Voices of history 3: Buhari and the anti-corruption war fatigue, by Dan Agbese

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Thomas Erskine, a British lawyer, defended Thomas Paine on charges of alleged treason in absentia on the publication of his book, The Rights of Man. In his address to the court on December 18, 1792, Erskine, famous for his flowery language, said, “Methinks, I see this noble and puissant nation, not degenerated and drooping to a fatal decay but casting off the wrinkled skin of corruption to put on the vigour of her youth.”

            The “wrinkled skin of corruption” is the visible face of our country. Our rulers, before and since independence, have grappled with the challenge of casting it off and putting on the nation the “the vigour of youth.” Despite all that, corruption, according to Professor Chinua Achebe,  “…passed the alarming and entered the fatal stage and Nigeria will die if we keep pretending that she is only slightly indisposed.” 

            Someone has to save it post the January 15, 1966 majors who tweaked the beard of this monster. General Yakubu Gowon was ready to take on the task. The eradication of corruption was rated number three in the nine-point programme he planned to accomplish before unlocking the gates of democracy. He never got around to accomplishing it because his comrades removed him from office. 

President Shehu Shagari, the first civilian president after more than 14 years of military rule, approached the eradication of corruption as an ethical challenge. He launched an ethical revolution and created a ministry of national orientation to stem greed and graft. By the time he was removed from office, it had become almost obligatory to see his administration as roundly corrupt. 

Enter Muhammadu Buhari. He said of the Shagari administration: “The corrupt, inept and insensitive leadership in the last four years has been the source of immorality and impropriety in our society. ..we deplore corruption in all its facets.”

He proceeded to launch a frontal attack against corruption. Corruption and indiscipline were the two national afflictions he believed had created the mess he said the nation was in. He launched the war against both graft and indiscipline. We obeyed WAI. We learnt the virtues of orderliness in queuing up. End of gra-gra.

He believed in the capacity of the military to fight corruption through the military tradition by creating a harsh national environment in which it could not thrive. If the nation must truly cast off the wrinkled skin of corruption, it must dispense with the niceties of our common law and treat the war against it as a desperate act by a desperate nation facing the grim prospects of dying from it. The desperate situation required only high-handed and equally desperate measures for the nation to rid itself of corruption, the poisoner of honesty, decency and integrity in high places.

He dispensed with the niceties of our common law and stood the dictum that a man is presumed innocent until proven guilty on its head. All the former big men displaced from power and clamped into detention were presumed guilty of corruption; each man had to prove his innocence before the military tribunals handing out stiff guilty sentences like candies. The objective was to put such people out of circulation for a long time to give the country some reprieve. The fear of cheating the nation but rotting in jail would advise those with itchy fingers to tread the path of honesty and decency. This would be the beginning of the authentic process of eradicating corruption in our country.

But life is full of ironies. The same approach was adopted by the military to stamp out armed robbery. Our laws also have harsh provisions for thieves intended to frighten bad men and women and turn them into good men and women. Still, the court dockets bulge with cases of brazen thefts. The public execution of armed robbers did not stop armed robbery either. Armed robbery persisted until, in the normal course of human development, it moved to the next level as the current lucrative criminal business called kidnapping. 

Harsh punishments alone would not help the country throw off the wrinkled skin of corruption. The approach did not get to the root of corruption. Sir Ahmadu Bello said that corruption “…is a matter which springs from the very roots of human nature.” A war such as this must be anchored on national ethical re-orientation. The process must thus begin from the mind. Perhaps, Shagari had a point in launching his ethical revolution. An anti-graft war should combine punitive measures with reformative measures. Punishment alone has no impressive records in changing societies.

The EFCC’s anti-graft war has seen many former public officers dragged before the courts to answer for their sins against the nation. It has not stemmed the rising tide of corruption in the states. Successive state governors still help themselves to our common wealth and become wealthy. When they are dragged to the courts, they smirk and even laugh in our faces. Because we fail to see that they have become untouchable. Our public officers may be named but they cannot be shamed. Some of them who received a slap on the wrist, bounced back into public reckoning. The same society they cheated hailed them as heroes. 

Before he assumed office as president in 2015, Buhari said: “I will kill corruption before it kills Nigeria.” We could relate to his promise to kill corruption. We believed he would take up the anti-graft war from where he left off after his overthrow in August 1985. He shook up even the judiciary to show he meant business. 

Seven years later, two things have not happened. One, corruption has not shown it fears the new sheriff in town. Corruption is growing more, not less. The hope that under his watch, this nation will abandon the company of Bangladesh and move on as a clean, respectable nation, verges now on the hopeless. Corrupt cases unearthed by EFCC continue to throw ashes in the mouth of the president. 

The worst case so far is that of Ahmed Idris, accountant-general of the federation. His arrest by EFCC on May 16 managed to shock a nation inured to the perfidy of big men entrusted with positions of public trust and who in turn brazenly abuse that trust without consequences. The man was said to have stolen N80 billion. Further investigation by the commission put the figure traced to him at N174 billion. Yet, last week, he was allowed to go home. He was not charged by the same commission that broke down the doors to Senator Okorocha’s house to arrest for what, compared to Idris, is a pittance. A clear case of different strokes for different people; part of the ambivalence in prosecuting the anti-graft war in which justice is dispensed for reasons other than justice, fairness and the equality of all criminals before the law.

Two, Transparency International, the global anti-graft watchdog, still gives the anti-graft war the thumbs down. TI still ranks the country almost where it was before Buhari assumed office.

Buhari returned from an overseas trip a few days after Joshua Dariye and Jolly Nyame, former governors of Plateau and Taraba states respectively, were found guilty of corruption and jailed in 2018. He was so pleased that he assured the nation, “I will jail more treasury looters.” It is a promise so far unkept.

In April this year, the president outraged the nation when he granted both men state pardon and released them from jail. It was difficult for the nation to take it in. Did it signify a new thinking on the part of the president? Or perhaps, he was reminded of what General Ibrahim Babangida said about the purpose of punishment in his inaugural speech on August 27, 1985. He said: “The guilty should be punished only as a lesson for the future.” 

In his seven years in power, he has not done titanic things. But what is clear is that in that time he learnt to moderate his attitude towards corruption in what might be his education on the ways of men, women and corruption. Fatigue has set in in his anti-graft war. The fire of the anti-graft war is barely glowing in Buhari’s belly. It is disconcerting to see that some current and former public officers with palm oil dripping from their hands are among his close political allies. If the fire were hot in his belly, he would not have touched such people with a ten-foot pole. 

It is not strange. Reality dawns on leaders. Perhaps, Buhari now accepts the eternal verity of Chief Awolowo’s view that the “….eradication of corruption from any society is not just a difficult task; it is, without dispute, an impossible objective.” The anti-corruption war fatigue and ambivalence leave our dear country wrapped in the “wrinkled skin of corruption.” Public office is the immoral but clear route to corruption with impunity. Don’t waste your tears, brother.

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