By Obi Nwakanma
President Muhammadu Buhari recently signed a series of controversial executive orders, and none more so than the “Executive Order No. 6” purportedly to fight corruption.
Nigerians agree in general with the president that corruption in Nigeria is a serious situation and requires urgent, even radical solutions. But what thoughtful Nigerians do not agree with is that the president’s executive order offers that legitimate solution. If anything, it is the use of illegitimate means to deal with a really deep-rooted problem. We cannot use unconstitutional, and therefore corrupt means to deal with corruption, nor is it wise to misunderstand the true nature of the crisis we are dealing with here.
Corruption is the act by which the constitution that establishes the laws of the land is perverted by self-interested individuals, either seeking personal gain, as a result of such a perversion, or other advantages that compromises the ability of the state to maintain the laws to equal effect. Corruption includes such acts as the embezzlement of government funds, the prevention through secret dealings of the transparent conduct of public office; the inducement by bribing of public officials and even private individuals to gain unfair advantage, as swell as the acceptance of such bribes or gratifications either by choice or even by coercion by such individuals; the cooking of books to deceive government auditors and misrepresent the actual state of government revenue, the acquiescence to such secrecy as renders public life incomplete, or that makes access to information restricted to the public in such a way as to deceive them about the actual conduct of government – except when such information is gazetted under the National Security Act enacted by the National Assembly, and classified as necessary government secret for national security reasons which itself must be clearly defined by the National Security Act.
But the failure to disclose such information, as the NNPC’s actual revenue; the amount of public, tax-payers money spent on the health or for the hospital expenditure of the president; the bloating of the president’s entertainment budget, and the inability to account for how a crystal glassware for the State House kitchen could be bought for more than it is worth in the open market, when we drill it all down to specifics, is called corruption. When the president or any other public official uses an official government vehicle outside hours without accounting or paying for its use, for instance, that is called corruption, because it is a misuse of privilege.
The president, like all functionaries of government must model the very meaning of transparency in state expenditure. No government official, from the president, should be permitted the use of government vehicles, especially for unofficial resons, after hours, except those on emergency services. The president of Nigeria is not, and should not be on emergency duty. He should be able to afford his own domestic spendings. The resources of the nation should not be put to paying for his rice and beans.
The only time the state house expenditure on entertain should be used must be on the few occasions when he entertains foreign dignitaries on behalf of the state. No more. The president should be able to pay for his own taxi, if he chooses to take a taxi, his own hospital bill up to some point within the salary offered him by the Nigerian state, as is the lot of every other public servant and citizen.
It is corruption to approve extraordinary privileges for himself and members of his family or friends. And when the state is compelled to spend on his health, it should be expected that the Public Treasury, through the reports of the Auditor-General to the National Assembly, publish the exact amount spent. Failure to disclose this is the height of state corruption – unless the president treats himself with his own private resources thus rejecting the financial involvement of the state. Only then can he claim the right to privacy.
Corruption is multi-facetted conduct that subverts the integrity of the state. When you pay bribes to voters in Ekiti state to vote in an election, that is called corruption, and it does not matter which party or individual does it. Corruption has no tribe or religion. It is a national malaise. And one of the greatest sources of corruption in Nigeria are the inherited, perverse practices from the years of military rule which rendered all the in-built checks in the civil system lax. And one of the ways it did this was to invest extreme power on offices and on individuals occupying these offices rather than on the institutions they represent and the processes that guide public conduct. It used to be called the “General Orders” in the civil service. Until we return power to the institution and to the process rather than place it on the individual, we shall continue to have corruption, because extreme power is not accountable.
Let us for instance, take the example of the Public Service Commission. Its duty is not merely to recruit, promote, and discipline civil servants, but also to advocate, and set the tones in government in the public interest. That is why once he is appointed, the Chairman of the Public Service Commission is Independent of executive control, and once appointed the civil servant has tenure, and can only be disciplined, not even by the president, but by the Commission through an elaborate, transparent process. Recruitment to the service was by a highly competitive Civil Service Examination.
It was hard to bribe your way through, or be recruited merely by preferment, and once appointed, the civil servant had what was called “job security.” And they also had authority – for those appointed to the Senior Administrative or Executive Services. The “Senior Service” began from “Level Seven at the bar” – as my father used to say. He himself joined the Civil Service after a very brief stint as a cub reporter at the Southern Nigerian Defender in Ibadan, and retired as a Director in the service. I saw him at work.
The greatest fear of his generation of Civil servants was to be associated with “bribery and corruption” and be tarred publicly for conducts that could ruin their prospects for advancement and their “good names,” which to them was worth more than gold. They looked forward to retiring with good pensions to a simple but satisfying life. Their authority was firm, but their integrity was non-pareil, because authority without integrity is hollow and perverse. That is what those who inhabit power today have: perverse authority. For a long time Nigeria ran a highly efficient Civil Service, in which corruption though present, was highly contained. But in the thrush of a different kind of dark power – the authority that came without integrity with the military coup of 1975, its foundations and orientation was destroyed.
The Nigerian civil service could not survive two fundamental events: the civil war of 1967-1970, when the Igbo who were at the core of a highly efficient service that even earned the grudging praise of the west, ran from their posts, and the purges of 1975, which finally destroyed what was left of the Nigerian public service system. This is the source of Nigeria’s corruption, and it is about time Nigerians learnt the truth, or told themselves the truth. The truth is that President Buhari sits atop the pyramid of corruption in Nigeria, and it is the civil service which he supervises. It is the civil service that executes the policies of government, and without the civil service, there will be no corruption in Nigeria. The highest source of public corruption in Nigeria is the executive authority, and the institution by which executive power is expressed. President Buhari is therefore fighting shadows.
He is not fighting corruption, he is engaged in a witch-hunt, and that is corrupt practice. If he were intent on fighting corruption, his first duty on assumption of office, working with the National Assembly would have been to present a broad, wide-ranging proposal for a radical reform of the Nigerian Federal Civil service, that would re-establish the institutional authority of the service, and the processes and guarantees that would limit the misuse of executive power, re-orient and reposition a highly efficient, merit-based, highly motivated, secure and independent civil service. That would end corruption in Nigeria.
His “Executive Order 6” would then be worth the paper on which it was written. But in its current form, it is worth nothing. First, because there is no constitutional basis for such an executive order. Those orders exceed the powers of the president under the constitution. Secondly, it is an order of dispropriation, and no court in the land can enforce it. In any case, executive orders are very temporary, transitional rules, and can very easily be evacuated by an Act of the National Assembly, which in this case has not conceded, or delegated such a power to the president, as the members themselves have pointed out. It is quite frankly, a hollow and vexatious order. We need to fight corruption. But by legitimate and constitutional means.