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President Buhari and the anti-corruption war

By Obadiah Mailafia

CORRUPTION is a major challenge for our country as it is for many parts of the world. It thrives best where controls are lax; in an eco-system in which institutional state capture by powerful groups encourages a politico-economic alliance between the state and the private sector in a manner that robs both government and society.

President Buhari

The British political philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, put it down to what he termed “the crooked timber of humanity”.

Corruption thrives where there is an absence of institutional controls. Failure to prosecute and sentence often means that corrupt behaviour is treated with not so much as a rap on the knuckles. In China, grand corruption attracts capital punishment.

It is treated as a violation of national security. In Nigeria, by contrast, no member of the elite has ever spent 10 years behind bars for corruption or abuse of power.

Nobody has ever truly suffered disgrace for defrauding the state. And no one has ever been banned from holding public office because of bribery, fraud, corruption or other high crimes of state. The lawyers and the judges will quickly rally around to get the criminals off the hook, so long as they get their cut.

President was right when he said that the judiciary has become an obstacle in the war against corruption. The simple truth is that failure to punish has been the highest incentive for the perpetuation of impunity in our country today.

Former World Bank President Paul Wolfensohn famously likened it to a cancer that literally consumes the soul of nations: “Corruption is the largest impediment to investment. And it is not just a theoretical concept…It becomes clear when people die from being given bad drugs, because good drugs have been sold under the table. It becomes clear when farmers are robbed of their livelihoods.”

It is well-known that economic crime retards human development. When public officials steal funds targeted at social programmes such as education and health, they rob ordinary people of the opportunity to improve their life-chances. Where there is corruption, there you will also find poverty, income inequality, illiteracy and poor health. And where corruption is at a minimum, there you will find improved livelihoods, knowledge, better health and improved well-being.

There is empirical evidence that corruption undermines the efficiency of the free market economy. In an ideal world, markets working with undistorted price signals enable individuals to choose the products and services that best satisfy their needs. This is the working of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’. Corruption is a disease that cripples the free workings of the invisible hand. Those who believe that corruption is to be accepted in developing countries if it oils an otherwise creaking system will have to think again.

Economic crime and corruption also undermine democracy, distort markets, increase risk in commercial dealings, scare investors and erode societal trust while undermining equity and fairness. Like cancer, they from organ to organ, eventually infecting every institution of government. Corruption distorts the equitable allocation of wealth in society in a situation where public policies are made not in view of the public good but for the advancement of the narrow selfish interests of ruling elites; affecting everything from services delivery to law and order, environmental degradation and the sanctity of age-old societal norms.

Apart from the economic and social consequences that we have mentioned, corruption corrodes the very soul of society while undermining its moral virtues; sapping the energy of the people and discouraging integrity and honest effort. When young people see that only thieves and robbers are making it, they will be discouraged from honest work and will seek to make it by hook or by crook. We would then have become a land of scoundrels where, according to the Greek historian Thucydides, the “powerful take what they can while the weak grant what they must”.

Going forward, it must be made clear that fighting corruption is necessary, but it is not in itself an economic policy. It can only compliment a coherent development strategy to re-boot growth and ensure long-term sustainable development.

I also think that the fire-fighting approach is not quite sustainable. Tackling endemic corruption requires much more than dawn raids by intelligence service officers. And I must say that it is rather primitive to chase BDC operators because they are selling FX at above the official rate.

What we need is a comprehensive strategy anchored on prevention. This requires that the anti corruption agencies map out a strategy and roadmap for their efforts. It requires research, painstaking analysis and high level intelligence information gathering skills. We need to strengthen our institutions while ensuring governmental effectiveness at all levels; putting in place mechanisms to ensure more accountability in the public sector; enforcement of existing anti-corruption laws; full implementation of the provisions of the Public Procurement Act; greater transparency in the oil and gas sector which remains the main engine of the economy; and empowerment of the Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation.

We welcome the recent announcement that anti corruption courts are to be created to accelerate prosecution of corruption cases.  Crucially important in this matter is the role of lawyers and judges. I daresay that a society where the judiciary collude with criminals to pervert the course of justice has no future. Judicial officials that engage in brazen acts of corruption must face the consequences of their acts. At the same time, it is incumbent on government to empower the judiciary through better funding and improved living conditions.

I often hear people among the chattering classes declaring that the anti-corruption war has failed or is failing – that the Buhari administration is not succeeding in cleaning up the Augean Stable of corruption. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If people expected that corruption would be weeded out overnight, they are grossly mistaken. A cancer that has eaten deep into the marrow of our society for decades will need more than the life of one administration to wrestle down the monster. What matters is that we have started aright and that progress is being made.

Most civil servants these days are more careful than ever before. They know that they are being watched and that if they cross the line of due process there are likely to be consequences. We also know that trillions of naira have been recovered from politicians and other corrupt individuals. These moneys are domiciled in the TSA and will be ploughed back through the budgetary expenditure process for the benefit of all Nigerians. President Buhari is clearly winning the war.


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