This is the first of a 3-part series on Buhari’s 1st year in office. The focus will be on 3 broad areas — corruption, insecurity, economy — that Buhari and the APC were elected to tackle.
Is Nigeria fantastically corrupt or not? If you disagree, I invite you to perform a simple brain exercise — name one type of corruption you’ve heard of in any other country in the world that has not happened or cannot happen in Nigeria.
David Cameron’s comments were undiplomatic (although there is now some speculation that he did it as a publicity stunt to boost coverage of the conference which was looking like it would pass without fanfare) and could have derailed the conference. But there’s more to what happened this week and more than anything else, I think it burnished the President and Nigeria’s image.
Here was an international conference to discuss ways of tackling corruption across the globe and Nigeria was front and center in those discussions. You would normally expect that such a conference will hold and they will be talking about Nigeria and how to deal with the country as a problem, in coded language. Not just that, Nigeria proposed ideas of its own to deal with the corruption and signed up to a number of cross-border initiatives to make it harder for stolen wealth to flow around the world. They are all small steps for now and more will be needed, but they are steps (in the right direction) all the same.
This Time Its Different?
In 1983, no one really asked for Buhari. He forced himself on the country via a coup. And even though people celebrated when he kicked out the venal Shagari government, the lack of an agreement beforehand meant that they also celebrated when he was kicked out 2 years later by Babangida.
This time around, Nigerians accepted his pitch and gave him a mandate. In fact, they took back their mandate from the other guy and handed it to Buhari. And even if you were blind, deaf and dumb during the campaign, you would know that fighting corruption was the core message of Buhari — there might be confusion about other things but on corruption, no one can say he wasn’t going to make an attempt to tackle the problem, within the confines of the rule of law.
That is to say, a fantastically corrupt country has seen what it is like to have unbridled corruption and decided it had had enough. You might say that Nigerians have a complicated relationship with corruption —people tolerate it in the hope that it will be their turn soon. The last 5 years proved that that hope is mostly a forlorn one — record oil prices only increased immiseration. Per Euromonitor, the share of Nigerians living on $2/day or less increased from 82.2% in 2010 to 82.4% in 2015.
There are so many narratives about how Buhari reacted to Cameron’s statement this week. From the usual racism to colonialism (these 2 can be used to explain anything in this world) to Buhari insulting Nigerians or tarnishing the image of Nigeria abroad. It was none of that. The real story is that Nigerians have decided to begin to tackle corruption by electing a man who can almost be described as a one trick anti-corruption pony.
He has not disappointed. All of this week, he has appeared single-minded, serious and focused on the matter of corruption. The only time he joked was when he made a point about only wanting back stolen assets. Corruption is a serious problem in Nigeria and it deserves a strong focus. Regardless of what the activists might have you believe, it is not that serious a problem in the UK or other western countries. What this means is that it will be up to Nigeria to push for the implementation of the initiatives that will require international cooperation. No matter what Cameron said this week, his biggest priority right now is the EU referendum. After that, it will be something else not related to tackling international corruption. It therefore helps to have a Nigerian government that takes the matter seriously.
What Corruption Does
The fundamental damage that corruption does to a country is that it corrodes the transmission pipeline between a people and their government. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer decided that he wanted to transfer £1,376.48 to every man in the UK aged between 25 and 40, I would get £1,376.48 in my bank account on the appointed day.
In a country like Nigeria ravaged by corruption, no such pipeline exists. And it is not just to deliver money — the transmission pipeline is used to deliver roads, bridges, power, healthcare, housing and so on. If at all such a pipeline exists, it is filled with holes at every point. Indeed, the reason for even suggesting such a transfer of £1,376.48 in the first place in Nigeria might be to make someone rich. Money meant for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) is stolen, money for Ebola is stolen, money for roads is stolen, oil money is stolen and the census is a lie.
Merely thinking about the scale of the problems is depressing. Where does one begin? You can change laws and establish institutions. But how long does it take to change mores and habits of mind? The answer is blowing in the wind.
Dealing With The Monster
You should not make the mistake of believing that the current anti-corruption campaign is a joke or a scam. That will be a tragedy. The campaign has shortcomings but it is real and important. Some say it is only targeting political enemies. How Alex Badeh is a political enemy of Buhari is yet to be explained. Others say it is only targeting people and not building institutions. This is nonsense. The job of institution building is unsexy and cannot make headlines in a country where the press thrives on sensationalism (cholera is reported as ‘killer water’ etc).
Except you’re going to import someone to do the job, you won’t find much better than Ibrahim Magu to lead the EFCC. And what is an institution if notthe lengthened shadow of one man as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it? There is a concerted effort to recover stolen assets from people who stole. This is the most basic and obvious step. It is unfortunate that a lot of the assets are in the form of useless real estate and expensive watches and pens instead of badly needed cash (this is why any money recovered from the UK and US is important and badly needed — the UK government won’t return a house in London; they will return cash). The President has promised to give details of what has been recovered so far on May 29th but some numbers are starting to leak out
“The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, has recovered the sum of $3.1 billion, which is over N600… https://t.co/n7K2xfq40z
— EFCC Nigeria (@officialefcc) May 13, 2016
Don’t fall for the trivialisation of those who sneer at this: what is happening is unprecedented, certainly in my lifetime as a Nigerian. The EFCC is also prosecuting a whole bunch of people for various offences. It has also secured a number of low-key convictions in the last few weeks.
There will be more convictions, no doubt about that.
The Challenges Ahead
But merely retrieving assets or chasing corrupt people will not be enough. There is nothing revelatory about this — we all know it. So the question to ask is whether the other parts of the battle against corruption are being fought? The answer is a resounding yes.
The Nigerian judiciary has never been asked to do what it is currently being asked to do. As such, when it is suddenly confronted with the challenge of dealing with so many corruption cases, cracks are bound to appear. Fixing such cracks is the part of the battle that is not sexy and will not make headlines.
In appointing Prof. Itse Sagay to head the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption, the President, again, demonstrated his commitment to this one issue. The Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 (ACJA) is one of the boldest reforms in the Nigerian judiciary in ages. If anyone asks you, tell them I said so. Consider the point below as illustrated in a December interview by Professor Sagay
That’s not all, the new law also says that, previously if you are hearing a case and you are promoted to a higher court, you just drop the case you are hearing, a new judge is now brought to hear it from the beginning, no matter how far you’ve gone. We have a very bad case recently of Erastus Akingbola of Intercontinental Bank. The case was heard from beginning to end, the judge gave a date to deliver judgment, then we don’t know up till today whether this was a plan, they just promoted him to the Appeal Court. The case is back. And since then it has gone through three or four judges, no head no tail. That is gone forever. Once a judge is assigned to a case, even if he’s promoted to the Supreme Court, he must finish it, under this new law.
This stuff is not sexy. But who can say it is not important? If you know of a better way to strengthen institutions, let’s hear it. It is done brick by brick. And you hope that gains made today are not reversed tomorrow.
President Buhari submitted a very good and important essay to a collection for the Anti-Corruption Summit in London. It is remarkable in that it is coming from a Nigerian President, elected by Nigerians. It attempts to trace how we got to where we are with corruption and what can and is being done to deal with the problem. Again, it addresses the question of building institutions
I believe a review of legislation is essential to reposition these institutions. For example, currently the ICPC can only begin anti-corruption investigations in response to petitions from the public. We want to change that, revising the ICPC Act to increase the Commission’s powers to initiate investigations into cases of corruption (ICPC 2016).
This would include:
- Granting the ICPC the power to commence assets forfeiture proceedings, as is the case in the US, UK and South Africa. Illegally acquired properties may then be seized where the suspected owner is a fugitive, disclaims ownership or cannot be located despite diligent efforts.
- Streamlining the jurisdiction of the ICPC by reducing areas of overlap with the EFCC, thus giving each agency areas of primary jurisdictional responsibility.
- Giving the ICPC power to accept material assistance from international institutions and development partners, as well as to access funds from global anti-corruption agencies, which the present ICPC Act prohibits.
Similarly, as part of the EFCC legislative review, we will focus on:
- Empowering the Commission to presume that a person has illegally enriched themselves where such a person owns, possesses or controls an interest in any property that cannot be justified by present or past emoluments or circumstances.
- Streamlining the jurisdiction of the EFCC to reduce overlap with the ICPC mandate.
- Securing the forfeiture of illegally acquired properties where the suspected owner is a fugitive, disclaims ownership or cannot be located despite diligent efforts.
- Separating the agency for financial intelligence gathering from the EFCC. The Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit, which operates as an arm of the EFCC, needs to be independent in order to enhance its operational autonomy.
This is not fuzzy stuff — it is clear and specific and doable stuff that can move us away from the ‘fantastic’ end of the corruption spectrum. One of the reasons Nigeria is fantastically corrupt is that asset forfeiture, which is common elsewhere, is not really a thing in Nigeria. People can steal safe in the knowledge that ‘nothing dey happen’.
What about the Treasury Single Account (TSA)? The simple answer to this is to ask how long it had been on the table before finally being made universal very early in the Buhari administration? As far back as President Obasanjo’s first term in office, the matter of a single account for government revenues had been on the table. He moved the needle with GIFMIS. In 2010, the IMF submitted a comprehensive ‘TSA for Dummies’ document to Nigeria (page 20). Goodluck Jonathan moved the needle further by getting some institutions to adopt it but leaving out the big beasts. Give the credit to whoever makes you happy — the important thing is that there is greater clarity on government revenues now.
None of these things, by themselves, will deal a death blow to corruption in Nigeria. But taken together, Nigeria can be said to be fighting back. For too long Nigeria has happily existed with depraved levels of corruption without a concerted or sincere effort to deal with the cancer.
Today, Nigeria is front and center of an international effort to begin to tackle the problem. It is worth repeating — Buhari did not impose himself on Nigerians this time. Nigerians voted for him to come do this job. We the people of la corruzione fantastico have decided that we want to begin to deal with this problem at least in some form.
And we do not even need to totally eliminate the corruption. Consider the below in a recent report by PwC.
In 2014, every Nigerian would have been more than $1,000 richer if we were merely as corrupt as a country where $700m of public funds landed in the personal bank account of the Prime Minister. God, give us this level of corruption! Because, at the current fantastic levels Nigeria is operating at, $700m would be an insult to the NNPC GMD, never mind the President. Nigeria is playing in the Premiership of corruption. Being relegated to the Championship or League 1 will do wonders for the citizens of the country.
Man! If Nigeria gets to nominally corrupt you’ll be taking the 7.45 train from Lagos and getting to Abuja by 10.30 https://t.co/KrGbkr0BYK
— F (@DoubleEph) May 10, 2016
Now, let us not get carried away. It is true that Nigerians voted for Buhari to begin to deal with the issue of corruption but voters can be very funny people — they have been known to vote for increased government spending and tax cuts. At the same time. Often they say one thing and when they get it, they get angry and complain about it. As I asked previously — what happens when they come for your daddy? Can Nigerians stay the course and allow these changes to bed in? After 4 years of relentlessly chasing people, will some other guy come promising, with a nod and a wink, to relax things and let the ‘good times’ return? We shall find out.
But for now, Nigerians should be proud of their position on the world stage. Yes, David Cameron’s comments were annoying (and I am a big fan of David Cameron), but there is more to what is going on. Your country is now a key player in the fight against corruption because you elected a leader to do just that. In that, there is no disgrace.
The Japanese had never seen a train until Commodore Perry presented one to them as a gift in 1853. They saw the train and marvelled so much thatthey could only look at it fearfully from a distance. Today, the Japanese are exporting high-speed train technology to America. For decades, Northern Ireland was a country that always received advice on how to end its violence and sectarian wars. Having managed to achieve relative peace, today,Northern Ireland exports peace advice to countries like Bahrain, Egypt, Nepal and Philippines by telling the story of how it managed to overcome its Troubles.
How much do Nigerians want to change? How badly do Nigerians want to push back against corruption? Those who will sneer at current efforts will continue to sneer. Those who will do everything they can to undo the progress made will not rest. But what will Nigerians, as a whole, say? Do Nigerians have it in them to be relentless in this fight starting with the tap of corruption that is the Nigerian government? The first year of Buhari’s government has undoubtedly moved Nigeria in the correct direction on corruption. Credit where credit is due.
From La Corruzione Fantastico to La Corruzione Contro?