President Buhari’s much-advertised fight against corruption has degenerated into a demolition derby. As happened with many previous efforts to fight corruption in Nigeria, different outposts of power and influence in the president’s coterie appear determined to use anti-corruption as a cover to settle intra-palace scores.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), headed by an acting chairman, is pursuing the prosecution of the President of the Senate before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT). While those proceedings end, the Senate, whose President is accused of corruption by the EFCC, has declined confirmation of the acting Chairman of the EFCC, citing a report by the State Security Service (SSS), which accuses the nominee of abuse of power and of human rights. These allegations of human rights abuse against the EFCC’s acting Chairman are made without any hint of irony by an SSS that has earned a dismal reputation for respecting only court orders that it likes or in favour of only those it approves of.
Meanwhile, the judiciary, many of whose senior-most officers have become objects of ridicule at the instance of the EFCC and the SSS, must somehow bring itself to arbitrate with a straight face the winners and losers in this squalid mess.
To some, this report card is evidence that there are no sacred cows in this “fight” against corruption. It is indeed easy to mistake injury for progress when the goals are unclear and a strategy is non-existent. There surely is a fight but it is increasingly difficult to sustain the idea that it is President Buhari’s fight or indeed a fight for the interest of Nigerians.
To be sure, this is not the first time an administration will be up-ended by those supposed to implement its proclaimed commitment to fighting corruption. In 1970, General Yakubu Gowon declared that he would “eradicate corruption” from Nigeria within six years. It was an impossible mission proclaimed with the starry-eyed certitude of a 35 year-old intoxicated with power unmitigated by experience. Four years later, Godwin Daboh, instigated, it was suspected, by then Governor of Benue-Plateau State, Joseph Gomwalk, published an affidavit listing sundry allegations of corruption against Gowon’s Communications Minister, Joseph Tarka. Gowon’s indecisiveness turbo-charged the allegations. By the time Tarka was eventually forced to resign, Gowon’s commitment to fighting corruption looked terminally hypocritical. Less than one year later, Murtala Muhammed intervened to put the Gowon regime out of its misery.
President Buhari is no stranger to proclaiming anti-corruption. His earlier incarnation as Nigeria’s Head of State in 1984-85 is remembered for his War Against Indiscipline (WAI). Then, as now, the effort was defined essentially by its preoccupation with the arrest, detention or imprisonment of mostly high level public officers accused or suspected of involvement in corrupt enrichment. In the pursuit of that objective, due process was regarded as an inconvenient obstacle, largely to be disregarded. Then, however, he had the cover of military rule. As civilian President, he is naked before politicians and process and the sight is not pretty.
With a mindset that appears to confuse drama with output, much of the anti-corruption campaign of the administration has lacked a clear diagnosis, coherent principles or an over-arching strategy. Every step is judged on a whim. When the State Security Service (SSS) went after some senior judges at the beginning of October 2016, many were ecstatic. Now that the Senate has relied on a report purportedly issued by the same SSS to decline confirmation of the administration’s nominee to head the EFCC, the same voices that saw virtue in the SSS now see vice in the decision of the Senate.
The effort to develop an anti-corruption strategy within the administration has itself been stymied by inter-agency rivalry and not much helped by what – to sound charitable – could be described as the reluctance of the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation to co-operate entirely with the process. Much of the resulting injury on the credibility of the Buhari administration’s anti-corruption fight has been almost entirely self-inflicted.
The stock response from the administration is “corruption fights back.” Sadly, this is a confession of mental laziness and strategic vacuousness. Corruption is a crime. Conviction for it results not merely in jail time but also, for those involved in politics or public life, the end of all ambition. As a matter of law, they are entitled to defend themselves. As a matter of self-interest, they will fight to stay politically relevant. Those who seek accountability for allegations of corruption must surely anticipate that they will be fought. It is not too much to ask them to show up with a plan and to work hard to cultivate allies too. The administration appears to sound as if it expects those accused of corruption to walk to jail meekly and forever show gratitude for being called corrupt.
This is why President Buhari’s much-advertised fight against corruption is officially in disarray. The real problem is that, clearly incapable of fighting the ailment, the administration has chosen to fight its symptoms with the wrong prescriptions. Corruption of the Nigerian hue is a crime against a common patrimony in search of a people or of the shared values to underpin nationhood. Ayo Sogunro comes closest to a credible diagnostic when he recently argued: “[w]ithout social equality there can be no social justice. And without social justice, corruption and patronage will continue to flourish.” In the absence of a shared sense of ownership of the Nigerian nation-space, most of those with the opportunity set upon what should be our common patrimony. What we call corruption is in fact competitive asset stripping of the country.
The answer to this may well involve some prosecutions and convictions. But first, it must begin with a different kind of leadership that gives every part of Nigeria and every Nigerian a shared sense of co-ownership of the country and reassurance that they belong. Second, it must prioritise prevention, institution-building and processes whose effectiveness don’t depend on notions of proximity to the President, his pillow-mates or their confidants. Third, it must be undergirded by competent economic management, with a clear plan to invest in social goods, including education, human wellbeing and basic health-care. President Buhari has proved dis-interested in undertaking the first; indifferent to creating the second; and entirely befuddled by challenge of the third. The fate of his preferred preoccupation with arrest and detention was, therefore, always predictable. The only surprise is that it has taken this long to become this evident.
Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is senior legal officer for the Africa Program of the Open Society Justice Initiative and currently also Chairs the Governing Council of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission, writes in his personal capacity.