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Creating scapegoats: A dysfunctional anti-corruption strategy

NOW that a year has passed since the historic Presidential election that brought former General Muhammadu Buhari to power and recorded the first ever electoral defeat of an incumbent President in Nigeria, it is only to be expected that concerned analysts will try to comprehend the nature of the new order.

One thing that President Buhari cannot be accused of is hiding his determination to make the fight against corruption the centerpiece of his mandate. In a short but profoundly focused commentary, published in the authoritative British journal The Economist’s 2016 preview, he stated this in no mean terms.

In the piece which was published in December 2015 and entitled “All Change In Nigeria” President Buhari declared that “…we also note that most nations that have achieved rapid economic growth in recent decades have one thing in common: they first addressed their breakdown in governance, cracked down on corruption and demonstrated to their own people and the world that to invest in that country is safe. That is where we must also begin.” With such a forthright declaration President Buhari signaled many of the events that have occurred in the arena of the search for public probity since he took the reins of power.

It can hardly be denied that some examples of incredible profligacy and financial dysfunction have already been uncovered. Revelations of hoarded caches of foreign currency recovered from unlikely locations such as a false soak-away pit in the residence of a former high official boggle the mind.

Political  strongmen

Vital questions have also been raised over the domiciling of funds, which were clearly released from official sources, in the personal accounts of some political strongmen, and it is imperative that these issues be investigated thoroughly.  It would be unfair for anyone to suggest that these revelations were manufactured to divert attention from the new government’s own problems, but the conduct of some security operatives in the process of following these allegations tend to support such suspicions. It will not be helpful to the overall process of fighting against corruption if the process is itself corrupted by irregular and vindictive conduct.

A few weeks ago, sometime in mid-February the home of a close friend of former President Goodluck Jonathan was invaded in Abuja. The reports that emanated from this incident were revelatory. The occupant of the home was described as a “close associate of the former President” and the source of information on the home invasion was identified as a member of the Department of State Service (DSS). The motivation for this incident appeared to be less than circumspect, however, since the homeowner was not present and had not been told that the DSS was intending to search his premises. According to the reports that followed, a negligible amount of foreign and local currency was recovered in the house and a number of rudimentarily described documents were taken away.

The individual concerned is a retired Permanent Secretary of the Bayelsa State civil service, a businessman, and a traditional ruler. The provenance of the incident appeared to be based only on his purported friendship with the former President rather than on any activity connected to his professional or personal concerns. This perception has been reinforced by official silence over the matter and the failure of the DSS to take further action related to this incident for nearly two months after it occurred. Conduct of this nature, on the part of official agencies, tends to suggest that their motivation includes a greater measure of bias and vindictive presumption rather than credible evidence of illicit conduct. A recent posting on several internet sites further strengthened this perception when it was reported that an official of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had allegedly commented on another case in which an individual described as a “close relative of former President Jonathan” was involved.

Close scrutiny of this particular case unveils even more cause for concern over the actions of those who have the task of carrying out genuine investigations aimed at exposing corrupt practices. This case involved a lawyer who is indeed a relative of Dr. Jonathan, but the circumstances under which he came to be held for more than a fortnight in a detention cell of the EFCC raises serious questions about the impartiality and fairness of the agency’s methods. The individual had been questioned about the performance of his companies in the execution of several large contracts won by them during Dr. Jonathan’s term in office. These inquiries have been widely reported both at home and abroad.

However when he was invited to clarify some points concerning one particular contract by the EFCC he was surprised to be told that he would not be allowed to leave the premises of the agency as he had been used to. His wife who had accompanied him to the agency’s premises was also detained for a few hours before being released.

Internet  report

The most worrisome aspect of this particular case emerged after he had been in detention for more than ten days when the internet exploded with a story claiming that the lawyer had revealed information that might very well lead to the arrest of Dr. Jonathan before the 29th of May as a so-called “Democracy Day gift” to Nigerians. Some local media have now repeated this internet report so that it is firmly in the public domain, and yet the EFCC has not seen fit to deny or confirm that any member of its staff did make such a statement.

Any attempt to institute legal action over contractual performance that might arise as a consequence of the incident related above could certainly be regarded as tainted by the partisan bias of the agency, if Dr. Jonathan were to be called as a witness. One wonders if those who are behind the release of such sensational statements as those attributed to the faceless EFCC officials are not knowingly corrupting the case before it becomes a reality.

The tactic of scapegoating ex-leaders and prominent citizens is a dysfunctional act if deployed as part of a strategic policy in the fight against corruption, and official agencies should be very wary of falling foul of this. In seeking to improve accountability and transparency in governance what Nigeria needs is solutions not scapegoats.

Lindsay Barrett


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