Corruption As Buhari’s Second War
THERE is a renewed optimism over the war against corruption buoyed more by President Muhammadu Buhari’s demeanour than any clear-cut policy. His body language, it is claimed, may already be working wonders in the energy and petroleum sectors where there are visible improvements. Power supply has improved nationwide with the same distribution companies (DISCOS) in place and no radical changes. The persistent queues of motorists and jerry-can peddlers have also shortened or disappeared altogether at the petrol filling stations. There is, as yet, no policy on fuel subsidy nor a timeline for the construction of new refineries. The increased output of the Port Harcourt and Warri refineries is an inherited asset from the previous government’s turn-around maintenance programme. Similar improvements may be recorded in varying degrees in other sectors.
By contrast, former President Jonathan Goodluck’s disposition while in office is considered a major factor in the alleged massive corruption that characterised that government and the economic inertia of the last one-year. Under Jonathan, the nation had lapsed, unfortunately, into a state of anomie. Buhari’s body language says the opposite – it is no longer business as usual. But the fight against corruption goes far beyond the partisan comparison between Jonathan and Buhari that has dominated the pubic space in recent weeks. For the war against corruption to be won, Nigeria needs much more than the good intentions and ascetism of one man – a lone ranger in power – the image cut by the retired general and espoused by his admirers. These admirers, it must be stated, do not necessarily share Buhari’s passion and avowed commitment to the anti-graft war. For many of his political associates, the anti-graft slogan has become a mantra to court the president’s favour, divert attention from themselves and stay out of trouble.
The current war against corruption is not Buhari’s first. Like now, it was one of the cardinal points of his 20-month rule from January 1984 to August 1985. The overthrown National Party of Nigeria (NPN) government headed by Alhaji Shehu Shagari, wore a label very much like the opposition’s tag on the Jonathan administration. All the key sectors of the economy had gone comatose and the only viable enterprise was politics for NPN stalwarts who imported branded champaign, expensive limousines and private jets with the proceeds of over-inflated contracts while Nigerians starved. The nation was overwhelmed by massive corruption, scarcity of essential commodities and the resultant poverty – a major plank of justification for the December 31, 1983 coup by Buhari and the coup plotters who toppled that government.
With the 1984-85 episode, Buhari came. He saw. But he never really conquered. Corruption was a terrible malaise but his 20-month fight did not make any lasting impact. Hundreds of politicians were clamped into detention and those convicted by the military tribunals were sentenced to long periods in prison with forfeiture of traceable proceeds of corruption. Many of the politicians found their ways out of jail and re-strategised for the emerging but stillborn Babangida-midwifed republic. The desperate efforts of Babangida who was not particularly keen on the anti-graft war to foster newbreed politics did not deter them. His attempt to ban “old” politicians made no difference as those of them who could not openly participate in the politics of the day metamorphosed into godfathers with political offsprings who were in many cases more corrupt.
Thus, while Buhari made a show of apprehending corrupt politicians, complimented by screaming newspaper headlines, the anti-graft war was without foundation from the day he came to power up to the time Babangida and co-travelers sacked that government. Like any fight doomed to be lost, Buhari’s 20-month anti-graft war had neither commanders nor foot soldiers. And sadly, too, no successors. His long search for untainted politicians and technocrats to form his cabinet this time around is a vindication of the failure of that war.
For Buhari, and indeed Nigeria, to win the new war against corruption, he must look beyond the symptoms to the causes of corruption and mobilise the entire nation to buy into it. Any malaria sufferer knows that with the intake of anagelsics, the pains and aches may subside but a true cure does not come until the malaria parasite is dealt with. Nigeria’s experience with the anti-graft war, including Buhari’s 1984-85 adventure, is akin to a continuous dosage of pain relievers that do little to eliminate the disease–bearing parasite. The malaria can only fester and develop complications. That is the sad outcome of a poorly executed anti-graft war. Treasury thieves and looters have only become more sophisticated and more difficult to apprehend or prosecute since Buhari left the stage in1985.
This time around, the war must therefore be fought differently. The root causes of corruption – cronyism, unequal opportunities, tenure insecurity, bad economics and perverse value system should be frontally confronted. Bad politics, resort to self-help arising from marginalisation and selective enforcement of anti-corruption laws are major contributory factors that should also be dealt with.
Cronyism sends a strong and dangerous signal to a public servant that though he or she is better qualified, more competent and more experienced, a less endowed but better-connected subordinate may be appointed over him or her. The result: the less favoured appointee resolves to make the best of the situation, which in Nigerian parlance may inevitably lead to self-help and the resultant corruption. Cronyism also presumes that a person is more or less corrupt by reason of tribe or political affiliation. But in reality, corruption cuts across all the primordial boundaries. That is why corrupt people who are indicted are given rousing welcomes by their own people back home who see them as victims of nepotism and power play rather than criminals. Unfair apportionment of employment opportunities and political appointments also swells the ranks of the corrupt as the aggrieved and disadvantaged people seek to get even with their preferred competitors by all means.
Poor economics also fosters corrupt practices. Nigeria fares poorly in the management of scarcity. The import licensing policy of the NPN government that Buhari succeeded in 1984-skyrocketed corruption to dizzying heights as importers of “essential commodities” fought for the precious pieces of paper with everything at their command. In more recent times, the petroleum product shortages put people under so much pressure that they were willing to pay anything above the controlled price to secure petrol for their cars and generators. The return of normalcy in the supply of petroleum products has brought a reversal of fortunes as petrol attendants now woo motorists for patronage. No one has to “tip” an attendant now before fuel is sold. The same cannot be said of pre-paid electricity meters, which are ironically meant to ensure that the Discos get paid by all connected consumers. But the corruption works both ways: desperate applicants on long queues are compelled to part with extra unofficial payments to secure the meters while the Discos hoard the meters and deliberately overbill unmetered consumers. Why is it so difficult to meter every consumer? Why was the issue of local meter production not resolved before the sale of the Discos by government?
Tenure insecurity in the public service which resulted from the mass sack by the Late General Murtala Muhammed in 1975 has also been identified as a major cause of corruption. The trend has been sustained by successive military and civilian governments at all levels in their attempts to “rationalise” without following the due process of disengagement. In anticipation of premature retirement, many public servants award “gratuities” to themselves through corrupt self-enrichment.
Another factor that has encouraged corrupt practices more than many others is the selective enforcement of anti-graft laws. Nigeria is not short of laws and agencies to fight corruption but the failure of successive governments to effectively use them has been the bane of corruption. The inconclusive investigations and lack-lustre prosecution by the EFCC, ICPC and the Code of Conduct Bureau under erstwhile Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Jonathan are traceable to pressures from their political camps. Under them, the anti-graft agencies became pawns in the political chess game. They were made to taunt perceived enemies while turning blind eyes to friends of the respective regimes. Even now, sadly, the independence of these anti-graft agencies is not assured.
To make a positive difference, Buhari must therefore learn from his 1984-85 mistakes and those of his successors. He must shun the temptation of cronyism and ensure equal opportunities for all, irrespective of tribe, faith or political affiliation. He must not teleguide the anti-graft agencies but give them a free hand to apply the laws evenly and equally on his partymen and opposition politicians alike. Unlike the flash-in-the-pan approach that characterised his first anti-graft war, he should endeavour to give depth to the current efforts. Rather than succumb to the lure of sycophants who would rather see the mote in others’ eyes, he should seek out committed anti-graft Nigerians all over the country to join him in the fight. It is a war he cannot win alone. This time around, he cannot afford to fail. Unlike his first coming when his primary loyalty was to his military constituency, the present political dispensation has raised the bars of expectations and accountability.
• Isiekwene writes from Lagos.