By Ibrahim Dan-Halilu
Corruption has remained a major development challenge that deprives the majority of Nigerians basic social services such as clean water, electricity, health care and sanitation, education, roads, drainages, and security.
Despite determined efforts by various administrations in the country the menace still remains prevalent especially in the public sector where access to huge crude oil sale proceeds and weak institutions have provided fertile grounds for public officials and politically exposed persons to misappropriate and divert public funds meant for development to their personal use.
The establishment of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission [ICPC] in 2000 was one of the unprecedented moves by government to bring to public consciousness the need to fight graft because of the danger it poses to society.
Since inception, the ICPC and its counterpart, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission [EFCC] have made frantic efforts to combat corruption with varying results.
But by far, the most audacious declaration of the fight against corruption was enunciated by President Muhammadu Buhari both during his election campaign and at his inauguration in May 2015 when he stated unequivocally that his administration has zero tolerance for corruption, and called on Nigerians to join him in fighting corruption before corruption kills Nigeria.
To match words with action, shortly after his inauguration, President Buhari announced the creation of an anti-corruption think tank named the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption [PAPAC], with a clear mandate to review the anti-corruption strategy he inherited from previous administrations and fine tune it to match the new administration’s zero tolerance for corruption.
The PACAC has taken steps to improve both the policy and legal frameworks of the anti-corruption war through consultations, engagement and advocacy with key stake holders especially the executive, the judiciary, legislature and civil society. The committee has conducted several sensitization campaigns aimed at bringing the three arms of government on the same pane as regards the fight against corruption and the role each of them could play in the process.
In 2017, the committee organized a very high impact two-day conference in collaboration with the federal parliament where various issues around corruption were exhaustively discussed and experts from Nigeria, other African countries and beyond offered their insights on the strategies and methods for fighting corruption.
The committee also conducted workshops for judges to bring them in tune with the regime’s anti-corruption agenda, especially the need for speedy adjudication of corruption cases through strict adherence to laid down procedures under the new Administration of Criminal Justice Act instead of dwelling in technicalities that delay prosecution and trial of corruption cases.
Despite these efforts, corruption seems to be on the increase to the extent that even members of the Buhari cabinet have not escaped the accusation of being involved. The cases of the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Babachir Lawal, the late Chief of Staff to the President, Malam Abba Kyari stand out as indicators that corruption is far from being defeated.
While some of the efforts have yielded positive results, the pangs of corruption remain widespread as Nigerians are bombarded on a daily basis with news of frauds and misappropriation of public funds, the most recent being the financial scandal at the Niger Delta Development Commission [NDDC] where an interim management committee appointed to oversee the conduct of a forensic audit of the commission’s accounts turned round to misappropriate and spend over 40 billion Naira in breach of due process.
It’s at the backdrop of these unpleasant developments that PACAC hosted a one-day virtual interactive session on August 12 under the theme “Collective Responsibility and Action in the Fight Against Corruption.”
As one of the participants invited by PACAC, I find it imperative to share my thoughts on the search for collective action in the fight against corruption.
As the Chairman of PACAC, Prof. Itsey Sagay, stressed in his opening remarks, “corruption has become a normal way of life in Nigeria, and everyone is involved in it. The elite are in it, the average Nigerians too are corrupt as they see nothing wrong in it.”
In the executive arm, ministers, permanent secretaries, directors, and even messengers are all indulged in it. We still recall the infamous Halliburton, P & ID, and Malabo scams or scandals in which many high ranking officials of previous governments were involved.
The legislature too is guilty of corruption as we recall the recent ICPC disclosure about misappropriation and diversion of constituency projects funds by some of the law makers, the controversial budget padding, and numerous allegations of demanding for and accepting bribes by the lawmakers in the course of their oversight function on Ministries, Departments and Agencies [MDAs].
Even the judiciary that was expected to be above board by virtue of its professional oath taking and ethical standards, has been submerged by corruption as can be observed from some of the judgments delivered by some senior judges, the recent one being the Supreme Court judgment that upturned the conviction of the former governor of Abia State, Senator Orji Uzor Kalu who was earlier sentenced to 12 years imprisonment by a Lagos High Court for diverting N7.6 billion Naira form the state treasury, on technical grounds.
The PACAC was equally disturbed by the sudden suspension of the EFCC Acting Chairman, Ibrahim Magu after protracted dispute between him and the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami over jurisdiction of the EFCC to prosecute some high profile cases without recourse to the Attorney General who was allegedly accused of putting hundreds of cases on hold for inexplicable reasons.
Considering the fact that none of the three arms of government can claim to be clean as far as corruption is concerned, and bearing in mind the widespread nature of corruption in Nigeria such that no citizen can claim total innocence from it, how can we achieve collective resolve and action against corruption? What would be the common ground for attaining collective action since religious sermons by churches and mosques have failed, traditional institutions, professional associations, legislations, law enforcement, and every known institution and strategies have failed to tackle corruption in Nigeria?
It’s as a result of this massive failure that some Nigerians have suggested the Ghana approach of former President John Jerry Rawlings, who launched a vigorous war against corruption starting with the execution of three former heads of state, scores of senior military officers, including a general, supreme court justices, and over 300 other influential Ghanaians accused of corporate bribery and corruption. Others have called for the adoption of the Chinese style of administering death sentence on corruption related cases.
While all of these approaches may be effective in checking corruption in other climes, the proponents seem to forget that Nigeria has some complexities that may limit government’s capacity to adopt these extreme measures in the bid to eliminate corruption from Nigeria’s space.
The first huddle is the sharp division among Nigerians of different ethnic, religious and regional backgrounds which has its origins from the foundation of the country when the major political parties that contested and won legislative and national elections elections were ethnically or regionally based with their commanding heights being either Christians or Muslims.
The political turmoil of the 1950s and first military coup and the counter coup both followed this pattern, as most Nigerians interpreted them as ethnic coups. With this rocky foundation of a divided people, it’s foolhardy to contemplate the execution of corrupt public officials by either a northern Muslim or a Southern Christian-led federal government.
Secondly, there are some social customs that are seeing as corruption tendencies in the strict legal sense but are not culturally regarded as corruption or bribe taking, instead they are rationalized as generosity, kindness, expression of love, gratitude or appreciation of favours received from public officials. The offer of gifts during Christmas, Sallah, wedding, naming ceremonies and other social or traditional events by businessmen, contractors, public officials, politicians, and friends of those in government all fall into this category.
Unfortunately, the Nigerian public service rules and the anti-corruption laws have not clearly defined the parameters of bribery and corruption, which has given both the givers and receivers of bribe to engage in some of the practices that may fall under bribery and corruption.
As the nation’s claims to be fighting corruption, nobody even regards “sex for marks, nepotism in appointments to public offices, or inefficiency in handling official work, as corruption just as the abuse of office by public officials in recruitment into government jobs and admissions into universities and other tertiary institutions have not been captured in the anti-corruption laws
Another challenge, which is also linked to the lack unity of purpose, is the lack of judicial independence and poor or lack of enforcement of every law in Nigeria. It’s not only the anti-corruption laws that suffer from the twin evil of ethno-religious divisions and dysfunctional social norms as every other law in Nigeria is enforced to the exclusion of fairness and universal application, only those who have nobody to stand for them or who have no religious or ethnic affiliations with those responsible for enforcing the law get caught and punished.
How do we address these issues to enable us build the confidence of Nigerians to make unalloyed resolve to take collective action against corruption? The truth is that there is no magic wand that can eliminate the ethnic and religious differences that are the roots of most of our problems. But the people can find common ground if the government through its ministry of information, National Orientation Agency, and other public communication channels can launch an aggressive and sustained sensitization campaign on the damage that corruption has done to our collective welfare and existence similar to the one launched to awaken the public of the danger of coronavirus pandemic, as there is no home where a child of seven years cannot remember the dangers of coronavirus pandemic and what needs to be done to protect oneself against being infected.
The fight against corruption must take similar fashion if we are serious about bringing on board every Nigerian to understand that corruption is more deadly than any natural or artificial virus known to humans, and accept the challenge to combat it.
After securing the people’s acceptance to fight corruption, the government must embark on remarkable reforms program of public institutions especially those managing finances and other resources to build the culture of transparency and accountability in governance. This is where technology comes handy as a tool for empowering the citizenry to monitor and report corruption local up to from federal levels.
The public procurement and fiscal responsibility acts should be condensed into very simple documents that a layman in remote village can read and understand, which means they must be translated into local languages and distributed widely to nooks and crannies of the country. This is the major tool that ordinary citizens, working middle class, and civil society, including the media need to assist the anti-corruption ombudsman in doing their job. The citizens must have access to vital information on budgets, projects, and expenditures of government in order for them to hold public officials accountable.
In addition to empowering the people with tools to monitor public expenditures, they also need to be organized into local, state and probably geo-political or regional anti-corruption monitoring committees whose job is to observe how public resources are being expended and the life styles of public officials, and report same to the anti-corruption agency.
If we are ready to fight corruption, the nation’s judiciary must be restructured to empower courts of all grades to prosecute corruption cases because the High Courts don’t have the capacity and resources to fight the huge cases of corruption that trickle down from local to federal government levels. Nigeria must borrow the best practices of countries like China and Singapore where courts of the same cadre as magistrates and state high courts prosecute corruption cases at their own level of operations, while the Federal High Courts and Supreme Court plays the role of reviewers of such cases where victims are not satisfied with the judgment of the lower courts. This will serve the dual purpose of taking the anti-corruption war to the grassroots instead of making it a purely elite business largely concentrated in Abuja, Lagos and other major cities.
One other key element that might strengthen the legal framework is the adoption of jury trial for corruption cases so as to give citizens opportunity to participate in the trial of those responsible for inflicting hardships and deaths on them. That may give the anti-corruption a boost especially at the local and state levels where corrupt public officials enjoy the latitude to display their illegitimate wealth with impunity.
Other radical reforms that need to be carried out include the trimming down of the size of the federal legislature and the public service. It is high time Nigeria adopted a unicameral federal legislature, and reduced the number of representatives per state which will not only reduce the cost of governance but further make the business of law-making and oversight more effective. The remunerations of the law makers too have to be reduced to reasonable limit in parity with the wages of other federal public servants.
There is no gainsaying that Nigeria has one of the most over bloated public service in the world with no output to show, which calls for a reduction in the number of ministries, and rationalizing some of the departments and agencies.
I still don’t know the rationale behind the establishment of two separate anti-corruption agencies, but whatever the reason, the truth is the country doesn’t have the luxury of funding two agencies with duplication of functions. I want to believe that the EFCC was established to handle money laundering and financial frauds separate from public corruption but the way it operates shows it has extended its role beyond those boundaries.
That’s a sufficient ground to call for the merger of EFCC with ICPC into one anti-corruption ombudsman with additional prosecutorial powers independent of the Ministry of Justice which will go a long way to strengthen the technical and operational capacity of the agency to fight corruption without undue interference from other quarters.
The law establishing the new agency should also expand on the definition of bribery and corruption by spelling out clearly and succinctly activities or tendencies that constitute corruption and the penalty for such offences.
Let me emphasize however, that no matter how well these reforms are fashioned out on paper, if there is no political will from the head of the government – president – they may end up as thesis to be referenced by posterity. The Buhari administration must reposition itself for genuine war against corruption through declaration of intent to address the lapses inherent in the current anti-corruption strategy and match words with action, carry out radical reform of the policy and legal frameworks of the anti-corruption campaign, and ensure strict enforcement of the laws without fear or favour. There should be no scared cow and no one who indulges in corruption should be respected regardless of their positions, ranks or social status.
It’s my candid opinion that if we muster the courage to implement the reforms I highlighted, Nigeria can be cleansed of corruption to a very high magnitude. We may not eliminate it completely, but we will render it impotent to the degree that those who want to try it will weigh the consequences before taking the dive into a journey of no return, and the society at large can have the effrontery to isolate corrupt individuals because of the shame they bring to their families, kinsmen, and communities.
I will advise the PACAC to still consider as part of the anti-corruption strategy, the linking of the Bank Verification Number to the real estate sector as was done with the financial sector such that ownership of all landed property can be traced through the BVN.
But for this to happen, the property developers, estate agencies, and other professionals in the housing sector must be carried on board.
Finally, I urge Nigerians to set aside all their differences and face a common enemy – corruption and its ancillary manifestations – before we turn Nigeria into a pariah nation, inflicted unmitigated harm on ourselves and destroy the fabrics that hold our society together. The humanity we share should ginger us to redemption against corrupt people and liberate ourselves from their shackles.
Let’s not forget that an injury to one is an injury to all.
Ibrahim Dan-Halilu is a Public Affairs Analyst based in Abuja, Nigeria. He can be reached at [email protected]