Comrade Debo Adeniran, the National Executive Chairman of the Campaign Against Corrupt Leaders (CACOL) is one of the many Nigerians who perceive the inauguration of Muhammadu Buhari as Nigeria’s President on May 29, 2015 as a turning point for the country.
And that is because of his belief that Buhari has the political will and the courage to deal with corruption and indiscipline which have been bedeviling the country’s socio-economic and political development. He, however, believes that the task of confronting the cankerworm would not be an easy one for the nation’s new leader.
In this interview with Olisemeka Obeche, Comrade Adeniran examines the issue of anti-graft war in the country and Buhari’s best bet in tackling the monster. Excerpts:
President Muhammadu Buhari has placed anti-corruption at the top of his government’s priority. What does this mean for the country?
Judging from President Buhari’s antecedents from his reign as military head of state, we are not surprised that anti-corruption is top on the agenda of his government. We know him as a man who doesn’t toy with the issue of discipline; and corruption is an element of discipline that Buhari had in the past shown so much distaste for. He wants discipline in governance, especially in rendering accountability and probity in public office.
So, nobody expected anything less from President Buhari this time around because what many Nigerians thought was painful during his reign as military head of state turned out to be a blessing in disguise soon after he was dethroned and the country became exposed to corruption and indiscipline. So, everybody is looking forward to seeing him bring back sanity and decorum to public office, especially in government expenditure, governance and administrative strategies.
We see it as a good omen for Nigerians that somebody who could clear the mess and enthrone a more disciplined, transparent and judicial use of public resources have ascended the throne.
Incidentally, every leader that has ruled Nigeria in the past had promised to tackle corruption, but end up not fulfilling such promise. Why is corruption so difficult to deal with in Nigeria?
First and foremost, the cankerworm called corruption is endemic in human society generally. It has a kind of aphrodisiac influence over everybody; whether you are in power or not, upper echelon of the society or lower. Basically, the lure for personal aggrandizement is almost everywhere, especially when you are in position of power. Power itself is aphrodisiac, and because of that people get intoxicated when they wield powers. What led to the intractable problem of corruption is the penchant for primitive accumulation of wealth.
Let me cite one typical example for you. You will find out that soon after the colonialists left Nigeria, there was so much power vested in the traditional institutions across the country. They empowered them, built palaces for them, provided them with servants and security guards who would always fight on their behalf whenever the people wanted to revolt. From that moment, they began to see themselves, not as leaders of their people but as demi-gods that have to be worshipped. And that is why in Yoruba land they called the traditional rulers ‘Alase Ikeji Orisa’, meaning a deity or god that has to be worshipped. They see themselves as second to deity; and that is why they engage in wanton appropriation of other people’s landed property, wives and any other things that catch their fancy. Some of them even forced people to work for them. At a stage, some of them began to sell other people’s children so as to maintain the class of affluence that they have suddenly found themselves. And because of that level of avarice, they don’t want to succumb to the principle of common wealth which specifies that the wealth of the land should belong to everybody equally.
The penchant to appropriate other benefits to oneself became a propriety consideration in the mentality of our leadership and they cannot do that through legitimate means. So, they decided to achieve that through illegitimate means by corrupting the systems of governance as well as changing the revenue sharing formula to ensure direct access to the country’s wealth. So, it became very difficult to extricate the country from this web of profligacy. It became a systemic thing that once you step into the corridors of public office you use your position to grab as much as you can while your reign lasts. That was why it became so difficult for the past leaders to actually tame or tackle corruption in Nigeria.
How would you trace the present level of corruption in our public system and society?
You must understand that corruption has been in existence for thousands of years and even during colonial and post-colonial days till these modern times. It has been institutionalized from the traditional to modern public systems; to the extent that when people find themselves in positions of authority, they will want to utilize such privilege to their selfish advantage. In our local politics, everybody thinks that once you occupy public office, you will do everything possible to amass wealth and power and use it to live a life that is equivalent to that position even when you leave office.
Basically, anybody that comes to power is confronted with those who are beneficiaries of a corrupt system.
Looking back now, it would be easier to trace the corruption in Nigeria to the Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida (IBB) regime. You will find out that the Buhari regime which came before it actually made unprecedented attempts to sanitize the country and things started working well for us. But IBB came and liberalized corruption. He allowed every minister to dip their hands into the till as much as possible and help themselves with state money, feather their own nest with reckless abandon. And because IBB knew that he was going to liberalize corruption, he tactically introduced Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), an IMF programme, against the wishes of the Nigerian people.
He said he wanted to obtain IMF loan and Nigerians said no, that the country did not need such loan because of harsh conditionalities attached to it which included devaluation of local currency, rationalization of courses in the tertiary institutions, trade liberalization etc. Nigerians knew that it would affect them negatively and rejected it ab initio. It is not the loan itself was bad but the conditions attached to it. He said he was not taking the loan but went ahead to implement the conditionalities which forced Nigerian people to go through the austerity regime and that paved the way for those in position of authority to steal with reckless abandon.
You will agree with me that it is the ordinary people in the society that suffered the impact of SAP as those in authority were not affected. And it was at that point that the gap between the rulers and the ruled in Nigeria began to widen and became difficult to bridge thereafter, especially when civilian authorities took over. By the time IBB was forced to step aside, the level of pervasive influence of corruption in the Nigerian society has reached an unprecedented height. And when Ernest Shonekon was made the interim head of state, General Abacha didn’t allow him to govern and quickly seized power. And that was because Abacha was exposed to the profligacy of the IBB regime. We are all familiar with how his regime went and the looting that took place which the country is still trying to repatriate from various countries he and his cronies laundered our common wealth to.
Eventually, when Abacha suddenly passed on that fateful June 8, 1998, the country was virtually in limbo with the political power literally lying on the streets. Nobody was actually prepared to pick it up until General Abulsalami Abubakar stepped in and steered the country through the rest of the transition era before handing over to the civilian regime led by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. Of course, within that short period he presided over the affairs of this country, Abdulsalami helped himself with so much money and nobody cared to ask him questions about it. That is understandable: because he was a military head of state, he didn’t give anybody account of his stewardship, he promised nothing and delivered nothing. The only achievement was that he midwifed the transition programme, with the choice of Obasanjo as the civilian president. Obasanjo was their senior colleague in the military and bringing him into the position at that time was the most plausible thing for the outgoing junta. So, that completed the equation.
But the creation of anti-corruption institutions like the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) as well as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) under the Obasanjo regime was expected to have dealt with corruption in Nigeria. What do you think has gone wrong with these institutions?
When Obasanjo stepped into power as a civilian president on May 29, 1999, he needed to convince us and the whole world that profligacy that governed the mind of the authorities during the military rule would be checked. The whole world knew that corruption is very much pronounced in Nigeria and Obasanjo needed to do something about it. Besides, there is a UN convention against corruption which mandated leaders to enact local laws that would show a graphic representation of government’s capacity to curb corruption in their respective countries and Nigeria was one of the countries that subscribed to that convention. So, Obasanjo decided to set up the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) as a response to that, not because he wanted an altruistic institution that could tackle corrupt practices in the country. He set up ICPC to satisfy the conditions of the UN convention on anti-corruption with retired Justice Mustapha Akambi as chairman. Obasanjo government didn’t provide ICPC with the wherewithal to succeed in its assignment, leaving the agency to use its creativity to operate.
ICPC by its establishment Act should have what is called ACTU- Accountability and Transparency Unit in all the ministries, Departments and Agencies of government. They were to monitor all the procurements in all these MDAs to ensure that costs of public projects and programmes are not inflated and nobody takes kick-backs as well as engage in any forms of corruption. But Obasanjo government didn’t provide funds for establishment of ACTU; and that drastically whittled down the ability of ICPC to track and deal with corruption in the system.
On the other hand, the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) was created to monitor asset declaration of political leaders during the entry and exit from public office. CCB has a tribunal that can try anybody, even those in power that has the so-called immunity but was not given enough enabling power and resources to deliver on their mandates. CCB should verify everything that is declared by an intending public official at the point of entry and exit. That means that CCB needs experts which can only be gotten through consultancy or specialize training. They have to engage quantity surveyors as well as other experts that would be able to verify quality, quantity and material worth of everything that was declared by any public official with a view to getting the actual cost of those assets. You also need experts to verify if there are liabilities in those assets declared; the extent of the liability and the limit which they have declared it.
But CCB didn’t have that kind of resources to take care of those stuffs, which means that Obasanjo created those institutions to bamboozle the people and the global body and create the impression that he was fighting corruption. He was just deceiving everybody. If those institutions had been empowered to do what they are created to do, they would have been able to nip corruption in the bud. You find out that CCB will verify everything a public official gets, certify it and put in his file. The ICPC on the other hand would verify procurement, contractual agreements and any other things made by public office holders at every MDAs. They would scrutinize the processes and establish that it follows due processes and procedures of public procurement. But that was not happening because the institutions were deliberately disempowered.
In 2003, it became apparent that apart from kick-backs, inflation of contracts that were still rampant in the system, there was upsurge in advance fee fraud, money laundering, 419, internet fraud and other trans-border related financial crimes. That necessitated the creation of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) by the Obasanjo regime. EFCC was created to tackle these problems, with Mallam Nuhu Ribadu as its chairman. Fortunately, Ribadu had the luck of being issued a blank cheque at the beginning and given the free hand to determine the principles and practice as well as operational framework of EFCC. And that contributed to the great success the agency achieved in its early years. Apart from having initial sufficient take-off capital, the Ribadu-led EFCC also enjoyed the support of from international development partners who were eager to help Nigeria deal with trans-border financial and economic crimes. And because of such overwhelming support, the activities the EFCC carried out impressed a lot of people, because it was novel in Nigeria. That gave Nuhu Ribadu fame.
But, Obasanjo who was a thorough-bred politician knew what he was doing. He knew he did not actually set up EFCC to tackle economic and financial crimes the way it supposed to be tackled. And so, with time, stepped in and started using the agency as a tool of politicking. Any time Ribadu wanted to go after those who were close to Obasanjo presidency, his hands would be tied backwards. His focus would be directed towards the enemy camp; and EFCC anti-corruption efforts became selective and subject of public suspicion. It was like that until Umaru Musa Yar’Adua took over and when he went after the friends of the system that they didn’t want EFCC to clampdown on, Ribadu was hastily removed and sent to Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, near Jos against his wish and regular practice. And because Ribadu was disgraced out of EFCC, his successor, Farida Waziri became unpopular. She was to focus squarely on dealing with the issue of economic and financial crimes in the country; and actually started well. But, at a stage those in authority decided that her wings needed to be clipped, especially when she began working against the wishes of the former minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Michael Aondoaka. From that time onwards, the EFCC and the judiciary were subject to manipulation of the executive. Eventually, Waziri was also removed for stepping on powerful political toes and the agency became weakened. No person of integrity now wants to take up the job of EFCC chairmanship because they are aware of what is awaiting them once they step on board. You will discover that those that are running the EFCC are doing so under direct instructions of either the police force, or the ministry of police affairs or the ministry of justice and attorney general of the federation. The same applies to other anti-corruption agencies.
Even the past minister of justice and AGF, came up with some bizarre guidelines for the anti-graft agencies which specifies that any corruption case or economic and financial crime that involves N50 million and above and has international connection should first be brought to his desk before any action. And you know that most of the corruption cases we have in Nigeria involve more than fifty million naira and have international links to them. So, the implication is that all the corruption cases to be handled by these agencies were to pass through the AGF and minister of Justice’s desk. You stole money from public coffers which is a case for ICPC, and want to pretend that it was legitimate money and successfully launder it abroad, the EFCC becomes involved and the ill-gotten wealth you acquire alters your assets, the Code of Conduct Bureau comes in because most of the properties are in excess of N50 million. But by subjecting the whole thing to the appointee of the president means that only selected cases would be prosecuted in the end. That was basically the reason our anti-corruption agencies became paralyzed and weakened the war against corruption in the country.
But why can’t these institutions do their job according to constitutional provisions instead of being subject to executive manipulation?
There are obvious constraints for them. For instance, everybody in the Code of Conducts Bureau are civil servants who are required to report to the office of the AGF; and so are afraid of losing their jobs. If you step on powerful toes you can be thrown out and nobody wants to lose his or her job in Nigeria. The present chairman of ICPC is a lawyer, but has to refer to the office of the AGF before exercising his prosecutorial powers. The current EFCC is being led by a career policeman and so would operate with recourse to instructions from his superiors in the force and the presidency. With such scenario, they would be afraid to take independent actions that do not enjoy the blessings of their superiors or those supervising them. If you are the EFCC chairman, you would not like to face the kind of humiliation that past chairmen faced or be sent to defence headquarters and made redundant for refusing to carry out orders. You will find out that once the institutions are weak, the people are the weakest and that leaves those in position of authority to engage in impunity and corruption and get away with it.
Why can’t the judiciary salvage the situation?
Unfortunately, the judiciary is now pathetically corrupt that even the chairman of the National Judicial Commission (NJC) cannot determine who is honest among the judges presiding over our courts. When Justice Aloma Muhktar became the Chief Justice of the Federation and the chairman of NJC, she started off well in her efforts to cleanse the judiciary; but soon after she was able to retire three or four judges, the system stopped her. She was not able to do anything more in that regard until she retired.
The reason why corruption is lingering is because the successive governments took special delight in weakening the institutions rather than strengthening them. Unlike what President Barack Obama told African leaders during his first visit to Ghana that we don’t need strong leadership to develop the continent but strong institutions. But what we see is systemic weakening of key institutions of governance instead of strengthening. And that is what has sustained corruption in Nigeria. From the anti-corruption institutions that would fight corruption to the judiciary that would bring corrupt persons to book, all were strategically rendered impotent so that those strong enough in the society can easily manipulate them and get away with their criminal acquisitions. And that is why if anybody steps in to fight corruption, they will fight back. They have enormous resources from proceeds of corruption to fight back and only an institution that is well protected and resourced in terms of finance and expertise can take down such powerful elements in the society. That was why James Onanefe Ibori, the former Governor of Delta State was able to escape justice in Nigeria, only to be nabbed, tried and sentenced in the United Kingdom.
Now that we have a new government that has promised to tackle corruption and indiscipline headlong, what kind of reforms do you prescribe for these anti-corruption institutions to enable them deliver on their mandates?
Well, it would be nice to carry out reforms on those existing anti-graft institutions but what needs to change first are the institutions running the new government. Every individual that occupies any public office should lead by example. And that would help to fulfill the covenant that President Muhammadu Buhari entered with the people of Nigeria prior to his election that before spending 100 days in office, he is going to declare his assets and make it public. Not only did Buhari promise to make his asset worth public, he vowed to make everybody that is going to work with him do same. And that he would involve the courts so that every one of them would swear an affidavit to ensure that what they declare would not turn out to be anticipatory assets. Up till now, most public officials still make anticipatory declaration of assets, which implies declaring more than they have believing that once they get to office, they would have the wherewithal to acquire those properties and claim that they have declared it, knowing fully well that the CCB doesn’t have the resources to verify what they had declared ab initio.
To be continued
By Olisemeka Obeche