The story of corruption is deeply rooted in our existence. So much so that six years after independence, the 1966 coup plotters cited corrupt practices as a reason for overthrowing the government. Since then, successive governments have promised to fight corruption through various reforms.
Systematic corruption cannot be assessed in isolation. Rather, we must do so with regard to how previous leaders attempted to tackle it. A fair assessment of President Buhari will take us through the anti-corruption trends of the Fourth Republic (1999 - present) before proceeding to Buhari's tenure.
The return to democracy in 1999 should have provided a clean slate, driven by the Olusegun Obasanjo panel to probe the military. Setting up the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) in 2000 and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in 2003 highlighted Obasanjo's seriousness. However, by the end of his tenure, corruption had manifested through the Halliburton and Siemens scandals, $10bn spending on the power sector, Presidential Library, among others.
President Yar’Adua took over in 2007 promising to intensify the anti-corruption fight, kicking reforms off with the 7-point agenda. Apart from declaring his assets publicly, firing health ministers over the failure to return unspent budget funds sent early warning signs. Nevertheless, with political support from James Ibori and the controversy surrounding the removal of the EFCC chairman, the hope of any serious anti-corruption drive soon faded until his death.
Jonathan kicked off his administration by 'not giving a damn' about asset declaration. As allegations plagued his cabinet members and he moved to suspend the whistleblowing CBN governor, he further baffled the public with his ‘stealing is not corruption’ statement, and in doing so, gave the air of a leader that would tolerate corruption. These factors all culminated in the need to change the ruling party.
Muhammadu Buhari had some standout electoral qualities including his integrity and anti-corruption stance, built on the War Against Indiscipline programme as a military ruler. Amidst insecurity and pervasive corruption, he made his ambition to tackle corruption very clear.
He began with a number of foreign trips to reinstate the objectives of his administration in the areas of security, economy, and anti-corruption. Ironically, at the anti-corruption summit he attended in the UK, he was reminded of the ‘fantastically corrupt’ nature of his country but avoided getting into a diplomatic row with the British. Instead, he used it as an opportunity to demand the return of looted funds from foreign governments. This action signalled the intention of the new Sheriff to rewrite the corruption narrative. Still, it is only through his policies since then that we can interpret his intentions
The Supreme Court and Judiciary
The importance of the judicial arm cannot be underestimated. It is the body through which the corrupt are judged, because the censure of the courts brings validity to any anti-corruption effort. At the same time, the Presidency indicated that the judiciary was halting the course of justice. In his inauguration speech, he said:
“the judicial system needs reform to cleanse itself from its immediate past. The country now expects the judiciary to act with dispatch on all cases especially on corruption."
In cleaning up the Judiciary, President Buhari set up the Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption (PACAC) and promised among other reforms, the implementation of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 to speed up court cases. Besides, a bill was sent to the National Assembly to set up special anti-corruption courts.
However, the issue which captured the nation occurred in late 2016, when the Department of State Security (DSS) raided the residences of allegedly corrupt judges. The raid divided the nation because of the way it was handled. As opposed to simply being a crackdown on judicial corruption, it highlighted deeper autocratic tendencies that Buhari's critics have long been wary about. Interestingly, a few months later, he appeared to play by the book when he stalled in confirming Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria. He insisted on waiting for security clearance rather than automatically select the most senior Justice. At this point, though the judiciary no longer dominates the airwaves, there is increased scrutiny of the courts and its governing bodies.
The National Assembly and the Legislature
Without strong anti-corruption laws, the executive is handicapped in its ability to fight corruption. But scandals have trailed our legislature since 1999. Change notwithstanding, this administration has been no different, from the Senate President's trial to the alleged forgery of the Senate’s standing rules and even the 2016 budget padding controversy.
In spite of this, President Buhari did not interfere with the legislature and chose to work with them. The first executive bills he sent to the National Assembly were corruption related – the Money Laundering Act 2016 and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters. Though admirable, his efforts have so far brought marginal returns.
When the Senate President began his Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) trial, the Senate immediately proposed an amendment to the CCT Act. During the budget padding scandal, the Legislative arm accused the Executive of altering the budget. In retaliation to the President’s choice of Ibrahim Magu as the head of EFCC, the Senate rejected him twice and called for a removal of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF). President Buhari has found that “when you fight corruption, it fights back”. The Senate has refused to cower under the popular rhetoric of anti-corruption.
At the same time, the Senate recently stated its commitment to support the President in the war against corruption. This is difficult to reconcile with their actions. A few weeks ago, a legislator organised a launch for his book titled ‘Antidotes for Corruption’. Ironically, some of the 'special guests' are under investigation. With some members of the National Assembly being prosecuted by the EFCC, how much progress can really be made? The SGF's dismissal and the firing of civil servants involved in the budget padding showed us that the National Assembly will highlight corruption in other branches of government where they are unsatisfied. It appears they only work for themselves and more is required to tackle the corruption in both chambers. Bearing in mind Buhari’s non-interventionist stance, we cannot expect too much.
The Executive and Federal Government
The Executive is sometimes confused as the Federal Government of Nigeria, probably because it is headed by the President and responsible for administering governance in the state. Notwithstanding, the executive is responsible for implementing and enforcing laws created by the Legislature and interpreted by the Judiciary. As a result, the will of the Executive in the anti-corruption fight is the primary driver.
One of the immediate actions taken by the President was the implementation of the Treasury Single Account (TSA) to consolidate revenues of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs). Previously, government revenue sat in commercial banks (accruing interest) while the government borrowed funds. The TSA was set up to plug institutional leakages in the system – a preventive measure, compared to the remedial course of the courts. At its best, it displays pragmatism in tackling corruption, but at its worst, an unwillingness to go after systems, rather than actors.
This is particularly important because the President was accused of shielding his allies, notably his Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari and Chief of Army Staff, General Yusuf Buratai while using the anti-corruption war to silence opponents. Despite these accusations, President Buhari’s political associate, Issa Jaffar was arrested for his involvement in the ‘arms scandal’ while the Secretary to the Government was suspended for his actions in the North-East. It is unclear how these cases will conclude, but it is arguable that the President's cabinet is not immune from the corruption crackdown.
The People as Whistleblowers
While we expected Buhari to cash in on the change slogan and replicate a democratic equivalent of the War Against Indiscipline, it took a year for his government to come up with the Change Begins With Me programme. Similar to previous campaigns, its impact on public attitudes corruption are still unclear. For example, despite James Ibori's conviction in the United Kingdom, his release from prison was celebrated with pomp and pageantry.
And yet, without a doubt, the most popular policy has been whistleblowing.
In a scheme that rewards the whistleblower with 5% of the recovered loot, the Whistleblowing Programme and Supporting Policy introduced by the Finance Ministry stands out as a hallmark of the Executive’s drive to fight corruption. The scheme has received over 2000 tip-offs so far, chief amongst which was the $9.8 million found in the house of a former NNPC executive and another $40m allegedly belonging to the National Intelligence Agency in an Ikoyi apartment. Consequently,
N17 billion was recovered within 120 days because of the policy while those attempting to abuse the policy have been investigated.
All in all, some progress has been made, but more is needed. With just two years left, the government's anti-corruption efforts remain the best way to win over the public. President Buhari must remember at this mid-point that if he steps up his efforts, there is the chance he can set up a legacy to serve as a reference point for future governments.