No retreat on corruption, please

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MUTUALLY hostile forces are colliding in Nigeria. From his corner, President Muhammadu Buhari a fortnight ago re-stated his resolve to defeat corruption and fiscal impunity. Meeting with State House staff in Abuja, Buhari vowed to uproot fraud and recover stolen public funds. He repeated his promise not to spare anyone found to have plundered the treasury and assured upright officials of their safety. But a vigorous counter-attack is underway from rent-takers deploying legal acrobatics, propaganda and sabotage of oil infrastructure. The President should, however, not waver or compromise in this epochal struggle.

Corruption, is broadly defined across a spectrum – involving, but not limited to, bribes, illegal payments, embezzlement and money laundering – or as the abuse of public office for private gain. It distorts public finances, business investment and entrenches poverty. An extensive study in 2015 by PwC, a global consultancy, traced Nigeria’s low tax revenues of eight per cent of GDP, the lowest among its peers, to the impact of inefficient governance arising from corruption. Corruption, it said “allows for government expenditure in vested interests rather than public interest,” leading to poor infrastructure for businesses, education, health, water supply and sanitation.

According to Transparency International, corruption manifests as Grand Corruption, Petty Corruption and Political Corruption that includes government acts that distort policies, everyday abuse of entrusted power at all levels and manipulation of rules and institutions in the allocation of resources to sustain the wealth and power of a few. Recent revelations of how officials and generals dispensed with all the rules to take money from the central bank for personal enrichment present a worse picture than the US Commerce Department’s advisory a decade ago that 40 per cent of public procurement spending was creamed off. Under the Goodluck Jonathan Presidency, corruption ballooned to a level seen only in failed states. No wonder the country was ranked 57 out of 60 countries surveyed under the Best Countries ranking of US News and World Report in 2015.

Yet, despite the palpable stench of sleaze that has laid the country low, vested interests and an uninformed segment of the populace are tugging at the war on corruption. Buhari and the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Ibrahim Magu, should not be deterred by the propaganda, legal tricks and outright sabotage of detractors. Strict adherence to due process and the rule of law is dear to this newspaper, but we are yet to see any systemic violations so far in the ongoing investigations and prosecutions. On the contrary, we are concerned at the determination of highly politically exposed persons to continue to seek to manipulate the judicial system, drag cases for interminable periods and evade justice despite the Administration of Criminal Justice Act that aims to fast-track trials. The Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, and the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mahmud Mohammed, owe posterity a sacred duty to make it work.

One major plank of the anti-graft war is still missing: identifying and rooting out corrupt judges from the system. This is crucial to stopping the culture of contradictory rulings, injunctions and the purchase of judgements as alleged by eminent legal personalities such as the jurists, Kayode Eso (now deceased) and Samson Uwaifo, and Senior Advocates of Nigeria, Afe Babalola and Joseph Daudu.

The government’s information machinery should be more robust to rally the people behind the war and counter-accusations of anti-opposition bias in the prosecutions. The propaganda that some ongoing prosecutions have snagged only opposition party figures and their campaign funding is easily explained by the fact that investigators are only following the trail of the missing $15.1 billion arms procurement funds and other misdeeds, and have not launched an all-out probe of campaign funding. When you probe missing government funds, it is the political party operators in power at that time that need to explain, not the opposition that just replaced them in power.

Nigerians need to draw a line between the overriding public interest and party, regional, religious and ethnic solidarity. But for corruption, the fiscal buffers such as the $22 billion that was once in the Excess Crude Account and the huge sums earned from high oil prices between 2007 and mid-2014 would have benefitted a greater number of Nigerians irrespective of any affiliation. Today, combined unemployment is 24.1 per cent; less than 40 per cent of the population have access to potable water; poverty is over 60 per cent; infrastructure is pitiable and corrupt interests are alleged to be fuelling the new round of militancy and terrorism in the oil-bearing Niger Delta region.

We align fully with this commitment to probity and retribution for treasury looters. We are, however, bothered by the intensity of the push-back from some segments of the polity and their obtuse arguments, even as sensational details of the massive looting that took place in the last few years come to light. The government should forge ahead with its plan for special courts to try corruption cases and quickly reform the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission to match the renewed enthusiasm at the EFCC. Transparency should be paramount and there should be no sacred cows.

While we strongly urge Buhari not to neglect the economy, security and social services, we support fighting corruption as the cornerstone of his tenure. Nelson Mandela made national reconciliation and forging a “rainbow” nation the focus of his single four-year term as president to lay a solid foundation for a new multi-racial South Africa emerging from centuries of mutual enmity.  Singapore’s Lee Yuan Kew had to slay the dragon of corruption to lead the South-East Asian nation to the top of the global economic league table. Without suppressing corruption, development will continue to elude Nigeria and the objective of export diversification, industrialisation, job creation and game-changing Foreign Direct Investment will remain a pipe dream.

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