War on corruption: is Obasanjo capitulating?

This time around in Nigeria’s war on corruption, it is important to hold the government’s feet to the fire every step of the way and every hour of the day.

Most Nigerians extolled General Obasanjo to the skies when he renewed the war against corruption a little while ago. Going by the zeal and “take no prisoner” approach with which he commenced the war, via a ‘no nonsense’ radio broadcast, Nigerians, including this writer, believed that by now, the mighty would be falling off their ill-acquired and high stakes pedestals. It was the fervent belief of this writer that by this time of the year, many would have been formerly charged to court with attendant convictions and numerous jail terms.

There are documented instances in the past, when tough talk, backed by tough action, by the government of the day, re-injected sanity into Nigerians. During the regime of Murtala Ramat Mohammed, many public officials and civil servants were relieved of their jobs for offences as minor as indolence. As a result, others sat up and started doing the right thing. The lesson here is that Nigerians abide by the rule of law only when a credible threat, for contravention, hangs over them like the sword of Damocles. Another case in point is during the Buhari/Idiagbon era, when koboko-wielding soldiers whipped those that flouted rules as simple as keeping the streets clean. Again Nigerians started doing the right thing.

During the period that the WAI program lasted, if one dropped trash on the roadway, even if no officer of the law was present to “whip” the person to order, a mob would nearly lynch the person! It was no longer a mere Idiagbon/Buhari war. It became a war that the masses committed to and joined hands with the government in prosecuting. This they did because they felt that the government meant business. This is not to say that this writer is advocating treating Nigerians like animals. However, if the current anti-graft war must succeed and if Nigerians must become committed to it wholeheartedly, tough talk alone will not cut it. It must be backed with tough punitive measures like prosecution, jail terms and forfeiture of ill-gotten property to the government. This is what Nigerians hoped for after the president’s unconventional broadcast and that was why they overwhelmingly supported him.

Unfortunately, only a few months into the renewed war on corruption, it seems as though the tempo has stalled. The zeal with which Nigeria’s president began the fight seems to be fading to vanishing points. These days, Nigerians hear more talk about the war than real action. The usual dilly dallying and palpable somnolence that has characterized this presidency, with respect to matters of import to Nigerians, seems to have set in again. Some of the people accused of corruption have not even been formerly charged in a court of law, let alone convicted. In fact, even those that were fired from office are still walking the streets as if firing was enough for the egregious offences they committed. A few days ago, Tafa Balogun, the corrupt former police boss, who should be sitting in jail now for abusing his office, made bail. To add insult to injury, the charges formerly preferred against him have been reduced from 70 to 50. One might ask what all these have to do with anything? The answer is that Nigerians are closely watching what the president is doing. If they do not see tough action soon, they would no longer take the anti-corruption war seriously and the desired effect of deterrence will never be achieved.

It is not an overstatement to say that the president’s broadcast brought joy to many just as it brought sorrow to the corrupt ones. It is safe to say that it even jumpstarted a renewed awareness against corruption. There were reports then that the blatant incidence of bribery had started to diminish. Now that things seem to have slowed down, Nigerians may have started going back to their usual way of life. The reported rush by public officials to review the activities of those who worked for them, to ensure that all activities were legal, seem to be gradually petering out. This is all because the toughness that heralded the renewed war is abating.

The reader may conclude that this writer is sounding this alarm too early because the war has only been on for a few months. In other words, it is too early to judge. I hasten to say, in response, that Nigerians have been down this road before when we heard that there would be no sacred cows. In the end though, more sacred cows than ever were created. This time around, it is important to hold the government’s feet to the fire on this all-important war every step of the way and every hour of the day. It may be too late to wait for a year to judge the result, hence this writer’s clarion call. Obasanjo must by his actions, dispel the charges of critics that the tough talk is all politics, grand standing and hog wash. Unless of course the critics are right, in that case he should stop deceiving Nigerians.

Getting back to brass tacks though, is it possible that the president is advertently backing away from the war? Is there a reason to believe that the president may be capitulating and gradually looking for an exit strategy to back out from this war? Critics feel there is and from the events of the past few weeks, the critics may be right. One would recall that in an interview the president gave in London sometime back, he mentioned that powerful persons were after him because of the corruption war he instituted. He also described how some lawmakers paid an Israeli consortium to furtively investigate him. As if that was not enough, Gbenga, the president’s son, gave a telling interview. He was defending himself against allegations that he has multiple accounts, to the tune of 22 million dollars, in US banks. Many times during the interview, Gbenga stated that he was being targeted by those unhappy with his father’s war against corruption. In one instance, he said he was being maligned because he is “Baba’s son”. He even went on to deny being General Obasanjo’s first son and referred to the one he called Segun as Obasanjo’s first son. His denial about being the first son sounded like he felt that people would give him a break if they knew he was not the first son. That sounded childish to me but it goes to show that all these must be bringing a lot of pressure on the Obasanjo family. One would not be surprised to learn that this is why the war has slowed down. Yesterday, the president made a radio broadcast and said very little about the anti-graft war. That is a very telling signal.

Concerns about the president’s seeming somnolence in prosecuting the corruption war is not only shared by this writer. After reading the comment made by an American envoy in Nigeria, one became convinced that skeptical Nigerians were not alone in their concerns. The American envoy hailed the anti-corruption war alright, but cautioned that they need to start hearing about court arraignments and convictions rather than just talk. The man is right on the money and the president must ratchet things up again. There are a lot of corrupt public officials in the senate, in the house and even in the president’s cabinet and he must start bringing them to book in full public glare.

If the president’s shilly shallying equivocation actually stems from the threats he is getting, then it is unfortunate that a “tough” soldier is beginning to capitulate under pressure. General Obasanjo, including his son, Gbenga, must realize that uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and as long as the anti-corruption war continues, jabs will come their way. Assuming that Gbenga is innocent of all the allegations against him, he must realize that all these come with the territory. All these years, he has enjoyed the perks of being the son of Nigeria’s president and Nigerians did not hear him complain. He must now be ready to take the bad pill along with the good. He should even be grateful that he does not live in a place like Britain or United States where the tabloid newspapers would have torn him to shreds with both accurate and inaccurate information.

Finally, there is no gainsaying the fact the anti-graft war is a legitimate war that more than 90% of Nigerians agree with the president on. He must not succumb under pressure unless he has skeletons in his own cupboard as critics insinuate. This is his chance to leave an indelible footprint in the sands of time in Nigeria. Posterity will not forgive him if he fails because people are after him or his family. The president must realize that more pressure will mount on him, from Nigerians, if he fails again or tries to prosecute the war haphazardly. The reduction of the charges against Tafa Balogun is a bad sign. Some feel that the reduction will continue until it is reduced to a few flimsy charges that will never commit him to jail for even one day. This trend must not continue otherwise Nigerians will go back to status quo antebellum. He must be tough with the people that have vowed to run Nigeria aground through corruption. As the Latin phrase goes, “Metus improbos compescit, non clementia” – Fear, not kindness, restrains the wicked. If the president has ears, let him hear, Nigerians are all eyes.

Alfred Uzokwe, Nigeria World, May 2, 2005

Categories: Africa, Nigeria, Odious Debts

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