Corruption: A Challenge To Nigerians And Civil Society Organizations -By Kennedy Emetulu

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Kennedy Emetulu

Kennedy Emetulu


The above is a Facebook update by my friend and brother, Professor Moses Ochonu, an uncommon patriot and public intellectual of no mean repute. I made a response below I want to share as an article. I have given it the above title, because that’s exactly what it is – a challenge to Nigeria-focused civil society organizations concerned with good governance and the rest of us who call ourselves informed Nigerians.

Moses, my brother, I wish I can agree with you here, but, no, it’s not true, at least not completely so. Let me explain:

You see, the poisoned political atmosphere you speak of – the one in which certain groups feel excluded and therefore feel the need to “protect our thief” from being held accountable – is more of a convenient excuse than an impediment. The real impediment is the political establishment which within itself has reached a consensus to use the fight against corruption as a fraudulent political message to continue to recycle themselves in power.

From the moment of the stabilisation of military intervention in politics post-First Republic until now, the establishment strategy has always been the same – to use the people’s anti-corruption sentiment as a stepping stone to power and to use that same sentiment to remain in power while incubating corruption as an instrument of state policy and the lifeblood of the brand of politics they practice. I mean, the first excuse we always heard after the martial music was that the soldier boys were taking over because the civilian or military regime they were overthrowing was corrupt. But once they are in, they quickly introduce their own brand of corrupt government until some other group of military adventurers come in to get them out and so on.

Again, since the stabilization of democratic rule in the Fourth Republic, the most high profile issue all the governments have had to deal with has been corruption, just as it was under the various military governments since General Yakubu Gowon to the short-lived General Abdulsalami Abubakar regime. As always, whether under the military or civilian dispensation, what we get in terms of government’s response has always been the establishment of some kind of body or institution whose whole existence and operation depend on those in Dodan Barracks or Aso Rock who appointed them, be they in form of the various military tribunals to try corrupt cases under military rule or the ICPC or EFCC under civilian rule – all serving the interest of the government in power at the time of their appointment and/or existence.  Thus, rather than treat corruption like the normal crime it is that has to be dealt with under extant laws in an institutionally wholesome way, we get ICPC or EFCC (like the military tribunals of military rule) end up treating the matter as some ad-hoc issue needing showpiece solutions. What all this means is that whether under the military or civilian regimes, the anti-corruption battle becomes so politicized that it loses its bite and essence.

Now, recall that I stated above that your position is not completely true, which invariably means it is not completely untrue. However, to the extent it’s true, it only relates to what you consider as the problem itself being more of a symptom. In essence, my position is that the coagulation of ethnic sentiments around the fight against corruption is not the problem, but a symptom of the problem I have expatiated on above. The system is rigged fundamentally to be corrupt and to be run by corrupt people who pretend to be interested in fighting corruption, but who are really its defenders within the system. In fact, their survival as leaders  within the system is dependent on how savvy they are at protecting the whole corrupt edifice from the anti-corruption sentiments of the people. For instance, despite the harsh words against corruption by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu in announcing the coming of the military into government in January 1966, successive military regimes did nothing against corruption. They simply embraced it and used the same supposedly corrupt faces of the First Republic to run their own governments. At least that was the case with Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi and Gowon’s regimes.  The General Murtala Muhammed regime that ran strongly on anti-corruption sentiments was quickly cut short by the same corrupt consensus in leadership and in its place, the General Olusegun Obasanjo military regime that masqueraded as a continuation of the Murtala regime simply reverted back to the corruption-sanctioning status quo, which unsurprisingly produced the grossly corrupt Second Republic, which again was a sitting duck for the military in the form of the Muhammadu Buhari military intervention.

At this juncture, it is important to closely examine the forces at play between the time of the Buhari and the General Ibrahim Babangida takeovers. The establishment consensus that produced the Buhari military regime was one that was based on the two-pronged reason of the military seeking a return to power based on the anti-corruption sentiment of the people and the North trying to retain power in the face of a failing civilian leadership led by Northern elements in the Second Republic. But for the first time, the first part of that first consensus was not the driving factor behind the Babangida military takeover. Instead, the consensus that brought Babangida to power was fashioned around human rights. Why, because the Buhari regime grossly politicized and ethnicized the fight against corruption to the extent that it became a human rights issue against the government. That was why Babangida was able to in his 8 years at the helms do things that make people say he institutionalized corruption in government, but the other side of that coin is that Buhari ethnicized it. Buhari’s lopsided appointments in favor of the North, his visceral fight against the political leaders of Yorubaland and the South in the name of anti-corruption , his largely nepotistic and ethnically-driven policy of import license distribution and his war against the press seen largely as a war against the ‘Southern press’ all helped to calcify in the minds of the ordinary people of the South the idea that ethnicity remained the core factor in the exercise of political power and in the distribution and acquisition of political patronage. This was a new consciousness post-Civil War, because the tone and to a great extent the practice of government since after the “No Victor, No Vanquished” declaration after the war had been largely based on a national, rather than regional outlook. But the 20-month military regime of Muhammadu Buhari brought back the old ethnic fears and insecurities.

Realizing the danger of this turn of event for the national establishment consensus, Babangida and his boys intervened, said and did the right things with regard to press freedom and human rights, but slipped under the radar the notion that a government that looks national in composition has to be sustained by an intricate web of corruption controlled by persons from all over the country, but loyal to the man at the top.  Babangida simply worked on the notion that corruption has no tribal marks. The early popularity of his regime and the revulsion and contempt in which the Buhari regime was held were exactly the result of the clash of these two consciousnesses amongst Nigerians. They realized for the first time that military rule can be tribal and viscerally anti-national with Buhari and also learnt by the middle period of the Babangida regime, especially after he had declared himself President, that military rule could be as corrupt or worse than civilian rule.

Babangida’s strategy of imposing his own type of consciousness on the people was to set up systems of narratives that were meant to redefine national objectives through such institutions as MAMSER. Also, knowing that he faces opposition from the establishment that naturally would oppose a one-man redefinition of the national consensus, Babangida went about trying to sweep away the political establishment en masse by introducing into the Nigerian political lexicon the term “Old Brigade”. He established it in the press, stigmatized it and used his then prevailing narrative to indicate that the old politicians were collectively the problem of the nation. This populist narrative immediately placed them at loggerheads with others he described as “Newbreeds” (who are mostly Babangida’s minions, propped up in his years in power through the operative mechanics of his corrupt system). The whole political program of a supposed return to civil rule became a plaything in Babangida’s hand as he schemed to get himself transmute from a military to a civilian president on the back of the so-called Newbreeds and for which purpose he actually created two political parties as the only national political parties, complete with the ideological trappings of “a little to the right”  (NRC) and “a little to the left” (SDP).

So, one thing the Babangida regime did was to intellectually invest in his vision of a national future to be headed by him once he puts away his army uniform. He had several think-tanks secretly headed by respected academics and political leaders going round the world, especially Latin America, to find a type of political system that will make his idea of a diarchy acceptable to the West as a democracy, including toying with the idea of creating a “National Guard”, which is supposed to be his own private army, in case the traditional military undermines his transmutation agenda. But, of course, the Nigerian people had had enough of his dribbling. As much as he had a good grip of the establishment, he failed to realise that the social forces generated by his policies had the political effect of making Nigerians begin to doubt the direction he was taking the nation. The June 12 election became a coagulant of all the anti-military, anti-Babangida and pro-democracy forces. He himself could not survive the fallout of the election annulment, but he left the nation in the hands of another character, General Sani Abacha who had the temperament of a Muhammadu Buhari in terms of his abhorrence of human rights and a cruder Babangida character in terms of corruption. Being at the centre of most of Babangida’s corrupt subornation and buying of military constituencies in order to remain in power for all his eight years, especially after the Gideon Orkar coup of April 22nd 1990, Abacha was a man deeply knowledgeable about the psyche of the Nigerian establishment. He took the individualization of government and the brutalization of the people to a different level and in all that corruption was his handmaiden.

The deaths of MKO Abiola and Sani Abacha paved the way for the establishment to quickly attempt to rebuild the pro-corruption consensus that had held their ruling structure together since the end of the First Republic. Just as they wheeled in Obasanjo in 1976 to sell the idea to the South that they are part of the national project, while they looted the nation blind, they brought him in again and imposed him on the pro-democracy narrative and as president, he simply did what he was imposed there to do, which is be the figurehead and political protector of the national corruption racket masquerading as leadership. But his experience in Abacha’s gulag brought out a dictatorial aspect of him that he couldn’t show as a military Head of State. However, his attempt at getting a Third Term was quickly quashed by the establishment, leaving him with the consolation of choosing the president after him. He chose the ailing Umaru Yar’Adua, the brother of his military lieutenant, Major-General Shehu Yar’Adua who had died in Abacha’s gulag in Abakaliki. As Vice President, he chose the unremarkable Goodluck Jonathan who had served his purpose as a buffer (along with Peter Odili) against the restive governors of the South-South region. His whole programme was to be able to run the government from behind the scenes. Yar’Adua quickly killed that idea by joining forces with his political enemies within the PDP as led by James Ibori and Tony Anenih.

When Yar’Adua died, Obasanjo thought his strategy of controlling things from behind the scenes was still the program in place as the then Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan was largely seen as his creation. But soon, Jonathan too sought to be his own man and on that count became a mortal enemy of Obasanjo. The return of Muhammadu Buhari, much like the return of Obasanjo himself, had nothing to do with the shout for change. It was a return to the industrial-military complex consensus that had held the Nigerian establishment together since the end of the First Republic. Jonathan was an irritant, a fly in their ointment. He was a man from the South-South, a minority and no matter how good or bad he was, they knew they can get him out by harking to the same ethnic sentiments of yesterday. It was therefore no surprise to see the creation of a majoritarian oligarchy in the form of the concert within the APC between the “North” and the “West” to get Jonathan out. While some Nigerians and the rest of the world were busy celebrating this as some kind of historical accomplishment in the form of this being the first time a sitting civilian government would be ousted by an opposition party at the centre in Nigeria, to discerning people, nothing has changed except the consensus within the establishment to return to the pro-corruption consensus masquerading as an anti-corruption leadership with the face of Muhammadu Buhari.

Thus, while you are right to say the pro-corruption ethnic protection mentality prevalent in the poisoned political atmosphere will only intensify with the current trend of regionally unbalanced appointments, what you need to note is that these things are not accidental. They are well-worked plans by a section of the ruling establishment to get one over the other. For Buhari, this is his opportunity to prove to those that overthrew him that he is savvier in the political game of transmuting from military to civilian while perpetrating his pet idea of ethnic and regional hegemony. I mean, for thirty years that Buhari had been out of power, he had spent the time looking inward, rather than looking out.  He had spent that time being the mouthpiece of “Northern Nigeria” than being the mouthpiece of Nigeria. Buhari’s understanding of why he lost power in 1985 is based on the notion that it was an internal Northern betrayal that cost him the leadership, rather than a Nigerian ferment. He therefore went about trying to get back by winning that North through subterfuge, propaganda and deployment of the worst form of ethnic politicking, including violence. There was a reason why in 2003, 2007 and 2011, Buhari hardly sought the Southern vote while creating and recreating political contraptions to claim power at the centre. The idea was to create a narrative around the idea of the North returning to power as a matter of right and for him to be established as the natural inheritor. Jonathan winning in 2011 helped solidify that narrative on the back of the death of Umaru Yar’Adua. In 2015, all Buhari needed was a political union or alliance with a section of the West or South-East and he would be home and dry. Bola Tinubu provided him that platform and he’s now president. But while people like Tinubu were working on a national consensus in which the West and the North would control things without showing any obvious ethnic agenda to the rest of the country, Buhari has no scruples picking up his old playbook and making this a return to the Northernization of Nigerian politics to the chagrin of people like Tinubu and a lot of his supporters in the South and even in the North.

Buhari’s resolve to probe only the Jonathan government and his unwillingness to publicly declare his assets should have given the game away to discerning followers of politics; but, no, a lot of people are still living in denial. They cannot believe that the whole resources put behind the change movement to get Buhari there can be tossed aside by this backward wish to return power to a section of the country, especially as it seems quite unworkable in a sophisticated polity like modern-day Nigeria. Yet, the problem is very basic. A lot of those who fought hard to establish the change movement assume a level of non-existent political sophistication for people they fought for to champion the change. They failed to look at the history of their national political encounters to understand the impulses driving political action at every point in time. Just so they understand, we are back to 1985 and Buhari in agbada or suit does not change the agenda. True, he will have to navigate some democratic ‘obstacles’ to get his agenda established, but that is what he is committed to and no amount of weeping and wailing on the sidelines by the opposition or scandalized supporters will change this. For now.

So, Professor Ochonu, that is the problem – an establishment that understands that in their fight for power amongst themselves, they can use anti-corruption rhetoric to get there; an establishment totally committed to entrenching corruption as an instrument of state policy, whether the man there is Obasanjo or Buhari. Goodluck Jonathan understood that corruption was a problem, but he was an establishment outsider who did very little to shore up his political base while in office. He was not forceful enough to impose himself on his own policies and back them up, even though he understood that corruption needs to be fought institutionally, rather than selectively. He himself was too weak to jettison persons generally considered as corrupt and he was unable, in fact unwilling to fashion an anti-corruption policy driven by his own party. In the end, while his not-so-robust handling of the Boko Haram insurgency swept away a lot of the political goodwill he had, he could not build any political capital with his actual policy achievements as everything was seen through the prism of corruption.  Of course, Jonathan knew how much the public perception of his government as corrupt was costing him, but he erroneously believed that the establishment pro-corruption consensus was going to save him. After all, he did not touch the sacred cows and in fact, gave them a lot of room to fester. Jonathan did not understand that he never wore a khaki apart from for ceremonial purposes. He did not understand that he was seen as an interloper in the establishment game of succession.

This was why it was easy for the then opposition to tag him “clueless”. It made the accusation against him that he was leading the most corrupt government Nigeria had ever seen seem true, especially when sold with the sternly austere face of a General Muhammadu Buhari whose twin agenda was anti-corruption and security. Therefore, we can see that the reason Buhari will not succeed in a supposed fight against corruption is not because of certain groups wanting to protect their own thieves based on some ethnic sentiments, because such sentiments neither formulate nor control the execution of policies, especially if we have a government with the requisite political will. The problem is with the ruling establishment itself. It has a consensus to entrench corruption as an instrument of state policy while paying lip service to it in addressing the people. Buhari is playing from that script, while using the opportunity to pursue his pet ethnic power perpetuation project. Buhari is aware he is too old now to fight a long political battle, but his mission is to install as many of his Northern compatriots in strategic places within government from where he hopes they would be in position to perpetuate the domination in years to come. In other words, Buhari is making the mistake of 1984-1985, but he is convinced this time it will work, because there is a consensus within the Northern establishment in support of this and the chances of a military coup is remote. To ensure that progressive Northern elements who’d want to play the national card are silenced while this is on, he sends a message to them with the persecution and prosecution of the former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki.

I can go on and on with the above analysis by raising several historical examples in terms of actions and so on, but it won’t serve much purpose. It’s enough that whoever has patiently read me up to this point so far understands where I’m coming from. What I’m saying is not speculation. These are real facts based on a thematic reading of the history of our political development so far in relation to how we and our leaders view the issue of corruption. The long and short of it is that the ordinary people are seen as the eternal mugus of the establishment and one of the ways this deceit is entrenched is for us to be focusing on the symptoms, rather than the problem. For instance, if we begin to believe the view here innocently expressed by you that the biggest impediment to fighting corruption in Nigeria is a poisoned political atmosphere in which certain groups feel excluded and therefore feel the need to “protect our thief” from being held accountable, we lose sight of the real problem. This is because rather than this being the problem, it is a function of anti-corruption political conditioning resulting from many years of certain ruling members of the establishment fighting corruption selectively. I mean, think about it, who determines who is corrupt in Nigeria when those adjudicating on corruption are themselves corrupt and products of corruption? I know that this sounds somewhat populist, but what I want to bring out here is that a system that is designed not to deliver justice but to deliver political outcomes in favour of those in power is a corrupt system that cannot legitimately indict anyone of corruption. Is it the Ibrahim Lamorde EFCC we expect to prosecute cases with the aim of delivering justice? What justice do we expect from a Buhari government that has declared ab initio its determination to fight corruption selectively, even as we note that within the government itself abound several arrowheads of corruption? In the fight against corruption, justice must not only be done, it must be seen to have been done.

I know that it’s easy to bore people silly with talk about Nigerian corruption. Indeed, most people are fatigued by the endless analyses going on in the public space while the problem balloons daily. Over the years, some of us have proposed what we consider workable solutions to the problem of corruption, but because we are not in a position to implement them and those in authority will never implement them and the people themselves have never mustered the solidarity to play their role in the implementation, we have all remained on the same spot twiddling our fingers. Long before the election, I proposed that corruption should be off the campaign agenda. The reason was that I felt none of the two main political parties were in a position to develop and implement a credible and workable anti-corruption programme based precisely on the analysis I gave above. Where the national consensus within the ruling establishment is to continue to entrench corruption as an instrument of state policy, the people must not listen to their glib talk during elections, because no matter the story they buy, they are on a hiding to nothing.

I had proposed that civil society groups and the ordinary people should draw up an anti-corruption agenda, sell it amongst the people via a real campaign and once the consensus has been reached through the gathering of public signatures, impose it on the political parties as the people’s own anti-corruption consensus. At the time, I was proposing that such a consensus should be handed to the then sitting National Conference, the National Assembly, the Presidency, the Nigerian Police, the National Judicial Council and then the political parties. That way, we shatter the national pro-corruption consensus within the establishment and impose a people’s anti-corruption program on the political parties, so that whoever wins the election would be bound to implement it. Of course, no one gave it a second look. In the end, we voted for Buhari under the banner of change, but here we are now, twiddling our fingers still….

Yet, this proposal can still work now if we are serious as a people. The point is we do not need Buhari or his government to approve our actions as members of civil society organizations or ordinary Nigerians interested in taming the monster of corruption. Let us start by building coalitions as members of civil society groups, let’s work out a consensus on how we want the fight against corruption to be prosecuted, the institutions of state we want to be involved and the outcomes we expect. We need to totally make Aso Rock irrelevant in the matter, because dependence on Aso Rock means gross politicization of the matter. We do not have to reinvent the wheel. Our Criminal and Penal Codes are adequate to deal with corruption. Let’s learn from the people of Guatemala and Malaysia who today are out in force saying enough is enough on the matter of political corruption.  When the campaign begins and gathers momentum, the political establishment will sit up once they realize that this is the people’s agenda. Of course, we can work out the details of this campaign and tweak it as we go along, but I’m convinced it’s the way to go if we really want to save our country.