Academic Mercenaries

"Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has said he will not be slowed in his crusade against corruption, despite what critics may say ... " The BBC broadcast waves in and out on my shortwave radio. I boil water on my gas cooker (electricity's out again) for my morning cup of tea, and can't help but chuckle. For me, it's just another day in my life as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria.

Obasanjo's crusade feels as remote as it might were I hearing it on NPR in my hometown of San Francisco. Coming from the monotony of middle class urban-intellectual America, where the biggest drama in the day is the after-work race to the organic vegetable market to avoid the six o'clock line, Nigeria is a jungle. Everyday is different, but I can be sure that today I will witness, and perhaps participate in, some form of corruption.

It won't be embezzlement of billions of dollars in oil receipts, or the manufacturing of multi-million dollar contracts that never get completed -- it is for those reasons that Nigeria is a perennial contender for the number one ranking on Transparency International's list of Most Corrupt Countries. It will be corruption as most Nigerians experience it, from pacification money to low-level extortion, from inappropriate hustling to small-scale fraud. Of course, it might even include a little gun-slinging crude criminal activity.

Two months ago, as I bumbled into town I saw my first evidence of "jungle justice" as it is called. A pile of charred corpses, a leg sticking up like a submarine telescope, a face frozen in anguish, craning up to the sky. They were five thieves, convicted and burned on the spot for allegedly stealing 4.2 million naira [$30,600]. Even in the relatively protected University environment, corruption, with the invention of the Internet scams -- now one of Nigeria's staple commodities -- will certainly live another busy day.

As I walk out my gate in the morning, I greet the guards, and because it's been a few days since I last dashed them, I pull out a couple of twenty naira notes (about 30 cents), and push them into their palms. "Something small to chop," I say. They press the notes to their forehead, bow ceremoniously and shout, "God bless you, sir! Oga Dan!" They are twice my age, but as the only white student among 25,000, it's impossible to dodge "Oga" or "Big Man" status. Always better to leave the guards smiling at their dash than wondering where in my room I keep my camera.

I hop on one of the intercampus buses -- rusted, wobbly Nissans whose cushy seats have been exchanged for smaller benches so they can carry 18 passengers. As I squeeze out at my stop, the conductor refuses the bill I offer to pay with. "It's been taken care of," says a voice from behind belonging to a student who introduces himself as Bright, an appropriately smiling third-year economics student. "I am secretary of transportation. I will arrange free transport for you, no problem."

I refuse, knowing in Nigeria's "nothing for nothing" culture of mutual back-scratching it's best to decline anything for free unless the person is substantially more rich and powerful than you. Making friends is always a potentially dangerous commitment. Several of my friends on campus (I have dared) admit to me that they don't have any friends, just associates. "I say hello to everybody, but I don't really want to get too close to you, "says Jacob, a first-year theater arts student. "Friends betray you."

I stroll past a pair of classrooms -- open air, concrete structures overflowing with students. Dressed smartly in dress shirts and slacks or loudly in billowy hip-hop garb, they stand outside the classroom and lean in the windows to hear the lecturer. The lecturer has to compete with the sermon of a student preacher next door, who is goose-stepping up and down in front of the chalkboard. About 50 students gibber in tongues and beat the floor with their hands. Prosperity churches are big business in Nigeria, and the University is a good place for up-and-coming preachers to refine their skills before they graduate, turn "pro" and have to deal with the fierce competition among soul-savers in Nigeria's intensely Christian Southeast.

In the humanities quad, I watch a professor bound out of his office, arm in arm with a buxom female student. Perhaps they have just discussed her grade. Paying professors for good grades is a common practice. A student hoping for an A might expect to pay 5,000 naira ($35), while one only able to pay 3,000 naira ($22) can at least get a C.

Female students, of course have options. "You can either pay in cash, or pay in kind," says Olatunji, a second-year business administration student at Rivers State University of Science and Technology (UST), Port Harcourt's other university. Olatunji estimates that 40 percent of professors accept cash payments for grades, while 20 percent sleep with their students. How does he know? "Everybody knows," Olatunji says with a laugh. "Maybe after his lecture, the lecturer will see a girl he likes and say, 'Please see me after class.'"

This isn't the only way professors supplement their income. Another common practice is making a certain textbook or packet of articles mandatory, and selling it at three times the normal price, while making sure the student bookshops do not supply any copies.

Not to be outdone, students find ways to make school pay. Two months ago, my friend Frank, a third-year political science student, woke up early and left the house without eating any breakfast. "Jam day! I'm gonna make some Benjies, man!" he squealed, rubbing his hands together in the age-old sign for money (Benjies is short for Benjamin Franklin's, or hundred dollar bills).

On that morning, the lawns on campus were swarming with clutters of anxious teenagers and smooth hustlers swirling between them. Thousands of young people across Nigeria were preparing to sit for the University entrance exam. But by the time they pick up their pencils, the real work will be largely finished. As students tell it, as soon as administrators from Abuja, Nigeria's capital, touch ground in Port Harcourt (and a dozen other cities around the country), they are met by two or three agents, to whom they sell one of the most coveted pieces of information in the country: the exam questions.

The agents pay a hefty sum, but the return is quick and lucrative. They give the questions to people they have sub-contracted to solve them, and then begin selling the answers to a selection of middlemen. These middlemen will take the answers to the testing sites, where groups of nervous students will chip in to buy their answer sheets. Of course, there are no guarantees, as for every bona fide supplier there are several bogus answer vendors. And their exam monitor may be strict, although they usually relax considerably when given a few hundred naira.

On this particular exam day though, Frank was sorely disappointed. "Three hundred card (naira), man!" he complained. "That's lousy money man, I needed Benjies!" Frank, like many other smart and savvy students, would soon have another money-making opportunity on campus. Endowed with considerable writing skills, Frank often offers his services as a "mercenary" exam writer for enrolled students. The common practice is for an understudied student to buy two exam sheets, walk out of the exam with their own and leave their "mercenary" to write up a winning essay and turn it in. This doesn't yield lousy money; students quoted a mercenary hire fee as between 10,000 and 15,000 naira ($70-$110).

Of course these "mercenaries" are unarmed. Cult groups -- mafia-like student associations comprised mostly of politically ambitious rich kids -- are not. Last week at UST, cultists from one of the most prominent groups, the Vikings, stormed into a classroom just as students had finished writing their exam. As one student recounted, the cultists collected the exam sheets, tore them up, and then began firing their weapons wildly in the air. Students dove headfirst out the windows. Apparently the Vikings, of which Rivers State Governor Peter Odili is a prominent member, were making a protest against alleged special treatment University officials were giving their arch-rivals "Black Ax."

Walking past the dorms, a man in black pants, black t-shirt and sunglasses waves me towards him. Although compliance and politeness is not always the best policy in an environment in which bluffing bluster and hiding one's fear of a situation is often the best escape route, he had the signs of one of the Man O'War, the student security servicemen.

Sure enough, after a brief, informal interrogation, which is as much a "feel-out" as anything else ("What's your name? Which course are you in? Are you moving with him?), he delivered me the standard free pass. "You are welcome," he said, leaning back in his chair and casting his gaze out towards the next possible trouble spot. The student security service, which at Uniport is headed by a former State Security officer, is the best defense against the cults.

Suddenly a scream goes up from the neighboring dorm room, and a flock of students burst out, shouting and shaking their hands in the air. Student election results had just been released, and their candidate had won. Frank walked up slowly, his shoulders slumped. "Man, we lost by four votes, man! Four votes!" he said. Although student elections were said to be free and fair by all students I interviewed, the stakes are still high enough for a bitter campaign fight. A position in student government means power and influence for a student's home community.

As with national elections, it was hard to get any students to mention any ideological platform the candidates were espousing. The lines were drawn along ethnicity, then geography, then family. Out of three candidates from Frank's Local Government Area in neighboring Bayelsa State, only one had triumphed. His hopes for a lucrative election cycle had been dashed.

Despite a web of scams against which students must stay continuously vigilant and nimble to avoid falling prey to, some see improvements. Book price-hiking has been curtailed. At UST, a certain lecturer, Ogan, was recently sacked for overpricing books. Even paying for grades, the signature university fraud, is on the decrease, according to some. "Before it was in the open, but now it's somehow hidden," says Olatunji. "Before out of six courses, you could expect to pay for grades in four. Now maybe only two." Others are less optimistic. "You could write a book about corruption just here on campus," says Lovely, a second-year theater arts student. "Corruption is in Nigeria's blood."

I duck into the campus Internet café to check my email. News websites discuss how the recent cancellation of $18 billion of Nigeria's debt will affect national development and poverty alleviation. Ultimately, that is what is at stake, although it is difficult for Nigerians to see how their small, everyday decisions are part of an all-pervasive nationwide attitude that is crippling the country.

In a society as steeped in corruption as Nigeria's, it is difficult to locate the wellspring of corruption. Many Nigerians insist it "comes from the top," and this is true to some extent. The constant police checkpoints, in which glassy-eyed paramilitary, police or army men wave around AK-47s, are ordered from on high. It is common to see the commander sitting in the front seat of the paddy wagon, his seat reclined, lazily counting the day's take, and calculating how much he will need to pass on to his boss.

But a strong case can be made that oil has made Nigerians money crazy. That the fast, easy money it brings discourages trying to advance slowly and steadily. Instead, morals are mortgaged in the chase to become a Big Man. Those who pursue a slow and honest path are almost always passed up by those who have a "Godfather" or "Oga" pushing them. Merit doesn't get you much in Nigeria.

My neighbor Frank comes panting into the Internet café and hands me a piece of paper. "Now professor wants 8-10 pages, I don't get time, oh," he says with a well-rehearsed sense of desperation. "Maybe you can just help me write a draft? Just a draft."

I unfold the paper and look at the essay topic: "The role of corruption in Nigeria's national development." I crumple up the paper and shake my head. I explain that it wouldn't be right, that I might get kicked out of Uniport, that I would make a bad mercenary.

I also explain that I have my own article to write about corruption in the Nigerian University, and that I have to maintain some journalistic integrity. "Just a draft, just write a draft," he begs. I pause to decide how best to get out of this one. "Now what do you have for me?" I respond, holding out my hand and looking as sorrowful as possible in the great Nigerian tradition I've yet to master. He storms out of the Internet café, and I return to typing my article. I've kept the wolves of corruption at the door for the day.

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