Fifty-five years ago, as of this January 15, the late Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu told us that the ten per centers made Nigeria look big for nothing. Perhaps, we did not know until he said that corruption was steadily doing enormous damage to our aspiration for greatness as the black man’s hope. Thus, did it happen that when we woke up to it, we decided that to set Nigeria on the path of unimpeded development, corruption must be eradicated. And the anti-graft battle was on.
Our successive military rulers from Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, became knights that led the charge against corruption. General Yakubu Gowon numbered its eradication among the nine-point programme he promised to accomplish before letting the civilians back into political leadership. Whatever strategy he had for accomplishing it went with him when other ambitious officers thought he had had enough time on top of the political totem pole. No big one man alone go chop.
His successor, General Murtala Muhammed, turned the civil services upside down to rid them of corruption. He went on to probe Gowon’s military governors. The probes were the wind that exposed the posterior of the chicken, to wit, corruption is no respecter of the colour of the cloth on your back. We have had a flurry of administrative policies intended to curb corruption in federal and state governments. None made a dramatic impact on the hold of corruption on the country. Instead, corruption became the basis for the vicious propaganda that pitted military politicians against civilian politicians. Corruption defined good and bad Nigerians: the good Nigerians wore uniform; the bad Nigerians wore agbada.
Because of corruption as a propaganda tool, governments changed, with the agbada government dubbed as corrupt, yielding place to the men in spotless khaki uniforms. Corruption has made it possible for the country to admit of ambitious men with sinister purposes in government as champions of a new era that never came. Corruption became not just a challenge for the country but a veritable means by which the propaganda war between the clean and the unclean was won or lost. None of our leaders has won the anti-graft war so far. Corruption continues to dare and force the commanders and the foot soldiers in the war to blink first.
Corruption is a product of human greed that preys on human weaknesses to cut corners for personal gains and benefits. Budgets are padded; contracts are padded, and the smart become rich in the time it takes to spell corruption. The devil knows this. Through its advice the upright bend with the wind in order to belong. The tribe of the corrupt multiplies at an alarming rate.
In 2003, President Olusegun Obasanjo provided the legal framework for waging the anti-graft war with the setting up of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. Its first chairman was a very senior police officer, Nuhu Ribadu. He was a zealous man who shared his principal’s passion and objectives on the urgent need to chain the rogue. He worked hard to expose the rotten underbelly of our political system to shame the keepers of the people’s wealth who turned themselves into the stealers of what they were entrusted with.
But corruption saw his back as he exited that office in shabby circumstances. Other redoubtable chairmen of the commission have come and gone but corruption remains with a smirk on its face. It has grown bigger; it has made itself the giver of favours and the creator of instant wealth with no questions asked. Few men and women are unable to ignore its advice; hence it thrives.
It has been a long time since the war began. It may not be the longest war in recorded human history, but it is one that has problems with victory. It is a frustrating war; it is a pathetic war, and it has now been turned into a farcical war. After 55 years of waging the war with the same results, we need to pause and see if we have been waging the war in a manner that would guarantee defeat for corruption and victory for a Nigeria that smells roses.
We need to pause because the anti-graft war has been used as an excuse to deepen our individual and collective misery and trauma in the land of our birth. It has been used as an excuse to weaken and intimidate and destroy the institutions of government created by the constitution to police good governance and prevent incipient tyranny and/or autocracy in the land.
If we pause and wipe our faces of the sweat induced by the pursuit of the corrupt and the alleged corrupt among us, we will notice at least some clear obstacles to winning the war. By the way, you cannot run after a thief without sweating buckets of warm water. We do not have to look closely to see is that the anti-graft war is fought with the ambivalence of the uncommitted.
An anti-graft war has problems with victory when it is fought selectively. Ribadu was criticised for fighting the ear in a manner that suggested the commission had been turned into an attack dog against real and imagined political enemies of the government in power. That perception persists today with the added fact that politicians from non-ruling political parties who have cases with the commission cross the carpet and their sins instantly change colours.
Gathering the corrupt under the protective umbrella of an administration may be politically wise but it undermines both the integrity of the government waging the war and the integrity of the war itself. It makes a farce of the war. Each year Transparency International, the global corruption watchdog, tells us that our success with the war is spotty at best or, to borrow a more familiar expression, patchy-patchy. The idea of catching thieves and yet protecting thieves is not just funny; it is tragic. People are not blind. They saw what happened in the past; they see what is happening now. They shake their heads and sneer.
The anti-graft war faces a crisis of dwindling relevance. The war requires a new strategy and a new approach to its conduct to prevent it from sinking into irrelevance, rekindle the confidence of the populace in its competence and integrity and give us some hope that we have taken determined steps towards waging the war that our nation can win, if not today, then tomorrow; it is a war the country must win to regain its place in the estimation of the informed. We cannot continue the way we are going and expect different results from the anti-graft war. A war that has been going on for 55 years can tire the most enthusiastic foot soldiers. A periodic rekindling of the faith of the foot soldiers and the people in its prosecution is the best guarantee for its continued relevance and, God being so kind, a measure of success.
The war is more or less concentrated on the big thieves in the executive branches of the national and sub-national governments. Quite rightly so. Thieving goes on because the preventive measures are so porous that few of the state governors and the civil servants fail to take advantage of them to steal with impunity. EFCC watches them but can do nothing about the governors because they have immunity. A system that watches thieves steal and waits for them until their immunity runs out before calling them to account mocks itself. If the so-called immunity is a clear obstacle to a clean and respectable Nigeria, as indeed it is, why should we not expunge it from the constitution as a preventive measure? I fear that if we do not overhaul, strengthen, and police the preventive measures and make it more difficult for the multiplicity of thieves, the anti-graft war becomes a farce.
In an anti-graft war, a quick dispensation of justice is critical to its success. This has not been the case for some 55 years now. The cases drag on until they are forgotten, and the purposes of name and shame lose their steam. Special anti-graft courts must be set up to try EFCC cases and prevent them from dragging on even at the investigatory stage. The military did it with the special armed robbery tribunals.
Perhaps, while we are it, we may wish to re-examine the concept of corruption as merely the theft of the public funds. Corruption encompasses much more than that. The blatant misuse of executive power is the worst form of corruption. It pollutes the system itself and makes the stealing of public funds with impunity possible. Shall we continue to look big for nothing? Perish the thought.
Agbese can be reached via Email: [email protected]