As politicking heats up ahead of the 2019 general elections, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo accused the previous administration of misappropriating N150bn shortly before the last election. The opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) challenged the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to name names instead of simply accusing the PDP of corruption during its time in power. The APC government decided to rise to the challenge or, in my view, swallow the bait hook, line and sinker.
This is the first in a three-part series on corruption in Nigeria. It is by no means claiming to be all-inclusive or thorough because, frankly, that would take too long.
In the first instance, the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr Lai Mohammed, published the names of 6 people, most of whom are currently either being tried for corruption or being indefinitely detained for it. The opposition, and people in general it must be said, did not view the list as anything new, since these names have been in the news since 2015 with the same allegations. And, just to sweeten the deal, PDP published its own “looters list” containing 10 APC members.
APC then doubled down and dug themselves further into the hole by releasing another list, this time comprising the names of 23 individuals they accuse of corruption, along with naira and dollar figures they allegedly misappropriated. Mr Mohammed has promised yet another list in the near future, this time reportedly to also include some members of the president’s party.
Must It Be a Circus?
My major concern is that this government has turned what we expected to be a war on corruption into a media circus. Rather than diligently gathering evidence and putting cases together, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) seems more intent on “inviting” people and engaging in trial by media. The government also does not seem to have a clue of how to rid this country of corruption; despite the president campaigning for over a decade on an anti-corruption ticket, he does not appear to have had a clear and concise plan, it’s almost as if he believed he could just will it away.
Indeed, I have a sneaky suspicion that the EFCC conducts its investigations backwards; they may or may not receive a petition, look at a few bank accounts, and then attempt to pressure their suspect into confessing. I have been told by someone that he was in EFCC custody for a few days, but, right from the off, he realized they knew nothing whatsoever and were just trying to pressure him into revealing something. He kept mum and is a free man today (whether or not he had anything to confess, I did not ask).
I find it interesting that virtually every time there is a national tragedy, an unfortunate incident, or some other mishap that focuses a spotlight on the government and its handling of national issues, a government official makes a statement which inevitably includes the appeal to not “play politics” with sensitive issues. The president’s media adviser used the term recently in an attempt to trivialize the criticisms brought about by the government’s recent move to withdraw $1bn, supposedly to fund the military campaign against insurgency. Meanwhile, these lists being published are as clear an example as you can find of “playing politics.” So is the issue of corruption a special one, or is it simply not a serious enough national issue to be taken out of the playground? You decide.
Either way, however, the political advisers and aides of the ruling party should probably have warned Mr Mohammed of the potential consequences of such a move. Most obvious, of course, is the legal angle whereby an Honourable Minister is engaged in potential defamation and character assassination, and has been duly taken to court by some of the individuals named. While legal cases in Nigeria sometimes do not mean much and can be stuck in the system for decades (more on that later in this series), and so may not be deterrence enough, there are a couple other reasons why it was a poorly-thought out plan.
First of all, you don’t fight your opponent on his terms. You just don’t.
Secondly, being drawn into a shouting match renders you both equal in the eyes of onlookers, in this case the Nigerian people. Remember the saying that if you get in an argument with a madman nobody will know the difference between you two (or something along those lines anyway). And the opposition does have ammunition it can use against this administration; for instance the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr Babachir Lawal, who was fingered for corrupt practices but remained in office until public outcry rose to the point that the president eventually had to fire him. However, not only has he not been charged to court, but his replacement is apparently from his extended family (which, in Nigeria, is the same as your nuclear family). And as pointed out by some, previous administrations, despite their questionable anti-corruption credentials, were seen to act in some glaring instances; a case in point being the forced resignation and eventual imprisonment of an Inspector-General of Police accused of corruption. Thus the back and forth between the government and the opposition resembles a war of attrition where the APC government stands to lose the most, a bit like allowing yourself to be drawn into a stone throwing fight in your own kitchen.
Playing to the Gallery
But what really irks me is the fact that the very same federal government which stoutly refused to release a list of those who have returned funds they are alleged to have stolen, despite a court order to do so, has chosen to publish this “looters list.” For me this is a slap in the face of transparency, anti-corruption, and the rule of law. Because, right from 2015, the government has been announcing huge sums of money “recovered” from politically exposed people and declaring the recovery as some sort of achievement for which they should be applauded. Then a civil society organisation, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), filed a Freedom of Information (FoI) request for details of the funds recovered, as well as from whom and other information. By law, the government is required to produce that information within a reasonable time frame, I think about 7 days. However, they failed to do so. SERAP then took the government to court and won, with Justice Hadiza Rabiu Shagari on July 7th 2017 ordering the government to “immediately” release the list of all funds recovered as well as the circumstances, details, names and other information. The response from the Minister of Justice, while at first appearing to concede, was full of words but devoid of meaning, almost as if he did not understand that the government was given neither a request nor an advice, but a court order, which must be obeyed. I sincerely hope that they do not view this debacle as complying with that order, almost a year after it was given.
“The disclosure will definitely be made, but it is contingent on reconciliation of associated considerations as they relate to sub judice principles; as they relate to concluding, reconciliation and confirmation of figures. So that has been done and the government will at the appropriate time make necessary disclosures perhaps intermittently against the background of the prevailing conditions relating to the pendency of certain things and associated things.”
- Attorney-General, Mr Abubakar Malami
And SERAP as well put out a recent statement asking the government to “immediately withdraw the clumsy, arbitrary and selective looters’ list (because) this kind of action can only diminish the government’s ability to fight corruption, frustrate its oft-expressed goal of a transparent governance (and allow suspects in APC and PDP) to escape justice.”
As an aside, I would like to remind the member from Edo state, Mr Johnson Oghuma, who is quoted as having “advised those indicted to prove their innocence in court” that it is the accuser that must carry the burden of proof; the accused is always innocent until proven otherwise. That is a foundation upon which our constitution is built and violating that means violating the entire constitution all at once.
The difference between precision and selection is in the methodology. If the target is a sector then that could be precision, but if you target individuals then it begins to feel very selective. And the apparently selective nature of the government’s anti-corruption fight is what is helping to drive the narrative that it is nothing but a witch-hunt designed to stifle the opposition. If you truly want to defeat corruption, you have to be targeted in your efforts. However, the difference between precision and selection is highly dependent on whether you are looking at institutions or individuals. Because, as long as you focus on individuals, you will logically face accusations of bias and persecution which will be hard to shake off. You also run the risk of developing said bias if you didn’t already have it because you have no framework of how to select targets and trace misdeeds. And without a clear framework or established methodology President Buhari is running the risk of weaponizing the EFCC when what he should be doing is sanitizing our institutions.
By this reasoning, then, an anti-corruption fight that stands any chance of succeeding must be designed to focus on institutions, and not individuals. And so the logical next step is to decide which institution, ministry, department or agency ought to be focused on first. But that will come in the next part of this series, where we will look at some options. Until then.