By Ogaga Ifowodo
ANYONE who knows that his hands are dirty,” says Professor Itse Sagay, “should come out and confess. I am sure certain lenient terms can be obtained by him.”Sagay made this “altar” call as chairman of the recently constituted Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption. A Christian he is, and a gentleman, too, but he does not suffer criminals gladly, certainly not the heartless breed of social vampires that have sucked Nigeria dry to bare bones.
Sagay’s reputation as a peerless legal scholar was long established before he became the founding dean of law at the University of Benin. As my former teacher and a mentor, I can testify that his commitment to progressive change in our astonishingly misgoverned and misshapened country is total.
Principle and integrity are his by-words, making him a victim of General Babangida’s vicious war against “radicals and extremists” when he was dismissed from the University of Benin alongside Dr. Festus Iyayi (assassinated 27 years later), Professor Jackson Omene and Dr. Babs Agbonifo. I was, therefore, delighted to learn on the eve of the event that Sagay had been appointed chairman of the anti-corruption advisory committee. It was Innocent Chukwuma, my former colleague at the Civil Liberties Organisation and now the Ford Foundation’s representative for West Africa, who informed me of it. The Ford Foundation, together with the Open Society Initiative in West Africa and the MacArthur Foundation, have pooled together a fund to boost Buhari’s anti-corruption and criminal justice reform efforts.
That same evening Innocent introduced me to Professor Bolaji Owasanoye, executive secretary of PACAC. The stellar list of members of the committee, who shall work under Vice President Osinbajo, gives firm promise that something credible is about to be done at last to kill the cancer of corruption before it kills Nigeria, as the president so fetchingly puts it. No more fatuous declarations of a war against corruption while doing everything possible to promote it to even dizzier heights. No longer shall we be insulted with lectures distinguishing stealing from corruption.
On the contrary, we are reminded now that stealing, besides being a crime, is also a sin. “Thou shall not steal,” says the eighth commandment. Sagay’s come-to-confession call is a clear echo of Proverbs 28:13: “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.” The call also echoes the courtroom’s plea in mitigation of sentence whereby the judge takes testimony of the convict’s otherwise good character before pronouncing sentence. But, usually, that comes at the conclusion of trial and after finding the accused “guilty as charged.” Sagay would be more generous and allow those who have stolen us blind a pre-trial confession at the people’s altar. Or else face the full brunt of the law, as the overwhelming majority of Nigerians in no mood to be generous to kleptomaniacal treasury looters would prefer.
It is fair, I think,to say that since the 29th of May, there has been a melodious note of anti-corruption music in the air. Music, I must hasten to add, not composed of the mind-boggling thefts daily coming to light but of President Buhari’s reiteration in every utterance of his iron-cast resolve to take the sharp knives out of the hands of the cannibalistic army of the corrupt who have been carving up Nigeria and eating her alive.
The maniacal frenzy with which public officials set upon the treasury, turning every ministry, department or agency into a free booty zone to be looted to the ground needs, I have argued several times before now, to be studied as a debilitating disease of the mind—a neurotic or psychological disorder (see “Thinking Through the Corruption Complex with Frantz Fanon,” The Guardian, 30 August 2010; “Decolonising the Mind: On Colonial Trauma and Corruption,” The Guardian, 23 September 2010; “The Federal Republic of No-Man’s Land,” The Guardian, 28 March 2011; “Farouk Lawan or Madness to the Power of 128,” Vanguard, 20 June 2012).
I have also argued the need to punish corruption as we do capital offences (“A Case for Punishing Corruption as Armed Robbery,” Vanguard, 6 February 2013; “Authority Stealing Pass Armed Robbery,” Vanguard, 20 February 2013). It turns out, in fact, that I have written no less than twenty columns on corruption alone in the last five years! And you know why. Take the figures emerging even before the lid is yet to be fully lifted off the great corruption cauldron of just the past eight year: $2.1 billion missing from the Excess Crude Account; $6 billion allegedly stolen by one minister alone, if Governor Oshiomhole’s disclosure of what the American government revealed during Buhari’s recent visit is true (and to think that I entitled yet another column “Coming Soon: Trillion Naira Thefts” in what I thought then to be more of a rhetorical stance than a prophecy!); N183.7 billion frittered away at the Niger Delta Development Commission; N133 million to be refunded by Mike Okiro, former Inspector-General of Police and chairman of the Police Service Commission; $2.1 million seized from a former executive secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme, etc.
But come to confession, all ye who have robbed, raped and rendered Nigeria prostrate, and ye shall find mercy. Come before it is too late! Still, I hope that Sagay and his committee shall be including stiffer jail terms and more prisons in their anti-corruption recommendations to the president.