So, we think that the problem was that South Africa’s loathes Nigerians. But it is. A failure of temperament and collapse of decorum. Yet it masks an angst lodged in both countries: Elite and government failure. The hatred launched itself with a subterfuge. It crept into our soul with a new word but “xenophobia” reflected how language can detract from the very malaise of the times.
The states of both countries were trading diplomatic tackles while quietly congratulating themselves. The reason? The angry mobs were not a vote of no confidence on the state. It was a vote of no confidence of the poor in one country against the poor of another. In both countries, mass unemployment abound. One idle class the poor, and the other idle class the rich cherished a solidarity of indolence. They lashed out at the hardworking poor. For the elite though, diplomacy was a sport, a ceremony of violence minus the blood. The savage sport was down the ladder: blood, gore and eyesore belonged far away in the pit and squalor of hoi poloi.
So this essay will peer, without reverence, at one episode that reflects why the state makes the poor impolite. It is the story of a company known as Process and Industrial Development (P&ID) that wants to milk Nigeria of $9.6 billion because of Nigeria’s tissue infection: corruption.
That money was secured against the Nigerian state by a roadside mechanic who became a showbiz hustler. He knew everyone that was anybody in the Nigeria’s vortex of power. He knew Obasanjo, the late President Yar’Adua, the vocal, self-righteous Danjuma. Having failed to make it as a big name in showbiz in his native Ireland, he turned Nigeria into a showbiz for himself.
His name was Michael Quinn. Though a big name among the Nigerian elite, he was of no value to the economy except to ruin it. A name without integrity, yet he was trusted by those who worked him and with him. He embodied the honour among thieves. He fit into how the Revelations described a false grandeur: “Thou hath a name that thou livest, but thou art dead.”
He did not have a university education, set up companies that no one could trace their origins or staff, but he succeeded in turning this country into a cesspit and a laboratory of his experiments in lies, deception, and connivance. He was a laundromat of corrupt officials, a sick lever to review contracts over and over, a conman for decoys from the eyes of investigators. He was everything to everyone. He was a golfer to the athletic, an engineer to the scientist, a medical expert to the doctor, an oil baron to the oil industry, a gun runner to the miscreant, an accountant to the fiddler of figures, a spy to the diplomat, a fashionista, a military expert, a foodie who loved fish and chips, a socialite, a father and husband.
He was a complete man in a wrong definition of manhood. He was the reverse of the universal man of the renaissance. My history professor Femi Omosini described Leonardo Dan Vinci as “a universal man of the Renaissance, a veritable jack of all trade and master of many.” Quinn was a master of the wrong trades and mastered them all. He was involved in oil bids, oil and gas deals, HIV projects. He had a prime finger in the construction era boom of the 1970’s. Remember the Cement Armada, a scandal that ate up the career of Benjamin Adekunle, the “Black Scorpion? Quinn was an unseen spirit working the miracles.
He was the chameleon who sparkled with the right colour for the environment. This mechanic was also a fop, dressed in his suits, a debonair look, moustachioed. So ruddy and smooth were his whiskers that he was compared to the goat species called mohair. He was not good at businesses in Europe where things followed a civilised standard. He tried though with a fellow showbiz man, Albert Reynolds, when that fellow became prime minister of Ireland. Typical “men of grace” like him never get caught. The European Union flung its cobweb at him, but the roach crept out into the dark.
He set up quite a few businesses, including one to make video cassettes, but they went belly up like a roach. In Nigeria, his businesses did not have to succeed. They only needed to be set up. In fact, his businesses were setups, entrapments for Nigeria in collaborations with Nigerians. Unlike in a scandal in Europe where his name and company were apparently traced including transactions, he was squeaky clean here. In the Mahon Tribunal scandal in Europe, they found his signature and company accounts in regard to some unkempt transactions. He denied. In Nigeria, he never had to deny and was free. In the Mahon Scandal, the weight of evidence dropped like a log but he ducked. No one knows why.
He had a sense of religious irony. The company that built a factory with government money to make equipment to treat HIV patients was called Trinity, but it never took off. The company whose first name is Sheda was shed. Another irony. He was also a military contractor who raked in millions of dollars for repairing and procuring parts of military tanks in Bauchi that never happened. The contracts were endlessly reviewed.
The company that secured a $9.6 billion fine is like Quinn. It has no website, no staff, no known offices, no pedigree of successes. General Theophilus Danjuma, who kept mum while the matter was raging until Bloomberg Businessweek interviewed him, said he knew the man and he had invested $40 million in the business and the man ran away with the investment. We need more explanation from the general. Even if Bill Gate’s $10 million were taken away by such a conman the world would know. He would be pursued to the ends of the earth.
The general is quick to aerate about the murderous herdsmen and failures of coups and governance. He could not find his voice until western reporters barrelled into his space and forced the words out of his commander lips.
It is obvious Quinn did the business with Nigerian connivance. The story is also the failure of due process, unfruitful dalliance of our bureaucracy, the incompetence of our attorneys-general, including Malami who had an opportunity to clear it away when they offered $850 million dollars in settlement, including the rapacious naivety of our lawyers. The only Nigerian witness who appeared in court did not know anything about the case. Yet the interest mounts $1 million a day. The money amounts to seven years of education budget, or a quarter of our annual budget. It is about oil and gas but the fine could end gas flaring forever.
It is a story of colonial mentality and inferiority complex. We assume the superior mentality of the western partner. We still have stories today like Siemens, about how the white man comes here to collude with our Nigerian official to fleece us. It is also a narrative of the military and their footloose morality and how they gave contracts and looted. Our civilians took over from where they left.
Quinn was like the character in Kosinski’s novel Being There, of a man who cannot read but, by the happenstance of capitalism, rises and is being touted to become the United States president.
Quinn was also like Jay Gatsby in the novel The Great Gatsby, who came from nothing, grew rich from questionable sources, and threw parties frequently to gain the attention of his childhood sweetheart who never materialised. He was a man without a community, except himself.
No wonder, just like Gatsby at his funeral, Quinn was alone. At his funeral the music, the Lonesome Boatman, was his swansong. He was a serpent, and died like one – alone.
Just as it is light out for Quinn, it’s still lights out for Nigerians for whom the P&ID contract was supposed to provide electricity. Cynically, the Irish wizard and his cohorts clinched the deal when, on sick bed, Yar’Adua as president was going “gentle into that good night,” apologies to Dylan Thomas. A necromantic affair.
– Omatseye is a respected columnist with The Nation