Egunje (Nigeria)

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Location: Nigeria
Nigeria map.png
Author: Dhikru Adewale Yagboyaju
Affiliation: University of Ibadan, Nigeria

Original Text: Dhikru Adewale Yagboyaju, University of Ibadan, Nigeria

Egunje is a form of involuntary giving. Colloquially, the extorted ‘gifts’ are ‘cursed’ by the donor, who does not want the recipient, most commonly a predatory official, to enjoy them. Egunje is a pejorative term that refers to the fact that the given ‘gifts’ are not really gifts under certain circumstances. It conveys popular displeasure, particularly because the ‘gift’ has to be given despite the entitlement of a citizen to receive a public service from an official. Officials who receive egunje can include security personnel, medical personnel, judicial staff, petrol station attendants, school teachers, marriage registry officials, public servants in charge of core services such as import licenses, planning approval, allocation of agricultural inputs and other resources, and other types of bureaucrats.

The practice of egunje derives from traditional practices of gift-giving shared by most of the prominent ethnic and tribal groups in Nigeria. Among the Yorubas of South Western Nigeria (one of the three dominant ethnic nationalities), gift-giving (ore or ebun) is an age-long practice which is encouraged to further strengthen communal living. The term ore or ebun stands for a legitimate, open and voluntary gift signaling goodwill (Akinseye-George 2000:7)[1]. The worth of a gift (ore or ebun) is not in its size or quantity, but in the spirit of kindness that is supposed to be behind it. Although kindness may be given in response to the request of a recipient, it is generally regarded more honourable when it is volunteered by the donor. Givers of ore or ebun are expected to be blessed by God, as reflected in the popular expression: ‘givers are never short of (anything).’ Ore or ebun can be given in the form of a tip (dash) to appreciate a service rendered. It may also be given in the form of support for expenses incurred by individuals or families organizing ceremonies, such as funerals, weddings, house commissioning and child-naming, in which a large number of invited guests will be fed and entertained.

The Hausas of Northern Nigeria distinguish between voluntary gifts that are generally regarded as tips (dash) and involuntary ones, which can be described as tribute or bribe. The Hausas disparage the involuntary ones, using such terms as hanci (‘eating of nose’), or toshiyar baki (‘plugging of mouths’) (Auwal 1987:293)[2]. Alongside egunje among the Yorubas and hanci and toshiyar baki for the Hausas, other euphemisms have emerged to denote the necessity of paing public officials: ‘public relations’ (PR), ‘welfare package,’ gworo, and kolanut. ‘Public relations’ and ‘welfare package’ in their original sense may be used to mean hospitality, and are used here as an adulterated adoption of the terms. Gworo (kolanut in the Hausa language) is used in a subtle reference to the common hospitable practice of offering kolanuts to guests.

While viewed as involuntary and extortive, such forms of tribute are linked to the practices of lobbying in Nigeria’s recent democratisation under the Fourth Republic (1999 onwards) (Ribadu 2005[3]; Abolarin 2003[4]). Lobbying, essentially carried out through various methods of political advocacy for certain interests, involves applying pressure to public officials (especially legislators) to influence pending action or legislation, in terms of policy agenda setting or formulation (Encyclopedia Britanica 1980[5]; Bello-Imam 2005[6]). Although lobbying can be associated with cases of bribery (for example the ‘Abscam’ and ‘Koreagate’ cases in the USA (Rodee et al 1983: 176[7]), the practices of lobbying are not only regulated in most advanced democratic systems, but also monitored by political opponents and the press. The situation in Nigeria, where a culture of impunity for lobbying prevails, is rather different. Thus, during the alleged attempt in 2006 by the Obasanjo administration to change the constitution to legalise a third presidential term (the ‘Third Term Agenda’), many independent television stations reported cash-filled ‘Ghana-Must-Go’ (GMB) bags as evidence of bribes paid to those national legislators who ostensibly refused to agree on the tenure extension allegedly requested by the president. Pushing for involuntary decisions by means of bribes was also referred to as egunje.

The open demand for egunje among police, border and airport officials points to a practical norm (de Sardan 2011[8]), as does the ubiquity of egunje offerings by ordinary Nigerians, who do not want to be unnecessarily delayed or unjustly penalised by government officials in these extortive agencies. Despite its resemblance to petty corruption, egunje is viewed as a legitimate ‘survival strategy’ by a significant section of society. It is common for people living in countries with systemic corruption to point out that such short-cuts save time, effort, and get work done, while also using euphemisms for bribes.

The culture of gift-giving among the Yorubas, Hausas and several other recognised ethnic nationalities in Nigeria has probably always had an element of solicited or forced giving. However, the notoriety of egunje seems to have coincided with the so-called ‘politics of settlement’ under the Babangida military regime of 1985-1993. The practice continued unabated under the subsequent Abacha and Abubakar military regimes, and up to the Fourth Republic, albeit in varying degrees. The ‘politics of settlement’ is a form of political patronage established by the military government, where it lavishly deploys state funds to enrich political sycophants, and buys off or tarnishes potential opponents. Needless to say, such a corrupt regime ran contrary to the original spirit behind the culture of gift-giving in traditional societies of Nigeria. The corrupt mutation of political patronage grew to a larger scale, encompassing political clientelism, personal rule and evidence of gross economic mismanagement (see Jackson and Rosberg 1998[9]). Democratising systems like Nigeria’s Fourth Republic is hardly possible, as the democratic institutions do not tackle the deep-rooted neo-patrimonial relationships. These are parasitic and predatory, as well as capable of turning campaigns for transparency, accountability and disclosure against political opposition.

The practice of egunje has multiple implications at every level – individual, institutional and societal – which will have a profound effect on Nigeria’s future if not effectively addressed. These include the erosion of the public good, institutional and societal trust; the debasement of personal, social and political values; and increased economic and business costs.

Although the acceptance of egunje as a practical norm co-exists with disapproval of corruption, it nevertheless gradually erodes trust in state institutions. This is particularly relevant for the disadvantaged segments of the population that can fall prey to populist politicians. If one cannot afford egunje in situations where official support, endorsement or approval by the state is essential for family survival, one loses confidence in a system, becomes eager to sell one’s vote, and has to resort to self-reliance. In other words, aggrieved citizens often take the law into their own hands when unsure that government agencies will act appropriately without egunje – as in the case of the suspected pepper thief in the Ejigbo area of Lagos State who was widely reported in 2014 to have been tortured by market leaders, and the many cases of gang battles as well as ‘jungle justice’ against suspected petty thieves. Such ‘help yourself’ practices and anti-social behaviour are rapidly increasing in many parts of Nigeria, especially where the aggrieved feel that security and law enforcement agencies are unlikely to do justice without egunje. There is a danger that this could lead to a crises of legitimacy in the Nigerian political system. The country’s past military regimes suffered great problems of legitimacy, if not illegality (Yagboyaju, 2011[10]), and this has continued to be the major challenge that has confronted the three successive civilian administrations (of Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan) in the country’s relatively recent history, since the military regimes gave way to the civilian government in 1999.

In the process of selecting leaders or representatives, such values as integrity, service, hard work and humility used to be the essential qualities for an omoluabi – a person who embodies good values and is acknowledged as such by peers and neighbours. Among the Yorubas of South West Nigeria, a leader or representative of the people is supposed to, first and foremost, be an omoluabi. In contemporary times, particularly since the spread of ‘stomach infrastructure’ (a euphemism for the ‘politics of the belly’), voters have gradually come to expect more and more egunje and other forms of inducement from political aspirants and party candidates. The danger is that the giver of the biggest egunje, no matter what his views or values are, most probably will emerge as the leader – with detrimental consequences for the future of Nigeria.

Egunje has unduly increased the costs of doing business in Nigeria, especially in public procurement. On the basis of several cases investigated and prosecuted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) between 2000 and 2014, it has been reported that egunje constitutes the major factor in corruption and associated trends in Nigeria.


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  2. Auwal, N. 1987. A Hausa Vocabulary on Corruption and Political Oppression, Corruption and Reform, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 293-296.
  3. Ribadu, N. 2005. Explaining the bastardized forms of lobbying in Nigeria, The Guardian newspaper (Lagos, Nigeria), April 7, p. 6.
  4. Abolarin, D. 2005. Lobbying in Nigeria, quoted in TELL Newsmagazine (Lagos, Nigeria), April 4, p. 48.
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  10. Yagboyaju, D. A. 2011. Corruption, Democracy and Good Governance in Nigeria, Lagos: MacGrace Publishers.