Early last year, Dr. Hussaini Abdu, the then Nigeria Country Director for ActionAid, invited me to join a team of five members that would help the global institution
conduct a research on the relationship between poverty and corruption in Nigeria. The team was chaired by Professor Etanibi Alemika of the Department of Sociology, University of Port Harcourt, recently appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari into the Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption.
[Image: The author]
Other members of the ActionAid research team were Professor Dung Pan Sha of the Political Science Department, University of Jos; Ms. Ayo Obe, legal practitioner and a trustee of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICC) as well as Mallam Yunusa Z. Ya’u, former Bayero University, Kano don and Executive Director, Center for Information and Development.
In the course of several weeks, between April and June 2014, we had engaging sessions in Abuja during which we reviewed corruption indicators in Nigeria like inflation/diversion of budgetary allocations, the demand and supply of bribes, inflation/unauthorized variation of contracts, payment for jobs either not done or poorly executed, overpayment of salaries and allowances to staff (including non-existent ones called ‘ghosts’), brazen diversion of government revenue, violation of procurement regulations, non-payment/under payment of tax by private sector operators, compromised auditing of public and private sector institutions etc.
With the brilliant and diligent ActionAid staff led by my brother, Tunde Aremu, working with us and providing the raw data from field researchers, we also examined poverty indicators in Nigeria like insufficient food and clothing for a family, inadequate number of schools and dropout rates, the small number of health facilities, high levels of infant and maternal mortality, unemployment, weak access to credit, insecurity for individuals, households and communities, lack of access to clean water by most Nigerians, poor sanitation, low incomes etc.
Since the main objective of the study, according to the briefing given to us by ActionAid was to examine and interrogate how corruption impacts on different segments of the society and the implication for social development, it was obvious that we had a difficult challenge on our hands. But at the end, we were able to prove that, in many ways, the level of deprivations to which a great majority of Nigerians are subjected today is a consequence of the greed of a few people in both the private and the public sectors. Interested readers can check out our report on: http://www.actionaid.org/nigeria/publications/poverty-and-corruption-nigeria.
However, in the course of our first session, I raised a concern I had earlier privately discussed with Dr Abdu about the timing of our research and the sensitivity of the then government in power to such issues. For some inexplicable reasons, President Goodluck Jonathan was always very defensive whenever the issue of corruption in Nigeria was broached. “Yes, people talk about corruption now, because it has become a political issue. And when you promote something to the level of politics, normally it is blown out of proportion”, he said on one occasion. At another time, President Jonathan said: “Anybody who wants to claim an element of credibility will go to the television and accuse government of corruption…Sometimes, even the very corrupt people are those making these statements because if you attack government, you are insulated, you become an angel.”
For sure, President Jonathan had a point in that in Nigeria, the only person that is not corrupt is the one making the allegation. It is also true that some big time crooks that have helped themselves to stupendous amount of public resources have perfected the art of accusing everybody else of corruption, perhaps to cover up their own glaring misdeeds. Nevertheless, it was also very unhelpful that President Jonathan decided to live in denial about a national malaise that is not only deep rooted but has helped to put an emblem of shame on our country.
I am sure that in moments of introspection, and as he presumably writes his memoir, the former president must now be regretting his disposition on the issue which emboldened many people to say that his “body language encouraged corruption” and may have also been responsible for the kind of impunity and financial recklessness that reigned under him. Interestingly, while Jonathan didn’t fancy discussing corruption because he believed it was unduly politicised, the Buhari administration and the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) have turned talking about corruption into a national anthem. So, where the discussion of corruption in the public arena is concerned, we have moved from one extreme end of the spectrum to another. Still, I am not so sure it is all that helpful.
In a jurisprudence where the onus is placed on the person who asserts to prove, it is evident that fighting corruption cannot be easy nor would recovering its proceeds be as simple as some people assume with tales of how America, Britain and some Western countries would just open their vaults to release to the government money stolen by some Nigerian officials. It is naïve for anybody to assume such things as it may take years for our country to get any looted funds back even if the places where they are stashed are located.
Therefore, while nobody is in any doubt that President Buhari, given his reputation, would not tolerate the kind of impunity that Nigerians have witnessed in recent years, there is also nothing to suggest that things are going to change substantially under him with regards to fighting corruption. Yet considering the damage corruption has done both to our national psyche and socio-economic well-being, there is need for a clear roadmap on how the administration will tackle this challenge.
The pertinent questions remain: will the sensational stories we read in the media every day lead to the successful prosecution and conviction of some big fish in the pool of corruption to serve as deterrence to others? Are institutional mechanisms being put in place to make it difficult for people to fiddle with public funds and easily get away? What legal/judicial reforms are ongoing to ensure that public officials who steal billions are not asked to pay peanuts in fines to walk free? How are we going to deal with the private sector that is not only the enabler for the public sector corruption but also has its own monumental rot within? When are we going to get to a situation in which being invited to serve in public office would not attract celebrations and all manner of expensive social and religious thanksgivings?
I pose those foregoing questions against the background of what we have been witnessing in the last three months which reveal quite clearly that if President Buhari indeed wants to fight corruption in Nigeria, he still has a long way to go. What worries me though is the hysteria of the moment and the backslapping by those who imagine that fighting corruption is the same as engaging in some meaningless propaganda. While the force of personal example that President Buhari brings is good and naming and shaming could be helpful, they on their own cannot produce any lasting results in an environment that rewards bad behaviour. I will cite only three examples to buttress my position.
In a sensational petition to the Osun State House of Assembly, Justice Folahanmi Oloyede of the state High Court recently urged the lawmakers to investigate Governor Rauf Aregbesola allegedly for misappropriating the state’s resources and plunging it into financial crisis. She also urged the House to impeach the Governor and his Deputy based on her allegation which I am not even sure was supported by any evidence.
However, in a typical Nigerian drama, Justice Oloyede has now found herself the subject of investigation by the National Judicial Commission (NJC). “I am afraid that if something urgent is not done, Justice Oloyede may finally snatch my husband…I have evidence to the effect that she has been addressing my husband as her husband and also my husband addresses her as ‘my beautiful wife’ knowing full well that there is subsistence of marriage between us. I urge you to use your good offices to restrain Justice Olamide Oloyede from further acts of having an affair with my husband,” wrote Mrs Emily Richard-Obire in the petition to the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, who personally signed the query to Justice Oloyede.
As to be expected, the conversation has now shifted from the looting of public funds to the more salacious details of what a judge does with the husband of another woman. Here, I am not suggesting that the allegations against Governor Aregbesola are credible ort that the process of investigation was not exhausted by the Osun State House of Assembly. The point I am making is the ease with which the discussion has moved from financial corruption to that of “husband snatching”. You cannot successfully fight corruption in such a cynical environment without a serious plan and the support of critical institutions and stakeholders.
In the case of the Senate versus Ibrahim Lamorde, the story is not better. At a time the lawmakers were supposed to be on recess, a petition sent by a private individual against the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to a senator has led to a public hearing. Breaking its own rules, the Senate made the petition a “matter of urgent national importance” and so diligent are our lawmakers that some of them were even willing to forgo their holiday. But the implication of what they are doing is all too clear: by the time the EFCC and its leadership are dragged in the mud, even if the allegations eventually turn out to be spurious, the anti-corruption body would have been tainted in a nation where most people believe the worst of public officials.
Since fighting corruption is perhaps the only promise made by this administration that has not been repudiated by President Buhari’s spokesmen and APC supremos (the president never promised to declare his assets in public, he never promised that his wife would play no role in his government, he never promised that he would do anything within 100 days, he didn’t know anything about the campaign document, ‘My Covenant with Nigeria’!), it is then little wonder that majority of the governors have also made fighting corruption their only agenda. In fact, the only former governors who are not being probed are those who were able to foist on their states their handpicked successors. As it would happen, the private sector has not been spared.
Following a directive from the Central Banks of Nigeria (CBN), many commercial banks in recent weeks published the names of their “delinquent debtors”, even though many of those whose names were published have disputed the debts credited to them. Nobody asked the salient question as to how these people could take the scandalous amounts of money credited to them without providing the requisite collaterals in the first place. In some cases, as it is coming out, there were not even proper documentations before some of these debtors took loans running into billions of Naira. That perhaps explains why some banks have had to tender apologies to innocent people whose names they published as debtors. The simple explanation for what happened is that most of those loans were taken and shared with unscrupulous bank staff or that some bank officials did not do their work properly. Yet nobody is being called to account.
What I am driving at is that for an effective war against corruption in Nigeria, President Buhari has to be more methodical and he needs legal and institutional support. First, it begins with the appointment of a competent Attorney General and then he needs certain critical institutions to be on the same page with him: The EFCC, Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP), the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), the Directorate of Petroleum Resources (DPR) and indeed all regulatory agencies of the federal government. And of course, he cannot win without the support of the judiciary and the National Assembly.
What the President must know is that nothing compromises the fight against corruption faster than undue politicization either by his handlers or his opponents and we are already seeing evidence of that with the formation of a new “Association of Ministers who served under President Jonathan” which has joined the APC in the propaganda war. “While we concede that every administration has the right to chart its own path as it deems fit, we nevertheless consider the vilification of the Jonathan administration to be ill-intentioned, unduly partisan and in bad faith” said former Minister of National Planning, Dr. Abubakar Suleiman, who signed the press statement released at the weekend.
According to Suleiman, the efforts of the Buhari government have been to portray all members of the Jonathan administration “as corrupt and irresponsible, in an orchestrated and vicious trial by the media,” which he said had created “a lynch mentality that discredits our honest contributions to the growth and development of our beloved nation.”
That such allegation is coming at a time nobody has been arraigned in court is very telling of what we are to expect in the days and weeks to come. Add to that the infiltration of the anti-corruption project by a partisan divide between two dominant parties led largely by people who themselves are not paragons of virtue. But it is also a pointer to the fact that President Buhari must quickly come up with a coherent anti-corruption plan that the people can buy into. If what Nigerians would be treated to is no more than another flurry of court cases and sensational media headlines after EFCC operatives must have “stormed” the residences of some big shots, then nothing has changed.
Today, all we are getting are eclectic and sporadic allegations and counter allegations when ordinarily the Prof. Itse Sagay committee should be working towards producing a policy document from which the government can now come up with a strategy document. Such a strategy document would spell out the multi-dimensional nature of corruption, including the economic, social and cultural factors that make it so pervasive. That would then necessitate a total approach involving social re-orientation, cultural campaigns, reinforcement of the forensic capacity of the police and the other anti-graft agencies, sanitisation of the judiciary etc. Alongside all these is the need to strengthen the institutions of public accountability to ensure that corruption schemes are nipped in the bud.
No doubt, corruption has done so much damage to our country and to a great majority of our people. And the fact that President Jonathan did not see it as a big deal contributed to his defeat at the poll. Therefore, what President Buhari, who comes to office with a reputation of integrity, must know is that it will be very sad for the nation and this administration if in the end Nigerians are constrained to mutter, as they do in Hollywood, “We have watched this movie before!”
The Verdict By Olusegun Adeniyi email;firstname.lastname@example.org