By Mallam Y. Z. Ya’u*
Although ‘Mallam’ did not link this piece to Nigeria’s ranking in the 2019 Transparency International’s corruption perception index, it cannot be coincidence that the otherwise unflappable intellectual cum practitioner of the anti-corruption politics is so angry in this piece as to crack open the Buhari agency in the anti-corruption war. Anger and frustration is, indeed, flowing in the civil society.
If there is anything that Buhari, the politician and presidential candidate understood, it was the depth of anger and frustration that Nigerian voters have against corruption. He perfectly understood the utility of this and cultivated an image of somebody who was stubbornly against corruption and tapped into this anger, garnering votes to make him be elected as President. Even when he took office in 2015 for his first term, he was still dazed with the magic spell of anti-corruption, prompting him to make his only other sound bite, which was “If we don’t kill corruption, corruption will kill us”.
But, now, he does not care whether or probably does not believe that corruption will kill us and has all but washed his hands off the commitment to fight corruption. Is this tragi-comic transformation the result of the allure of office and power or was it an inevitable march of history that corruption is so embedded in our system that it could destroy any good leader? Both of these are not correct. The reality is that Buhari never understood what corruption is and therefore is poorly equipped both intellectually and as a system, to fight corruption.
Buhari’s understanding of corruption, ticks of moralism and a poor understanding of its dimensions. As a moral defect, he thinks moral exhortation could get people to be less corrupt. But moralism means that he has a false sense of who could be corrupt and who are not, making him to think that all those he associated with cannot be corrupt because he believed in their personal dispositions. That is the root of this tragic failure.
His poor understanding of corruption leads him to see corruption as primarily the misappropriation of funds. This limited understanding does not bring into the picture the more destructive dimensions of corruption which include abuse of office and power and the equally insidious nature of public service with its opacity in which it embeds governance processes such that corruption could take place be perfectly rationalized and “legally” covered through the public service rules and instruments. This is why corruption is now on the rise and difficult to prevent.
As moralism, his appointees prefer a media trial which is to play the moral card and that is the danger. Moralism cannot be argued in the courts and inevitably all but few cases that EFCC had media-tried, have been let of the hook by the courts. Buhari cannot believe that his friends are stealing from Government or are abusing trust and power. This is why even when people shout from the roof top, he does not believe the saints he had befriended can be anything but innocent.
The tragedy of Nigeria is that today, the Presidency of Buhari, is characterized by a monstrous machinery of abuse of power and office that is built around his personal friends, the ones that are easily identified as the cabals. They are rapacious, selfish and give no damn about corruption or abuse of office. They are beyond reproach because they are powerful and have no respect for the presidency because they think that they had paid for that in the trust that Buhari invested in them.
With this framework, it is easy to see why Buhari is poorly equipped to fight corruption, even if he had wanted to. Let us start from what may be seen as the inconsequential acts. Certain symbolical acts don’t cost anything but have such powerful associative value in creating the climate for the success in fighting corruption. Take a simple demand that that he makes his assets declaration public. We know that often it is in asset acquisition that ill-gotten wealth is hidden. Buhari has refused to do this simple act. He is supposed to be the champion of anti-corruption and yet cannot lead by example, in using a simple anti-corruption tool. Now we can conclude that the mantra of anti-corruption was merely vote catching. By declaring his own, he would have set the bar high as other officials including at state level, which would have improved on the climate of openness and transparency, yet he does not care. You cannot claim to fight corruption and refuse to set personal example.
If Buhari’s symbiotic gesture does not encourage anti-corruption climate, his embrace of suspected corrupt people does not give hope that he cares much about corruption. Here is anti-corruption train, gathering in his cabinet people who have been indicted of corruption, some even standing trial, without being cleared by the court. They are expected to be prefects of the crusade against themselves! This of course flows from his politics which is that, after getting elected, he cares less about the integrity of his political supporters, and therefore is duty bound to compensate them after winning the prize.
But his politics is also curious. While he flaunts a supposed man of “integrity”, he welcomes everyone to into his fold. Despicable people with known cases of corruption are easily accommodated and even promoted. He has never publicly responded to the perception and the many claims that many people who negotiated themselves into his party have their corruption charges dropped. Someone who is interested in the success of his cause ought to have made a strong public clarification on this. It is this that has given strong coloration to the selectivity in the anti-corruption crusade.
Buhari’s sense of selectivity in the prosecution of corrupt people has become legendry. While he did not have the hawkish disposition of Obasanjo, he clearly has the uncanny mire to hide his supporters from investigation or prosecution. It required a national outcry before he could relieve the Grass Cutter of his job of Secretary to the Government of the Federation and even took more pressure before he could be made him to face trial but even that is now threatening to evaporate.
His tolerance of abuse of power by his appointees is equally legendry, only matched by his penchant and distain of public voices calling for probity. Sleazes in places like the Federal Internal Revenue Services (FIRS) and the NNPC as well as the Central Bank have been swept under the carpet. The handling of the negotiation for the payment of the fines against the telecommunication giant, MTN have been shrouded in secrecy with lot of tantalizing figures of money channeled to a close associate of the President, yet the President has not deemed it important to address the issue.
Take the case of corruption in the fight against the Boko Haram in the northeast. In spite of repeated calls by individuals, communities, organizations to investigate serious allegations about the management of allowances of soldiers as well as the disappearance of fighting equipment and weapons, he has decided to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to these. Level of extortion by the military who now control virtually all business activities in Borno State in particular has not attracted his attention to do something and make life better for the citizens. Many soldiers have said that they have not been sent to end the Boko Haram but to die so that military commandants can profit from this. Villages and communities have complained of the seizure of their herds and other property by the military, yet the doyen of integrity has never questioned the military for these corrupt practices. At some times, everyone thought that the Government was going to take action against the diversion and management of relief materials meant for IDPs. The Government decided that it was civil society that should be punished for exposing this.
Even when Governor Zullum of Bornu State went public in accusing the military of extorsion, the anti-corruption government did nothing and said nothing as only response we have seen is the attempt to blackmail the governor by the military opening up and abandoning the Damaturu-Maiduguri Highway for the insurgents to operate freely, killing innocent road users.
There is another equally important dimension that PMB has chosen not even to recognize. This is the subversion of laws, rules and procedures in government processes. Glaring example of this was the repeated failure of government to obey court orders simply because the orders did not favour the government. There is also the perception that judges are either intimidated or blackmailed to provide rulings that the government wants.
PMB’s poor understanding corruption can also be seen in the way the government has been fighting members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) over enrollment into IPPIS which it sees as key to fighting corruption but watches helplessly as one of the largest corruption cartels in the education sector gets rooted, producing certificates within the country in the name of fake universities.
But Buhari has also found a new Jack to be at the receiving end of his hatred which is what he considers to be threat to regime survival. A Facebook prank will result in prompt arrest and detention. This is how people who could be only good for their nuisance values are transformed into heroes because Buhari considers them so dangerous as to put them behind the bar. You can spend months shouting about corruption but in one tweet about threat to the regime, you can get action.
Many corruption cases were treated with such tardiness that it is clear the aim was not to punish corruption but to shield the concerned individuals. This is why even in cases where the public service dismissed staff for corrupt acts, the presidency is there to quickly reinstate the dismissed staff and close any possibility of investigation to the allegations.
A glaring weakness of the government’s anti-corruption effort is seen in two important respects. One is the refusal of the government to enact and implement laws and policies that will contribute in preventing corruption. These include for instance, the Beneficial Ownership Register/Database, inaugurating the National Procurement Council, ensuring adherence to the Freedom of Information Act, policy on asset recovery and management, etc. The second is the failure of the government to turn the anti-corruption effort into a citizen owned effort driven by them. Instead government sees and trusts only its own agencies, some of which themselves are mired in corruption. The very government that has accused the judiciary of corruption prefers to trust the judiciary to fight corruption rather than engage the public. The import of relying on agencies like ICPC, EFCC is that government’s strategy is reactive rather than proactive and in the fight against corruption, reactive strategies have never been successful or effective in curtailing corruption. Such agencies rely on people to report corrupt acts to them and for them to follow up and investigate. But citizens are not encouraged to report because they are not given protection. This is why the whistleblower Bill which has been lingering for over 10 years now should have been legislated upon and signed. People fear to report corrupt acts because corruption does not give a damn about human life and can easily kill whistleblowers to silence them. Without a law that assures them a modicum of protection, people will feel unsafe to risk their lives. In fact, there have been instances in which Whistleblowers have ended up being the ones sent to jail. The case of AG Wala is still fresh, not talk of the many others who were subjected to intimidation by law enforcement agencies. The result is that only a small fraction of corruption gets reported, and even still further, only a smaller faction gets successfully prosecuted. This creates the climate that gives confidence to corrupt people that they will not be caught.
The government’s controversial policy of providing incentive to whistle blowers cannot work because people who report about corruption are not looking for monetary compensation. If money was what they wanted, they could simply collaborate with corruption machinery in their institutions, get their own share of the loot and simply live safely. But even in the operation of the policy has been controversy with a number of whistleblowers saying that they were not given their due, fueling suspicion that some people are cornering the amounts due to the whistleblowers.
Finally, Buhari’s effort is fatally flawed by a double intellectual inability to interrogate his own myth, which is integrity. He equates probity with some mythical notion of integrity, not knowing that integrity is contextual. In our context, integrity is built around a transactional loop between psychopathy and power/money. When you have power and money to dispense with, you have integrity. When you are poor, you have no integrity! In this context, Buhari is hopelessly lost as he searches for this integrity that can only be acquired through corrupt deals. So, in reality, his people of integrity are the very people he should send to jail! Will he, can he? Time and again have shown that he cannot and that is why this talk about anti-corruption is just mere ruse. We may still one day mount an anti-corruption campaign but until then it is a national tragedy to succumb to the seductive music of anti-corruption because we all hate.
The author is of the Centre for Information Technology and Development, (CITAD), Kano