He is known as a writer with notable early novels in the Macmillan Pacesetters and more impressive big-fish books from his small-press pond. A favorite of his work ‘Diaries of A Dead African’ is a narrative in three diaries, the first of which was published in the London Review of Books. It will make you laugh and cry in turns. Having engaged his novels and a plethora of his short stories, I think of him as a master of anthologies within Africa’s literary sphere. Beyond his contribution to the literary world telling truly Nigerian stories, I am thrilled by his devotion to a country that is difficult to love. I met with this Lawyer and prolific but now retiring writer Chuma Nwokolo to talk about his perspective on the intersections of literary fiction and diverse social development issues. His passion for a corruption-free Nigeria shined through his promotion of the bribecode project.
You have written quite a lot of literature, as an experienced writer, do you think literary fiction produces change?
Definitely. The prime object of literary fiction is beauty, but it can also produce change. It may not be read by vast numbers of people, but society is not changed by 'vast numbers' either. Society is changed by a critical mass. Literary Fiction, like Science Fiction, develops ideas and extrapolates them onto an imaginative world that can inspire the reader into creating that world – or preventing it from coming to pass. So even if only a few people read a particular work of literary fiction, if the ideas in that work are cogent enough, and the few readers are inspired enough with the doggedness to change society, it will produce change.
So if we were to map out your readers for example, what class of readers are they?
Well it depends on which work of mine you refer to. If it is legal writing for instance, then they will probably be lawyers...
OK. If we focused on your fiction works?
Again I hope that not all my work will be 'quarantined' as literary fiction. I think that most of my work can actually be read by a broad section of society. I perceive my readers are wide-ranging considering that I also have a couple of young adult novels in the Macmillan Pacesetters series The Extortionist and Dangerous Inheritance. From feedback, I do not think they are that exclusive. However, a lot of classification is in the domain of the critic of course and they can stamp a work populist or literary. Some writers aspire to the literary; I think writers should aspire to be read.
Most of your works I have engaged or reviewed tell truly African and more of Nigerian stories. Why so?
I see the world through Nigerian and African spectacles. Without them I am blind. I cannot see the world as an Englishman because – despite my use of English – I am not one. I may have lived in the United Kingdom for a decade, but it has not made me see life from the perspective of the British. My perspective of the world is one I was born with. It is also a rich enough world whose stories can illustrate, in my view, every nuance of my human spirit. I feel our tales are so particular and universal.
More of Nigerian as opposed to other African stories? Hmmm… I think that can only be true concerning the first fifty years of my life!
My best from your works that I have read so far is ‘Diaries of A Dead African’ also published in the London Review of Books. The character of Meme Jumai provoked very critical emotions on hunger and poverty. Likewise, his son Calamatus - the sincere Conman - was equally a strong character. How do these two characters reflect the Nigerian reality?
Meme Jumai’s story for me is an extended metaphor on indifference; it is a story on the eclipsing idea of the extended family, which underpinned most of our African societies - even if we grant that African culture is a heterogeneous thing. Diaries of a Dead African as a story turned on the fulcrum of a society that is more nuclear, more unfeeling, and more uncaring of the neighbor. And what society has lost to development - or retrogression, depending on one's perspective - the state has not supplemented, either by welfarist policies or safety nets. So in our society, someone who falls through the cracks is really doomed. If we moved from the fiction of Meme Jumai’s story of a man whose harvest has gone bad to the reality of the Internally Displaced victims of Nigeria's rising insurgency, it is a similar story of people falling through cracks, without adequate safety nets, either from society or state.
I believe that governance in Africa should be purposed towards becoming the Extended Family of their citizens.
So do you think Calamatus is a consequence of a state that lacks social safety nets?
Oh Yes. Options open to people are often responses to the dysfunctions of the society. If like him, you had an elder brother Abel who 'graduates' from university and is unable to gain employment, you may be driven to short cuts, especially in a society that has jumped from hallowing education to hallowing money, howsoever earned.
Social safety nets diffuse the desperation that drives people who are up against a wall into breaking laws and breaching the norms and honor codes that hold societies together. A welfarist state will not eliminate all crime, particularly crimes of greed, but it certainly removes the desperation that leads many to that critical first step into criminality.
In the Issue 12 of African Writing Magazine which you publish, you posed this question to some renowned writers: 'Do you feel any social/political responsibility when you write, and why?' Now it's your turn: Is your writing art for art sake or a provocative dagger arousing critical attitudes in readers?
By asking that question of other writers, I was hoping to have dodged it! Since you have put me on the spot, I will attempt it. Yes I feel social and political responsibility when I write. But... does it emerge in my work? That is another question. Mostly, I write because I cannot not write. The wellspring of that creative impulse is a fundamentally selfish instinct to create something beautiful. Mostly I have no idea what the full picture will look like. Writing can be like bursting into a new song in the shower. Will such a song respect your sense of political responsibility? Do floods respect riverbanks? So writing is sometimes like that: a passionate river. And the ambition of every real writer should be to be borne away from agenda by a story with a mind and a power of its own.
It is different with pamphleteering. When writing factually about a social or political issue, your object is laid bare from the first sentence. Fiction usually springs from an artistic impulse, and the link should be more tenuous. Using Diaries of a Dead African as an example, I have said earlier that it is a story that elaborates on the metaphor of indifference. You may not read this literally from the text, as stories have a way of leading readers in directions their experiences dictate, all of which are valid. My purpose may not arrest every reader, and my interpretation of the book is no more valid than that of any other reader who engages the work. So the connection of my socio-political purpose is definitely more tenuous in my literary writings as opposed to my activist writing.
There is a meeting point: fiction that is directly inspired by a socio-political issue. An example is one of my stories in the collection, How to Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories (Vol. 1), titled The Ram-Selling Truth-Angel of Zambaputu, which was directly inspired by the hypocrisy I saw in our Justice System which metes out crippling punishment or fawning adoration, depending on whether the thief in question is pauper or billionaire.
The use of the Penis in the Greek culture was a constant reminder of male dominance in the society. The penis is a recurring symbol in your work, promoting male sexuality, how does this help the positioning of a less patriarchal society?
(Laughs) There are a few phallic references, yes. I certainly am not prudish and when my storylines discover genitalia, they don't shy away, male or female. Sentencing for Six is a short story where both get fairly equal treatment. In the Diaries of a Dead African the phallic triumphs, yes, but if read in context, it is very logical, so logical indeed that biting down on the ‘P’ word would have worked violence on the text. Calamatus' entire life for instance is dominated by the fate of his penis, which went missing when he was 8 days old, when a careless midwife sneezed in the course of his circumcision and castrated him. It is hard to avoid referring to the penis in telling such a story. Of course these are also diaries written by men whose natural references would be phallic. The Greeks may have considered their phallocentric literature as patriarchal but I'd like to think that there's an alternate reading in this milieu; men whose peer-mediated bluster language is phallic in nature are simply being more protective of the female. Perhaps they are 'hallowing' the female of their species rather than 'dominating' them!
In Nigeria’s Social Development concerns at present, what issues strike you as most pressing?
Governance is the central issue. It is so critical that it threatens the very existence of Nigeria and many other African countries. Beyond a doubt, it is destroying generations, millions and millions of lives, as we speak. Sometimes it would seem as though we had left the reins of governance to our most incompetent, without effective systems to police them or hold them to some level of accountability. Issues of governance are most pressing, and the evidence is everywhere we look. Bad governance creates problems from nowhere and escalates small problems into crises of existential dimensions.
The most significant cause of bad governance is corruption. The presence of corruption in a system does two things: firstly (and obviously), treasuries are plundered of resources. Secondly, high offices are plundered of human capital. I will explain: Corruption makes it almost impossible for the merely honest and competent to get into office. High offices are literally 'bought', and when the office of governor for instance, is occupied by the highest bidder, the citizens lose not just their treasury to a thief whose mission statement is 'milk the cow', but they also lose the opportunity of an efficient, competent manager of their resources and administrator of their needs. In a corrupt system, even marginally competent people abandon real 'public service' in favor of service that profits them personally. This is the second, more egregious consequence of corruption, the near extinction of competence and integrity from public office.
How then are you addressing corruption?
My conviction is that corporate bodies have a critical role both in the perpetuation and the elimination of political corruption. We will appreciate the relationship between the country and the business world by recalling the history of pre-colonial Nigeria. 'Explorers' were in part sponsored by companies of produce buyers to reconnoiter the land. Companies laid claim to the land, her resources, and peoples. In 1899, the Royal Niger Company sold its 'financial interests' in Nigeria to the British government for £865,000, enabling the British to set up a new colonial government in Lagos. So we can track the 'legitimacy' of the current government in Aso Rock to the entrepreneurial project of Royal Niger Company, whose ‘successor’ is still quoted on the Nigerian Stock Exchange. Lord Luggard has served both as a mercenary for the Royal Niger Company, pacifying Borgu as a soldier, and as the Governor General of Nigeria. Ernest Shonekan has served both as a staff of the UAC Plc (Successor Company of the RNC) and President of Nigeria. This speaks to the strength of the partnership between the national government and corporate governance.
So our challenge is to restructure the incestuous relationship between government and companies so that the resources of the Nigerian State serve the interests of the Nigerian people, rather than a closed group of the political and corporate elite who appear to have replaced the colonials as the net beneficiary of the Nigeria project. Thabo Mbeki's High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows reports that US$50 billion is lost every year by African countries with Nigeria as the biggest loser by a wide margin. Yet, most of our lost capital is not directly due to political corruption. It is mostly perpetrated by companies engaging in false invoicing of goods, a process which is facilitated by the corrupt collaboration and incompetence of the public sector.
To address corruption, we must realign the interests of the private sector with the interests of Nigeria as a country by making the corruption of public officers intrinsically unprofitable.
How do we achieve this?
Presently, our institutions are too weak to enforce our anti-corruption laws against corporate bodies many of which are older than independent Nigeria. That is where the Bribecode comes in. The details of the bill are available at the website, bribecode.org, and though being piloted in Nigeria, its ideas have currency in other African countries.
How is the Bribecode Bill different from every other Anti-Corruption law we have presently?
In enforcement. Our present anti-corruption laws are not effective against companies and individuals who are rich enough or politically connected. Even without political connection, every link of the enforcement system is vulnerable to the Bribe. Even where convictions are secured, fines are insignificant and derisory relative to the millions and billions at stake, which is why companies involved in transatlantic corruption cases often fight bitterly to be sued in Nigeria rather than Western countries where institutions are stronger and penalties more significant. Fines are often passed on to the customers as part of business expenses; they are therefore not a disincentive for grand corruption.
The Corporate Corruption Act, also known as the Bribecode, is different because it proposes that when a company is convicted of serious corruption, the penalty will be liquidation. For large companies whose operations affect lots of stakeholders, like public companies, the penalty will not be outright liquidation, but instead the entire board of directors and the senior management will have their employment terminated. Then where there are principal shareholders who control the board, those shares will be expropriated to the treasury. Thereafter, the board can be reconstituted and the operation of such public companies can continue.
This is the core provision of the law. There are also other supplementary provisions that guarantee that this law does not suffer the fate of previous anti-corruption laws. One of such provisions is that whistle blowers are not only protected, they are rewarded. Compensating whistle blowers with a percentage of the liquidated company’s property should open the floodgate of information and caution companies that illegal transactions will not remain secret forever. When such a provision is coupled with the ability of any of the 37 attorneys general in the country to prosecute, there will be no hiding place or political immunity for corrupt companies. This is the proposal that, with the help of Nigerians, can begin a process of national transformation.
Do I hear you say that ethical companies are endangered in Nigeria?
In endemically corrupt societies, ethical companies are endangered, particularly if they contract regularly with government. If you do things by the book, you will achieve less, if you don’t go bankrupt entirely. So if we agree that Nigeria is endemically corrupt, then yes an ethical company is endangered if it refuses to play by corrupt rules. Some companies may hire middlemen to cut corners and do the illegal things they consider morally obnoxious. By ‘out-sourcing’ in this way, they can maintain their ‘ethical’ stature. Or they may refuse to pay kickbacks directly to public officers and only act as sub-contractors to companies who have done so. Yet, in both cases, the ‘ethical’ company forms a part of the corruption chain through their principals or their subcontractors and must take some responsibility for the process. World over, companies are being forced to take responsibility for unethical conduct in their value chain. For companies operating in Nigeria today, I challenge them to look at their value chain and ascertain how much of what they do through their principals and sub-contractors they can stand behind. What they find should inspire them to support Bribecode, to bring on the change that gives ethical corporations the level playing field to prosper, and makes companies with corruption in their DNA endangered.
Corruption is Corruption to me, why is it important to have a dichotomy between grand and petty corruption?
It is important to draw these lines; otherwise we will never be able to solve the problem of corruption. The general attitude to corruption makes you feel there is no point in trying to solve it: it seems like it is everywhere, an insurmountable thing. This is true if we do not distinguish between petty corruption and grand corruption. Petty corruption is the policeman who takes a dash to overlook your missing papers. Grand corruption is the Minister who takes a bung to sign a road contract. They are not the same. Spending energy and resources to jail desperate people engaged in petty corruption is both hypocritical and ineffective. But a strategic policy that tackles grand corruption in a sustainable way eventually creates the environment that eliminates petty corruption from the top down. All this can happen within an electoral cycle as high offices become more open to ethical office holders and the influence of godfathers is weakened. Office holders will be able to exercise more discipline in their environment.
If many Nigerians sign up the Bribecode, how does this translate it into a signed law?
Obviously the man on the street does not make laws. We have delegated that power to the National Assembly. The whole process of collecting signatures for the Bribecode is to assure the law-makers who will stand up for this Bill in the National Assembly that it is indeed the desire of the Nigerian people. Also we can organize a Grand Recall of legislators who oppose the bill by taking the side of corruption against the interest of the people. So Nigerians can drive this Bill unto the agenda of the National assembly by their signatures, and see it through, during the lifetime of the eighth National Assembly.
The website, bribecode.org is gaining attention, but I think it is limited to the Elite, literate and upwardly mobile persons in the society. What plans are in place to take this to the grassroots?
Well, there is also the Bribecode Roadshow which will take us to the Nigerian streets. We are linking up with partners, associations and groups to get this message out. Apart from the website, people can also sign up their support by texting their names and addresses to 0817 8200 382. And our challenge to Nigerians is that the only way to support Bribecode, is to Sign up Five Supporters! That is the way to take the movement to the grassroots!
Thank You, Chuma Nwokolo for your time
My pleasure talking to you.
I end this interview by reaffirming that addressing corruption is indeed critical to our national development. I will think that the anti-corruption manifesto of the incoming administration of President Elect Muhammed Buhari will create the enabling ambience to pass a comprehensive anti-corruption bill. While the Bribecode; the Corporate Corruption Act remains a work-in-progress seeking support from concerned Nigerians, its intentions are highly commendable and for this, I once again extend my appreciation to Chuma Nwokolo as he continues to contribute to the building of a better Nigeria and eventually Africa.
To support the Bribecode project, kindly visit www.bribecode.org to sign up and play your part.
This interview was conducted in Asaba, Delta state Nigeria by Ms.Adaobi Nkeokelonye. Ms.Nkeokelonye is a Social-Development Researcher. As an avocation, she currently explores linkages between literary fiction/non-fiction and International Development issues on her site http://fictioningdevelopment.org