Thursday 19 January 2012

The First Time I Was Corrupt

It was in secondary school. I was thirteen. We were going for a state wide basketball competition. Ten girls and ten boys were chosen but each team would be made up of only five. Five would play, five would be subs. I wanted to play, badly. Every Tuesday and Thursday for the past month or so, I had woken up at 5am to jog round the school compound. I had run sprints and shot hoops in the half morning light. Every time I missed a shot, I complained about the poor light. I would have made it in the afternoon, I protested when the ball left my hand and bounced off the rim. I made the ten. I was on the bus, going for the tournament. But would I make the five?

We got to the venue: a large but shabby state school. The hoops were sparse metal rims. No netting hung down from them, like in the NBA. Our first match was scheduled. We went to our court. Our P.E teacher, Mrs O, read out five names. None were mine. She must have seen the fallen faces of the rejected five because she said to us,
"Don't worry. There are many matches today."

The match began. The rival team scored early. Mrs O began to grow agitated on the sidelines.
"Amaka shoot!"
"Deola pass the ball!"
"Shoot! Shoot!"
We were losing, time was passing. Mrs. O called a halftime.
"Deola come and sit down. Chibundu go on."

Me. I was going to play. Me!

The referee brought the sheet that had to be filled whenever a player stepped on the court. Standard questions, Name, School, Age.
Name. Mrs O wrote Chibundu Onuzo.
School. Mrs O wrote Atlantic Hall, Poka-Epe.
"How old are you?" Mrs O asked, her pen poised above the page, impatient to write. Time was going.
"Ah this tournament is for twelve and under."
"But I'm thirteen."
"It doesn't matter. I'll just put twelve."
"Wait," I said, my heart beginning to pound.

It's not that I hadn't lied before. Lies a plenty filled my past. Who drank my Fanta? Who wore my skirt? Who moved my cheese? All questions, I had lied to. But to lie on an official document. To lie about something as fundamental as my age. To tell such a lie, though sanctioned by my teachers, went against everything my parents had ever taught me.

"If I don't put twelve, you can't play."

And I'm afraid to say that sealed the deal for me. Not play, after waking up so many mornings. Not play, after driving two hours to reach this venue. Not play and let one of the other subs take my place. Tofia.

So with my heart pounding, I walked onto the field. Needless to say, I was rubbish. I missed the ball when it was thrown to me. When I caught it, I lost it immediately. I couldn't concentrate. My lie hung too heavily on me. I could hear Mrs. O screaming on the sidelines but it did nothing to spur me on. When a pass I intended for a team mate, ended up in the hands of an opponent who scored a few seconds later, Mrs O shouted, "Time out. Chibundu come and sit down. Deola, you're going back on."

I walked back to the side benches. The other subs made room for me as they offered their condolences.
"You did ok."
"You'll do better in the next match."
"Don't worry."
But I wasn't sad. I was relieved. For the rest of the day, I watched my mostly thirteen and fourteen year old team mates cruise to the silver medal position. When the medals came, even the subs got them. I wore mine proudly around school but secretly, inside, I was glad I had nothing to do with the winning of it.

It was my first taste of corruption and it left a funny feeling in my mouth, like the taste of fruity lip balm, sweet but toxic nonetheless. Hitherto, I had never been directly complicit in anything corrupt. True, bribes had been given on my behalf. I had sat in the car and watched the driver pass money to the low ranking officials whenever we were flagged down for no reason at a police checkpoint.
"Give us something," the bluntest of the police men would say as we pulled over. I was relieved when the drivers paid. I was afraid of the guns but every time money changed hands, I was also angry.
"When I'm older," I would say to the driver after we had driven off, "When I'm older and I have my own car, I won't give those people money."
"If you don't give them," the most pragmatic of the drivers once explained to me, "they will make your life hell for nothing. Better to just give them the twenty Naira and go your way."
I would be different, I thought. I would be the one who would stand by the roadside and refuse to compromise my integrity for the sake of my convenience. Yet, how easily my moral defenses had crumbled when I had to choose between them and something I wanted.

I imagine it is the same for many of our bloated politicians. It is true, some have always been thieves but enough were scrupulous enough in their private careers, for one to wonder how such volte faces took place. We have watched honest enough doctors become thieves. We have watched cabinet members who were highly ranked in the private sector and relatively honest there, become treasury robbers over night. We have watched speakers of the house come from abroad, where they never had criminal records, and begin to dream up the most inventive acts of fraud.

I had never had the opportunity to lie about my age and I had never had the motivation to do so. I imagine it is the same for many of our politicians. Opportunities to steal abound. Motivations to steal can always be found. School fees are due, new house is needed in the village, wife wants diamond earrings for anniversary and of course, chances of getting caught are slim. If I knew that someone would check my passport after Mrs. O wrote that I was twelve, I would have snatched that pen from her.

I want to live in Nigeria one day. And if this happens in the near future it is likely that the opportunities for corruption will still abound. I hope that I will not look for motivation and will dismiss the fact that the chances of my getting caught are slim. I want to be different. I pray I will be different.

It was my birthday yesterday. I'm now 21. We thank God.


  1. I can imagine how you felt. Been in that same kind of situation before. Trust me, it's really hard to stand your ground and choose not to be corrupt in Nigeria....

    You're in a public bus for example and the driver is taking the wrong lane, but no passenger complains even if they know he's breaking the law; instead they tell him to drive quickly before LASTMA gets him. A parent sends his child to school, but instead of encouraging the child to read he's busy saving up for the JAMB expo he's trying to get for his child. Even with the recent happenings, since the fuel price increase to N141 and then to a 'reduction' to N97, traders have increased their prices over triple of the original amount when really their goods shouldn't be that expensive whatever the situation (i mean its barely a 50% increase on the original N65); but then they give you the excuse of 'na fuel subsidy cause am na '.

    People find it so easy to be corrupt in Nigeria because they can easily get away with it. Like someone once said, it's hard to be a good Christian in our country, but we can only pray for God to give us strength and the grace to remain good.
    As for me I don't mind 'running away' a bit to get away from all of it before I lose my mind.

    Sorry for the long post......

    Congrats!! Happy Bday in arrears. Been following you for a while since I heard about your book. Hopefully I'll get to read it when it finally gets published.

  2. Bundu beb!!! lol! Happy belated birthday. Fruity lip balm...sweet but analogy.

  3. Yeah Ayo. Corruption has crept into everything. We lie so easily and withhold the truth and cheat people. Naija... I hope when you read SKD you enjoy it.

    And Babe! Welcome back to the blogosphere.

  4. Happy birthday dear! I believe God has given you the grace for all seasons. You have also been brought up in a good home and your foundation, you will not forget.

    I don't quite agree with the premise of your post. Most of our elected officials are greedy. Are you greedy?

    You told a lie. Some steal, lie, kill, amongst other atrocities.
    Well, sin is sin you may say.

    I won't deny that corruption is a Nigerian culture, however, when the poor are pushed to be corrupt, I can see why. They have been led to emulate and breed bad examples. Furthermore, they have been excluded, they have no choice, they have no access. In extreme cases it is a matter of life or death.

    The corrupt leader on the other hand, has abused office and been irresponsible with entrusted resources (both human and material). Such a person is not fit to lead. He or she may not have had a solid foundation, also he or she might have been poor before, and now, given the opportunity to accumulate, see nothing wrong with that attitude. I have spoken to many taxi drivers in Nigeria who said they can't wait to be in power (pay back time) I had to call them out on their mindset so they remember that it is not the right thing to do.

    The reason why corrupt leaders do not try such in other countries is not only because they do not think they will get caught. There are some who have tried it in other countries and got away with it too. The embezzlements in Swiss bank accounts, money laundering, etc. They don't Care if they get caught in/ by Nigeria because our legal system is currently messed up. They enjoy impunity. They even forget their crimes because they get so caught up in their embezzling activities. Their new positions are highly lucrative. Lest we forget the billions they take home in salaries and allowances.

    It is a morally bankrupt system that we have now. There is no excuse for misappropriation of national funds. For the corrupt leader a twentieth house is not a matter of life or death, diamond earrings are just luxuries, they can in fact afford their children's school fees and that of other members of their village. It is not a matter of life or death to rig the election, they will even kill people to get what they want. A principled person will not do such at the expense of the individual and the nation.

    You are already different. Enjoy your 21st dear! Many, many, many more to come!

    Seven evils that destroy not only individuals, but entire countries:
    “Politics without principles; wealth without work; pleasure without conscience; knowledge without character; business without morality; science without humanity and worship without self-sacrifice.” -Mahatma Gandhi

  5. very well written.

  6. John 'Lighthouse' Oyewale28 February 2014 at 20:07

    This is an absolutely interesting read. I feel it's also courageous - this writing about one's involvement with corruption, arms in the air, muttering, Mea culpa. Most of all, it resonates with me and reminds me of a similar confessional article I'd written for The Nigerian Telegraph last year (see link:

    I regard confession as an important step towards change and newness and a life of resisting corruption. It would be a shame if no one fessed up, if we all turned a blind eye to it and said, Just do it and that's it, if you want to survive in this country; if we all 'co-operate' in applying situation ethics.

    Is it not true, then, that 'writers are the true moralists?' Our world will be the better for it if but a few will resist wrongdoing, even if on the pain of being dubbed conservative or old-fashioned.

    I'm sure you're having a good time studying and writing.


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