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Friday, 28 March 2014

A Society Governed By Rustlers

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The Emir spoke about a phenomenon that is threatening not only the peace and security of many states in the northern region today but also the national economy. It is called rustling. Put simply it is the stealing of cows but the menace goes far deeper because the Rustler is not your regular thief who only robs people of their material possessions, he is equally a murderer and a rapist. From Kaduna to Katsina, Kebbi and Zamfara, hundreds of lives have been lost to the activities of the Rustlers in recent weeks. Several families have been dislocated with thousands of herds of cow carted away in trailers and most often in broad daylight!
Yet the more I reflect on the activities of the Rustler, the more I see the striking resemblance he bears to many people in positions of authority in our country today. But for the uninitiated, I think I should return to the recent account by Malam Zubair Jibril Mai Gwari, the Emir of Birnin Gwari, in Kaduna State: “as I speak, we don’t know how many thousands of cattle have been stolen so far. The issue is that everywhere you go in the Emirate, you will find a casualty; someone’s herds of cattle were stolen, his wife or children raped and others even killed.
“The rustlers are well organised. They are in control of one village called Jan Birni. You can’t go there now if you are not a thief. If they don’t know you, they may kill you. I reported to the government that our people have sighted, many times, helicopters landing and taking off, delivering weapons to these people. These rustlers don’t care whether you put fire on your cattle, they will whisk them away. The rustlers are so clever. If your cattle are branded, they will slaughter them, cut them up and sell them in pieces. If you go to Birnin Gwari-Funtua axis, they are gradually taking over all villages and towns along the roads. They come out on market days and brandish their weapons without a care…”
If you consider that scary, then you need to read the experience of Dr. Hakeem Baba Ahmed, former INEC Secretary and retired federal permanent secretary who is now back to the university as a teacher: “I lost my entire herd to rustlers. 20 years of labour went with a gang armed to the teeth. We were fortunate that the herd was all they took. Women and young females who are routinely raped and/or abducted were alerted by the commotion caused by cows being separated from calves to run into the bush. We had prepared very well, because we knew they were coming, and there was nothing we could do. For almost 400 square kilometers, from Abuja to Kaduna, Zaria and Birnin Gwari, there is hardly any farm with cattle [left]. We don’t even bother to report to the police. It is the same in most parts of Katsina and Zamfara states. The backbone of the northern economy is farming and husbandry. Cattle breeding and processing was a major business in these areas. Not anymore. Slowly but surely, the heart of the northern economy is being snuffed out. We cannot keep cattle on our farms. Large scale farming is becoming less and less attractive. A huge swathe of the north is now bandit territory. Most of us know where our cattle are, but we cannot retrieve them. Abducted women and young girls hardly ever return…”
Perhaps the last few weeks might go down as the most violent and bloody in the nation. Besides the attacks in Maiduguri where some daring insurgents attempted to free their detained mates from a well-fortified military barracks, more than 300 innocent people have been killed by the activities of Boko Haram, the Rustlers and other armed groups which cannot be readily categorised. Several communities in Benue State, including the governor’s village, were sacked and many murdered in their homes or in the fields. Even the convoy of Governor Gabriel Suswam was also attacked in the course of commiserating with some of the victims. In Katsina, while President Goodluck Jonathan was on official visit, rampaging gunmen attacked some communities, resulting in the death of more than 100 innocent people. And when many were still mourning the dead, another violent group attacked some three communities in Southern Kaduna, resulting in the death of more than 100 people.
As I wrote about Nigeria’s centenary last week, I believe in the future of this country but these days, I am also afraid of the lawlessness that is fast turning our nation into one big jungle. Millions of our people are being denied their means of livelihood and hundreds are being killed in cold blood almost on a daily basis. You have Boko Haram and their cousin, the Rustlers operating in the North while armed robbers and the kidnappers are having a field day in the South.
In all these, there is a sense in which the activities of the Rustlers mirror that of our society. Take the tragedy of last Saturday across the country. The real issue is not that we have millions of unemployed people as worrisome as that may be. Neither is it about the absence of any logistical arrangement to take care of the huge army of applicants that resulted in the stampede. The real tragedy is that the whole scam was put together by some Rustlers who had no compunction about exploiting hundreds of thousands of young Nigerians.
Each of those unfortunate Nigerians paid N850 as “application charges” and N150 as “transaction charges” making a total of N1, 000 to be eligible to apply for a job in a government agency in their own country. Drexel Nigeria Limited to which the scam was outsourced then asked each applicant to come to the “examination centre” with a valid identification card, the acknowledgement card, original copies of birth and educational certificates and writing materials. But it is also clear what the real motive is with this instruction: “present this payment slip along with the cash amount displayed above to the cashier at any of the supported banks listed on the portal to make payment. Once your payment is completed at the bank, ensure you collect your validation number before leaving the banking hall. YOUR VALIDATION NUMBER IS YOUR ONLY PROOF OF PAYMENT” (their emphasis).
That is the way of the Rustler. And for those who may still not know who a Rustler is, you don’t need a dictionary, just get Mario Puzo’s novel, “The Last Don”, the gripping sequel to “The Godfather” that has a notorious character named the Rustler. Below is a dialogue from the novel which captures the essence of the man we are talking about:
“…they call him the Rustler, and he loves all the s**t. He never pays his bills, he even stiffs the IRS, he fights with the California State authorities because he won’t pay the sales tax of the stores he owns in his malls. Hell, he even stiffs his ex-wife and his kids on support payments. And he is a man who believes he can get out of every jam he gets in. He is a thief in his heart…”
“Why do they call him the Rustler?” Dante asked.
“Because he takes things without paying for them,” Cross said.
“I have never met a man like that,” the Don said.
Georgio said, “They grow them only in America…”
You won’t get a complete picture of this crook until you read Mario Puzo’s characterization but that is in the world of fiction. In real life, we also grow many of them in Nigeria. In our country, it is not uncommon to hear that people pay bribes to secure jobs in either the private or public sector. Those responsible for such things are plain thieves. Opportunity, it is said, makes the thief but not so the Rustler who makes his own opportunities even if it entails preying on the misfortune of other people to make illicit gains.
The Rustler has no conscience. He is audacious. He embodies impunity. He will demand money openly for jobs that do not exist and blame the victims if things go wrong. He will collect multibillion Naira subsidy funds from government for petroleum products that he would still sell to the people even above the market price. He will divert money meant for the pension of Policemen into his private accounts. He is simply above the law. Those are the sorts of characters we are dealing with in the scandal that led to the death of no fewer than 19 young Nigerians in the “recruitment exercise” of the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) across the country last Saturday. But the bigger tragedy as I stated earlier is that in our country today, several positions of authority are manned by Rustlers.
Nobody has captured the immigration tragedy as succinctly as a brother to one of the deceased and lecturer at Federal Polytechnic, Nasarawa State, Dr. Mohammed Hakeem. While regretting that his late sister was in 2013 defrauded of N150, 000 in the course of seeking the same job for which she lost her life last Saturday, Dr. Hakeem added: “I make bold to tell you that the slots for which my sister has been used as a sacrificial lamb had been allocated to those that matter in Nigeria.”
The immigration authorities claim that 4,556 jobs were on offer but it is also a fact that most of the slots have already been allocated to presidency officials, ministers, National Assembly members, governors and heads of federal agencies. I say that both from experience and what I also know about the current exercise. So, the whole essence of last Saturday’s bloody show across the federation was merely to fulfil all righteousness and essentially to justify the hundreds of millions of Naira that have been taken from the pockets of young Nigerians. Given such disposition, is anybody still amazed about how we have acquired a notorious international reputation?
At his 90th birthday recently, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe asked his officials: “Are we now like Nigeria where you have to reach your pocket to get anything done?” Then he added: “You see, we used to go to Nigeria and every time we went there we had to carry extra cash in our pockets to corruptly pay for everything. You get into a plane in Nigeria and you sit there and the crew keeps dilly dallying without taking off as they wait for you to pay them to fly the plane.” That elicited a roaring laughter from the delegates attending his birthday bash.
The senile dictator in Harare may have enjoyed his joke at the expense of our country but majority of Nigerians are actually honest people. The difference between our country and others like for instance United States (which remains the standard for many of our people even with its own contradictions) is not in the purity of hearts of their own citizens but rather in the fear of sanctions that are almost certain for those caught breaking the law. In Nigeria, the incentives for corruption and related crimes are high because it is a low-risk, high-reward enterprise, except you are a petty thief with access only to millions rather than billions. If you steal small in this clime, chances are that you will be caught and punished by the law but if you steal big, you are most likely going to be a celebrity because you have graduated to the status of a Rustler!
All said, we must tackle the menace of cow rustlers that has made life nasty and brutish for many in the northern parts of the country. It is important both for the peace of our people and for national food security. But we also must appreciate the fact that it is just a symptom of a far bigger malaise in our society. My wife and I were caught in the human traffic caused by the INS exams at the Abuja stadium before 6am last Saturday as I was driving her to the airport to connect a 7a.m.  flight to Lagos (which she and many others eventually missed). While I was lamenting about the huge population of the unemployed gathered at such early morning for what I knew was a scam, my wife said she did not believe that everyone was unemployed.

Her own theory is that there would also be in the crowd applicants probably working in the private sector but who would readily cross over to the NIS because of the awareness that government jobs are not tasking. She said that beyond government failings which are all evident, it is also a fact that many young Nigerians these days don’t want to work with their hands, they just want to sit in some cozy offices and collect the easy money. As we were still arguing, I saw someone I know who incidentally indeed is gainfully employed in the private sector and he smiled on sighting me saying, “Oga, I also came to try my luck o!” Then I saw a few more people in similar circumstance.
I am not in any way discounting the fact that we have a huge unemployment problem and I want to believe that more than 95 percent of the people who subjected themselves to the Immigration Service abuse last Saturday have nothing doing. May be even 99 percent of them were really unemployed. But the fact also remains that there are also those who went with the notion that such job comes with an opportunity to acquire wealth without work. That therefore explains why, for me, the metaphor of the Rustler has become the distinguishing credo of the present state of public service in our nation.
Whether those in authority want to admit it or not, a discernible gangster ethos defines the character of the state of affairs in our country today. It is manifest in the size of the corruption scandals, the impunity with which public institutions are degraded to further private ends, and the utter disregard for all rules. Even the code that recognizes some honour as essential even among thieves no longer has any place in our country. So, between the cattle rustler and the crooks that masterminded the immigration employment fiasco across the country last Saturday, we are dealing with the same menace. The rules are the same. The pity is that we are feeding the monster god of elite greed with too much human sacrifice almost on daily basis now. And because innocent bloods do cry, there will be consequences.

Between Abacha and Ifeajuna
In the last two days, I have the privilege of reading a copy of the United States Justice Department account of how the late General Sani Abacha and other accomplices looted the Nigerian treasury. It is stranger than any fiction. Even though there are still more pages for me to read from the voluminous document, this paragraph more or less sums up the entire saga: “...Abacha and his associates conducted three fraudulent schemes during his time in office: (1) the ‘security votes’ fraud through which more than $2 billion was embezzled from the Central Bank of Nigeria; (2) the Ajaokuta Steel debt buy-back fraud, which defrauded the Nigerian government of more than $200 million through overpayment and non-performing debt; and (3) extortion of Dumez Group, a company operating in Nigeria, which was used to invest in Nigeria Par Bonds that were traded in the United States.” And that is the same man recently honoured by this administration as one of the most distinguished 100 Nigerians of the last century!
I have written so much about the late Abacha and I covered a bit of the Ajaokuta debt buy-back scandal trial at a London court in 2001. I have nothing personal against the late Head of State or any member of his family even as I concede that he may also have done some good while in office. Even then, against the background that most of the hundreds of millions of Dollars already repatriated to the country from the loot may also have been looted by some high-placed Rustlers in the last couple of years, perhaps Abacha’s only sin is that he broke “the eleventh commandment” by getting caught. And that happened because he died.
However, I fail to see the logic in the honour given him by the Nigerian state that has conveniently chosen not to recognise the achievement of Emmanuel Ifeajuna, the first athlete to put our country on the global sporting map by winning a gold medal in high jump at the Commonwealth Games. A national reward system that would ignore Ifeajuna (one of the five Majors that planned Nigeria’s first military coup d’etat), for whatever political reasons, and yet venerate Abacha, is not one on which we can build a just society.
It is indeed mind boggling reading through the dirty details contained in the “United States of America versus Mohammed Sani Abacha and Others” court papers in relation to assets forfeiture. So the posthumous honour given to Abacha says so much about our country and the character of the current administration that acts as though it doesn’t care about its reputation on issues of transparency and accountability. But all the arguments about Abacha being honoured for his achievements in office despite whatever else he may have represented become hollow in the face of the Ifeajuna hypocrisy. It is a big shame.

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