The war against corruption and the survivality of Nigeria

As the stories of corruption unfold, Nigerians, for the moment, seem cautiously optimistic that the president has finally decided to do what he was expected to have done as soon as he took over the reigns of power.

In the past four or five years, President Olusegun Obasanjo was subjected to much ridicule in Nigeria. No one took him very seriously due to the fact that he seemed totally disengaged from the reality of the Nigerian situation, constantly reminding everyone that he was God sent to save Nigeria, surrounded himself with highly questionable characters, led a political party that looked more like a mafia organization, could not summon enough courage to take appropriate action against the high and mighty who violated the laws, presided over the most rigged election in the history of Nigeria, took military actions that ended in disasters, and did not seem to do anything right.

In short, he was like a perpetually bumbling character, even when he opened his mouth to say something on public policy. During this period of his rule, both at the national and state levels, public officials (elected and bureaucrats) looted the public treasury as if they were competing for the Olympic gold medal in embezzlement. Hence, Nigeria repeatedly scored very high on the Transparency International’s list of countries notoriously known for corruption.

As if visited by some miraculous force, President Obasanjo has suddenly become the #1 crime-fighting president that most Nigerians expected him to be when he ascended the pinnacle of power a second time as the civilian president of Nigeria in 1999. As the stories of corruption unfold, Nigerians, for the moment, seem cautiously optimistic that the president has finally decided to do what he was expected to have done as soon as he took over the reigns of power.

With a sudden change in the oceanic tide of the president’s mood toward corruption, the big fishes have begun to fall one by one. The first big fish, and indeed, a really big fish for that matter, was the former Inspector General of Police, Chief Tafa Balogun, the all-knowing, take charge, political plumber who was more of a strong man than a law enforcement officer. Despite being a timber-caliber in the corridors of power, he fell so swiftly. He is now charged with 70 counts of money laundering and corrupt enrichment amounting to N13 billion. Then, like a Shakespearan comedy, Nigeria’s Corruption, Inc. (the Senate of the Nigerian National Assembly), crashed over a scandal involving N55 million allegedly given to senators by the Minister of Education, Prof. Fabian Osuji, in order to facilitate the approval of the ministry’s budget.

The Minister was immediately relieved of his job by President Obasanjo. As the news of the story unfolded, the President of the Senate, Adolphus Wabara, also fell and other senators, in order to clear their names, are now talking. Nigerians must be grateful to Sen. Chris Adighije and Secretary of the Senate Committee on Education, Mrs. Ngozi Obichere for trying to explain what happened in the Senate over the N55 million.

Even before Nigerians had sufficient time to digest the incredulous tornadic and epochal events surrounding Chief Balogun and the Education/Senate scandal, they were thrust upon the stage again by yet another major scandal involving the selling of Federal Government properties (houses) in Ikoyi Lagos to the high and mighty of Nigeria’s society. This case seems to dwarf the previous two cases due to the fact that some of the major characters involved are swearing that their names were listed as purchasers without their knowledge. The president, predictably, raised the axe again and the Federal Minister of Housing and Environment, Mobolaji Osomo, was immediately relieved of her duties as a minister.

Now that the president has come to realize that political, economic, social, and infrastructural progress cannot be attained in Nigeria without first tackling or eradicating corruption, he seems to be risking his political career to tackle the societal cancer. Should Nigerians give him the benefit of the doubt and work with him, the boss of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICOC) to fight the war?

In any case, it is obvious that without a decisive action to defeat corruption, Nigeria will merely exist as nation state and nothing more. The country is like a worn out basket full of holes. Whenever money is put into it, the money leaks away just like water in a basket. No one can account for the billions of dollars that the country has earned in the past thirty or more years due to the fact that those who are supposed to use the money to address the developmental needs of the country have simply stolen the money.

Indeed, it appears that a large section of the Nigerian public is amazed by the extent to which the so-called high society members of the country can go in accumulating personal wealth. It is also amazing that the high and mighty, who have stolen public money and strongly believe that they were above the law are now shivering, fearful that they could be uncovered and humiliated if some of those who have been caught decide to talk.

For instance, if Chief Balogun decides to open his mouth, many heads would eventually roll because he knows so much about what happened in the country in the last three years of his reign as the IGP. Furthermore, he can shed light on the high-profile killings that took place in the country and were blamed on armed robbers even though everyone knew that the killings were politically motivated.

Despite the successes achieved so far on the war against corruption, the road ahead is full of unpredictable consequences, so much so that no one is sure how it will end. Fighting a war against the most powerful personalities in society is a very challenging task. Therefore, the president, Malam Ribadu, Justice Akande and their supporters must be vigilant and totally committed to the cause. In particular, for the president to demonstrate that he is truly committed to fighting corruption and not merely posturing in order to win international debt relieve, he must pass six tests.

The first test involves his ability to fight corruption not only against those far removed from his family but also among members of his family. If he allows the law to take effect even when members of his family are involved, then Nigerians can say that the president is truly committed to ridding the country of corruption. Passing this test is very important because there are Nigerians who believe that since Chief Obasanjo became the president, his son, Gbenga, had accumulated millions of dollars, apart from the $22 million recently reported in the press and vehemently denied by the family. Likewise, Mrs. Stella Obasanjo has been rumored to have been involved in oil bunkering activities.

These rumours are merely rumours and have not been proven through any substantive evidence but Nigerians talk about it when they gather to discuss the fate of their country as the hungry sharks known as high public officials devour it without mercy. The president must come clean on Julius Makanjuola, who has been alleged to have accumulated N400 million through corruptible practices.

The second test requires the president to make public the audited report of his presidency. Apart from making the audit public, he must use his position to compel the governors to make public declarations of their own financial record. Nigerians need to know what elected public officials are doing with their finances.

The third test requires the president to defang the PDP and stop the Ghana-Must-Go-Bag subculture that has massively corrupted the political process. [Ghana-must-go bags refer to large woven red or blue plastic carrier bags which were used by Ghanaians when they fled Nigeria during a mass deportation exercise in the 1980s and, later, to allegations that “Ghana Must Go” bags filled with money were distributed to legislators to influence the election of Chief Evans Enwerem as Senate President. The tag now refers to corruption among public officials in general]. It is evident that the subculture is responsible for the practice of government ministries and agencies bribing other branches of the same government in order to have their budgets approved. It is also responsible for some of the high-profile assassinations in the country.

The fourth test requires the president to open the flood gate so that investigative agencies can investigate whether other ministers, apart from Prof. Osuji, also paid members of the Senate; probe the scandal involving the former Minister of Works and Housing, Tony Anenih over the more than N100 billion allocated for road construction and Gaius Obaseki over the N300 billion NNPC scandal.

The fifth test which is also crucial and must be carried out by the president involves summoning courage to abrogate the intolerable or obnoxious laws known as the Land Use Decrees and the Petroleum Act. These acts create the opportunity for financial irresponsibility and embezzlement by enabling officials to embezzle revenue earned from oil. To say that only the Federal Government has responsibility over the management of revenue accruing from oil is to say that no body is actually responsible for managing the revenue. This enables those in position of power to embezzle the oil money with impunity since no one seems to be in charge. It is a truism that only a land or a house owner will properly take care of the land or house.

If you deprive the land or house owner the right to manage the land or house, no one else will be so committed to properly and effectively take care of the property. The same applies to the oil revenue situation. By depriving those whose lands provide the source of oil from having a direct stake in the way money from the product is managed, the oil revenue becomes a free for all booty, hence, the massive looting. As the money is stolen, land owners are incensed that they are being cheated. This leads to tension and instability in the oil belt since no body seems to care about what happens to them or their lands.

The sixth test requires the president to release the list of names mentioned in the World Bank Report concerning corruption in Nigeria. If he wants the support of Nigerians, then he should let them know the names of those involved.

If the president can demonstrate through these tests that he is truly committed, Nigerians in general and the critics in particular, would change their minds and agree that the president is totally committed to the anticorruption crusade and is not being selective in the way certain individuals are dealt with while others are left off the hook. Right now, Chief Tafa Balogun, Prof. Osuji, Senator Adolphus Wabara, and Mobolaji Osomo appear to be sacrificial lambs of a very calculating president who is willing to save his own neck at the backs of others.

If the president succeeds in convincing Nigerians that he is not merely scoring political points, he can then prosecute the war by looking at the following areas that appear to promote the climate for corruption:

a) Put more enforcement teeth to the environmental laws of the land so that oil companies comply fully and not destroy the land from which they obtain oil. Currently, oil companies run wild by violating the laws, bribing and instigating individuals and communities to fight in the Niger Delta. In this regard, there is a need for the establishment of the Federal Ministry of Environmental Affairs.b) Immediately work to repeal the immunity clause in the 1999 Constitution. The clause tends to encourage corruption, both at the federal and state levels. Public officials, especially representatives and state governors, have been openly corrupt because they know that they cannot be prosecuted while they are still in office. The clause allows them to destroy important evidence that could be used against them after they leave office. The clause is undemocratic since it takes away the right of the people to impeach or recall or decide the fate of elected officials who are found to be incompetent or in violation of the law. As can be seen, state governors, local government chairpersons, and high level civil servants have deprived their citizens the right to economic development, health care, effective mass transportation, sound education, affordable housing, and drinkable water due to excessive embezzlement as a result of the clause.

c) The war against corruption must be extended to the states and local governments. The president should allow the crime fighting agencies (SSS, police, EFCC, and the ICPC) to investigate and prosecute any state or local government official suspected to have embezzled money. In particular, quite contrary to what some officials in the oil producing states are saying, the federal government should look into the financial records of those states in order to determine financial accountability. Chief Rita-Lori Ogbebor spoke for all citizens of the Niger Delta when she insisted that the budgets of the oil-producing states should be open to public scrutiny so that citizens become aware of how their oil monies are being spent. The argument that state affairs should not be interfered with by the Federal Government in a federal political arrangement can be countered, using the principle of the “Supremacy of National Laws” to override the argument advanced by the states.

d) It is not enough to merely terminate the services of corrupt public officials. It is essential that embezzlers face the law, allowed to defend themselves and if found guilty through the court of law, do their time in prison. They should be prosecuted fully, just like any other citizen in the country. Right now, in Nigeria, only the politically and economically powerless citizens end up in prison. The rich rarely go to prison, regardless of the crime committed. Embezzlement is a very serious crime because millions of people are impacted by it, unlike a petty crime in which only few people are victimized. When a government official embezzles millions of naira, it means that millions of citizens are deprived. It is not surprising that Nigerians have gotten poorer today than in the past, even though the country is actually making more money today than in the past.

e) Based upon the scandalous manner in which government properties have been disposed off, as indicated by the Aluminium Plant fiasco and the Ikoyi housing scandal, the president should stop his effort to privatize public properties. Public properties belong to all Nigerians and as such, they cannot be disposed off without the approval of the Nigerian people. In Nigeria, ‘Privatization” sounds like a code word for corruption because most of those who buy prized public properties are generally the embezzlers who stole from the people. Having stolen from the people, they can afford to put down the millions of naira required to purchase such properties. In other words, privatization allows embezzlers to use stolen money to buy public properties without actually putting down a kobo of their own money. Thus, they slap Nigerians twice, thereby, violating the “once beaten twice shy” rule.

f) The EFCC and the ICPC should probe the financial affairs of educational institutions. In the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, educational institutions, at all levels, (primary, secondary and higher education) were well managed. In particular, the infrastructures (buildings, equipments, dormitories, offices, and campus grounds) were constantly rehabilitated to keep them in excellent conditions. However, since the middle 1980s, it seems that no one cares any more about infrastructural development, management and rehabilitation. Public secondary school campuses are like makeshift setups with crumbling buildings, leaking roofs and broken desks and chairs. University campuses are like military garrisons in a war front with eroding and decaying buildings. Lack of residential space continues to force Nigerian university students to live in crowded halls. Adding salt to injury, some higher educational administrators, particularly, at the University of Lagos and Ibadan, even proposed to privatize hostels. The proposal forced students to protest vigorously against the idea. Privatization will turn higher education into an exclusive venture in which only the children of the rich can afford to attain.

At this stage of higher educational development in the country, the universities at Ibadan, Lagos, Zaria, Nsukka, Port Harcourt, Benin, Maiduguri, Jos, etc. should have had residential halls (dormitories) ranging from five to fifteen stories high to enable a larger number of students live comfortably on campus without having to shack up like refugees in a war camp. Sometimes, due to crowded spaces, students are forced to take bath on open fields early in the mornings or at nights.

It is necessary to probe these institutions in order to find out the true state of affairs in education. Are the educational budgets being embezzled or are both the federal and state governments not paying sufficient attention to education?

g) The EFCC or the ICPC or a judiciary commission should be set up to investigate the judicial system in order to find out why cases go through the Nigerian court system in a snail-like speed. There are too many delays and adjournments in the trial of cases. As a result, unfortunate suspects are sometimes locked up in detention for years awaiting trial. A law should be passed which states that if a case is not tried after a certain time period, the suspect should be released. It is a very serious human rights violation to hold suspects in detention for years without trial. Some Nigerians spend as much as five years in detention before their cases are finally resolved. For example, the Odi Boys who were suspected to have killed 12 policemen in November, 1999, are still detained in prison while the case is constantly postponed. The delays and unnecessary postponements amount to corruption of justice. Already, the Russian crew of the detained ship ‘African Pride,’ is still in detention, two years after the Russians were arrested and the case has not even begun yet. Russian officials have expressed their dismay at the prolonged detention without trial of their citizens. Right now in Nigeria, no one believes in the judicial system because it seems to be too corrupt and inefficient.

h) Any invitation for public bidding of governmental property or contract should be made public so Nigerians are aware of the properties that the government is trying to dispose off or contracts that the government intends to award. After the bidding, the names of successful bidders should also be published, to avoid secret deals that result in bribery. So far, the federal effort to privatize the Aluminium plant in Akwa Ibom State is mired in legal conflict emanating from secret deals.

All elected public officials, including the president, legislators, governors, and executive level civil servants must declare their assets before they assume office. Those who fail to do so should not be allowed to be in office. Likewise, no Nigerian, while an employee of the government, whether federal or state, should engage in other economic activities, This is a standard civil service rule and is intended to avoid conflict of interest.

Although, the president’s anticrime crusade is highly welcomed, nevertheless, there is a feeling that the president was forced to change course by recent revelations, both nationally and internationally. First, the president was humiliated when he realized that international creditors would not forego Nigeria’s debt since Nigerian public officials were embezzling the country’s wealth at a rate which made some of them instant multibillionaires. Some of these embezzlers, it is wildly speculated, can easily pay off Nigeria’s foreign debt.

Second, as he was searching for options, the Chief Chris Uba/Ngige affair in Anambra State rocked the presidency and the president seemed powerless to resolve the affair.

Third, the president was put to shame by the World Bank Report which revealed that between 1999 and 2003, $170 billion was embezzled by Nigerian officials.

Fourth, even before the president could recover from the news reports of the scandalous $170 billion, he was slapped on the face by the incidents of the disappearing ships under the custody of the Nigerian Navy.

Fifth, while he was contemplating what to do with the Navy’s case, Chief Balogun’s case hit the limelight.

Added to these cases of corruption are the unsolved high profile killings in the country that seem to tarnish his presidency. These cases and reports, no doubt, made it impossible for the president to ignore or brush aside the issue of corruption. He had to fight corruption in order to bestow his dignity and repair the political history of his life as a leader of Nigeria.

Thus, either by God’s grace or sheer luck, the president is now doing himself and Nigeria a great favor by declaring war against corruption. Indeed, God works mysteriously, hence, Ribadu is at the right place at the right time to serve as the fearless backbone of the president’s war on the scourge. Nigerians need to support the current effort and help the crusade to move forward to the next stage.

If Nigerians fail to seize the opportunity to do so, the crusade against corruption could fizzle like in Kenya. It should be recalled that President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya swept into political office in an electoral landslide after promising to fight corruption. Barely three years in office, his administration is already being smeared by corruption. As a result, the anticorruption czar, Mr. John Githongo, has resigned. Corruption is very cancerous and requires a strong will and treatment to beat it.

So far, corruption is draining the lifeblood of the country and quick intervention is needed to arrest the situation. It is necessary to beat the cancer in order for Nigeria to survive, grow and progress as a united multiethnic nation. Therefore, the war against corruption must be viewed from a national security perpsective. However, it must be waged in a manner that is fair to all, including those accused of the crime. Also, it must not be selective.

Priye S. Torulagha,, April 11, 2005

Categories: Africa, Nigeria, Odious Debts

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