A damp muddle is hanging precariously over the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) regime’s war on corruption. Apart from the nasty allegations and counter allegations emerging from the Ayo Salami presidential panel probing the suspended acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Ibrahim Magu, inter-agency rivalry in the fight against corruption has returned to the fore. Discomfiting as the allegations are, they are generating more confusion because of the secrecy surrounding the probe of Magu and the top hierarchy of the EFCC. And by shocking coincidence, the staggering corruption scandal in the Niger Delta Development Commission is also exposing the inner workings of a government that rode to power on the promise to fight corrupt practices to a standstill. This atmosphere of hypothesising creates distrust among the public on the true intentions of the regime’s anti-graft war, but openness can extensively repair the damage.
Currently, Magu is before the Salami panel, answering questions on 22 allegations of graft, including owning mansions in Dubai, fiddling with the interest earnings on recovered loot and selling assets to his cronies. Other EFCC directors are not spared, with Buhari suspending 12 of them to pave the way for their probe. This is good, but it is just scratching the surface. As grave as these allegations seem, Nigerians are wary of jumping to conclusions because previous graft allegations against top public officials are eventually swept under the carpet. Separately, there are many accusations against the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, including the allegation that he sold five oil vessels forfeited to the Federal Government to a company that was under trial for oil theft. Malami, however, denied any wrongdoing. The Presidency says Nigerians should prepare for surprises.
Undeniably, corruption is a foremost enemy militating against Nigeria’s development. It is just too entrenched, permeating every aspect of society. Shortly after assuming office in 2015, Buhari said public officials looted $150 billion from the treasury in the 10 years to 2015. The stories are becoming worryingly repetitive, as corruption is still the order of the day on Buhari’s watch.
Incidentally, PwC, a global consultancy, warned that unless corruption was tackled comprehensively, it could cost Nigeria up to 37 per cent of GDP by 2030.
Definitely, all the major elements of corruption blight the Nigerian system. Petty corruption by low- and mid-level officials is ubiquitous. Arising from that is political and “grand corruption.” Politicians compromise the election process and loot the treasury brazenly. Several former governors and lawmakers are under corruption probes. Additionally, there is judicial corruption. The late Kayode Eso, a Justice of the Supreme Court, described some judicial officers as “billionaire judges” because of the bribery he noticed in election petitions tribunals. Things have changed in more ways.
Today, Buhari has been softened and weakened by the comforts of power. When he got into office, instead of taking charge of his critical campaign promises, he simply kicked the can down the road. His unchecked obsession of awarding jobs and other advantages to friends or trusted colleagues is the worst form of corruption. He is also not providing that ethical leadership either, which is critically needed for his change agenda. For Buhari to bequeath a legacy of cleanliness, the anti-graft fight needs to be deeper and better coordinated. One thing will make the anti-graft crusade work: ethical and incorruptible leadership from him. This compels a strategic initiative and a new beginning. Buhari should ensure that all those accused reasonably of corruption stepped aside for prosecution, exploiting the Administration of Criminal Justice Act to fast track their trials. Malami has become too embroiled in the investigation of the Magu-led EFCC. He should stand down from ministerial duties to allow unfettered investigations into the activities of all the agencies connected with the anti-graft crusade.
There are too many loose ends in the regime’s anti-corruption war. It behoves Buhari to streamline the team. As currently constituted, the EFCC and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission are too feeble to fight the ingrained graft and the entrenched interests in the polity. Buhari should instil institutional capacity in them by appointing individuals with unassailable credentials to head these agencies. He should take another look at his appointments to important positions like the Chief Justice, the Inspector-General of Police, the Attorney-General, the Auditor-General and other key positions that uphold the integrity of the institutions of government. These are key officers, essential for the government to function seamlessly without being subverted. In particular, the attorney-general and his office have a huge responsibility for the criminal justice system, Nigeria’s international standing and the rule of law. The ministry needs a complete overhaul.
The Buhari should constitute the EFCC board and headhunt capable candidates fit for the onerous jobs. The EFCC, the main anti-graft agency, should be insulated from the AGF’s office, reporting directly to the President.
Many countries have reviewed their anti-graft legal frameworks to make sure individuals are disallowed from getting away with proceeds of corruption. The law should put the burden of proof on the accused if he had more assets than his income as reported in his income tax returns, from his employment or business could have given him. He has to disprove the presumption of guilt that they were gained by corrupt means. In the United Kingdom, there are “unexplained-wealth orders,” which are part of the Criminal Finances Act 2017 that make it easier to seize the loot of crooked bureaucrats and con artists.
The Justice Salami-led presidential panel appears to be generating so much muckraking plus a dash of politics. In discharging its work, the panel should proceed cautiously and be shielded from coercion or manipulation. The only way Salami, the panel’s head, can retain his hard-earned integrity is to secure Buhari’s assurances that the panel’s full report will be made public.
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In all of this, so much depends on Buhari himself. He needs to live and be seen to live above board. As long as the core leadership is clean, any backsliding can be brought under control.