Preamble: I WROTE ‘CORRUPTION: IS THY NAME NIGERIA?’ over a year ago (01/12/16). And in it I narrated a privileged experience which I had as far back as 2001 when I attended Transparency International’s 10th International Anti-Corruption Conference in Prague, Czech Republic.
It was an event attended by virtually all the nations of the world, from as mighty as the United States of America to as minuscule as a 200,000-strong nation of Vanuatu, -an obscure Pacific Ocean archipelago comprising eighty tiny islands some five thousand kilometres Southwest of Hawaii.
All 52 members of that country’s uni-cameral Parliament were in attendance at the Prague conference. They were eager to learn a thing or two about new ways of fighting corruption even though ‘corruption’ in such tiny countries usually with transparently lean workforce is hardly ever a threat enough to excite such kin interest in new fighting tools.
Conversely, and painfully so, of the nearly five hundred members of Nigeria’s wastefully bi-cameral legislature, not one member of our National Assembly was in attendance, even though Nigeria ranked –and still does- high on the ladder of nations in which corruption unarguably has assumed malignantly life-threatening proportion.
But maybe that was not even as painful, -as the fact that many of these lawmakers had in fact applied and received various sums of per diem (estacode) in dollars under the pretense of attending the conference. Yes, they had the nerve to brazenly steal from the very purse of the ‘avenging angel’ itself.
Stealing in the name of fighting stealing. This was not ‘corruption’ as we know it in ‘aggressor-mood’ attacking to take what does not belong to it; nor was this ‘corruption’ in ‘defensive mood’, –as they would say- ‘fighting back’.
This was a disdainful poke right in the eye of ‘anti-corruption’ by skin-deep ‘corruption’! When a relatively unknown Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, then a Special Assistant to Obasanjo on economic matters introduced me to the Justice Minister late Bola Ige as a Special Assistant in the Department for Legislative Liaison and the Cicero asked me rather sarcastically ‘’Where are our members of National Assembly?” What was I to say? That they had neatly stolen their way out of participation?
Isues on the anti-corruption table: The five-day conference which was attended by many world leaders, specialists and experts cutting across public and private sectors, attracted politicians, lawmakers, judges, captains of industry, clergies, personnel of the armed and paramilitary forces, security agencies, civil servants, representatives of national anti-corruption agencies, Non-Governmental and Civil Society Organisations, the Media and sundry others. They had all gathered in that Eastern European country, to compare notes, share experiences and exchange ideas on how to effectively tackle the menace of corruption at the global, continental, regional and national levels- especially with regard to the ever changing faces of corruption and the need, both globally and nationally, for constant review of legislation to check these mutating and shifting vistas. The critical role of parliaments in this regard, could not have been overemphasised.
And at the end of those five engaging days, the conference had acquitted itself as a practical, action-oriented event with focus on case studies, concrete strategies and impact assessment from the diverse experiences of different nations which not only provided workable ideas and networking opportunities for public and private sector personnel, but also went beyond political statements to take stock of what strategies had worked and what methods were certified ineffective in the various anti-corruption measures used nationally and internationally. There were over a hundred workshop topics up for delivery by experts from diverse fields of experience -offering participants a multi-faceted view of the subject matter and a multiplicity of approaches on how to deal with the menace of corruption and other ethnics-related issues: topics such as ‘Building Ethics in the Civil Service’, ‘creating an Honest Police Force’, ‘Causes, Consequences and Remedies of Judicial Corruption’, ‘Curbing Corruption in the Oil, Gas and Mining Sectors’, ‘Money Laundering and Recovery of Proceeds of Corruption’ and ‘Blowing the Whistle on Corrupt officials’ among many others.
I was particularly interested in topics relevant to our local situation, as Nigeria was –and still is- notoriously shaping up to be both prolific and versatile especially in the areas of ‘money laundering’ and recovery of looted funds abroad. Thanks -or is it no thanks- to the infamous ‘Abacha loot’. Plus I was curiously interested in ‘Whistle Blowing’. (and God-willing, my next piece should be on whistle blowing, –a universally novel anti-corruption tool kit which up until that Conference in Prague was still relatively alien to Nigeria’s anti-corruption experience).
Abacha loot and the Prague conference
It was quite an auspicious moment particularly for Nigeria and Peru, because both countries were singled out for special mention at Plenary especially for their tenacity in the pursuit of looted funds abroad belonging to their respective countries. And although the Conference admitted the existence of serious man-made bi-lateral and multi-lateral bottlenecks to the recovery of looted funds –and in fact offered high-profile strategies for scaling them- Nigeria’s and Peru’s success stories provided an opportunity by the conference to loud the efficacy of the so called ‘Mutual Legal Assistance’ initiative designed to help victim-nations recover looted funds abroad.
It is not sufficient that a nation has succeeded in trailing and tracing her looted funds abroad. The real challenge is in the bilateral and or multi-lateral efforts to repatriate such funds through the labyrinth of complex municipal laws of harbouring countries; and some of which complex laws most victim-countries believe are made so to frustrate efforts at repatriation. Whereas many such victim-countries rarely have the patience to go through the tedium of these laws, Nigeria’s and Peru’s perseverance in that regard was not only commended but showcased as proof that the ‘Mutual Legal Assistance’ initiative, in the end, does achieve result; if –and only if- victim-nations are patient, painstaking and persevering. Which means that in the predictably inevitable ‘eye-ball to eye-ball’ scenario between a victim-nation and a loot-harbouring-country, the former must not blink first.
The whole of Peru for example was battling for years to recover a paltry sum of 22 million dollars. This, in the parlance of boxing categorisation, was a measly ‘feather’ or ‘bantam’ weight compared to the several hundreds of millions of dollars of the ‘Abacha loot’ alone that Nigeria had almost forever been the trail of. Yet that 9 million-strong Latin American Republic, Peru was, reportedly in an upbeat mood at the prospect of such ‘huge’ amount about to be recovered and injected into her twin economic mainstays of agriculture and mining. Ironically in today’s Nigeria even a spoilt child of a poorly-ranked corrupt politician in Nigerian could conveniently have paid Peru her looted funds without batting an eyelid. That is a measure of how obscenely corrupt we have become. But we are not only dealing with insane politicians who have stolen billions of dollars, side by side with that sickening reality we also have to cope with the insanity of a multitude of raggedy, bigoted others who are telling us to forgo the loot and to “let bygones be bygones”.
Grand corruption: In fact, it was at the Prague Conference that I first heard the phrase ‘grand corruption’, symbolising perhaps a malignant stage of corruption from which it is said that a dangerous alliance can happen between humongously-corrupt politicians and organised business crime groups with the inevitable result that a nation is perpetually held to ransom -as we see in many parts of Latin America. Yet, it was on this subject of ‘grand corruption’ that another moment for Nigeria came up again at the conference; this time alongside Russia. The two countries were singled out for special mention as destinations where corruption had reached ‘grand’ level and that therefore the threat –in these countries- of the emergence of power groups stronger than government was not only likely, it was nigh and nigh.
A report presented at the Conference which was prepared by the UN Global Program Against Corruption, said that in about “a ten year period”, Nigeria and Russia alone, had seen “more than 250 billion dollars looted by corrupt leaders”. This amount which the report said was diverted mostly to banks in Europe and the United States was “the equivalent of the World Bank budget” in that same period. In fact, on the same subject and around the same period, ‘The Financial Times of London’, writing under the title ‘Nigeria’s Stolen Money’ (24/07/99), had reported that of the 1 trillion dollars in criminal proceeds laundered through banks worldwide each year, about 100 billion dollars came from corrupt regimes nested, feathered and plumed in Nigeria.
And even as the Obasanjo regime was commended for its un-yielding efforts in the recovery of the ‘Abacha loot’, the Conference could not conceal its reservation that repatriating such amount –as the Abachas had stolen- back to what many described as a “systemic corrupt environment” like Nigeria, would be ‘penny-wise’ -for the obvious reason that corrupt politicians would still “abuse their power to loot the nation’s treasury” again. Quite an uncanny piece of prophesy you might say. Because it did come to pass under our very watch that the so called ‘recovered’ Abacha loot was allegedly ‘re-looted’ by corrupt politicians in government. Were we not told that between Jonathan’s discredited anti-corruption Caesar Lamorde, his all-talk-and-no-result Finance Minister Ngozi and his serpentine, ala-Malibu AGF Adoke, most of the Abacha loot, like ‘needle in a haystack’, was missing and could not be found?
Bad to worse: And now it is the very patriarchs of our dear nation, old men who should be teaching us last morals before the curtains of their lives are finally drawn, that have turned the most perplexing thieving rodents of our serially-raped economy. Ripened octogenarians, who may no longer have need of teeth to crack the marrow out of the softest bones, are now the ones that are now stealing us black and blue. Money, money, everywhere money! In the hardest of currencies; hidden in smelly soak-aways, rusty overhead water tanks, eerie graveyards, decrepit muddy hide-aways including decoy-farms, -name it. From as high as former presidents, masquerading as ‘statesmen’ to former state governors, seeking sanctuary at the highest legislative nest, to as commonplace as presidential aides and errand boys of First Ladies, are embroiled in some of the most disgusting graft stories ever. And like the English poet Geoffrey Chauser asks in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ “If gold rusts what shall iron do?”.
Canker worm ofcorruption
President Buhari had said it all when he made the statement: “If we do not kill corruption, corruption will kill us”. But maybe he should only have said ‘if we do not tame corruption, corruption will kill us’. Because whereas ‘corruption’ can, and in fact has been known to kill many a nation, it is inconceivable that ‘corruption’ itself can be ‘killed’ by any nation. No nation -no matter how preemptively or proactively vigilant- has been known to be completely immune to the canker worm of corruption. Even the nations that have instituted the best safeguards, investing heavily in both ‘punitive’ and ‘preventive’ measures are still not totally free of it. A nation, like Nigeria, that has made corruption a virtual way of life can only hope not to be killed by it –that is if it has not already been killed by it. It is encouraging though that we have for the first time, a President who has not only got the requisite integrity-quotient to fight corruption, but has also the determination and the tenacity to take the monster head on. Just with Babachir and Oke, he has taken the fight against corruption to another level.
Epilogue: In retrospect, although things have only got worse in my country since 16 years ago when I attended that Conference in Czech Republic, I am still consoled by the fact that in Prague I was privileged to be part of an important movement namely the brave reaction of right-minded citizens of the world to the pernicious threat that corruption poses to democratic governments around the globe. No feeling could be greater.