Corruption and the blame game

It is good to see former President Goodluck Jonathan fighting back, denying, as he indeed should, that going by President Muhammadu Buhari’s anti-graft war, his administration made corruption a way of life. A couple of weeks ago, Jonathan launched his 194-page book, My Transition Hours. Chapter five of the book is titled Corruption and the Blame Game. I picked interest in that and borrowed it as the title for this column.

The book has not excited much pubic interest. After all, many of us might wonder what to expect from a man who comprehensively disappointed expectations and appeared to reign rather than rule and left office in a blaze of mud splashes as inept and clueless. This is not a review of the book. I am dealing with only one chapter because I have a sustained interest in corruption and the blame game and want to know the former president’s take on them, not just because he is anxious to defend himself against sustained allegations of not leading us aright, which is natural, but more importantly to see his assessment of Nigeria after Jonathan. The chapter I am dealing with deals with only one item and my comments here must not be taken as my new take on his administration in its entirety.

Jonathan tries to show that his administration was not the first to be accused of mindless corruption by its successor. He traces the history of the blame game on corruption from June 15, 1966, when Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu and his colleagues overthrew the civilian regime on charges of corruption, to the current Buhari administration, to show that this country has a long history of being in bed with corruption. He notes that “corruption is as old as independent
Nigeria” and that “every successive administration has fought corruption one way or the other but the scourge still remains.” True on both counts. Corruption is older, in fact, than independent Nigeria. So far, no one has won the fight against it, including the generals who, in the expressive words of Bishop Hassan Kukah, “hoisted (their) colours on the mast of fighting corruption.” The scourge thrives, ensuring that our country remains and jostles with Bangladesh for a first position on the corruption perception index, the annual report of Transparency International.

Two things perked up my interest in the book. One, I wanted to see the former president’s take on corruption and how he fought it and his own assessment of the results. Two, I am intrigued by the blame game because it has become a means by which a successor administration excuses its disappointing performances. The blame game, a sickening indulgence never resisted by successor administrations, rests on the logic that if your predecessor handed you an Augean stable, you are not in much luck because you are forced to clean it out to help you see your way before planning your forward movement.

What was Jonathan’s take on corruption? Did he say what was happening to the country under his watch was not corruption but stealing? He addresses these two questions at length in this chapter. I like his argument that “corruption does not fully capture the act of stealing. A person can indeed be corrupt without stealing a dime (because) corruption encompasses many things.”

He believes his point here is an “elevated thought” that suggests the need to expand the definition of corruption beyond its current confines of public officers and their minions freely helping themselves to our common wealth in state treasuries – if we are serious as a nation in chaining the rogue. I agree too that in confining the anti-graft war to recovering our money from those accused of stealing it, we are only fighting a critical manifestation of corruption; not the scourge itself.

The more I look at the former president’s argument here, the more I am persuaded that the anti-graft war has largely failed because its commanders and foot soldiers have concentrated their arsenal on noisily cutting off the branches, not in uprooting the tree itself. If a tree lives, it will always grow is cut off branches back.

Did he fight corruption? Not many of us would be charitable enough to say yes to that. We believe the man reigned and corruption thrived. But I suppose the point to take from his own defence is that he retains a sense of righteousness in his style and method of fighting corruption. It did not win him public accolades, sure, but he believes it was effective or even more so than the current war. He writes: “Rather than the media hype or arresting and parading suspected offenders on television, was strategy was to strengthen our public institutions and law enforcement agencies to prevent people from defrauding the system ab initio.”

It is a dig at the style and method of the Buhari administration. He contends that whereas by the time he left office in 2015, the annual corruption perception index issued by Transparency International showed that Nigeria was ranked 136th out of 175 countries, “the 2017 corruption

perception index released in 2018 placed Nigeria as number 148, a retrogression in which the nation went 12 places backward.”
I think I can hear him laughing at his traducers.
On returning from an overseas trip sometime ago, Buhari promised to jail more looters. A parade of looters on their way jail makes for a favourable assessment on the anti-graft war. It seems to me, however, that we have been so taken in by seeing our former public officers such as former governors Joshua Dariye (Plateau) and Jolly Nyame (Taraba) being moved by the courts from their stately private mansions to the confines of jail houses that we have been remiss in interrogating what system or systems Buhari has put in place to curb corruption. Jonathan enumerated his, such as the electronic wallet for fertiliser distribution and the development and the implementation of the integrated personnel and payroll information system, among others. Let us hear from the president. If Buhari succeeds in putting all the looters in jail, I do not think he would have won the anti-graft war if he fails to put in place a system for preventing rather than tackling corruption after the fact. The looters’ pikins are ready to take over from where their elders left off – whether those looters are free or in jail.

Jonathan offers this piece of advice: “There are two options before us as a nation. We can continue to strengthen our institutions and plug the loopholes like my administration did and come out with reforms as I had earlier enumerated, or we keep parading few individuals in handcuffs to feed the appetite of those who have entertained negative expectations while leaving intact the architecture of corruption.”

I like that. No, I have not taken my seat among the uncritical lovers of Jonathan. This is not his defence. I am willing to concede to him the right to make his administration look good. After all, I did not think he had the gut and the gumption to answer his traducers. But I find it refreshing to see that he is not the villain we thought he was. Reading him throws up something worth looking at, to wit, our inability or unwillingness to interrogate our public officers, past and present. Well, we are encouraged by our present leaders to interrogate our past leaders for the singular purpose of denigrating them. The present looks good against the dark background of the past. Yep.

It seems to me, and I am not making this argument for the first, that this leads to a wholesale condemnation of a preceding regime. The angels are in the present, the devils are in the past. But by a system of political metamorphosis, when tomorrow comes, the angels of today find themselves in bed with the horned one. Blame the blame game.

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