Corruption War and the Old Soldier By Olusegun Adeniyi
It was with rapt attention that President Muhammadu Buhari listened to members of the National Peace Committee headed by former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, at the session he held with them on August 11 this year. The kernel of their intervention was that in fighting corruption, the president should ensure that his administration does not smear the innocent while according all suspects the due process of the law.
Speaking to State House correspondents after the meeting, Bishop Hassan Matthew Kukah said: ?“in our conversation with President (Goodluck) Jonathan and members of the parties, I don’t think any Nigerian is in favour of corruption or is against President Buhari’s commitment to ensuring that we turn a new leaf.I think what we are concerned about is the process. It is no longer a military regime and under our existing laws, everybody is innocent until proven guilty”.
Even when he argued that the parleywas not at the instance of the former president nor the discussion about him (Jonathan), Bishop Kukah added: “again, our own commitment is not to intimidate or fight anybody, the former president’s commitment and what he did still remain spectacular and I think that President Buhari himself appreciates that. So, our effort really is to make sure that the right thing is done.”
That statement by Kukah would immediately generate considerable controversy but it was actually what the president said at the meeting that I have found more instructive as it presents a window into the philosophical underpinning of his war against corruption. With the presentation by the Peace Committee done, President Buhari, according to sources, prefaced his response with an anecdote and jocularly added that both General Abdulsalami and the Sultan of Sokoto would understand him better, being themselves former military officers.
“In those days in the military, we used to have a joke about the German sentry. Ordinarily, when a sentry is on duty, and it is dark, if he hears the sound of movement, he raises his gun and barks out: ‘Who goes there? Advance to be recognized!’ If the person identifies himself/herself, and the sentry is satisfied with his/her explanations, the person is then waved to move on. But in the case of the German sentry, when he hears a sound in darkness, he corks his rifle, and fires. He then barks: ‘Who went there?’ And most likely, that person was already dead by that time,” said the president who drew laughter from his visitors.
After admitting that he has learnt sufficient lessons from the past, President Buhari now added: “in the anti-corruption war of this administration, we will not behave like the German sentry. We would not first arrest people, arraign them in court, and then begin to look for evidence with which to prosecute them. When we charge somebody to court, that means we already have all the evidence we need for prosecution. So you can rest assured that due process will be followed. But let me also make something very clear: anybody, irrespective of status, who is found culpable in the monumental looting of public funds that I have discovered, will have his or her day in court.”
It was on that note that the meeting ended and presidential spokesman, Mr. Femi Adesina issued a statement where he quoted his boss as saying: “Nigeria has to break this vicious cycle before we can make progress. We have really degenerated as a country. Our national institutions, including the military, which did wonderfully on foreign missions in the past, have been compromised. But we are doing something about it. That is why security-wise and economically, we’re in trouble…those who have stolen the national wealth will be in court in a matter of weeks and Nigerians will know the people who have short-changed them.”
On Monday in London, the Westminster Magistrates Court granted an application for the seizure of 27,000 pounds from former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke. That followed her earlier arrest and release on bail last Friday by the British National Crime Agency (NCA) alongside four other people. The allegations against her bother on corruption (evidently on account of her stewardship in Nigeria) and money-laundering.
That her ordeal has generated media frenzy in our country is understandable, given the near-absolute powers she wielded and the lack of transparency and accountability that became the lot of the oil and gas sector under her. However, to the extent that Alison-Madueke has not been convicted of any crimes, she deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt concerning all the allegations that have swarmed around her in the last couple of years. I also believe the media should be circumspect in throwing around figures that are not backed by any credible evidence, especially now that she has her day in court.
Corruption is a serious scourge that we cannot afford to trivialize if Nigeria is ever to develop. That perhaps is why it is important for the president not to adopt the “German sentry” approach that can only offer a short-term solution to what has become a perplexing national challenge. Although many people say glibly that if Nigeria does not kill corruption, then corruption will kill Nigeria, the sad bitter really is that it is truer than they actually imagine. And we are already seeing evidence of that.
On Monday, the annual Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance was released with Nigeria scoring below the African (and West African!) average in four critical categories, including sustainable economic opportunity, and human development. And in a new report released last Sunday, the World Bank–which confirmed early this year that corruption “has become a $1 trillion industry”–stated that while the number of poor people continue to decline in other regions of the world, Nigeria and other sub-Saharan African countries currently account for half of the global economic destitute.
“In 1990, East Asia accounted for half of the global poor, whereas some 15 per cent lived in sub-Saharan Africa; by 2015 forecasts, this is almost exactly reversed: sub-Saharan Africa accounts for half of the global poor. Poverty is declining in all regions but it is becoming deeper and more entrenched in countries that are either conflict-ridden or overly dependent on commodity exports”, said the report.
Nigeria is indeed a classic example of that paradox–of stupendous wealth for a few and acute penury for many others—perhaps because we are both “conflict-ridden” and “overly dependent on commodity exports”.Despite all the hundreds of billions of dollars that have over the years accrued from the sale of oil—money that has largely gone into the private pockets of some public officials and their collaborators in the private sector—majority of our people still live below the poverty line. As a result, according to the World Bank, “while the extreme poor in Sub-Sahara Africa represented 11 percent of the world’s total in 1981, they now account for a third of the world’s extreme poor.”
In a recent ActionAid Nigeria research assignment, where I joined others tointerrogate how corruption impacts on different segments of our society and the implication for social development in our country, we were able to prove that, in many ways, the level of deprivations to which a great majority of Nigerians are subjected today is a consequence of the greed of a few people in both the private and the public sectors: http://www.actionaid.org/nigeria/publications/poverty-and-corruption-nigeria.And for that reason, it is something that needs to be fought so we can free public resources to meet pressing national needs. But doing that, all factors considered, will not be easy.
In my column on this page on 2nd February 2012 titled “The Subsidy Payments”, I borrowed from the wisdom of the late British novelist, Rene Brabazon Raymond, who wrote with the pseudonym James Hadley Chase. He spoke to the nature of human greed in one of his entertaining offerings, ‘The Paw in the Bottle’. However, the central character, Julie Holland, refused to heed the admonition of a lenient judge who tempered his justice with mercy by not sentencing her for stealing on account of her young age. But in releasing her, he gave the following memorable words of warning:
“Have you ever heard how they catch monkeys in Brazil, Julie? Let me tell you. They put a nut in a bottle, and tie the bottle to a tree. The monkey grasps the nut, but the neck of the bottle is too narrow for the monkey to withdraw its paw and the nut. You would think the monkey would let go of the nut and escape, wouldn’t you? But it never does. It is so greedy it never releases the nut and is always captured. Remember that story, Julie. Greed is a dangerous thing. If you give way to it, sooner or later you will be caught.”
While we wait for the drama that will eventually play out in a London court, perhaps so we could get answers to the jumbo subsidy payments of recent years, the controversial “swap deals” and how some hitherto unknown financial pimps and flamboyant rent-seekers came to capture our much-abused oil and gas sector, there are increasing signs that things would no longer remain the same. Indeed, the lesson of this time is that, however long it takes, there will always be consequences for bad behaviour. And with President Buhari, some of the people who looted the treasury will actually get their comeuppance, perhaps so they may serve as examples to others that impunity does not pay.
Notwithstanding, it is important for the anti-corruption crusade to be anchored on the president’s call for a fundamental attitudinal change. We need to situate corruption within our society’s elevation of crude materialism into a pseudo religion. We also need to encourage the emergence of a system of social and economic security that can guarantee honest Nigerians access to the major indices of sensible livelihood: affordable homes, education, consumer credit for basic necessities etc. And we must strengthen the legal/judicial mechanism to ensure that convicted felons do not get out of court, paying some ridiculous fines from their pockets after stealing billions of naira!
That is one way to discourage the kind of aggressive greed that has elevated corruption to the status of an industry especially in the public sector. In other words, the anti-corruption crusade will only be meaningful if it aims at giving birth to a society in which the urge for primitive accumulation gives way to a more modest lifestyle. While it is therefore gratifying that the president has chosen not to behave like the “German sentry” as he fights corruption, he must remain a role model in matters of our general attitude to material acquisitiveness.
However, for him to succeed, President Buhari needs the support of all Nigerians so that we can end what has become an emblem of shame put on our country by a tiny minority (in both the public and private sectors) who corner our commonwealth for themselves and in the process pauperized majority of our people.