For three years from 1976 to 1979 General Olusegun Obasanjo was the military Head of State (de facto president) of Nigeria. In May of 1999, General Obasanjo, now retired from the army, won an election as a civilian and was inaugurated President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. In April of 2003, he was reelected for a second term; his principal opponent in the 2003 elections is still contesting the results in court.
In almost five years of Obasanjo II, the president has sought to portray himself as a man waging a relentless war against corruption. In his inauguration speech in 1999, General Obasanjo pointed to pervasive corruption as the biggest problem facing Nigeria. In that speech, he essentially promised Nigerians that he would make fighting corruption a major priority for his government. Since then, the president’s publicity machine has strived to create a public perception in Nigeria that the president is fiercely battling corruption. And in the international arena, the president himself has spent much of his time (some would say most of his time) flying all over the world selling himself as an anti-corruption titan.
But in the age of “spin”, does the reality match the rhetoric?
Shortly after beginning his first term, President Obasanjo inaugurated a Commission of Inquiry to look into the collapse of Nigerian Airways. A retired judge was appointed to lead the investigation of the near-bankrupt national aviation flag carrier. In November 2003, the Commission’s report was finally made public. The report blamed former top officials of the airline, former members of the federal cabinet, and former high-ranking civil servants, for the corporation’s financial collapse. Among other things, the Commission recommended that the indicted individuals refund varying sums of money they wasted or misappropriated.
After the report’s release, the federal government declared its commitment to seeing that the Commission’s recommendations are implemented in full.
In a separate incident in December 2003, the government sacked prominent members of the cabinet and the civil service, and arrested one former ranking PDP official. These actions were taken in response to revelations of corruption and bribery in connection with the National ID Card Scheme. The government has talked tough, condemning those involved in the scandal, and promising the citizens that the suspects will be brought to trial.
With the near-coincidence of the release of the Nigerian Airways report, and the strong reaction to the National ID Card scandal, the government’s publicists have gone into overdrive praising the strength of the anti-corruption drive of the government.
On the surface, the government deserves the praise. As a Nigerian, I know how rare it is for well-connected, powerful officials to be named, much less prosecuted in connection with corruption. I think it is a good thing that fingers have been pointed, and that names have been named. Arrests have even been made in the ID Card scandal. We must extend to the indicted individuals the presumption of innocence until the prosecutors prove their guilt (or fail to do so) in a court of law. But on the surface the government deserves to be commended for their actions on the Nigerian Airways report and on the I.D. Card scandal.
But the commendation can only extend as far as these specific and narrow actions. In the true sense of the word, there is no war against corruption in Nigeria. The government has beaten about the tiny weeds, ignoring the vast plantations sitting in plain view. The rare noteworthy actions seemed to occur only when events beyond the government’s control forced them to act and left them with no opportunity to avoid action.
The states and local governments are no different, but for the purpose of this essay I will focus on the federal government. It is the tier of government in the best position to lead and champion a nationwide fight against the scourge. The ruling Peoples Democratic Party controls the federal executive and both houses of the federal legislature.
ACTION ONLY UNDER DURESS
The government’s publicists tout the National ID Card fraud as a major success of the anti-corruption war. In truth it is an example of the weakness of the “war”.
The Nigerian Senate investigated the National ID Card Scheme two years ago in 2001. Evidence was presented indicating that the Scheme was riddled with bribery, corruption, sleaze and graft. But in the two years following the Senate probe, little or nothing of value happened in terms of pursuing the investigation to its logical conclusion. For all practical purposes, the issue was shifted to the back burner.
Sweeping serious corruption allegations under the carpet rather than acting on them has proven to be the preferred choice of the federal government. The war against corruption has been mostly cosmetic, with minor accomplishments being overblown in the media while major issues are ignored.
The Senate investigation of the I.D. Card Scheme was not the only legislative probe into corruption that dissipated into nothingness.
1. The “Idris Kuta Report” on corruption in the Senate itself was buried. The report implicated many Senators in criminal abuse of office.
2. The federal executive was accused of bribing members of the legislature, and bags of money were presented as evidence. That too has been buried with no further action. Nobody in the legislature or the executive was investigated.
3. Recently, a federal cabinet minister gave evidence before a Senate panel. Nasir El-Rufai accused two Senators of demanding bribes from him in exchange for their support during his confirmation process. Either El-Rufai was lying under oath, in which case he should be dismissed from the cabinet and prosecuted, or the accused Senators were guilty of the accusation, in which case they should be thrown out of the Senate and prosecuted. But the Senate has swept the issue under the carpet, and nothing has come of it.
While these major allegations arose in the halls of the legislature, the institutions responsible for investigating and prosecuting criminal activity (including but not limited to the Nigerian Police Force and the Ministry of Justice) are the constitutionally part of the executive branch. While the Obasanjo government continued to talk a lot about fighting corruption, they have in practice joined the legislature in ignoring these (and other) serious allegations.
In late 2003, two years after the Senate concluded its “investigations” into the I.D. Card Scheme, the government finally acted. Officials were sacked, arrested, and prosecution promised against the leading figures in the conspiracy. So what changed recently, what has given rise to the sudden flurry of activity?
What changed is the British discovered the conspiracy and presumably informed the Nigerian government of their discovery. British security agents detained the suspect in London, on suspicion that the man was laundering terrorist funds. The man, aware of the danger of being deemed a terrorist, told them everything about the vast sum of money he was handling. The money was part of the loot from years of fraud at the Nigerian National I.D. Card Scheme. Presumably the British shared this information with the Nigerian government – and suddenly the Nigerian government leapt into action to prove its anti-corruption credentials. It would be difficult for President Obasanjo to give speeches about his “anti-corruption war” to international meetings (e.g. the G-7, Davos, the London and Paris creditor groups, etc) if the British delegates knew for a fact that he knew about the fraud in the I.D. Card Scheme (because they told him) and he had done nothing about it.
In a similar case months ago, the government’s publicists made a big fuss in the media when a Nigerian federal tax official was arrested. The officer had accepted a US$2.4 million bribe from the Nigerian subsidiary of Halliburton, and American corporation. In exchange for the bribe, this official helped Halliburton evade US$5 million in Nigerian taxes. But the Nigerian government’s move came only after the USA’s Securities and Exchange Commission had discovered the crime and made their findings public. With reports of the Halliburton/Nigeria tax-evasion scandal set to circulate in Washington D.C., in New York’s financial district, and in the American press, the Nigerian federal government made its move to arrest the Nigerian tax official involved.
This Is Not A War
What kind of anti-corruption war are we waging if we do not investigate and prosecute the major criminals unless a foreign country discovers the crime first? Throwing a few dozen minor figures into prison are raindrops compared to the ocean we are supposed to be fighting. Is it a war if the major figures are untouchable, in many cases protected by the government itself, until a foreign country embarrasses us into acting more to protect good media publicity rather than as part of a coordinated anti-corruption effort?
I suspect that the only reason they suddenly exploded into action on the Halliburton and National ID Card cases is the fact that they are keen to make the USA and Britain believe they are fighting corruption. So when those countries accidentally discover corruption in Nigeria, the government rushes to act.
But from the perspective of Nigeria’s national interests, this mentality is self-defeating in a country that needs a war against corruption. Britain only found out about the National ID Card scam because they were worried about terrorism. And the United States only discovered the Halliburton bribe because their SEC was forced by the Enron Scandal into a public relations exercise to convince the public that it was doing its job. It is not the job of these countries to investigate, discover and prosecute Nigerian corruption on Nigeria’s behalf. If our alleged anti-corruption “war” is based on waiting for foreign countries to do the work, then we are not fighting. There is no way to win this fight if we can not discover things ourselves.
Ironically, Nigerians have proven that we are capable of investigating and discovering instances of major league corruption. The “Idris Kuta Report” showed that even the do-nothing Senate was capable of discovering corruption if it put its mind to it. The Nigerian media exposed governors and legislators who deliberately lied (fraud) on their application forms. Even the much-maligned Nigerian Police Force has proven capable of investigating and solving major crimes. But the Kuta Report was buried. And as far as the fraudulent forms go, an exposed legislator resigned, but a major a governor who was dragged to court on the issue simply raised the salaries of judges in his state and gave them new cars – the judges then decided that case against him was unconstitutional.
LETHARGY, SLUGGISHNESS, AND INACTION
On the rare instant when investigations are carried to their full and logical conclusion, the Obasanjo government has proven very sluggish and lethargic in its response. The federal government only acts on these reports when external stimulus and/or pressure force them to. They do this even in purely domestic settings, and not just under the pressure of seeking good publicity in the international arena.
The Nwazota Commission of Inquiry into the collapse of the Nigerian Airways submitted a strong report that pointed fingers, named names, and indicted suspects. Again, it should be noted that everyone indicted is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. But the brilliant thing about this report is that we investigated a problem area (Nigerian Airways collapse), isolated suspects (the men ordered to refund money), and leveled charges against them – and all of this was done publicly, in full view of Nigerian citizens. This is good. This is rare. This is how an anti-corruption war should be fought.
But the same slowness, sluggishness and inexplicable delay makes one question the seriousness of the government. The federal government dragged its feet on the Nigerian Airways Inquiry Report, delaying the release of the Commission’s report (and taking no action on the report) until external pressure was applied on them, forcing them to act. For months various Nigerians kept calling on the government to release the report, to act on the report. Given the fact that most such “reports” are buried and never heard from again, it is not surprising that Nigerians feared the government was using time-tested tactics – delay long enough, and people will forget about it (as has happened to other reports).
The government did not need all that time to “analyze” the Nwazota Report. If the war against corruption was a central priority, as the government never tires of telling us, then the government would move FAST in reaction to ordinary allegations, much less full investigative findings. It is not even a question of protecting possibly innocent people; that is what we have courts of law for! When any government agency accuses any citizen of a crime, that citizen gets to hire a defense lawyer and argue against the government in a court of law. That is where determinations of guilt and innocence should be made, and not in the federal cabinet. If the police or any investigative agency presents prima facie evidence of corruption or mismanagement, due process should be automatic, not subject to some review by dubious politicians.
The Nwazota Report was finally released (after months of pressure) without anyone being punished by the government. This is important to note, because early in the first term of the Obasanjo II administration, the President sacked the independent Auditor-General of the Federation. The man’s crime? Releasing his audit report to the public. The report implicated every government ministry and the Presidency itself in gross mismanagement of public funds. The president, enraged by the public release of the report (in a democracy), sacked the Auditor-General and replaced him with a more pliant “yes-man”. In that one act (an act that eliminated any credibility the Office of Auditor-General had to begin with), the government showed itself willing to at least try to bury unfavourable reports. This is not a sign of a regime that intends to fight corruption in government.
The focus of the external pressure groups has shifted to a document known as “The Pius Okigbo Report”. The report compiles the results of an investigation into allegations that US$12 billion dollars in windfall oil revenue accrued during the First Gulf War (in 1991) mysteriously vanished. The external pressure groups are trying to force the government into releasing the Okigbo report to the Nigerian citizenry. So far, the government says it can not find the report. What sort of uninterested, unconcerned answer is that from a government that claims fighting corruption is its number one priority? The report was handed to somebody, it was somebody’s job to read it, and it was somebody’s job to store it (and copies of it) somewhere – in fact, multiple “somebodies” must have received, read, handled, and stored the document. Has the government detained or questioned these people? Has the government presented them with the stark choice of revealing what they did with the document or facing criminal trial for “withholding” or “destroying” evidence? And how about adding criminal conspiracy to the charges, on the assumption that they were paid to “lose” the files? Does the government not feel embarrassed that the best answer they have is “we can not find it”, like some sort of schoolboy who forgot his homework? And if the report has indeed magically vanished without a trace, what stops the government from collecting sworn affidavits from the members of the investigating Commission, detailing some of their findings? Has the government decided to reconstruct the report from the Commission notes and material? In almost five years of administration, has the government even tried to sincerely and seriously find out what happened to US$12 billion in public funds?
THEY WERE NEVER SERIOUS ABOUT IT
From the start, General Obasanjo’s “anti-corruption” war never seemed fully sincere. He launched a strong, thorough and praiseworthy push to recover Sani Abacha’s stolen loot – but he refused to heed calls from the citizenry asking for his government to investigate former president Ibrahim Babangida. From a public perception standpoint, it looked very dubious. Babangida was one of the chief sponsors of Obasanjo’s 1999 presidential campaign, while Abacha had imprisoned Obasanjo and threatened him with execution. The man he was investigating was his bitter enemy, and the man he was refusing to investigate was his political ally. This is not a good way to start a campaign against corruption. From that moment, it began to look like the “anti-corruption” drive was going to be selective in its progress, if it progressed at all.
Obasanjo famously said he would not investigate Babangida until the ordinary Nigerian citizens (not the police or any professional investigative body) brought him conclusive proof of any act of financial impropriety by Babangida. One could argue that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with President Obasanjo asking Babangida’s detractors to provide proof before a government investigation could be launched. In a constitutional society, the government should not just arbitrarily investigate citizens for no reason, or out of spite. However in the specific context of the Obasanjo-led war on corruption, this logic flies out of the window.
Obasanjo did not wait for Nigerian citizens to prove beyond reasonable doubt that there was corruption in the Nigerian Airways management before he constituted the Nwazota-led Commission of Inquiry into the management of the Nigerian Airways. President Obasanjo formed the commission because the nature of the collapse of Nigerian Airways was (in and of itself) a self-evident fact that would inspire any rational human being to investigate. There are enough self-evident facts about the Babangida administration, enough to prompt any rational human being to initiate an investigation, and yet the President has done nothing.
Likewise, the president did not wait for Nigerian citizens to present conclusive proof of Abacha’s guilt before he launched his exhaustive probe of everything related to Abacha. The entire pool of politicians in the current democratic era (including Obasanjo) justifies and defends their leadership with the oft-repeated assertion that all of Nigeria’s problems and difficulties were caused by “15 years of corrupt military government”. It was on this assumption, and not on any proof presented by Nigerian citizens, that President Obasanjo launched his probe of the defunct Abacha regime. Well, actually, the president is not probing the Abacha “regime” – he is mostly just probing Abacha’s family. The only other members of the Abacha regime facing serious criminal investigation and prosecution are Abacha’s alleged assasins (including men like Bamaiyi and Al-Mustapha); these men are being investigated more for murder than for corruption. Had they not (allegedly) killed anyone, they would be walking free like the rest of the Abacha regime’s stalwarts.
But more to the point of this section of the essay, if Obasanjo and all the rest of the politicians blame Nigeria’s problems on “15 years of corrupt military rule”, are they not all effectively accusing Ibrahim Babangida of corruption? Those “15 years” are made up of eight years of Babangida, and seven years of other people. So statistically speaking, Obasanjo (and the politicians) believe Babangida is personally responsible for more than half of all the problems facing Nigeria today.
So why no investigation? Why has Obasanjo spent five years repeating his unconvincing excuse for not probing his political ally (and possible successor)?
In reality, of course, Nigeria’s problems with bad government started from independence. But based on Obasanjo’s own interpretation of Nigeria’s problems, his alleged “war on corruption” initially looked like no more than a personal vendetta against people he does not like. Not to mention the fact that most of the politicians who cry the most about “15 years of corrupt military rule” in fact were beneficiaries of that same military rule.
WILL THEY EVEN BE PROSECUTED?
As it stands, the Obasanjo regime’s “War on Corruption” is not very convincing. Yes, they have recorded a few major successes, but only when external influences prompt (some might say “force”) them into action. Otherwise, they are content to look the other way, beating about the weeds while the plantations lay ignored.
One wonders if the suspects in the Nigerian Airways and the I.D. Card scandals will even be prosecuted. The government tends to make a lot of noise in the media when they are sacking or arresting people for corruption, but then it very quietly does nothing further against them. The Minister of Justice famously entered a nolle prosequi in one previously high-profile case (essentially saying the government has decided not to prosecute any further), and another high-profile member of the government was sacked during the first term (allegedly for corruption) and then reappointed to government for the second term (with no explanation given). And after hounding Abacha’s son from pillar to post, the government made a “deal” with him and with the Abacha family. No further prosecution, provided they get their hands on some of the money (the deal provides for the Abacha family to keep some of it).
The only way to be certain of prosecution would be to keep up serious and heavy public pressure on them. The government is basically sluggish and unmoving, except under pressure. They have given plenty of resources to the Bola Ige murder (assassination) case because the powerful Lagos-Abeokuta-Ibadan newspapers have not given them room to hide. But in other assassination cases with less media attention (notably the Odunayo Olagbaju case, the Ogbonnaya Uche case, and the Marshall Harry case), the investigation has lacked the same strength and depth. The media forced the resignation of one member of the House of Representatives for fraud on his application form, but a state governor was allowed to remain in office after committing the same crime because the media was much less interested. Recently there was a surge of activity from the government that resulted in the arrest of Hammani Tidjani, the notorious Beninois accused of cross-border armed robbery. I welcomed the arrest, looked forward to the trial, but wondered why the government waited until Lagosians and other citizens in the southwest were crying out in protest against cross-border crime before they did anything. Oddly enough, there were commentators even more cynical than I was; in their view it was a robbery attack on a convoy of cars including the president’s daughter (an attack that may have been blamed on Tidjani) that finally moved the government to respond.
If our government tells us they are passionately committed to doing certain things (like fighting corruption), why do we have to go out of our way to force them to actually do it ourselves or wait for external stimulus from outside the country?
The Olusegun Obasanjo government will have to do a lot more before I am convinced of their alleged desire to eradicate corruption. And it does not look good. This “democracy” of ours is very strange. Nobody feels obliged to obey the constitution, and there are no consequences for unconstitutional behaviour. For almost two years now, the state governments have refused to hold local government elections, openly disobeying the constitution. But there has been no penalty, and life continues as usual as if nothing wrong is happening. Our “leaders” do not feel obliged or required to do anything that we expect of them. Fiscal management at the federal level is poor. The federal government did not have a budget for two out of five years, and (by its own admission) did not comply with or implement the budget in the three years that it had a budget!
And the arrest of senior cabinet officials in the ID Card Scandal indicates that after five years, the government has still not figured out a way to screen appointees for high office; and that is assuming they were even interested in proper screening to begin with. If the suspects are proven guilty, what are we to make of the fact that they were selected for offices, investigated, and approved? What confidence are we meant to have in the other appointees? Worst of all, if the British had not detained one of their alleged co-conspirators in the I.D. Card Scandal, would we (the citizens) have ever known anything about it?
Call me a skeptic, call me a cynic, but as of right now I am not convinced by the current regime’s claims to be waging a war against corruption. Nigeria needs leaders committed to aggressively pursuing the fight before we can look to the future with confidence that Uhuru (freedom) from binds of excessive corruption and fiscal/financial mismanagement can be achieved. We do not have that now.
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