OPINION: The Anatomy of Corruption Fights in Nigeria

By Jerome-Mario Utomi.    

Right from the moment Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index(CPI), a flagship research product  which  measures the glimpse of perceived corruption in the public sector of surveyed countries, released its 2019 report, different comments that  will safely qualify as intra, inter, cross, trans and counter comments has been made by Nigerians. Out of the 180 countries that were surveyed worldwide, the result saw Nigeria slip from 144th to 146th on the pecking order fell by 26 points, a minus of one when compared to its score in 2018 and now ranked 32 out of 49 countries in the sub-region. The latest report shows that its score of 26 is way below the global average of 43 and the 2019 average score of 32 for the sub-Saharan Africa region.

Adding context to this discourse, the word corruption comes from the Latin word corruptus, which “means to break or to destroy.” Corruption according to AL-Gore, a former Vice President of the United States (USA), destroys and breaks that trust which is absolutely essential for the delicate alchemy at the heart of representative democracy. In its contemporary form, corruption almost always involves an incestuous coupling of power and money and describes the exchange of money for the misuse of public power.

“It matters not whether the exchange is initiated by the person with the money or the person with the power; it is the exchange itself that is the essence of the corruption. It matters not if the private enrichment is with cash or with its equivalent in influence, prestige, status, or power; the harm is done by the fraudulent substitution of wealth for reason in the determination of how the power is used.  It matters not if the purchase of power is seen as beneficial by some or even by many; it is the dishonesty of the transaction that carries the poison”.

Comparatively, aside from the fact that the past records of the Federal Governments has not been encouraging, as no president has in the past six decades of  independence done really very much for Nigerians in this direction, when one places side by side the above explanation about corruption with the current arguments  and condemnation within the government circle, of the  recent ranking, it rings apprehension that the nation is in the hands of a dedicated group that can neither accelerate the process nor shape development in ways that are conducive for the reemergence of a fully functional country. It specifically brings to the fore the reality that the nation is not only at war with those that seeks to turn the clock of history backward. But, reveals the lack of insight to the true meaning of, and what corruption as a social scourge represents; and how such deformed perception as a consequence truncates prospect of success in the fight against corruption.

Indeed, separate from the trumpeted claim that the Federal Government recently recovered over N200 billion and convicted 890 people in 2019 anti-corruption war alone which the Transparency International failed to put into account, there is an accompanying  believe within the government circle that in terms of the fight against corruption, the FG have done well, and will continue to do more out of inherent conviction and desire on their part to fight against corruption devoid of any extraneous considerations relating to the rating by Transparency International. Similar to this is another school of thought that the claim and inference by TI that Nigeria ranks the fourth most corrupt country in West Africa is totally unacceptable, as it is not supported by any empirical data, especially when placed side-by-side with the remarkable achievements of the EFCC in the past years.

Of course, such argument in their estimation may not be wrong.  After all, the mind thrives on imperfect data.And as humans; ‘we can turn nonsense into sense because our brains have been designed for a world where a fast, plausible interpretation is often better than a slow, certain one. Yet, the strength of this everyday intelligence carries with it an unexpected liability. The very way ours have evolved to process information is often the root cause of the most common and the most dangerous errors in business judgement’

But, the greatest irony and tragedy of these commentaries is that none, not even a single personality or Government’s institution remembered to tell Nigerians how nepotistic and supportive corruption has in the past few years ridiculed the country and made non-sense of the Federal character. As we know, while nepotistic corruption involves unjustified and often unqualified appointment of friends or acquaintances to public offices in violations to the established norms (federal character), supportive corruption on its parts refers to actions undertaken to protect the existing or already done corrupt practices particularly when the person(s) involved belong to the same ruling party.

If objective analysis can replace emotional discussion, it  becomes easy to signpost that in Nigeria, as well as most countries in Africa, perception about corruption often tends to be strongly colored by ‘national culture’ and tribal background of the personalities involved and their supporters. An understanding of this development can add a vital dimension of realism and provide a link to why the fight in the continent has been lost to the political winds.

Admittedly, corruption, speaking in absolute terms is a human problem and has existed for so long a time in some forms -so also is its fights. What differs from one country to the other is the degree of political will dissipated to tackling the scourge.

Take Singapore as an example of a country that suffered in the past what currently confronts Nigeria as a nation.

In 1959, as documented by Lee Kuen Yew, its first Prime Minister, both high and low profiled cases of corruption existed. High profile cases made the headlines. Several ministers were guilty of corruption, one in each of the decades from the 1960s to the 1980s. Corruption used to be organized on large scale in certain areas. In 1971, the CBPIB broke up a syndicate of over 250 mobile squad police men who received payments ranging from $.5 to $.10 per month from truck owners who’s vehicle they recognized by the addresses painted on the sides of the trucks. Those owners who refused to pay will be constantly harassed by having summons issued against them.

Custom officers would receive bribes to speed up the checking of vehicle smuggling in prohibited goods. Personnel’s in the central supplies offices (the government procurement department), provide information on tender bids for a fee. Officers in the import and the export department received bribes to hasten the issue of permits. Contractors bribe clerks of works to allow short piling. Public health labourer was paid by shopkeepers to do their job of clearing refuse. Principals and teachers received commission from stationary suppliers. Human ingenuity is infinite when translating power and discretion into personal gain. But, it was not difficult to clean up these organized rackets.

Here in Nigeria, it is a direct opposite.

Corruption and its fights in the country dates back to Colonial governments as they (Colonial Overlords) sufficiently legislated against it in the first criminal code ordinance of 1916(No15 of 1916) which elaborately made provisions prohibiting official bribery and corruption by persons in the public service and in the judiciary. Also at independence on October 1, 1960, the criminal code against corruption and abuse of office in Nigeria were in section 98 to 116 and 404 of the code.

However, while the situation then may look ugly, what is going on now is even worse and frightening

Regardless of what others may say, Nigerians don’t need Transparency International’s report to commit to memory that full scale corruption has never departed the shores of this political shore. Nigerians are aware that right from independence October 1960, what leaders lacked is but the political will to fight corruption. As feeble attempts made in the past were more of verbal pronouncements without unique architecture or thought process for action.

This assertion is evident based.

First, Major Chukuma Kaduna, who led the abortive coup of January 15, 1966, remarked; the country’s enemies are the political profiteers, swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10%, those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least;the tribalists, nepotists, those that make the country look for nothing before international setting, those that corrupted our society and put the national political calendar back to their words and deeds.

No one bothered to investigate this claim.

As the most senior military officer after the Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu aborted coup, in 1966, General Thomas Johnson Umunakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, the first military Head of State in his resolve to curb corruption among other comments declared that ‘the military Government will stamp out corruption and dishonesty in our public offices with ruthless efficiency and restore integrity and self-respect in our public affairs’. That statement only existed in the frames as he was later killed on July 29, 1966, by the bloody revenge coup.

Yakubu Gowon who took over from General Thomas Johnson Umunakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi designed five main issues that his administration will handle with the fourth focusing on ending corruption in the country- It  however, turned out to be a paradox of the sort as he was later accused of corruption while in office.

On the other hands, what appeared as a departure from the old order came the way of Nigerians in 1975, when Brigadier Muritala Mohammed upon  ascending the mantle of leadership, forfeited to the nation the property he acquired with the public funds as well as constituted the Pedro Martins Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau to among other responsibilities probe Gowon’s administration. Regrettably, this ‘revolution’ came to an abrupt end with his assassination.

After Mohammed’s assassination the following year, the military appointed Obasanjo, who ‘against his will’ took over the mantle of the nation’s leadership as the head of the government. Following the 1979 election, Obasanjo handed over control of Nigeria to the newly elected civilian president, Shehu Shagari.

In my views, the impact of President Shehu Shagari, fight against corruption was like others not seriously felt.  Apart from his call on Nigerians to support his administration fight against corruption, he created the Ethical Re-orientation Committee and the Code of Conduct Bureau. These notwithstanding, his administration was reputed in the anal of our national history as a period when incompetence and absence of rigorous accountability flourished and dishonesty encouraged and rewarded.

After the truncation of a democratically elected government on the 31st December, 1983, General Muhammadu Buhari, as the new military president while unfolding his plans to tackle social ills in the country stated; ‘corruption and indiscipline have been associated with our state of underdevelopment, this evil in our body politics have attained unprecedented heights in the past four years.  We deplore corruption in all its facets –this government will not tolerate, inflation of contracts and over-invoicing of imports etc nor will it condone forgery, embezzlement,  misuse, and abuse of office and illegal dealing in foreign exchange and smuggling’’

It is not as if General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida did not make any effort to rid the nation of corruption but such record remains sketchy as he said little, and Nigerians are yet to stumble at a documented account of his achievements in this direction

Also, in his short stay as the Head of the Interim National Government (ING), Chief Ernest Shonekan stated;’’ I am serving notice here and now of the determination of the Interim National Government to launch a crusade against corruption in public life.  To this end, I shall strive to lead by personal example. The ING will also ensure that laws against corruption are enforced without fear or favor. Each and everyone must be ready to expose corruption wherever it exists’’.  That comment like every other ended as a gospel without the truth as his government was sooner than expected declared illegal.

General Abacha, another military President, in 1995, like his predecessors , raised a strong voice against corruption and other social ills saying; ‘the twin evils of indiscipline and corruption have severely affected the social integrity of our society and have frustrated the great hopes of our people to genuine development’. However, Nigerians after his demise were shell-shocked to learn that monumental corruption flourished under the same man.

For General Abdulsalami Abubakar, his administration is often always described by Nigerians with critical minds as a regime without strategic insight or will to ending corruption in the country.

At the dawn of Democracy in May 1999, President Olusegun Obasanjo that recorded a vague result in corruption fight as a military President in the late 1970s suddenly became an anti-corruption crusader creating two anti-craft bodies- Economic And Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC).  The two bodies have at different points performed to the admiration of the global community. However, OBJ was later accused by the political class and the media of using the anti-craft bodies as an instrument for witch-hunt/ and political vendetta.

Not to say anything about President Umoru Yaradua’s effort will render this piece a one side-narrative as his short stay as president of the federal Republic witnessed some steps adjudged as transparent by Nigerians and earned him goodwill.

Conversely, while Yaradua enjoyed goodwill, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s administration faced more credibility burden than goodwill as he was perceived as not resolute in fighting corruption- a factor largely responsible for his failure in his 2015 general election.

Personally, why the anti-corruption watchdog may not be blamed in this latest report is that, the present administration has allowed the country’s economy  manifest  its inability to sustain any kind of meaningful growth that promotes the social welfare of the people, And corruption  has become even more entrenched as scandal upon scandal has completely laid bare the anti-corruption stance of this administration and those who were initially deceived by the present government’s alleged fight against corruption has come to the conclusion that nothing has changed.

This situation is even made worse when one remembers that the list of actions not taken by this administration to confront corruption which has made Nigerians face actual and potential difficulties remains lengthy and worrisome. Chiefly among these is Mr. President’s failure to objectively make corruption fight a personal priority for him or those who report directly to him.

Without any shadow of the doubt, this has fittingly presented the President as one that started off with high moral standards, strong conviction and determination to beat down corruption but has neither lived up to that good intention nor dealt with all transgressors without exception.

To change this narrative, this time is auspicious for Nigerians to cease heaping of blames on the Transparency International (TI) for their report.  Mr. President must be ready to come up with frameworks that will ensure every naira in revenue will be properly accounted for and would reach the beneficiaries at the grassroots as one dollar, without being siphoned off along the way. To achieve this, special attention must be given to the areas where discretionary powers has been exploited for personal gain and sharpened the instrument that could prevent, detect, or deter such practices.

The second important action expected of the government if the nation is to make appreciable progress in curbing corruption, is to rework the nation’s electoral system which is considered brazenly expensive. We must not forget that internationally, a precondition for an honest government is that candidate must not need large sums to get elected, or it must trigger off the circle of corruption. Having spent a lot of money to get elected, winners must recover their costs and possibly accumulate funds for the next election as the system is self-perpetuating’.

To completely stamp out both nepotistic and supportive corruption, it calls for  a sincere and selfless leadership, a politically and economically restructured policy brought by the national consciousness that  can unleash the social, economic and political transformation of the country while  rejecting the present socio-economic system that has bred corruption, inefficiency, primitive capital accumulation that socially excluded the vast majority of our people.

Finally, Government at levels must recognize, and position Nigeria to be a society of equal citizens where opportunities are equal and personal contribution is recognized and rewarded on merit regardless of language, culture, religion or political affiliations. If we are able to achieve this, it will once again, announce the arrival of a brand new great nation where peace and love shall reign supreme as no nation enjoys durable peace without justice and stability, without fairness and equity!

Jerome-Mario Utomi, a Media Consultant and Researcher, (jeromeutomi@yahoo.com -08032725374), writes from Lagos, Nigeria.

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