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.
He, however, believes that for the President to win the anti-graft war, he should adopt a revolutionary approach to it
In this interview with Olisemeka Obeche, Comrade Adeniran examines the issue of anti-graft war in the country and best way the Buhari administration should tackle it . Excerpts:
How best do you think the new administration of President Muhammadu Buhari should wage the anti-graft war to achieve results?
To have a new beginning in this fight, the president, vice president and everybody in the Buhari government should make their asset declaration public without prompting. Then, the anti-corruption institutions should be empowered and be given the autonomy, even if not totally independent of the presidency but semi-independent in discharging their duties. That is to say that they should be free to exercise their prosecutorial powers. They don’t need to wait for instructions from the presidency or the Ministry of Justice to go after anybody suspected of any corruption dealings. In fact, there should be a separate tax force that would have the mandate to monitor the anti-graft agencies as well as other regulatory agencies like NAFDAC, SON and NDLEA whose operations should complement that of the anti-corruption institutions. This task force should include professionals from other fields such as lawyers, estate valuers, auditors, bankers and even anti-corruption monitors who would follow the cases up to ensure that the charges are well executed to secure conviction.
Government should also ensure that investigative officers are well protected and resourced so that they would be able to carry out due diligence and come up with damning evidence and credible witnesses against whoever is under prosecution to ensure they are properly convicted. They should also ensure that corruption charges are not watered down by the drafters of the charges. Sometimes, the agencies and the drafters of these charges deliberately water them down so that the culprits would have lesser punishment even if they are eventually convicted. That was what led to the lackluster prosecution of somebody like Yakubu Yusuf who confessed to have stolen up to N27billion and was eventually fined about N750, 000 after conviction which he promptly paid. That was also the kind of prosecution that the Igbinedion brothers enjoyed that ensured that earned them just N3 million fines despite stealing up to N25 billion each. The likes of Cecilia Ibru who stole so much but received little punishment also enjoyed similar treatment – watered down charges.
If those cases were closely monitored by a government task force, then there would be actual prosecution and with the witnesses well protected, you will bet that these people would actually get the kind of punishment they deserved. It is gratifying that the ‘Whistle-Blowers’ Protection Bill’ was passed before the expiration of the 7th National Assembly because that would go a long way in ensuring that those who volunteer to testify in high profile corruption cases are protected and not witch-hunted by those powerful leaders. Though, we have not seen the content of that whistle-blowers’ protection act but we believe that whatever may be its shortcomings, it is a step in the right direction and this new government should take further steps to strengthen it. With that in place, witnesses will be confident enough to give evidence in court because they know they are under state protection.
The anti-corruption institutions also need to be further strengthened with human and material resources that can enable them to deliver on their mandate, the anti-graft war would begin to bear good fruits. Imagine the difference it would make if the CCB is well equipped to be able to nail anybody that made false declaration of assets.
What about punishment the culprits?
We strongly condemn the slap on the wrist kind of punishment that was being handed to high profile corrupt offenders in this country. What we recommend is that anybody that is found guilty of massive corruption in Nigeria should be meant to spend the rest of his or her life behind bars. And they should not just be there feeding fat on tax payers’ money. No, they should be forced to work hard for the rest of their lives behind bars. They should be able to offer services or work that is related to their professional training. For instance, if you are an accountant by profession, you can offer free accountancy services for the federal government inside the prison; same as architect, quantity surveyor, engineer, auditor, writers and any other professional jobs. If you are a farmer, nothing stops the government from utilizing your expertise during your period of incarceration. And the finished products or proceeds of it can be used to sustain prison inmates as well as people in the larger society. By so doing, they can add value to the system.
Then there should be a law that stipulates that as soon as you are indicted of corruption, everything you have acquired through corrupt means should be confiscated by the state and frozen until they prove their innocence. Even though they should be granted access to certain percentage of their income or granted allowances to take care of their expenses or families during period of trial, they should be monitored by the authority to ensure that they don’t make use of their enormous ill-gotten wealth to seek evasion of justice.
Also, a special court should be established to speed up corruption trials and stop this issue of unnecessary delays in litigation of high profile corrupt cases. The issue of unnecessary technicalities should not be allowed to slow the pace of the trial. In addition to having special courts for corruption, there should be a special time frame for adjudication of corruption cases. That would save us from the entanglement of frivolous injunctions that cause delay in corruption trials.
I believe that if these measures are taken, everybody would know that there is no hiding place for corrupt people in the system and do the right thing. We also strongly recommend that the Buhari government should develop a national ideology that would specify how much wealth one can acquire even if you have legitimate access to it. There should be a limit to how many houses, cars and other choice properties an individual can own, even if he has legitimate means to acquire them. Such wealthy individuals should be made to deploy certain percentage of their wealth for public goods, such as using them for social responsibilities, charity, endowment foundation or taking care of the needy in the society. You can decide to be changing your cars every year but keeping fleets of cars or buying houses in every nooks and crannies of the country or outside the country should be discouraged. The state should monitor all these things and use either tax laws or legal means to discourage such stupendous acquisition of wealth because it doesn’t help the society. There should also be a limit to the kind of goods people can import into the country so as to boost locally made products. If you have money you should establish factories and business ventures that cannot only produce goods and services in the country but create jobs for the teeming masses. When people are allowed to steal money from our common purse and launder abroad to buy choice properties or lodge in secret bank accounts, our economy suffers. Even those who engage in wanton importation of foreign made goods and services to showcase their wealth and splendor are not helping our economy either. And efforts should be made to stop all these madness if the anti-corruption crusade would succeed. It should be a crime for anybody to engage in primitive accumulation of wealth. You don’t have to amass what you don’t need. People should be given national awards based on how much they contributed to the national economy and GDP, not how much personal wealth they have or how deeply connected they are in the political system.
It is by so doing that we can have less inclination to corruption in our society because everybody would focus on making honest living and using whatever wealth they acquires for the greater good of the society rather than bestriding the country showing off their ill-gotten wealth like colossus. With that, many wealthy individuals would be forced to buy equipment for schools, set aside certain percentage of their wealth as endowments for researches and scholarships for advancement of knowledge in the society. Others would build houses, hospitals or supply hospital equipment, build roads or other social amenities as well as business ventures that would benefit the society. We have to do away with the current trend that kills job in Nigeria and create jobs in other countries. When these political leaders know that they can’t take our money to overseas without being tracked and prosecuted, they would be forced to spend it in the country and on things that add values in the society. It should be made a criminal offence, liable to life imprisonment, if you lead a government parastatal or agency into bankruptcy. When people who head government institution know that they are not there for jamboree or dip their hands on the pie rather than to run the institutions as viable business entity, we will stop having failed entities. We ought to have sent those who presided over all our failed enterprises to life imprisonment to serve as a deterrent to others that heading government institutions carries huge responsibilities as well as greater consequences like jail terms.
That would make everybody to be careful and be prudent in management of public resources. But we have a scenario where these guys mess up everything and still go scotch free. They keep acquiring debts just like what Pentascope did in the guise of bailing NITEL out. We must ensure that people don’t just run down government institutions. The Nigerian railway wouldn’t have collapsed if people were not given the leeway to mismanage those vital institutions and get away with it; same as the Nigerian Airways. Our system should be restructured in such a way that anybody that tries to sabotage it would face the full wrath of the law no matter how highly placed the individual is. With such, we can deal with the problem of pipeline vandalism, theft of power installations and all kinds of high-powered corrupt dealings in public sector.
Nigeria should also establish into mutual legal assistant treaty with all countries of the world to ensure that nobody that steals money in this country can run outside and hide without being repatriated to face justice. All these things are fueling unemployment, creating insurgency, kidnapping and other kinds of violent crimes that are keeping Nigeria on the edge. So, the present government should realize the dangers corruption pose to this country and take drastic measures to nip it in the bud.
There are strong fears that President Buhari may find it difficult to maintain his sanctimonious stance and effectively tackle corruption in the top political echelon given the tendency that many of those who sponsored his campaigns have corrupt tendencies. Do you share similar sentiments?
Well, we believe that if there are no bugs that bite political leaders to make them change their attitudes, then a Buhari should not change. If the head of a fish is not rotten, you should be sure that the body would still be useful for the purpose it is meant. The Buhari that we know is an epitome of discipline and an anti-corruption crusader and we believe that he can give corruption its biggest fight in Nigeria. But President Buhari needs that revolutionary spirit in him to succeed in this anti-graft war because there are many bobby traps in the system he has just stepped into. He should not behave as a politician but as a revolutionary soldier on a special mission. And that is why we are satisfied with his inaugural speech, especially that portion where he said “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody”. It is a strong signal that he is not in power to continue with business as usual style of politicking. But he should follow that up with actions.
We are also satisfied with the statement he sent to the state governors over his ministerial appointment issues. His insistence ‘Don’t appoint my ministers and I won’t appoint your commissioners’ is a strong statement that we need to drive home the point that change needs to take place in our polity. But strong words need to be backed with strong actions. He made similar strong statements when he made a covenant with Nigerians that he would declare his assets within his 100 days in office; but we are yet to see the fulfillment of that promise. We still urge him to back his words with action.
Now, if you promised that you are going to make your asset declaration public, it is at your discretion to do so not that of the CCB. As a matter of fact, Buhari could have made his asset declaration public even before submitting the forms to the Code of Conduct Bureau, just to fulfill that aspect of his pre-election promise. That would give us hope that things are going to work the way you promised. Nobody would have tried him if he made his asset declaration form available to the media from the outset. It would strengthen our faith in him. The vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo could have done same thing.
Another signal that accentuates our fears at the moment is that there are several public officials from the past administration that has corruption charges against them and we expect them to be brought to justice as soon as possible. But President Buhari has told us that he is not going to stop anybody from travelling out of the country, thereby offering them leeway to escape the country. Even if the Nigerian government can bring them back from wherever they ran to, it will cost the country extra money to do so. We need to first of all negotiate with the countries they ran to, stop their asylum application effort based on credible evidence you supply them before you can successfully repatriate them. Incidentally, all these processes will cost us valuable resources. So, we think the decision to grant them access to leave the country sends a wrong signal. We strongly suspect that such statement might be a dictate from the political allies and that heightens our fears. If you have reasons to fraternize with corrupt elements and you know deep down in your heart that such people are corrupt, then you don’t have to pander to the dictates of such class of people. You have to take up the toga of a revolutionary to be able to win the war.
If you were President Buhari, where and how would you kick-start your anti-corruption war?
First and foremost, I will start with open declaration of my assets. As soon as I finished filling the forms, I will send it to the media to publish for every Nigerian to see; because I will be afraid that the CCB can keep it secret. And somebody can go to court to get an injunction to force me not to make it public. No law bars the president from doing so from the moment he computed his assets. After declaring mine, I will tell my deputy to follow suit; and that if he doesn’t comply, I will presume him to be corrupt and start the anti-corruption crusade with him. He will definitely be forced to toe that line.
Then, anybody that is penciled down for political appointment in my cabinet, either as minister, special assistant or adviser would be told to go and declare their assets ab initio before being formally appointed. And I will make sure that it is well advertised in the media so that nobody claims to be ignorant of that before deciding to join my cabinet. Once you declare your assets and submit the publication of your asset declaration to my office for proper documentation, then you are ready to come on board. Without that, you are not welcomed. That would be the impetus to choose from those set of people who are relatively honest in the society than others.
After that, I will approach the National Assembly with a bill to strengthen the anti-corruption laws, including customs and exercise laws, SON, NDLEA, NAFDAC regulatory laws etc. to make them more effective and independent in their operations. Then I will now go to the anti-corruption and regulatory agencies and conduct organizational diagnosis and weed out bad eggs in the system. As part of the restructuring, everybody management official in such agencies must undergo mandatory asset declaration, just like political appointees and must embrace the anti-corruption philosophy of the regime in all ramification. Then, the government would make sure that enough resources are pumped into those agencies to enable them carry out their assignments. And from time to time, anybody that is found to be living above his or her means would be sent to the ICPC for questioning and possible prosecution.
Beyond that, every private sector firm that wishes to do business with government must declare what they have done with government or its agencies and parastatals before. If you are found to have been involved in bribery scandal or shoddy dealings with government, you will no longer be considered for government contract. If you have the propensity to collude with corrupt elements in the public system to defraud government, you will be banned from receiving government contract.
What of those contractors who wish to repent, will they be forgiven?
Well, the truth is that if you have been found to have engaged in misconducts in the past and still want to work with government by embracing the new regime’s anti-corruption crusade, you must first of all divulge yourself of the past criminal acts and recompense. It is after that that you can now be reconsidered on a plain sheet. It is on the basis of the fact that you accepted that what you have done in the past was criminal and wrong and do the recompense that you can be given a clean bill of health or granted amnesty.
However, I will make a public declaration that everybody that has defrauded government in the past, in whatever way and amount has been given 21 days grace and ultimatum to return them and be granted pardon or be prepared to face the full wrath of the law. Anybody who is found culpable after the expiration of the ultimatum could spend the rest of his or her life behind bars without option of fines. However, those who come forward and return what they have stolen would have their penalty discounted; but the fact remains that no sinner would go unpunished. Even if it is going to be one month, two weeks or community service, everybody that has been found to have committed corruption crime will face one punishment or the other. But if you now wait for the state to spend more money in fishing you out as one of those that defrauded the system, then you should be ready to face the maximum penalty due for such offences. The same thing applies to corporate organizations. ICPC would be empowered to be able to trace and fish out anybody or organization that has engaged in corrupt practices in collusion with public officials. So, the government would not hesitate to withdraw registration certificate of any private enterprise that is found to be engaged in corruption dealings with government and deal with only those that are above board.
That would encourage the growth and thriving of genuine businesses in the country as well as engender open and competitive bidding for public contracts. This is the kind of treatment we expect for those petroleum firms that took part in the petroleum subsidy scams which includes taking subsidy claims without importing petroleum products. Let them face the maximum penalty so that the nation can turn a new page. So, amnesty would be given to those that have genuinely repented and paid recompense as we don’t have enough prison facilities to accommodate all the corrupt elements that would be nabbed in this country. So, amnesty and community service becomes an appropriate restitution for them.
Then the final phase would be strengthening the anti-corruption agencies with funding, trainings and adequate legal protection to do their job without fear or favour. There would also be rewards for those who perform their jobs excellently well.
By Olisemeka Obeche