Our President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), certainly not famous for oratorical skills or for original ideas, possesses however, in compensation, the strategic political resource of seizing the moment, of bending the nation’s energy towards an arresting overarching goal. In the course of researching a book, published in Sweden, a few years back, this writer stumbled on the fact the much-touted War against Indiscipline of the mid-1980s was an idea thrown up by bureaucrats in the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture designed partly to harvest publicity dividends. In Buhari’s deft political hand, it became not just a signature tune, but a policy departure with which his administration would become famously associated. In like manner, the anti-corruption policy designed by his civilian predecessors, has become an all-consuming mantra and focus, for which he has been acclaimed nationally and internationally. The sticky problem, however, is that style and captivating slogans may seize the nation’s imagination, at least temporarily, but they do not necessarily translate into enduring policies that alter value structure or reorder political ethos and institutions. Unsurprisingly, therefore, in the face of so much revelation, recently of humongous theft of public resources across a spectrum of key institutions and projects, a national debate has broken out regarding whether the anti-corruption struggle has finally unravelled or come to an ungainly terminus.
In focus are the recent uncovering of massive fraud to the tune of N100bn at the North East Development Commission, the ongoing trial of the suspended acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, over gargantuan corruption allegations, the serial scams, involving over N80bn at the Niger Delta Development Commission, as well as the N3bn rip-off at the Nigerian Social Insurance Trust Fund. Suddenly, it would appear that the leash exercised by Buhari on the political class and government appointees has been yanked off; they have all let down their guards, and are conducting the looting business with an unusual frenzy. There are some who will argue that anti-corruption was never really more than a publicity gimmick, calculated to bolster the moral stature of Buhari, whose, admittedly ascetic, ways provide him a lever for reining in a notoriously predatory political elite. If this suggestion is valid, it means that the struggle was destined to come to naught. There is also some merit in senior journalist, Dare Babarinsa’s perspective, quoted in the opening paragraph that the new game in town is related to preparations for the 2023 general election, notwithstanding the fact that it is still three years away.
There is, too, the explanation of a political vacuum, which has arisen either because of Buhari’s aloof style of governance or because of problems created in the interstices of age and infirmity, causing him to delegate much of the affairs of state without exercising monitoring auspices which would have ensured that feedback is provided to him, on a regular basis. Among the contending hypotheses is the argument that the anti-corruption struggle has upped the ante by creating a new moral awareness and sensitivity to acts of corruption, thus making every revelation look like a big departure from a salutary norm. In this light, the anti-corruption fight has become a victim of its own modest success, to the extent that it has raised expectations that it cannot fulfil. Whatever ‘theory’ one settles for, there is little doubt that there is a surge of corrupt behaviour among the political elite and their accomplices, causing a demystification of anti-corruption. Indeed, the Peoples Democratic Party has recently alleged, though without proof, that some of the funds recovered from those found guilty of corruption have been relooted by officials with itchy fingers. The allegation was made as a response to the defence of the Minister for Information and Culture, Mr Lai Mohammed, that at least N800bn and 1,400 convictions have been secured in the last six years, as wages of the anti-corruption fight.
Talking about relooting, in principle, nothing stops recovered resources from being stolen, a second time, in the absence of institutional safeguards built around those who are entrusted with the task of recovery. As the case of Magu has shown, when you put a man in charge of huge state resources without corresponding accountability, you have the moral equivalent of leaving the room of your house open, with your wife and a stranger as the only occupants. That apart, recent events point to the anomaly that we have in place an anti-corruption campaign whose building blocks are noticeably absent. This may be part of the Nigerian character of substituting bombast and publicity for the hard work and attention to detail, which should have provided the backcloth. Is it not strange, for example, there is little or no connection between the work of the office of the Auditor-General, who perennially issues queries without getting replies and anti-corruption institutions such as the EFCC and the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related Crimes Commission. So, we have a disjointed institutional arrangement in which various anti-corruption agencies are working in silos without connecting with other agencies and without the benefit of an overarching moral and ideological compass outside the love of Buhari.
This writer has often lamented the incoherence of anti-corruption which makes it look so often like policymaking on the hoof or a plainly experimental ride into a forest without the benefit of maps. When you add to that burden, the disadvantage of hyper-partisanship, in which people are being invited to change their parties so that their ‘sins’ can be forgiven, then you get a recipe for policy fiasco or an innovation sabotaged by its own internal contradictions.
Yet another loose end is the contradictory pull of appointments on the grounds of political expediency and appointments based on a modicum of integrity. In other words, you cannot appoint someone based on patronage, ethnicity or some subjective criterion and not look the other way when the appointee is stealing the place blind, unless you possess both the wherewithal and the focus to caution.
This is where the entrenched habit of this administration, not reshuffling the cabinet or suspending people from office, except in extreme cases, has come home to roost. In vain, for example, did many critics advocate, during Buhari’s first term, that he should reshuffle his cabinet, change his service chiefs, or suspend erring officials, in order to freshen or bring new impetus to the system. Once public officials come to believe that no matter what they do or don’t do, they would not be sanctioned, you have given them a carte blanche for running riot.
To return to the question raised at the outset, has the anti-corruption struggle reached a terminus? The tentative answer should be that it has, on present terms. However, there is a window of escape into new vistas of effectiveness, if political will is mustered to close up the leaking pots and to reset the programme in a more logical, rational and purposive manner.