazzling command of the art of communication.
In person, Chuma is—no other way to put it—larger than life and ebullient. During recent trips to the UK and Somaliland, I met people who even let on that they and others in certain jurisdictions regard Chuma as something of a deity.
Now, if you’re Nigerian but have never heard of Chuma Nwokolo or read of his prodigious output of books, I hereby absolve you of your sin, but not before stipulating that you remedy the sad gap in your reading and cultural experience. But here’s something I can’t forgive: if you’re a Nigerian concerned about the plague of corruption in your country, but you’ve never heard about Chuma’s ideas about dealing with the most critical aspect of the problem.
It’s safe to suggest that corruption is one subject in which virtually all Nigerians are experts—as gloating perpetrators, whining victims, or both. Yet, I know of no Nigerian whose formula for slaying the monster of corruption comes close to matching Chuma’s in thoroughness, comprehensiveness, and depth of imagination. None.
Last March, Chuma unveiled a proposal that aims to zero in on corporate corruption, the most pernicious and significant species of the malaise. The lawyer in him named the proposed law the Corporate Corruption Act, but—for popular dissemination and usage—coined the phrase, The BribeCode. He unveiled the full text of the proposed law on social media, together with a website, www.bribecode.org, that has become a hub.
After reading the text of the Bribecode, moved by admiration for Chuma’s insight, innovativeness and patriotic impetus, I wrote: “Nigeria’s tragedy lies in the fact that governance is organized around the idea of a few dispossessing the majority. After fifty-five years of missed opportunities and stunted growth, it is time the old predatory system was replaced by one that puts people at the center.
“The Bribe Code is a bold step in that direction.
“It would be impossible to put the people first unless the current, diseased system that fertilizes corruption is uprooted, and a new culture of transparency and accountability instituted.
“Corruption is Nigeria’s most deadly, deadening virus. And I mean that in a literal sense.”
Chuma proposes a set of sound steps designed to achieve several salutary ends. His ultimate goal is to inculcate and foster a culture of transparency and accountability in the management of public resources. To achieve that, his proposal seeks to remove the incentive for corporate entities to bribe government officials, encouraging them to sabotage the public interest in order to serve both their pockets as well as corporate greed. His tool is to make the cost of being caught bribing political officials so prohibitive—a zero sum penalty—that corporations would not only adopt zero-tolerance for corruption, but police their errant employees prone to cutting corners. And Chuma has incorporated elements in the proposal to “privatize” the fight against corporate corruption. Any citizen who exposes corporate hanky-panky stands to take home a slice of the funds realized from the liquidation of the said corporation.
Ever painstaking, Chuma has done the legal draftsman’s yeoman’s job, setting out the letter of the law down to the minutest details. Some critics have accused Chuma of seeking to reinvent the wheel, arguing that Nigeria has enough statutes against corruption, the devil being in a reluctance to implement said laws. But those critics have certainly not read Chuma’s carefully conceived proposal, which is at once a novel piece of legislation, a self-regulating regimen, and contains a mechanism to drive enforcement.
The website, www.bribecode.org, offers the following summary of the initiative. “The law applies to companies only, not individuals.
“If a company is convicted of an offence involving corruption and the relevant amount is N1,000,000 or more, it is liquidated and its assets are forfeited to the state. (Exception: where a company has many shareholders who are not involved in management. Instead of liquidation, its board of directors—and staff within the ‘sphere of governance’—may be sacked, and the shares of the controlling directors and shareholders forfeited to the state treasury.)
“Whistleblowers who bring information leading to the prosecution of companies under this Act are protected, and compensated with a reward of up to 1% of the forfeited assets of the company. (Companies are entitled to set up business as ‘corruption watchdogs’ for this reward.)
“The law has no retrospective effect and no company can be liquidated or sanctioned under the law based on anything done prior to its enactment.
“Safeguards are built into the law to prevent abuse and serious penalties are prescribed for people who lodge false information against companies or individuals.”
It is saddening, even if hardly surprising, that Chuma’s proposal has had little traction at the National Assembly. Yet, should there be lawmakers willing to instigate a frontal assault on the dragon called corruption, the adoption and formal introduction of Chuma’s bill should serve as the perfect starting point. The same goes for Muhammadu Buhari, if he should ever wish to be known as the first Nigerian president to deliver a truly devastating blow against corruption.
It is often a fool’s fantasy to look to politicians—who are embedded with corporate interests and encumbered by all kinds of agenda—to push ideas that offer deep social benefits. But civil society advocates—the coalition of enlightened citizens—have no excuse for not drumming an idea as critical as the BribeCode.
Chuma Nwokolo is not one to give up, which is good for him and good for us. In fact, he’s taking to jesting that he’s retired from writing in order to put all his energy (considerable, if you know him) into finding momentum for his anti-corruption recipe. He’s started a great fight, and we owe it to him, to ourselves, to our fellows to enlist as soldiers in the cause of combating corruption. I’m convinced that Chuma’s is a panacea that can galvanize an ethical shift—giving us that fighting chance to achieve a socially habitable space.