Criminalisation Of Poverty

by Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

It was a normal news report, the type we are used to seeing regularly, but would, most likely, merely glance through before turning our attention to more ‘important’ matters. But when I saw this particular report, confined to a small corner of the newspaper, something about it spoke a very clear message to my heart.

Under the heading, “Cow Thief Bags 12yrs Jail,” the report said that an Oshogbo Magistrate Court presided over by Mrs. Ayo Ajeigbe had sentenced a certain Mr. Audu Mustapha to 12 years’ imprisonment for stealing a cow belonging to one Julie Idi. The estimated cost of the cow was N60, 000. The police had accused Mustapha of selling the cow and using the proceeds to purchase a small truck with which he conveyed ‘liberated’ cows to either where he sold them or hid them.

If Mustapha who had earlier served a jail term in Ilorin for a similar offence, does not have a powerful, well-connected godfather, especially, in the ruling party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), or other equally criminally powerful places where even heinous crimes and treated as “family affair” and simply swept under, he should, as you read this article now, be in one of our dilapidated and inhabitable prison houses in the country enduring the just recompense of his grave sin against the State, and dreaming about his young (and probably very beautiful) wife and their three tender children. Nothing can justify his hideous action. Even people poorer than he was had resisted the temptation to steal; he knew the dire consequences of his chosen career and still tarried in it, because, it had juicy promises of quick, undeserved wealth. Now, the excruciating day of reckoning is here, and he has no choice but to quietly savour the bitter reward of his criminal endeavours. I will only sympathise with his family if they were unaware that in order to put food on their table, Mustapha was cruelly dispossessing other people of their fat cows. This can only teach one lesson: when crime is punished, deterrence is instituted.

If that is always the end of all such cases, society would really be a better place for all of us. While up here, we, in an impressive show of self-righteousness, haul down condemnations on Mustapha with every scorn and unmitigated rage befitting a common criminal, more discerning people would rather view him as an unfortunate victim of a disastrous accident on his way to the exalted circle of the nation’s Elite Class. I suspect that he did not bother to study the rules of the game very carefully and so may have easily run foul of a very important law of the game, namely: Thou shall not be greedy. What this means is that if he had generously ‘settled’ all the OC’s at the checkpoint (Carry go, Sir!), or even ‘cleared’ with the DPO of all the police stations on his route, nothing would have ever taken him before the learned judge in Oshogbo, even if he had stolen a human being!

In fact, he would have been a free man today, doing his ‘honest’ business without let or hindrance, and even getting the opportunity once in a while to attend state banquets and shake the smooth, soft hands of the high and mighty, if he had allied himself with some very influential and ‘responsible’ party elder in his community, secured a Molete-kind of immunity, and regularly donated handsomely to help the ‘great party’ facilitate its ‘fraudslide’ victories.

The truth we all know today is that majority of all the people parading themselves as prominent Nigerians today climbed to the top through the Mustapha route or variants of it. At the risk of repeating myself, assuming Mustapha was not ‘interrupted’ this early in his career, and his business had thrived and he had been wise enough to invest his wealth in the installation of many of his colleagues in power, he would today be dinning with ‘distinguished, honourable’ lawmakers, governors, foreign and local diplomats and even the president, and being invited regularly to chair high profile events where brilliant lectures would be delivered on integrity, transparency, anti-corruption and good governance. But, while he would now languish in jail for twelve years for stealing a cow whose present cost was put at N60, 000, important convicts like Big Tafa and Governor-General Alams got a few months each for playing around with the nation’s billions. And many of their more daring colleagues in criminal accumulation are still out there throwing expensive parties and hobnobbing openly with the nation’s rulers.

Something, indeed, must be wrong with a nation that severely punishes small thieves and celebrates bigger criminals. One must be forgiven if one goes on to conclude that in Nigeria, what makes a small thief culpable is not the crime he has committed, but the poor background he operates from. In other words, he is a criminal, not because of his offence against the State, but because of his status in the society. That is why despite several very factual allegations of very grievous graft levelled against serving and former public officers, especially in the media, security agents do not even bother to investigate them – unless, perhaps, when the person so accused finds himself on the wrong side of power. Well, somebody should tell those in power that they are merely sowing the seeds of anarchy, because, when the law is only reserved for the ‘unconnected’ poor and the real and imagined enemies of those in power, that law may soon lose the power to contain the likely challenge that may come from those whom it has been used to unfairly oppress.

In 1999, Gen Olusegun Obasanjo, whose farm had failed, was practically a poor man, and he did not hide it. One of his closest aides had told the nation that what the man had in his account was only N25, 000. But now, as former president, his Bells University and Secondary School is valued at billions of naira. There is also his now resuscitated and greatly improved multi-billion mega naira farm, a couple of other companies and sundry investments, a Presidential Library Project for which billions of naira were raised by “Presidential extortion”, and his famed bottomless pocket which has effectively crowned him one of the richest billionaires this side of the Atlantic. He has left office for more than a year now, yet no one can claim to have sniffed even the faintest resolve to make him explain the sources of his mysterious wealth, or how $16 billion heartlessly squandered in phoney power projects only plunged Nigerians into deeper, thicker darkness. Now, Mr. Liyel Imoke, Obasanjo’s Minster of Power, has just lost his immunity, having been sacked as Cross River Governor at the Tribunal, so what is delaying his arrest and questioning on how, under him and Obasanjo, the sum of $16 billion could only purchase the nation an impenetrable darkness?

As cases of suspected graft (and they are legion) are swept under, impunity is effectively entrenched. Influential Nigerians abound whose sources of boundless wealth are shrouded in very deep mysteries. Nigerians know many of them as Very Important Criminals (VIC), but the government and even the media celebrate them as ‘statesmen’ and ‘patriots’. Unlike Mustapha, they were able to avoid being caught until they amassed enough wealth to qualify for admission into Nigeria’s privileged, criminal class of untouchables. They are the same people that get National Honours and are appointed or ‘elected’ into highly exalted positions of power and influence, where as, depraved villains in public office, they characteristically deregulate and institutionalize stealing and political criminality.

What this goes to show is that in Nigeria, it is safer to be a successful criminal than a poor man. Successful criminals are either in power or its corridors, or friends and associates of those in power. They are those set of ‘law-abiding’ citizens who are able to purchase and build palatial homes in ‘approved’ places.

But the poor are the confirmed criminals, always hounded and oppressed by the government, for being able to only afford to seek refuge in the slums, which governors, ever thumbing their noses at them, have already marked out for demolition and prompt allocation to the same criminal class. It is the honest poor that get arrested on the mere suspicion that their haggard, hungry look suggests they might be criminals, or even for such non-existent offences like ‘wandering’, and dumped and forgotten in detention camps for being unable to buy their freedom.

Yes, they are the same people that suffer most the consequences of bad roads (since they can’t afford to fly), power failure (they can’t afford healthy alternatives), insecurity and increases on the price of petroleum products, which in turn jack up prizes of goods and services. In Nigeria, where crime is class-defined, the poor and poverty has since been criminalized. The rich only get into trouble when they are on the wrong side of the power equation, and their ‘trials’ are celebrated to score some cheap point. If you don’t know this, then you don’t know anything about Nigeria.

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