Corruption in Nigeria is analogous to the parable of an adulterous woman in the Bible. In the famous Gospel of John 7:53-8:11 titled Pericope Aduiterae, it was narrated that a group of Pharisees confronted Jesus and urged him to pass judgment on a woman accused of adultery. The Jewish zealots eager to have the woman severely punished even asked Jesus to permit the application of the laws of Moses in which stoning was prescribed for the sin of adultery. Jesus became a little bit unsettled by the request of the moral police of his time. Jesus suddenly demobilized the laity with the wisdom of his reply. Jesus said, “One who is without sin should cast the first stone” on the accused adulterer. On hearing that the Jewish clergy became disoriented and downcast. One after the other, they melted away from the scene into the streets feeling disappointed. This anecdote could as well be a metaphor for our pandemic corruption in Nigeria.
Public sector corruption has been with us since the colonial days. The difference between then and now was the strong legal instrument that was put in place by colonial officials to punish corruption. Anybody caught in the act would be made to face the severity of the law. Hardly anybody caught on corruption charges escaped going to jail. Many top ranking officials have had their careers unceremoniously terminated. The system brooked no corruption. There was zero tolerance on corrupt individuals saddled with management of public affairs. But that was then, and now it is something else. Just catapult events and experiences to the post-independent nation-building period in which the underbelly of our administrative incompetence becomes exposed. Corruption in the public sector is everywhere nibbling at our body politic. Corruption has now become the normative, the ground rule in the discharge of our duties and responsibilities as public officials.
As the phantom of corruption began to gather its momentum, we started hearing bizarre stories of how our public officials became enmeshed in fantastic tales of corruption. In one instance, a certain commissioner of agriculture in the defunct Northwestern State was reported to have informed a panel of investigation that in the previous night of the inquiry mysterious whirlwind had swooped down on huge tractors and farming implements, and then hurled them into the deepest recesses of the atmosphere. Incredibly, everything disappeared into the thin air. At the federal government level, there were some super permanent secretaries and commissioners that really helped one another with our collective patrimony. Those were the 1970s, the not so innocent years of military rule under the twelve-state unitary structures under of General Yakubu Gowon. Acts of corruption then were still hush-hush. Again, only very few top public officials engaged in corrupt practices. Corruption index in the country had remained relatively low throughout General Olusegun Obasanjo’s first coming with the coup that terminated the life of General Murtala Ramat Mohammed.
The political transition to democratic civilian rule in 1979 and the expensive America presidential system adopted had however created a situation in which enormous powers were concentrated in the executive arm of government. Instead of leveraging economic growth and social development, the system churned up massive executive corruption. Bad and ugly sides of the elites in their selfish and blind determination to fleece the nation began to rear themselves unabated. In this process of national disorientation, transition to democracy from the long spate of military rule did not help to arrest downward trends in the way officials handle government affairs.
Consequently, the first Executive President of Nigeria, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, had appeared to be a lame duck and helpless in the face of mammoth corruption under his nose. Shagari’s civilian rule, despite its scorecard of competent hands and experts that were strategically embedded in key positions of the technical sectors, was obviously characterized by how officials embarked on reckless and thoughtless white elephant projects, misplacement of priorities, nepotism, capital flight and mismanagement of public resources. There was indeed gargantuan fleecing of Nigeria through the planning and execution of, often, ill conceived projects. The level of corruption in the second republic was the key reason for the return of military junta to power by toppling the civilian regime. A new leadership of stern General Muhammadu Buhari came into place.
Little wonder that Buhari initiated what he called War Against Indiscipline (WAI) as the cardinal principle of his regime, an article of faith which of course included unflinching determination to clean the Augean stable of corruption in both the formal and informal sectors of the Nigerian economy. Buhari’s single-minded resoluteness to stamp the tide of corruption in Nigeria gradually metamorphosed into personal obsession where both culprits and innocent individuals were indiscriminately treated as suspects. The regime almost became paranoid in its drive to stamp the tide of corruption in the Nigerian society. Creative and imaginative means of waging corruption fight were ignored for a regimented type of approach to issues.
In fact, the greatest shortcomings of Buhari’s short tenure could be found in its stubborn refusal to listen to rhythms of suffering in the land in its firm commitment to narrow economic logic of solving mounting social problems afflicting Nigeria. Eventually, Buhari’s doggedness had ironically turned out to become his greatest undoing going by the way he remained aloof to human rights abuses right under his nose. This has since become the albatross that sealed the fate of his regime in the hands of a much cavalier bunch of blindly ambitious, corrupt and insensitive military clique under the stewardship of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, the self-styled military president of Nigeria.
Truth must be told! It was under General Babangida that Nigeria began to witness mindless institutionalization or rather palpable personalization of public funds. Like a precious jewel, corruption became part and parcel of Nigerian culture. Its allurement under such a regime was wholly unprecedented in the history of Nigeria. Henceforth, it was no longer profitable to be honest, sincere and hardworking. These qualities no longer paid anybody. In the bid to return Nigeria to the brutal firmament of global capitalism in which Buhari naively attempted to delink the country based on his resolve to tackle obscene debt trap, inhuman economic reform packages of the Breton Woods institutions as well as his introduction of the policy of countertrade, Babangida however sought to undo Buhari’s dire social engineering through externally induced package of reformation, reorganization and reordering of the nation’s economic priorities along the path of economic liberalism.
He introduced IMF inspired structural adjustment policies and programs (SAP) with all the zest and gusto he could muster as a willing tool in the service of imperialist restructuring of postcolonial Nigeria. In addition to existing statutory ministries and departments, Babangida also created special outfits in the public sector like Better Life Program, National Directorate for Employment, Community Bank, MAMSER and DFRRI where he installed his cronies to head them. Billions of naira were sunk into those programs geared towards empowerment and poverty alleviation without tangible results. Later on, these organizations turned out to be conduit pipes for draining the nation’s resources. In his frenzy to upset our familiar patterns of social development, he even attempted to overhaul the totality of our mode of social existence, including cultural, moral and spiritual values that used to define our relationships. The clergy from the main religious bodies were politicized and financially corrupted.
The horrible legacies of Babangida’s regime have since become the measure upon which subsequent crops of leaders approximated themselves in the governance of Nigeria. As it turned out, both General Sani Abacha and Abdulsalami Abubakar did not significantly depart from Babangida’s profligacy. The corrupt status quo remained intact up until the second coming of General Olusegun Obasanjo as a civilian president under a liberal democratic arrangement. At this point the pervasive spread of corruption was so deep that the country was rated very high in global corruption monitoring index. Under Babangida, there was the alleged disappearance of $12 billion Gulf war oil windfall and other sundry cases of financial improprieties. Invariably, the cankerworm of corruption had to force Obasanjo to establish anti-corruption institutions like the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Similarly, the instrumentality of the Code of Conduct Bureau was strengthened. But as soon as the fight against corruption started in earnest, the sinister intentions of President Obasanjo began to manifest as he tacitly turned the anti-corruption institutions into hounds for witch-hunting political opponents. If you are a friend of government, you become immune from scrutiny; on the contrary, if you are an opponent, you are made into a target of ICPC and EFCC. The treatment of politicians that refused to fall in line was a classical case in point.
However, corruption in Nigeria appeared to have reached its zenith under President Obasanjo’s imposed successors. The health condition of late President Umaru Musa Yar’adua created an opportunity for especially members of his kitchen cabinet to dip their sticky fingers in government finances. The criminal proclivity of people around President Yar’adua was short-lived only because of his morbid condition. Then came the grandest thievery of it all under President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, the man that succeeded Yar’adua. One important quality of Jonathan’s rule was his seeming indifference to corruption. This was the man who thought stealing by government officials was not corruption. Government officials under him appeared to be helping themselves with so much recklessness. Institutions responsible for tackling corruption cases such as the ICPC and EFCC were rendered ineffective.
Jonathan’s tenure was characterized by living above means by government employees. You would recall how the oil industry was wrecked by sacred cows like Diezani Alison Madueke; the putrid corruption in the defense sector where the National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, was just sharing money meant for the purchase of military equipment to prosecute war against Boko Haram under the regime of pervasive kickbacks in government departments. Nothing gets done without money exchanging hands. Political appointments were the surest passports to getting rich quickly in Nigeria. Even ordinary clerks in government offices were alleged to own estates in Abuja and other posh urban centers across the country. Things got so bad that corruption itself became the biggest security threat in Nigeria. Under the watchful eyes of the regime, a new class of jet flying, fabulously rich spiritual merchants emerged. President Jonathan himself and members of his family got entangled in the web of inconceivable profligacy.
At this critical stage, Buhari’s anti-corruption mantra began to resonate with ordinary folks across Nigeria. He believes that if corruption is not destroyed in Nigeria, corruption will surely destroy Nigeria. Buhari’s easy victory at the polls against the incumbent President Jonathan was clearly as a result of how the 16 year-old PDP governments were soiled in unspeakable corruption. However, Buhari’s rhetoric and action on corruption are still trailed by controversy. There is this lingering perception that his anti-corruption crusade is not holistic enough. To its critic, the war is merely targeting recalcitrant PDP members. They also believe that Buhari’s anti-corruption war is slanted because most politicians around him that carpet-crossed from PDP to APC were not affected by the EFCC arrests. Though some of these politicians have files with EFCC, it appears that their cases are being overlooked. This has cast doubt about the motive of Buhari’s corruption war in several quarters.
Despite the spectacular successes of Buhari’s ingenuity on TSA and whistleblowing policies to reduce corruption, a lot more needs to be done on President Buhari’s unswerving resolve to bring corruption to an end in Nigeria. He needs to redouble his efforts on structural reforms, move away from the temptations of oil economy, encourage agriculture-based industrialization, vigorously diversify the economy, prioritize budgetary allocations, remove direct executive control over government finances, fiscal federalism, and create enabling environment for legitimate pursuit of businesses.
Without these bold steps, it would be difficult to stem the tide of corruption in Nigeria.