BY RICHARD DIRIM ODU#
Any big and trending story in Nigeria today appears to be the one containing gists of corruption which, to every Nigerian, is the bane of the nation’s growth and development. Ears tingle and mouths drop agape at the news of a politician discovered to have embezzled or misappropriated public funds. On the first impulse, the general feeling would always be for the government of the day to nail the bastard who, most people would believe, is the cause of the nation’s economic woes. The supposed culprit is instantly convicted in the imperfect court of public opinion where the atmosphere is a cacophony and no proper trial is conducted or evidence presented. It is largely for the reason that erring politicians are seen by a cross section of the Nigerian electorate as not being sufficiently knocked that every effort was put into removing the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
However, the apparent persistence of graft, even within the inner chambers of the present dispensation, speaks volumes about the unexplored notion that our holier-than-thou attitude to the issue and the seeming faith in the enthronement of a living saint at the helm of affairs might after all not be the way out of our quagmire. The nation, we are aware, was of late embarrassed by a few cases of embezzlement said to have been discovered within the seat of government, as well as hauls of supposedly ill-gotten cash in private apartments by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which are under investigation. It, therefore, means that we must establish the anatomy of the kind of corruption that has infested the nation for us to discover an adequate panacea for it.
Of significance to this search for the cure of our national malaise is the discovery that there is the preponderance of financial crime and corruption within the country’s top echelon. Bearing in mind that the individual’s economic wellbeing is paramount in the game of self-preservation, this state of affairs can be understood. It also instructs us that there is a pervading feeling of economic insecurity in the nation, perhaps occasioned by certain government policies that tend to stifle growth and make nonsense of a healthy competition. Let us, for instance, examine the federal character policy and the quota system which, in essence, were designed to stall the progress of some sections of the nation in favour of another section considered “disadvantage”. As it concerns education, for instance, under the system, the “advantaged” people must wait for others to catch up. In other words, the system does not reward excellence.
The emerging scenario can be captured when we imagine an umpire in a football match holding back a winning team to ensure an even scoreline. What will be the state of mind of members of the winning team? It eventually would not produce the desired result because the competitive spirit of the “disadvantaged” would have been dampened while the “advantaged” are fired by seeming injustice to achieve by all means. Chaos sets in.
Other informal policies such as the lopsided allocation of oil blocks and key appointments in government which remains the sole repository of mega funds in the country, favouritism in job offers and the like breed nothing but acrimony and tendencies to cut corners as a means of self-preservation. The official in high places where funds flow decides to help himself and his generation. This self-preservation attitude is eventually interpreted as corruption and looting.
Again, we look at job insecurity and the unending social strife among various ethnic groups. The Boko haram is in the North fighting for an Islamic state while the Biafra agitators hold sway on the eastern axis. Herdsmen infiltrate other people’s farmlands seeking to seize them by force for grazing their cattle. The signals which citizens get from this is that the country is unstable and would one day disintegrate, therefore, whatever one could get from it at present forms a basis for survival on rainy day. A vicious circle results when such corrupt activities impede the ability of government to meet its obligations in staff salaries and pensions, as well as provision of necessary infrastructure. Therefore, the “looting” trickles down to the lower cadre of government, affecting the police, the army, customs, immigration and various other vital agencies of government expected to be devoid of bribery and corruption.
But, in tackling the malaise, it appears rather imprudent that Nigerians seem to focus only on financial corruption and revel in the circus show politicians make of it, ignoring other aspects of the phenomenon which, in all probability, may have been the mother of all other corrupt practices. School teachers who aid examination malpractices and lecturers who extort students have often escaped being caught in the radar as the law enforcement agencies beam their searchlights only on oil thieves and political opponents of a ruling president. Do we point out union officials that embezzle union funds? Who sees that as corruption?
Unwittingly, we have made laws and policies that give life to corruption. Their mode of implementation leads to inadequate distribution of the nation’s wealth, injustice and the promotion of corruption. Imagine when we give full powers and authority to a governor to take absolute control of our collective financial and social lives and arm him with the immunity clause in our constitution. Under this law, he is insulated from all manner of prosecution over wrongdoing, including financial impropriety, illegal demolition of people’s property, character assassination, even murder.
The implication is that for the four to eight years the governor would be on duty, he sees himself as a demigod. He has only the assembly members to worry about and most times these are co-opted into the grand plan for pillaging, becoming partners in crime or looking away as impunity reigns supreme. All these the writers of the law glossed over, just for the consideration that arising litigations were going to distract the almighty governors. Of course, it would distract them from their looting spree. Of late, these lords of the manor have unabashedly added nepotism into their scheming, flooding the government offices with relations – their wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, cousins, in-laws and other cronies – who aid them in the plundering. The demigods flout the procurement rules and award heavy contracts to their cronies who do not have the capacity to execute such contracts. And the society does not frown at it. They rather see such culprits of nepotism as heroes. Communities organize receptions for these sons who have been to the top of the Iroko tree and must not come down without a handful of firewood.
A pity, we turn around to complain that they have refused to conduct local government elections or are unable to listen to wise counseling. And one wonders whether the writers of that law left their brains at home when they gathered to piece it together. Or, did they not learn of the saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely?
What of our revenue sharing formula that has little regard for revenue making and pushes governments to lie about the population of their regions just so that they could be given more than their fair share? What about the electoral laws that keep astute technocrats away from the soapbox, leaving the field to jobless men to come in and have a blasting breathe of financial air? And having seized power, this class of hungry politicians legislate away public funds. They give the impression that the expressway to mega-wealth in Nigeria was through politics and political office holding when they leave office bearing pot bellies and owning countless estates, home and abroad. To ensure they continue to feed from the public purse, they make laws that grant them live pensions which they draw regardless of recession.
It is amazing that in this day and age of computer and data storage Nigeria has not found it necessary to form a common database that is capable of storing profiles of its citizens, their birth registration, origin and other vital information, including allocating social security numbers that could be attached to their individual fingerprints. This has given rise to false age declarations in the courts. Glaring cases of fraud in this direction are never seen as corruption and are glossed over by the authorities. Civil servants readjust their age to enable them to stay longer than the law requires in government establishments and because of the absence of this kind of database, it is difficult spot such anomalies.
In our fight against terrorism, criminality and corruption, such records are necessary to help track down culprits. They might also be vital for identifying eligible voters in elections as well as in facilitating headcounts for easy planning and statistics for development. With records already in place, citizens are deterred from making false declarations knowing that they could easily be detected. It must be noted that man, in his raw nature, is nasty and cannot hesitate to utilise any opportunity to cut corners in the pursuit of his desires. Putting in place such systems capable of detecting obvious crimes would make him think twice if confronted by a situation that prompt him to be corrupt. There is, however, something to worry about and that is whether Nigerian leaders have the will to institute such a system, whether they do not just pay lip service to the fight against corruption, only waiting for their own day to loot and get away with it.
For Nigeria to fight corruption effectively Nigerians and their leaders must first jettison the tough-sheriff-in-town mentality and, with genuine will, look beyond their nose. The vexed issue of restructuring, regional autonomy or fiscal federalism will do a world of good in this fight and it should be seriously considered.
Odu is an Owerri-based journalist