On January 15, 1966, that bloody day of the first military coup in Nigeria, Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu declared in his coup day speech: “The aim of the Revolutionary Council is to establish a strong united and prosperous nation, free from corruption and internal strife….Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 per cent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles, those that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds.”
But a contradiction inhered in Nzeogwu’s speech and in the coup itself, because it is unlawful. A coup d’état is a dangerous form of corruption. A coup is made worse by its sectional execution. If Nigerians did not see it this way on January 15, 1966, they became or ought to have become wiser during the years of prolonged military rule. Those years provided abundant evidence that you cannot use a corrupt means to fight corruption.
A government installed through undemocratic means, by a coup or by electoral fraud, suffers from a self-inflicted handicap. It cannot fight corruption because it is itself corrupt. Nine years later, on July 29, 1975, a third coup took place. This time, the greatest beneficiary of the coup was Brigadier Murtala Muhammed, a young officer who led the second coup on July 29, 1966. He used his maiden broadcast as military ruler to condemn the corruption in General Yakubu Gowon’s junta. Gowon was the greatest beneficiary of the second coup. General Muhammed sternly concluded his speech with these famous lines:
“This government will not tolerate indiscipline. This government will not condone abuse of office.” In 1976, a few hours after the execution of those accused of complicity in the abortive coup that led to the assassination of General Muhammed, his successor, Lieutenant-General Olusegun Obasanjo, addressed Nigerians: “I expect every public officer, indeed, every Nigerian to measure up to a high degree of efficiency, integrity and moral rectitude. The purge of the public service of undesirable elements was undertaken to revitalise the service. This objective has not been fully achieved.” On December 31, 1983, Nigerians who, upon paying attention to the speeches and actions of Murtala and Obasanjo, thought Nigeria was saying farewell to corruption, would hear another coup day speech denouncing corruption.
On that commencement of the second bout of military rule in Nigeria, Brigadier Sani Abacha treated Nigerians to another coup day broadcast in which he said, inter alia, “You are all living witnesses to the great economic predicament and uncertainty, which an inept and corrupt leadership has imposed on our beloved nation for the past four years. I am referring to the harsh, intolerable conditions under which we are now living. Yet our leaders revel in squandermania, corruption and indiscipline, and continue to proliferate public appointments in complete disregard of our stark economic realities.”
A few hours after that speech, a new military strongman, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, appeared. He addressed the nation thus: “While corruption and indiscipline have been associated with our state of under-development, these two evils in our body politic have attained unprecedented height in the past few years. The corrupt, inept and insensitive leadership in the last four years has been the source of immorality and impropriety in our society.” To be noted is the simple fault of logic in that statement.
Corruption is said to be the source of immorality when in fact corruption is a symptom, not the cause of immorality. But coups and logic do not go together. The new military ruler continued: “Since what happens in any society is largely a reflection of the leadership of that society, we deplore corruption in all its facets. This government will not tolerate kick-backs, inflation of contracts and over-invoicing of imports, etc. Nor will it condone forgery, fraud, embezzlement, misuse and abuse of office and illegal dealings in foreign exchange and smuggling.”
On August 27, 1985, when Major-General Ibrahim Babangida overthrew Buhari, he spoke of how the latter dashed the hopes of Nigerians. Babangida stated in his maiden broadcast: “When in December 1983, the former military leadership, headed by Major-
General Muhammadu Buhari, assumed the reins of government, its accession was heralded in the history of this country. With the nation at the mercy of political misdirection and on the brink of economic collapse, a new sense of hope was created in the minds of every Nigerian. Since January 1984, however, we have witnessed a systematic denigration of that hope. It was stated then that mismanagement of political leadership and a general deterioration in the standard of living, which had subjected the common man to intolerable suffering, were the reasons for the intervention.
On May 29, 1999, the persistence of corruption was a major theme in Olusegun Obasanjo’s speech when he was sworn into office as a democratically-elected President. He promised: “Corruption, the greatest single bane of our society today, will be tackled head-on at all level.”
The military came through corruption, promised to fight corruption, became more corrupt, and made Nigeria more corrupt by institutionalising lawlessness and bastardising due process. Half a century after Nzeogwu’s coup day speech, and despite the legendary body language and vaunted integrity of our current President Buhari, who was a principal actor in at least two coups, corruption is still very much our guest.
But our problem is not corruption. Our problem is our lack of political will to address the cause of corruption. Corruption is a symptom of lawlessness and immorality facilitated by a dangerously defective constitution. The constitution of a country is its foundation of legality. That the foundation of legality can be laid by a body acting in illegality is very much in doubt. The 1999 Constitution, bequeathed by the military, is not working. If at all it is working, it works, not for the people, but for its authors and those the authors represent. Let’s stop talking about corruption. Let’s replace a political arrangement that facilitates corruption with one that protects us from corruption.
Professor Akinwale is a Catholic priest