The Protean Dimensions


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October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007



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The Protean Dimensions




Wole Soyinka

Nobel Laureate Literature 1986




January 16, 2006



So many images lend themselves to the morphology of corruption. From my own field of literary pursuits I am tempted to propose the figure of the nine-headed Hydra from Greek mythology. When the would-be challenger has cut off one of those heads, he discovers that a few more supposedly - have grown up in its place. At the same time, the reptilian body lashes out right and left with its tail, while each head lets off streams of corrosive venom.

Or should we think  with equal appropriateness - of the octopus? An octopus is defined by its eight arms or tentacles but anyone who has ever tangled with an octopus must know that eight, like the Hydras nine, is no more than a figure of speech. First of all, each of those arms is fitted with myriad suckers, so that the arms not only exercise a stranglehold, they also fasten parasitically on their environment. What it must feel like within those flashing coils is that the arms number, not eight, but eight times eighty-eight. This is how it must be experienced not only by the unlucky victim but by the would-be-octupus wrestler. True, very few of us actually get caught in its coils, but many of us here, at one time or the other, have seen Nature or science-fiction films where the hero battles for his life with the monster from the deep. One moment, his oxygen cylinders firmly in place and functioning perfectly, our protagonist cruises serenely along the ocean-bed, marveling at the beauty of a little seen world, the next moment, a seemingly placid floor erupts beneath him, a long slithering arm, all pocked with suckers lashes out, wraps itself around the explorerís neck and then ñ itís only a matter of time. Several titanic thrashings and lashings later, the luckless adventurer is dragged beneath the sand or mud, a few bubbles float upwards and ñ end of story.

Now, imagine such an octopus with, not one, but nine heads and do your multiplication. We love to excel in our nation, to go one better than anyone else, so ours is a very special breed for which neither the Hydra nor the octopus is adequate. I think I shall name our native beast of corruption, a monster of truly mythical proportions,  the Hydropus, an amphibian mammal that thrives on land and sea, in the desert and the mangrove swamps, feeds just as readily on iron and steel as it does on crude petroleum. It is as much at home under military dictatorship as it is under civilian democracy and can derive moisture and nourishment from bitumen just as readily as from virtual reality. Its especial genius however is its ability to turn every bit of terrain into marshland or quicksands, so as to leave its opponents no ground to stand upon. Indeed the appearance of solidity is its secret weapon. One moment you believe that youíre standing, literally, on terra firma, ready to do battle, the next moment the ground disintegrates into quicksands, under which the monster has disappeared. A huge tentacle thrusts upwards from the pulsing earth and then you realize that the quicksand is its natural home.

Have this image branded in your mind if you really wish to understand why many Nigerians run in the other direction when they realize that Hydropus may be operating right within and beneath their own fields of livelihood. They turn a blind eye to its flagrant activities because Corruption is a vicious beast with sufficient tentacles to strangulate any reformist interloper while the other arms are sweeping up the spoils of war in a steady, uninterrupted flow, through its perfect camouflage of insubstantial sands that give the appearance of a level playing field. With an octopus or a Hydra, you can see your foe no one ever sees anything beneath the quicksands, only the lulling, reassuring placidity.

Sometimes however, in the cinematic contest between mere mortal and monster, we see rivulets of blood discolouring the blue of the marine waters or seeping upwards from to borrow from another mythology, the christian the Slough of Despond. Even after his oxygen mask has been  ripped off and his torso compressed beyond human endurance, our hero succeeds in finding the vital spot and plunges in his knife. The monster writhes, the tentacles lose their elasticity and go limp. Our hero bobs up out of breath while the beast floats to the surface, belly-up, its eyes glazed for ever. You mustn’t tangle with the anointed champion of a morality tale - or with cinema heroes - is a lesson learnt too late by the Hydropus but, does it happen in real life?

Alas, ninety-nine percent of the time, it is the monster that wins. It is a lucky protagonist who lives to tell the tale of his encounter and this, regrettably, has been the story of the survival ratings of the species on our continent. Here, the beast from under not merely survives; it thrives, and the monster slayers are left battered and bruised, for daring the Hdyropoid kingdom. Some people have actually proposed that perhaps it is time we began to bestow on Corruption a corporate identity or assist it to become one. I have actually read an article to that effect I believe it was titled Making Corruption Pay. I forget all the details but the basic idea is that nations should incorporate the multi-headed,  tentacular entity, induct it into the Chamber of Commerce and tax it like any other corporate  venture. It might indeed pay a nation like ours in the end. Finding itself rated as a commercial concern, quoted regularly on the Stock Market next to Microsoft or Dow Jones Industrial, it would be compelled to be productive, take better care of its corporate image and behave a little more responsibly.

Before dismissing the idea, do bear in mind that Nigeria is not an exception among nations affected by corruption it is merely the scale that most observers find staggering and, more importantly, its lack of a productive ethos. I am sorry that one has to use the word ‘thos’ in this context but, that is nothing new. The idea of ‘honour among thieves’ similarly sounds like a corruption of the very concept of ‘honour’ and yet, is that not an expression that has come down to us from ancient times? Even armed robbers understand the concept. Many is the tale told of an armed robber who invades the home of a corporate thief. The gang is operating on inside information and knows very well how much is the manager’s illegal ‘take-home’ pay on a daily basis. On breaking in, the robber is especially incensed when the house-owner declares that he has only a couple of thousand naira in the house. The invader searches meticulously and, lo and behold, discovers five million tucked away in a supposedly safe corner. You don’t have to be told why the robber loses his temper  He uses that very language of stressed and disappointed moral values:  what pains me in this country, he says, is that there is such dishonesty. When all is said,  there should  be honour among thieves, no be so dem say?  If my memory serves me right, the same sentiment was made by the president of this nation in connection with the feuding duo of Anambra state.  Such a declaration should of course be considered the secular equivalent of a papal encyclical.

But we do not even have to take such extreme instances and, in any case, some of our armed robbers are simply incensed at the very notion that an opulent looking home, whose owner should have anticipated unexpected visitors, should keep so little money in the house ‘Big man like you, na only dis small amount you get. You no shame and a slap goes across the man’s face, some gun whipping or indeed cold-blooded execution. Those are the sadists of the trade, we will not dignify them with any attention. I have made that mild digression merely to underscore the fact that we are indeed entitled to speak of an ‘ethos’, even within the imperatives of corruption, so perhaps we should not dismiss the rather startling notion of incorporating Corruption as a legitimate enterprise, assisting it with a constitution, a code of conduct, subjecting it to taxation etc. etc.

It is of course tempting to console ourselves the fact that the hydra-headed monster is also active in other lands and - let us quickly stress this - its manifestation is guaranteed irrespective of the kind of ideology flaunted by such nations. In communist China, economic crimes are still high on the court lists, despite the fact that these were often met with capital punishment a bullet through the head. Corporate economic crimes are a regular feature of American society at the very top levels - and, as the yet ongoing case on Capitol Hill, Washington DC, of the gold-carat lobbyist with the illegal touch promises, a fiesta awaits us of honorables, senators, governors, making their appearances in court, arraigned for accepting obvious illegal donations, kickbacks and corrupt inducements, even as business moguls have riveted the US populace in recent times, exposed as cooking the books - to give that its common parlance ñ and bribing right and left in order to cover their tracks. I do not think that any month, maybe week goes by in the United States without some high-level scandal that should, strictly speaking, earn that nation the inhibiting retort of ñ kindly mind the beam in thine own eye before pointing at the mote in the eyes of others.

Even audit firms, those supposed watchdogs of financial integrity. have not been exempted is it possible to forget the notorious case of the world-wide Anderson firm of Accountants? One’s confidence in the book keeping profession is shaken to the foundations when such a firm turns out to be more adept at cooking than keeping accounts. It makes one think more kindly of cynics like one of one of own more colourful state governors, now deceased, who, when staggering sums were found under his bed following a military coup, claimed that, since this was government money, he, as governor had the right to decide where was the best place for its safekeeping. Imagine if he had invited Anderson, the international experts, to invest his state funds! Would the result have been any better? And then of course there is the case of Enron, which nearly became a partner for one of our states in the nation’s frantic search for a solution to NEPA. If that exploratory reach had borne fruit, heaven knows what the consequences might be for that state today. I make it a point of duty to point out these examples when I encounter the pained, often sanctimonious concern of the natives of that continent who make corruption the first, middle and last word of conversation with you when the subject turns to Africa. I remind them, for instance that it was within the United States that a criminal conspiracy totally liquidated a Pension Fund, amounting to billions, wiped out the life savings of millions of individuals who had reached that stage when they can no longer fend for themselves, threw them out in the cold for a dismal, penurious end to their existence. I can think of no instance of corrupt conduct more brutal, more inhuman in its consequences. It was a death sentence for many pensioners, the kind of economic crime that in my view, deserves the death sentence, if one were a believer in the moral value of capital punishment.

Those reminders are necessary for situating Hydropus in its unique environment, for even if we continued to stress such the above examples of shared tendencies, including even a remarkable incidence of corrupt judges in that nation, we find that there are still two fundamental differences in the nature of corruption between nations such as the United States and here, within Nigeria, both differences being hinged on each other. Corruption, let us say, within the United States, is a feature of productive precipitates, even if not necessarily of surplus. In other words, a development project, or productivity itself comes before the skimming.

Highways are built and maintained, power is generated, farms produce real food, preservation techniques are updated, a war industry produces real weapons, housing schemes are visible,  consumerist gadgets are invented, patented and marketed, universities are maintained, health programmes sustained etc. etc., and it is from within the process of such industries and social programmes that corrupt opportunities insert themselves and are exploited. Let me put it this way: something is actually shown for the corruption. We all know that here, it is the opposite that reigns. A government is inaugurated, a parastatal or ministry is approved and the first question ñ shall we say, the project is agriculture? - the first question is not: how do we breed a higher yield cow but, how do we find a cow to milk?  That is priority Number One. The caucus mulls this question over and then, they invent, I repeat, invent a project.  The project does not come first, no, Corruption is the project. All that is substantial is the name, this is where the most creative energy is spent ñ a name that goes into the files. Something that exists only in virtual reality. It may be based on material reality, after all, there has to be something to launch, something around which to conduct visitors from time to time, but as far as the creative transformation is concerned, it is nothing but the tale of the Emperorís clothes all over again. Let me illustrate with a true story that is all too common, one that was told me by the late Ojetunde Aboyade, appropriately, since it is in his honour that we are gathered here today.

Oje named names and showed me the evidence of this quite minor, unsung footnote of a venture that was so typical of the survival tactics of that species - Hydropus Nigerianensis.  It happened during the construction of Abuja capital territory. A young lady, who studied in ëde abroadí of America came home on long vacation. Being a very active person, who had also grown up in that country where the vacation job often amounts to a basic student ethic, she asked her father if there was some way he could help her earn some pocket money while home. The father sent her to a close friend who happened to be involved in the construction of Abuja Capital territory, which was then perhaps half-way developed.
Eagerly, she visited this man in his Lagos office, introduced and pronounced herself on the job line for some pocket money. Well, said the family friend, I only deal with the construction side of things. If you’re looking for a desk job, I’m afraid I really haven’t much to offer. Anything at all, said the eager young lady, in fact, I’ve always preferred outdoor work. So - cut a long story short - the man brought out his copy of the Abuja master plan, spread it out on the table and pored over it. Finally, he stabbed at a section and said here, see this road? We need a culvert between here, and - here. He handed her another sheet of paper here are the specifications. You think you can handle that? The girl was a bit flabbergasted. When she had heard the job description as construction, she was looking forward to actually working with her hands as one of a work gang, now it looked as if she was being offered, without any experience whatsoever, something like the position of a foreman.

Worse was to come. It was not to be a foreman, but the contractor and organiser of all the required labour, skilled and unskilled - structural engineer, surveyor, etc. She was an adventurous girl however, and she remembered that she had an aunt who was a building contractor  - you know, houses. She grew excited at the prospect and quickly re-affirmed her competence to undertake the project. Very good said her father’s friend, and scribbled her a note. Take this, report at that office tomorrow and collect your mobilisation fees. The girl took a look at the figure and nearly fainted.
It was a most determined girl who returned home, contacted her aunt and looked forward to returning to the US to boast to her mates how she had gone home on vacation and ended up being one of the foundation builders for the city of Abuja. Her aunt soon found her a small-time builder, and a surveyor. Together they bought picks and shovels, negotiated cement delivery to Abuja etc. etc. She hired a minibus, and within days, she was on site, ready for the challenge.. Well, they arrived there, followed the map and began hunting for the road. Throughout that day, they searched, searched and searched. Nothing but pristine jungle. The map of what was supposed to be a developed site had never been breached by human feet. Her father’s friend had made a mistake, they decided, so she left her crew behind and motored back to Lagos to see the family friend.

He received her quite warmly, asked how her vacation was going. His mood underwent a change when  he learnt where she had been, what had brought her back. His eyes opened even wider when he learnt that she had hired staff and bused them to Abuja, and his mouth fell apart when she, expecting nothing but praise, revealed how she had gone about the venture, the initiative she had shown. He shrank from her as one would a dangerous lunatic, reached for the phone and dialed her fatherís number, not taking his eyes from the girl for one second. He got his friend on the line and stammered:
‘Chappie, I thought you said your daughter was bright. You told me she was smart. Is this what you call smart? Intelligent?  Your girl, let me tell you, is mentally retarded. Do you realize what she did? Do you know she actually went to Abuja, and with a construction crew? I thought you said all she needed to make some vacation money? Do you realize sheís actually squandered all the Mobilisation fee I authorized for her?  Chappie, she actually went there! She bought cement. She hired workers. Sheís been thrashing about in the jungle. Imagine, if she’d been bitten by a snake, wouldn’t you have put the blame on me? Ode l’omo to o bi yi o “ He turned on the girl “Go, go, get out of my office, go, I don’t ever want to set eyes on you again. I don’t know who you are, but you’re certainly not your father’s daughter”

That, as you all know very well, is not fiction. Very often, I repeat, very often, when you hear of one governor or the other especially during the military days - fulminating against a non-fulfilling contractor, cancelling this and re-awarding the contract, that’s what it is all about. The project exists only in name, a road-map that was never intended to be followed, much less developed.  But it leads us easily to my second fundamental difference between corruption over there and Hydropus elsewhere that in the latter case, corruption can be absorbed by the society for the simple reason already provided - corruption emerges as a negative by-product of performance. Despite corruption in other places. society grows, infrastructures sustain the edifice, and employment increases, whereas here, corruption mostly thrives on phantom ventures, so that society simply balloons and,  when punctured with the needle of creditors or of social stress, national buoyancy turns out to have been nothing but hot air.

Hence the failure, till today, of effective electric power supply. Hence the stagnation of mass transportation blueprints despite the constant importation of foreign experts to resuscitate’ our railways etc., and the massive infusion of government allocations. Hence the decay of educational institutions. Hence the moribund communication system at least until the explosion of Mobile telephony, several of whose systems still do not communicate with one another. Hence the near total abandonment of a structured health delivery. Hence the slumification of what was to have been the model modern city of Abuja, supposed to be the unifying symbol of a hydra-headed nation, a belated attempt to re-order which cannot but be at enormous human and material cost, the destruction of social fabric and mini-businesses, a process that has earned the nation a load of opprobrium from some concerned international bodies who, understandably, identify the ongoing recovery project with the unconscionable destruction of settled spaces like Maroko for the land greed of affluent classes. Hence, to come home to closer and tragic times, hence the succession of air crashes, easily foretold by myriad near misses, the unbelievable phenomenon of herds of cattle that take over runways, the potholed tarmacs that, for nearly a full year had reduced air traffic over Lagos to only one runway for both domestic and international traffic- a monumental disgrace and primitive state of affairs that remained hidden from the public until a fully loaded plane landed and nearly crashed, its fuselage shot through and through with debris from a hastily patched spot on the tarmac Hence the final agonizing, collective chastisement that was finally administered in Port Harcourt to a nation  that systematically worshipped and sacrificed to Hydropus, even as this monster held its environment in a slow strangulation grip and life began to ooze out of our very pores, our young consumed by fire before our eyes.

It is also comforting and self-cosseting to play games with the criminal offshoots of corruption, such as the economic crime commonly known by the name 419, one that has now assumed its own ‘hydropustular’dimensions world-wide. The basis and motor of the 419 extortion racket is none other than greed, greed as a human or shall we even call it global phenomenon. The word-game that is played by defenders or rationalisers of 419 goes by the name reparation. At first, I thought it was simply one of these one-off, instant gratification verbal gestures that we all make from time to time, but I have since discovered that it is being taken seriously and proposed by some as a valid moral proposition, one that allegedly places the assailant, the con expert and defrauder on the side of the angels.

Now, let me begin by emphasizing that I experience no sympathy whatsoever for the equally criminal victims of this crooked game. They belong to the world’s population of the greedy and corrupt who in turn act to extend the provenance of corruption, and deserve, in every sense, to be hoist on their own petard. When however, the 419ers are cast in the role of protagonists of reparation for the African continent, in all seriousness, I feel insulted and belittled. To hang on to such a notion, as a serious proposition, is to exempt oneself from the burden of all moral and political reflection. There is an objective mandate that sustains this position but, in my case, and I am certain I am not alone, I also acknowledge the basis of subjective experiences.

First, the objective and analytical. Let us go back to the theme of corruption itself. 419 is based, not simply on the cupidity and indeed stupidity in most cases - of the inhabitants of our world but, most specifically, on the corrupt nature of Nigerians as perceived world-wide. It succeeds because the world is persuaded, in the first place, that Nigerians are endemically corrupt, and so the tall tale, the most improbable tale of corrupt proceeds is accorded credibility because the source of such dealings is, in the first place, attributed to a Nigerian a top offi cial, a politician, a governor, even sometimes a mere functionaire. In other words, most of the tales we encounter would not be believed even by a moron if the source of corruption were attributed to, let us say, a Finn or a Norwegian. In short, the 419ers actually libel you and me, collectively. Their so-called act of reparation is thus beamed in the wrong direction, since it is a further exaction from me as a Nigerian, a reduction of my moral status, applicable to all Nigerians who had nothing to do with the slave trade or with colonial or multi-national exploitation. Let us be clear in our minds what the nature of this exaction is. The presumption of decency. Of presumed integrity. The right to an identity at par with the rest of the world.  The right to freedom from a tainted identity. The right to carry a passport of respect. Those who study, work, or simply travel abroad know what I am speaking of ,they will affirm that this is no theorising. 419 has made the green booklet one of the most despised documents in the world. I do not see how this amounts to Reparation. It is a double exaction from the victims on behalf of whom the genuine reparations have been sought by political activists with a historic consciousness.

I have already admitted the other personal- vein in my position in this respect. It is not isolated and it is certainly not unique, I am certain, to this speaker. Subjective though it is, it drives home the general principles that we have just laid out. I was in the United States, in California, when news came to me of the murder of my friend and brother, Bola Ige. Let’s say that he was murdered last night. I received the news in the morning. Most of that day, I sat in my study, unable to do anything creative or productive. All I achieved that day was to telephone here and there, take calls, make myself available for telephone calls, leave my email open as I waited for further news about an event that I could not yet fully absorb. It was right in the midst of this existence in limbo, that one message popped up on my laptop  let us say, about ten hours after I first received the news of his death, that is, less than eighteen hours after his actual murder. This message had been sent, allegedly, by Bola Ige’s widow, Justice Atinuke Ige. And what did that message from the distraught widow have to say?

Surely, you have guessed by now. Tinuke was informing me that her late husband, Bola, while he was alive, and in his capacity as Attorney-General of the nation, had stashed away a staggering sum of some two hundred and seventy million dollars, property of the Nigerian people, and that she was looking for a partner through whom this money could be laundered abroad. This indiscriminately diseminated formula was familiar, boring and obscene in every detail, one of at least a hundred thousand faxes and email messages that fished around for gullible and greedy partners in the disposal of corrupt acquisition. All that was demanded from me was a letter with my letter-head, giving my bank account etc. etc., and a guaranteed thirty percent of this loot was mine. Yes, this was the content of the letter that came to me, allegedly from the head of the Ige family, a High Court judge and a newly created widow who was nothing less than my own sister. Someone in this very nation could not even wait for a season of grieving to have subsided, had not the scantiest respect either for the reputation of the dead man, not long before his death appointed a member of the Judicial Reform Commission of the United Nations Organisation, nor of his surviving widow, whose reputation as an officer of the law was being tarnished, brazenly among thousands of recipients of such letter. I cannot tell, till today, which event was more lacerating to me personally, on so many levels this indecent assault on the very being of these two people, their families, colleagues and profession, or the death of my friend, Bola Ige.That exaction, that brutalisation of my inner psyche, is not something that anyone can quantify, and it is not a price that I am prepared to pay for any spurious theology of reparations. Many people simply do not understand, have never taken the trouble of an imaginative projection of the ramifications of the Advance Fee Fraud. Until you have taken the trouble to do so, considered its effect on the lives of innocents, kindly keep your theology to yourself. Some of us are not pacifists and our response at such moments may be to take our own need for reparations instantly into our own hands. Let me repeat, I hold no brief for fools and victims of their own cupidity, of any nationality, who fall prey to such blatant idiocies, but the abuse should cease of the historic and moral mandates that belong to such movements as Reparations.

Having touched on the subject of that unsolved murder, would you consider me as being merely whimsical when I declare that, if only the EFCC or an aggressive ICPC - had existed at the time of the event, the murder of the Attorney General of this nation would have been solved by now?  It is not for nothing that I choose to create a new mythological monster, the Hydropus, as a graphic representation of the very phenomenon of the endless, self-replicating ramifications of Corruption. Consider this. During the calamitous soap opera of a trial of the principal accused, a judge, who later threw in the sponge, spoke bluntly of a twenty-million Naira bribe that had been offered him in the early stages of the game. He named names. He kept a diary of calls both telephone and physical as well as conversations that had taken place. Through one of those remarkable coincidences, I was privileged to see photocopies of two or three pages of this diary, with its meticulous notations, some of them coded, but easily decipherable. What matters is that this accusation was placed in the public domain that inducements were offered to the judge to influence his decision one way or the other.

That allegation, which the public rightly expected to be followed up rigorously, was permitted to drop like a stone in the middle of the pond. A millstone in fact, one that was hung around the neck of a casualty, that casualty being named - Justice. Again, I must remind us all a high court judge, with a reputation to maintain, made an allegation of attempted inducement in a case that involved a murder, and not just the murder of any citizen - though this should still warrant precisely the same response but the murder of the Chief Law Officer of the nation, its Attorney General no less, and a servant of the United Nations. That allegation was not investigated. No one was called to question, not even by the disciplinary mechanisms of the Judiciary. Was the trial judge hallucinating? Was he merely attempting to draw attention to himself? Did he nurse a vendetta against some of his colleagues? Was he afraid of the case and thus sought an excuse to recuse himself from trial? Or, very simply, was he telling the truth? One way or the other, this was a deafening, screaming, inconsolable demand for investigation, one that, even if it did not completely unravel the identity of the perpetrators of this crime, would certainly have led some distance towards the truth.

Let it be made quite clear that this is not being said now as a result of the developments that have occurred in the high profile case of the double murder of Mr. and Mrs. Igwe, the former being at the time chairman of the Anambra chapter of the Nigerian Bar Association. That case appeared to have become stymied, but was given a new lease of life by the revelation that there was an improper passage of money both laterally and vertically that is, between the members of an alleged conspiracy, and from that network up towards the zone of investigation, leading the dogged pursuants of justice to demand that the Inspector-General of police at the time be brought out and arraigned as an accessory after the murder event. From any success in nailing an accessory to, or after the event to identifying the specific perpetrator of the crime often proves one short step. Corrupt money is paid by those who are implicated in a crime, or by their agents. If we no longer have a reliable agency for the unraveling of the crime of murder, we do have, right now, an agency that pursues the crime of corruption.

No crime can be considered closed until it is judicially resolved, and, regretful as I am to stretch even further the investigative zeal of the EFCC, I wish to bring to its attention this three-year old allegation that certainly rests within its purlieu  who were these who offered bribes in the Bola Ige case, and for whom were they fronting? The full diary of the judge in question, one that I am confident is in safe keeping, should be aired and probed for a definitive answer to such questions. In the United States, where organized crime proved such a thorn in the flesh of law and order, and even economic stability, with the crime lords getting away with murder, literally, not figuratively  contract murder, elimination of rivals, mass killings such as St. Valentine’s massacre -  the government resorted to the instrumentality of wait for this - tax evasion!  in order to break up the notorious and seemingly impregnable Mafia crime syndicates. In Nigeria then, let us proceed to unravel the phenomenon of Murder Incorported by going the route of corruption.  The cocktail of corruption and political murder is one that guarantees the very unraveling of the seams of society, of nationhood, since it breeds




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