Nigerian youth and the ‘sugar’ metaphor of corruption

BRIBE“I remember, in my own country, a young person, about twenty years old, who wanted to get involved in politics. He studied, he was enthusiastic, he went from place to place, and he got a job in a government office. One day he had to make a decision about purchasing something. He had three estimates, so he reviewed them and he chose the best one. Then he went to his boss to have it approved. “Why did you choose this one?” “Because it was best for the country’s finances.” “No, no, you have to choose this one which will put more money in your pocket!” This young person told his boss: “I got into politics to help my country!’ and the boss’ answer was: “I got into politics to steal!”
– Pope Francis, meeting with young people, Nairobi, (November 27, 2015).

At 2:14pm of Wednesday, November 25, 2015, Pope Francis landed aboard the Alitalia aeroplane at Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi for the first leg of a historic five-day visit to Kenya, Uganda and conflict-hit Central African Republic. When asked if he was concerned about security risks, the Pope brushed off security concerns and quipped: “To tell you the truth, the only thing I’m concerned about is the mosquitoes. Did you bring your insecticide spray?” This was his first visit to the African continent since he became the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.5 billion Catholics on March 13, 2013.

On November 27, he met with young people at Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi. Sadly, this memorable encounter did not receive adequate media attention. Speaking off-the-cuff to 30,000 young people, mainly university students, Pope Francis proffered answers to wide-ranging questions. Two young Kenyans, Emmanuel Mwonga, a 22-year-old fashion designer, and Linette Wambui, a fourth year student of Library Information Sciences at Kenyatta University, had been selected to present the youth’s messages to the Pope. For them, it was a chance of a lifetime to meet the Pope. They both consulted their friends, and coming from the National Youth Council, they also had the opportunity to collate the opinions of their friends and age mates.

These were the questions asked by the two youth representatives: “What can be done to prevent ideological fanaticism from robbing the lives of young people?” “Why is there a thirst for self-destruction among young people?” “How can young people overcome the divisiveness of tribalism?” “Can corruption be justified simply because everyone is involved in wrongdoing?” “How can we use the communications media to spread the message of hope in the world?” “What can we do to stop the recruitment of our family members and friends by terrorist groups?”

From their presentations, the two biggest challenges identified by Mwonga and Wambui, were corruption and tribalism. “Can corruption be justified simply because everyone is involved in wrongdoing, everyone is corrupt?” In responding to this important question, Pope Francis likened corruption to sugar. It is easy to acquire a taste for it; it is very sweet but ultimately it is bad for one’s health. In the words of the Pope: “There is corruption not just in politics, but in every institution, even in the Vatican. Corruption is something that gets inside of us, it’s like sugar: it’s sweet, we like it, and it goes down easily. But then we get sick! We come to a nasty end! When we have too much sugar, we end up with diabetes, and our country ends up being diabetic!”

Explicating the moral and social cost of corruption, the Pope proceeded to offer a strong-worded admonition to young people: “Whenever we take a bribe or pocket a kickback, we destroy our heart, we destroy our personality, and we destroy our country. Please, don’t get used to the taste of this ‘sugar’… As in everything you have to make a start. If in your heart you don’t like corruption, if you do not want corruption in your life or in your country, then start now! If you don’t start, your neighbour won’t start either. Corruption steals our joy. It robs us of peace. A corrupt person is not at peace.”

As a man powerfully gifted with expressions for communicating complex truths in simple but profound language, Pope Francis’ “sugar” metaphor captured the imagination of young Kenyans. His admonitions to young Kenyans reflected a concern that is not just for Kenya, but also for many African nations, including Nigeria, where corruption has destroyed the fabric of political, social and economic life. In the 2014 Transparency International index, Kenya ranked dismal 145 out of 174 countries polled, and recently President Kenyatta was forced to fire several cabinet ministers on corruption charges.

Nigeria’s situation is not different. Corruption has become a hydra-headed monster, a full-blown cancer, which is decimating the lives of millions of people. Its phenomenally destructive impact on the health of the nation is unimaginable. “When you see dilapidated infrastructure round the country, it is often the consequences of corruption. Poor healthcare, collapsed education, lack of public utilities, decayed social services, are all products of corruption, as those entrusted with public resources put them in their private pockets,” said President Buhari in his keynote address titled, ‘Incorruptibility: A Spiritual Premise for Material Wellbeing’ at the 15th Osigwe Anyiam-Osigwe Foundation annual lecture series in Abuja, on December 11, 2015. What is clear today is that corruption is no longer just a financial crime or a political problem. It is an ethical problem, a symptom of the crisis of values and the death of a consensual moral ethos that can govern both public and private behaviour. No cosmetic solution can suffice, unless we address the ethical root of the problem.

President Buhari put this in perspective in his Osigwe Anyiam-Osigwe lecture: “Any effort to try to deal with corruption without a convinced populace will end as spasmodic, ephemeral exercise, lacking the appropriate social impact. When we are talking about corruption conventionally, it is a manifestation of the human mindset. It is the human beings that manifest corruption. To win the war on corruption, therefore, begins with the people accepting that there is an error to be corrected in their lives, that there is a need to refocus and re-orientate the values that we cherish and hold dear. It requires change of mindset, change of attitude, and change of conduct.” He went further to say curtailing corruption “might require a more broadened social engineering. It, indeed, requires conforming every mindset in the social order to the moral tenets in which propriety anchors as a way of life.”

At a more spiritual or psychological level, no matter what we have stolen, when we die our ill-gotten wealth do not follow us to the grave. As Pope Francis told the 30,000 young people in Nairobi, “Whatever you steal by corruption will stay behind and somebody else will use it. But it will also stay behind – and we need to keep this in mind – in the hearts of all those men and women who were hurt by your example of corruption. It will stay behind in all the good you could have done but never did. It will stay behind in the children who are sick or hungry because the money that was meant for them was used for your own enjoyment, because you were corrupt.” With heartfelt appeal, the Pope said to the youth: “Dear young people, corruption is not the way to life. It is a path which leads to death.” I believe that these words are enough to inspire a sense of moral responsibility in the minds of young Nigerians as they prepare themselves for leadership and public service.

• Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja (

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