By Jerome-Mario Utomi

Public Forum




Corruption, speaking in absolutes terms, is but a human problem that has existed in some forms. Its fights also date back to colonial governments as they (colonial overlords) sufficiently legislated against it in the first criminal code ordinance of 1916 (No. 15 of 1916), which elaborately made provisions prohibiting official bribery and corruption by persons in the public service and in the judiciary. Also at independence on October 1, 1960, the criminal code against corruption and abuse of office in Nigeria were in sections 98 to 116 and 404 of the code.

What differs from one country to the other is the degree of political will dissipated to tackling the scourge. If objective analysis can replace emotional discussion, it becomes easy to signpost that, in Nigeria, as well as most countries in Africa, perception about corruption often tends to be strongly coloured by ‘national culture’ and tribal background of the personalities involved and their supporters.

An understanding of this development can add a vital dimension of realism and provide a link to why the fight in the country has been lost to the political winds. Right from independence in October 1960, feeble attempts made to curb corruption in the country were characterised by more of verbal pronouncements without unique architecture or thought process for action. What leaders lacked was the political will to fight corruption.

First, Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, who led the abortive coup of January 15, 1966, reportedly remarked: “The country’s greatest enemies are the political profiteers, swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 per cent, those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least; the tribalists, nepotists, those that make the country look for nothing before international setting, those that corrupted our society and put the national political calendar back to their words and deeds.” No one bothered to investigate this claim.

Similarly, as the most senior military officer after the Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu aborted coup in 1966, General Thomas Johnson Umunakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, the first military head of state, in his resolve to curb corruption, among other comments, declared that, “The military government will stamp out corruption and dishonesty in our public offices with ruthless efficiency and restore integrity and self-respect in our public affairs.” That statement only existed in the frames as he was later killed on July 29, 1966, in the bloody revenge coup.

Yakubu Gowon, who took over from Aguiyi-Ironsi, designed five main issues that his administration would handle, with the fourth focusing on ending corruption in the country. It, however, turned out to be a paradox of sorts as he was later accused of corruption while in office.

On the other hand, what appeared as a departure from the old order came the way of Nigerians in 1975 when Brigadier Murtala Muhammed, upon ascending the mantle of leadership, forfeited to the nation the property he acquired with the public funds as well as constituted the Pedro Martins Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau to, among other responsibilities, probe Gowon’s administration. Regrettably, this ‘revolution’ came to an abrupt end with his assassination.

After Muhammed’s assassination, the military appointed Olusegun Obasanjo, who, “against his will,” took over the mantle of the nation’s leadership as the head of the government. Following the 1979 election, Obasanjo handed over control of Nigeria to the newly elected civilian President, Shehu Shagari.

In my view, the impact of President Shagari’s fight against corruption was like others not seriously felt. Apart from his call on Nigerians to support his administration’s fight against corruption, he created the Ethical Re-orientation Committee and the Code of Conduct Bureau. These notwithstanding, his administration was seen as a period when incompetence and absence of rigorous accountability flourished and dishonesty was encouraged and rewarded.

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After the truncation of a democratically elected government on December 31, 1983, General Muhammadu Buhari, as the new head of state, while unfolding his plans to tackle social ills in the country, stated: “Corruption and indiscipline have been associated with our state of underdevelopment; this evil in our body politics has attained unprecedented heights in the past four years. We deplore corruption in all its facets –this government will not tolerate, inflation of contracts and over-invoicing of imports, etc., nor will it condone forgery, embezzlement, misuse and abuse of office and illegal dealing in foreign exchange and smuggling.’’

Essentially, it is not as if General Ibrahim Babangida did not make any effort to rid the nation of corruption, but such record remains sketchy as he said little and Nigerians are yet to stumble on a documented account of his achievements in that direction. Also, in his short stay as the head of the Interim National Government (ING), Chief Ernest Shonekan stated: “I am serving notice here and now of the determination of the Interim National Government to launch a crusade against corruption in public life. To this end, I shall strive to lead by personal example. The ING will also ensure that laws against corruption are enforced without fear or favour. Each and every one must be ready to expose corruption wherever it exists.’’

That comment, like every other, ended as a gospel without the truth as his government was sooner than expected declared illegal.

General Sani Abacha, another military head of state, in 1995, like his predecessors, raised a strong voice against corruption and other social ills, saying: “The twin evils of indiscipline and corruption have severely affected the social integrity of our society and have frustrated the great hopes of our people to genuine development.” However, Nigerians, after his demise, were shell-shocked to learn that monumental corruption flourished under the same man.

For General Abdulsalami Abubakar, his administration is often always described by Nigerians with critical minds as a regime without strategic insight or will to ending corruption in the country.

At the dawn of democracy in May 1999, President Olusegun Obasanjo that recorded a vague result in corruption fight as a military head of state in the late 1970s suddenly became an anti-corruption crusader, creating two anti-graft bodies, the Economic And Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC). The two bodies have at different points performed to the admiration of the global community. However, Obasanjo was later accused by the political class and the media of using the anti-graft bodies as an instrument for witch-hunting and political vendetta.

Not to say anything about President Umoru Yar’Adua’s effort will render this piece a one side-narrative as his short stay as president of the federal Republic witnessed some steps adjudged as transparent by Nigerians and earned him goodwill.

Conversely, while Yar’Adua enjoyed goodwill, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s administration faced more credibility burden than goodwill as he was perceived as not resolute in fighting corruption- a factor largely responsible for his failure in his 2015 general election.

As to President Muhammudu Buhari-led Federal Government, corruption, during his administration, became even more entrenched as scandal upon scandal completely laid bare the anti-corruption stance of his administration and those who were initially deceived by the present government’s alleged fight against corruption has come to the conclusion that nothing has changed.

This situation became worse when one remembers that the list of actions not taken by this administration to confront corruption which has made Nigerians face actual and potential difficulties remains lengthy and worrisome. Chiefly among these is his failure to objectively make corruption fight a personal priority for him or those who report directly to him. This has fittingly presented the former President as one that started off with high moral standards, strong conviction and determination to beat down corruption, but has neither lived up to that good intention nor dealt with all transgressors without exception.

Today, all eyes are on President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s Presidency and the question that is as important as the piece itself is what can President Bola Ahmed led the Federal Government do differently to sustainably end this vicious circle of corruption in Nigeria? To change this narrative and create a positive impact, this piece holds the opinion that Mr. President must be ready to come up with frameworks that will ensure that every naira in revenue will be properly accounted for and would reach the beneficiaries at the grassroots as one dollar, without being siphoned off along the way. To achieve this, special attention must be given to the areas where discretionary powers has been exploited for personal gain and sharpened the instrument that could prevent, detect, or deter such practices.

The second important action expected of the government, if the nation is to make appreciable progress in curbing corruption, is to rework the nation’s electoral system which is considered brazenly expensive. We must not forget that internationally, a precondition for an honest government is that candidates must not need large sums to get elected, or it must trigger off the circle of corruption. Having spent a lot of money to get elected, winners must recover their costs and possibly accumulate funds for the next election as the system is self-perpetuating.

As an incentive, governments at all levels must recognise, and position Nigeria to be a society of equal citizens where opportunities are equal and personal contribution is recognized and rewarded on merit regardless of language, culture, religion or political affiliations.

• Utomi writes via [email protected].

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