This piece was motivated by two inter-related developments: the first is the furore caused by several corruption allegations against some top officials of the Buhari government and the reported directive by the President to the Attorney General of the Federation to investigate the involvement of any top government official accused of any wrong-doing. The corruption allegations against top officials of the government coupled with similar allegations against some members of the National Assembly would seem to suggest that despite the government’s anti-corruption postures and rhetoric, corruption, or at least allegations of it, still thrive as in any other past regime.
The second impetus is the refusal of the Senate to consider approving Ibrahim Magu as the substantive chairman of the financial crimes buster, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) ostensibly because he failed the requisite integrity test. The development has triggered a media war between supporters of Magu and his traducers in which the issue is unfortunately reduced to the simplistic binary of the ‘good guys’ versus the ‘bad guys’. Here the ‘good guys’ are assumed to be those who want Magu’s nomination to be approved because he has “demonstrated good track record in fighting corruption” while the ‘bad guys’ are those opposed to his confirmation and therefore represent “corruption fighting back”.
I believe that rather than dissipate energy on whether Magu should be confirmed as the EFCC chairman or not- we should be posing the more relevant question of whether the EFCC is succeeding or not in the fight against corruption or whether it is exacerbating the problem of corruption by undermining, through its style, the evolution of institution- driven methods of fighting the ailment.
At this stage I believe it will be germane to come clean: I have never been a fan of the EFCC. In fact in a feature for the blog Nigeria Village Square (www.nigeriavillagesquare.com) on January 8 2009 entitled, “War on Corruption: Why EFCC Will Fail”, I wrote: “A major reason why the EFCC is likely to fail is that it is using exactly the same strategies employed by previous regimes and agencies – treating corruption as a moral lapse rather than a systemic problem.” I further argued that “corruption is a systemic problem, which is tied to the success or failure of the nation-building project, the level of poverty in the land, and the extent to which citizens believe they are valued as stakeholders in the state. Therefore fighting the malfeasance by a segment of the society for an ill that is generalized and expressed in different forms is unlikely to solve the problem of corruption.” I have over the years written several other articles critical of the EFCC. From about 2012 I began calling for the granting of conditional amnesty against all accused of corruption because I felt the whole ‘war’ was a charade that had not achieved its aim. In fact EFCC’s ‘gra-gra’ method compounds the blurring of the boundary between the supposed fight against corruption and political vendetta.
But this blurred boundary is actually rooted in the country’s political history: For instance one of the earliest attempts to use charges of corruption to smear political opponents was in 1946 after the NCNC raised £13,000 from its well-publicised tour of the provinces (April 1946 to December 1946) to send a delegation of seven people to London to protest against the Richard’s Constitution, and its ‘four obnoxious ordinances’. The delegation left for London in June 1947 and returned two months later. Though it was welcomed by an enthusiastic crowd of over 100,000, the initial euphoria was quickly overshadowed by insinuations of corruption. For instance the government-owned Daily Times, in its editorial of August 15, 1947, led the charge: “We would like to remind the delegation that what has been achieved could have been obtained in Nigeria by airmail at the very modest cost of one shilling, whereas the delegation has been ever so expensive. If therefore this is the sort of unthinking and wasteful leadership being thrust on us, we will have none of it”.
With the EFCC suspected to be the attack dog of any government in power since Obasanjo set it up in 2003, it has had the problem of legitimacy across the political divides amid accusations of selective targeting of the opposition and opponents of the President.
Another reason why I have not been a fan of the EFCC and its methods is that there is nothing to suggest that it is succeeding in the fight against corruption – despite its ‘gra-gra’. Methodologically, the best way of assessing the impact of the EFCC in the fight against corruption is to use the ‘before’ and ‘after’ benchmarks – that is, to pose the question: what was the situation before the EFCC was set up and what is the situation now? Procedural issues like how much money it succeeded in confiscating or the number of convictions it secured are really mere details. The key question is: Has the incidence of corruption reduced since the inception of EFCC? If, as anecdotal evidence suggests (and from what succeeding governments tell us of their predecessors in office) the malaise seems to be rather increasing, one needs no further evidence to conclude that the EFCC and similar institutions used in fighting corruption in the past simply have failed. In the current situation where the structural and environmental factors that predispose people to corrupt practices are increasing, it makes it even more difficult for the EFCC to succeed. The EFCC, like the other contraptions before it, seems to spend too much energy fighting the symptoms of what is a more fundamental social malaise. That each chairman of the Commission since it was created ended up from being a hunter to the hunted and also has allegations of corruption against him or her, tells volumes.
An interesting question is why Nigerians seem to be fascinated with the EFCC and its methods despite lack of evidence that its succeeding: There are several possible explanations:
One, is that Nigerians like to behave like ostriches. Everyone pretends to be a sort of angel fighting corruption. This includes all sorts of shady characters such as professional conmen and the opportunistic car mechanics who will quickly exchange your new car battery for an old one if you step aside to answer a phone call.
Two, a society emerging from recent dictatorship seems to retain certain authoritarian impulses. For this, the EFCC’s strong arm tactics, which is sometimes short on finesse and rule of law (witness the impunity perpetrated by Ribadu during Obasanjo’s term in the name of fighting corruption) appeal to some who erroneously mistake ‘authoritarian dispositions’ for ‘strong leadership’.
Three, the EFCC’s, ‘naming and shaming’ of the ‘high and the mighty’ and the accompanying media trial taps into Nigerians’ distrust of the justice system. EFCC appears to have a strategy of ‘bypassing the courts’ and taking their cases directly to the courts of public opinion. In a country where the justice system is seen to be anything but blind and its wheels turn very sluggishly, some Nigerians express their distrust of such justice system by embracing the alternative ‘justice system’ of media trial. It is also very appealing to those baying for the blood of people they regard as their class, ethnic, religious and regional enemies.
Largely because of the above, rather than join in the fruitless discourse of whether Magu should be confirmed or not, I feel the conversation ought to be about the EFCC as an institution. I feel we should seriously consider scrapping the EFCC and strengthening instead the various institutions and mechanisms we find in the formal sectors of our national life that are meant to checkmate abuses and impunity. My feeling is that the EFCC undermines the development of such systems and mechanisms by making people believe that ‘gra-gra’ is the only method of fighting corruption. The truth is that a system can be very unobtrusive but effective as we have in the mature democracies. We need therefore to re-set the whole fight against corruption such that it will be institution-driven and without the ‘gra-gra’ from contraptions like the EFCC.
Managing the politics of fighting corruption using the failed systems of the past in a society like ours is probably one of the reasons why many corruption cases get stalled in the courts. Harassing judges to get more convictions is also not the way to go. It is better for hundred criminals to go free than for one innocent citizen to be erroneously convicted. While securing convictions is important, it is even more important to pose and answer the question of why the incidence of corruption and corrupt practices are not abating despite the EFCC and similar institutions.