Refocusing the anti corruption war -By Ayo Olukotun

Filed under: National Issues |

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Once criticised as marking time, the Buhari administration appears to have gathered momentum lately, especially with respect to the anti-corruption war. Earlier in the week, for instance, President Muhammadu Buhari, let it be known that public officials who looted the national patrimony under the Jonathan administration, will be charged to court in a matter of weeks. Before this announcement, Buhari had unified the national accounting system by abolishing the unwholesome practice of keeping several accounts, some of which were hard to monitor. In the same connection, a gale of personnel restructuring is sweeping through the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, while follow-ups are being made to the decision to locate funds that were illicitly stored in foreign banks by political officers.

All of these commendable initiatives are in keeping with Buhari’s campaign promise to make both the anti-corruption war and the anti-insurgency plank, the centre piece of his policy interventions. I recall that Buhari had promised in his inauguration speech that his administration “shall strongly battle another form of evil that is worse than terrorism, namely, the evil of corruption, which attacks and seeks to destroy our national institutions and character”. The ongoing, accelerating interventions must be seen therefore, as a determined attempt by government to translate an important policy agenda into concrete deliverables and actual reforms beyond stated intentions.

Edifying as the recent surge of sanitising activities are, there is a need, if they must persist, and be more than flashes in the pan, to situate them in the context of a strategic and clearly articulated anti-corruption drive that can fire the imagination of the people. It should be observed in this respect that most of these policy steps pertain to attacking the consequences of corruption rather than locating its foundational causes, drivers, facilitators in order to prevent it. In other words, an anti-corruption agenda does not begin and end with sanctioning the perpetrators of corruption and impunity, important as that is.

The point being made here can be illustrated by drawing attention to the governmental culture of re-looting funds recovered either from overseas institutions or from the individuals who looted them in the first instance. In the same vein, we have witnessed under successive administrations, bizarre instances in which entire probe panels had to be probed because the process of probing had been severely compromised. Another way of putting this is to insist that while the fear of sanctions will act as a deterrent to those planning to engage in corrupt transactions, it fails to capture or deal with fundamental aspects of a malaise that has graduated into an ossified national culture.

Fighting the consequences of corruption rather than preventing it, is, as many countries have discovered, an expensive and time-consuming process especially in climes where the judicial process is fraught with loopholes and porous enough for culprits to either evade or postpone justice. We can note in passing, the large number of high profile politicians ostentatiously paraded by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to be followed by a prolonged abeyance masquerading as due process. Please note that some cases initiated in 2003, have yet to be concluded. The examples cited underline what one may call the publicity approach to fighting corruption; these are staged more or less as carnivals to titillate the public and give the impression that the scales of justice are being observed. But at the end of the day, nothing is heard about these long running cases, many of which die in the lurch.

Will it not have been more effective therefore, to opt for a preventive approach located in good governance, building accountable structures and institutions as well as closing opportunities for corrupt transactions? In this respect, it takes little imagination to see that the culture of corruption in our national life feeds on such dysfunctions as weak internal control systems; the obscene reward gap between those who hold public office and those who do not; social norms which validate corrupt behaviour; the monetisation of the political process, as well as weak enforcement capabilities.

There is also the fact that an insecure political elite, having failed to build a social security system that minimally guarantees social protection for all Nigerian citizens takes measures to protect itself from the vagaries of a system that does not ensure welfare for all. To amplify the last point, because schools do not work, public transport is rickety, electricity is provided in fits and starts, potable water is hard to come by, and the terrors of robbers and assassins are an ever abiding presence, the political elite creates personal security by stealing large amounts to insure themselves from the fallout of state decay.

Talking about the institutional drivers of corruption, is it not curious that a red flag is not waved when enormous amounts are spirited out of the system? Why is it that discoveries of large scale fraud are made only after they have occurred? Obviously, part of the problem is the perversion of the internal mechanisms designed to prevent abuse by those who operate them. That notwithstanding, we can gain further insight into these practices by drawing a distinction between grand corruption which occurs at the level of the system’s top hats and petty corruption involving comparatively small amounts perpetrated by the regular workforce. Examples of grand corruption can be seen in the award of huge contracts for public works such as road construction or the building of bridges, sometimes embarked upon, not for their intrinsic benefits, but because they answer to the demands of political operators for fast, large scale bucks.

To relate the point to the current campaign against corruption, it is not enough to recover stolen funds or charge culprits to court, it is equally important to understand through what processes and mechanisms the funds were stolen or diverted in the first instance. What we need therefore is a holistic look at a system which made it possible for over $150bn to be siphoned out in the space of a few years.

It is pertinent to enquire as well, whether anti-corruption is a pet project of Buhari or a national policy. If it is a national policy, then why are the state governors not buying into it? How many of them, even in states controlled by the ruling party, have started anti-corruption projects or made appointments into their cabinets a function of moral gravitas? Can an anti-corruption drive succeed if it is limited to the President without the collateral support of his party and the principal operators of subnational governments?

All of this is saying that while Buhari’s mark-up in the tempo of governance regarding the anti-corruption war is welcome, a lot more needs to be done to make it a national project and a lasting monument to revamp ethics. For example, there is a clear need for a social movement entrenched in the civil society, operating with the declared aim of marketing the anti-corruption agenda at the grass roots as mobilisation backup for Buhari’s efforts. That is not all. Anti-corruption policy with a heavy accent on corruption prevention must be married to evidence-based policymaking by enlisting the collective wisdom of our scholars and think thanks.