Corruption stories have been the dominant theme of governance since the Buhari government came into being more than eight months ago. In many ways this is not surprising. His candidacy was marketed on his well-known integrity and apparent incorruptibility. Buhari was also reported to have said that he would like to be remembered as a President who fought corruption to a standstill.
One of the most recent of the corruption stories is the one from the Minister of Information Lai Mohammed who was reported as saying that about 55 persons looted N1.3 trillion in seven years. To lend credibility to these figures the Minister sought to speak with the specificity of a statistician by breaking the figures down:
“15 former governors allegedly stole N146.84 billion; four former ministers allegedly stole N7 billion; 12 former public servants, both at federal and state levels, were said to have stolen N14 billion. Apart from public officials, 19 persons in banking and business were indicted in this looting. Eight of these were banking officials who allegedly stole N524 billion, and 11 businessmen who helped themselves to the tune of N653 billion.”
Not to be out-done, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission was also reported to have said that the country recovered more than $2 trillion that had been looted from the national treasury over the last twelve years. Dasukigate and the alleged $2.1 billion meant for arms procurement which was reportedly shared among friends and cronies is now an old tale.
Apart from the question of the veracity of the above huge figures, there are several unanswered questions around these apparently unending corruption stories: What is the real reason for these corruption stories? Is it to de-market the PDP? Or to mobilize a sense of outrage against impunity? Or to appropriate a moral high ground by playing the ostrich? Is it because the APC-led government is truly enraged by the cases of corruption it met on the ground? Or is it because corruption stories are the government’s comfort zone?
Largely because the country is deeply polarized it is highly unlikely that Nigerians will ever agree on why corruption stories have completely drowned other conversations on how to resolve other compelling challenges that the country faces.
Anyone conversant with my writings will obviously know I have been a consistent critic of the system of fighting corruption in the country – from as far back as the days of Nuhu Ribadu’s EFCC. There are a number of issues to ponder about in the current corruption stories:
One, is corruption really the fundamental problem of the country? I have never believed so. It is more a symptom of a more fundamental problem. I have consistently argued that what the country needs more than anything else is reconciliation and re-energizing the nation-building process because unless this is done, any solution thrown at the country’s numerous problems will only quickly become part of the problems. Is it then any wonder that some are already sneering at the current corruption fight as being selective? Selectivity is of course embedded in any form of fight against corruption in our type of society because no government will realistically be expected to move against its core supporters and sponsors. This creates a big room for those currently being accused of corruption – including those who know that they are guilty as charged – to use ‘selective justice’ and ‘persecution’ to turn themselves into heroes and heroines as soon a new government replaces this one. That has been the standard practice in the country’s history of fighting corruption.
Meanwhile, while we are regaling in the numerous corruption stories foreign news headlines create a profile of a country on the verge of implosion. For instance the highly influential bi-monthly Foreign Policy Magazine of 8 February 2016 titled its story on Nigeria: ‘Nigeria Is Coming Apart at the Seams’. Similarly Wikistrat, the crowd-outsourcing consulting firm (founded in Australia in 2009 but headquartered in the United States) recently opened a forum on Nigeria, which it titled ‘Nigeria: From Opportunity to Crisis’. A key question we must ask ourselves therefore is whether the numerous corruption stories are accentuating a certain negative profile of the country in the international imagination. Put differently, are we unwittingly de-marketing the country with these corruption stories and the fantastic figures of stolen money being bandied about?
Two, is also the question of what we have benefited from the corruption stories? How many people have been convicted as a result of the corruption stories? Have we really established the necessary frameworks for fighting corruption? What became of the idea of corruption courts that were mooted several months ago? Have we defined what we mean by corruption and separated it from impunity?
Three, the corruption stories raise the question of the place of ‘name and shame’ or media trial in a country like ours. Why are ‘ordinary people’ fascinated by such corruption stories that will at least show that the super rich are only rich at their expense? Does name and shame really deter corruption in a country like ours? If so, why is it that ‘budget rats’ are being accused of padding the 2016 budget proposal despite the current corruption stories and the no-nonsense mien of the President on matters of corruption?
Four, there are legitimate fears that the promotion of competitive stories of corruption may be turning the regime into a single issue government. In the process, the country is missing an opportunity for earnest conversations on how to find solutions to her other and even more compelling challenges. For instance most of the current Ministers are made to look ‘ordinary’ because the hot stories are about corruption. They do not seem to have enough space to engage the public on what they do or want to do for their ministries. Compare this with the Obasanjo era and even under Jonathan when some Ministers were allowed to become ‘celebrities’ who could bounce off ideas on the populace. Who are the ‘celebrity’ ministers in this dispensation?
Five, while the corruption stories may, at least in part, be aimed at mobilizing the citizens’ sense of outrage against impunity, the steady stream of such stories can also paradoxically numb that sense of outrage. For instance, with the humongous sums being mentioned in the corruption stories, if you come across a story where one is sentenced to a jail term for stealing say N2m, the instinctive feeling is that the punishment is disproportionate to the crime. Suddenly N2m seems like a peanut compared to the figures that are being bandied around in the steady stream of corruption stories.
Six, the country needs to do an impact analysis of the previous efforts at fighting corruption? How do you know if we are winning the war? It is wrong to assume that just because you have scared those prone to corruption to go underground, that you are winning. In the same way, the amount of money recovered by the contraptions used in fighting corruption may be important but hardly a reliable metric for measuring the success or otherwise of any fight against corruption. The metric should be: has it lessened the incidence of corruption? Unfortunately such a question cannot be answered by any regime waging such a war because our experience is that it is the succeeding regime that determines how corrupt the preceding regime was.
I am not against fighting corruption. I will however have preferred a conditional amnesty (you can call it plea bargaining) for those facing certain cases of corruption allegation. Those who have committed impunity will simply have to face trial quietly. Media trial and politicising the fight against corruption ends up polarizing the country the more. We can still achieve the same objective without the unnecessary ‘gra gra’ and a narrative that is couched on the simplistic binary of ‘good guys versus the bad guys’.