By Rafiq Raji, PhD
In a surprise move, the Nigerian government recently released a list of alleged treasury looters from the immediate past administration. In power under the banner of the All Progessives Congress (APC) party, the Muhammadu Buhari administration was responding to a dare by Kola Ologbondiyan, spokesman of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), who wondered why the country’s vice-president, Yemi Osinbajo, a professor of law, would make blanket accusations of corruption against his party members. It was probably a mistake. With the chairman of the PDP topping the list, the Buhari administration might have also erred. Because now the move is perceived as political and not borne out of a genuine desire to expose corrupt former public officials. The government says the current list is just a “teaser”, though, and emanated within the context of the PDP’s criticisms; which it reckoned required a firm response. Besides, there was a pending court order for the government to publish a comprehensive list of so-called treasury looters in the immediate past administration and much earlier ones. There was not a particular desire, one reckons, by the Buhari government to vouchsafe the information hitherto. The motivation of the government in conveniently answering a court order this time around is palpable. Otherwise, the question could be raised about the many court orders it has thus far ignored and would probably never honour. A prominent one is the case of former national security adviser Sambo Dasuki, who in line with court orders, should be free on bail as he defends myriad corruption charges in court. In any case, the current war of words between the APC-led government and PDP would ultimately be beneficial to the citizenry. In between their supposed propaganda would lie the truth, for sure. That said, the Buhari administration could simply seize the moment, irrespective of its earlier motivation, to lay everything bare; that is, publish the names of the corrupt public officials that pilfered our commonwealth since as far back as it can find records to the current moment. The problem of course is that it might be reluctant to go that far; lest it hurt its own. How possible is it that in the whole of the APC membership, roughly more than half of which migrated from the PDP, one would not find a single corrupt person? Clearly, the name and shame campaign is really just a political game.
So how will it end? Ideally, the government in power usually wins the politics of corruption. How so? Both parties have information on the corrupt persons in our midst. The PDP, in government for almost two decades knows what are in the records. But unlike the party in government, it could not necessarily charge anyone to court. It could file cases against certain persons of interest in the government, of course. But that would be a waste of cash and time. Besides, the top guns in the ruling APC have immunity from prosecution while in office; the time it really matters to throw dirt on them for political gain. And those who do not have the privilege could simply use official means to delay any court case against them for as long as possible. Quite frankly, I do not think the “name and shame” campaign would offer either side any advantages. (Nigerians assume most politicians are inherently corrupt anyway; only differentiating based on degree) And it is my view that if the APC loses the upcoming 2019 elections, it is not likely to be because of the PDP’s antics; irrespective of the candidate they field for president. And as things are beginning to look, it might be a crowded presidential game field come 2019. If Mr Buhari desires a second term then, even though he might be better off retiring, the people he has to worry about are not in the PDP but in the APC. Additionally, the focus of the administration in not only fighting corruption but in also collecting stolen funds for its programmes should remain its main focus. A publication of the list of looters makes the government lose that advantage, however. Once outed or in court, there is limited incentive for anyone to seek a plea bargain deal to return stolen funds. Besides, with the amount of money stolen by these politicians, they probably have now realised that a more effective and cheaper strategy might be to simply get Mr Buhari out at all cost. That way, the next administration, which would likely be more “ flexible”, would let them be. So, it is probably too late in the game to expect anymore of the looted monies to be recovered. In any case, the administration is already in full election mode. There is now a limit to how much corruption it can fight or prevent. The costs are beginning to mount. The government’s budget for 2018 that was supposed to be passed in December last year is now tentatively slated for passage in May. With Senate president Bukola Saraki already declaring his intention to contest the country’s presidency in 2019, and a subsisting rancorous relationship between the executive and legislature, even as both arms of government are controlled by the APC, passing the budget in May might even become elusive. There are other reasons why.
Some secrecy permitted
In early April (earlier this week), Mr Buhari approved $1 billion dollars for the military to purchase equipment and cater for other needs. That was the first the public would be hearing of it. There are no indications the legislature was informed aforehand. Was it legal for the president to simply approve an amount that significant without appropriation, it was widely wondered. As the funds would be from the special account for crude oil proceeds in excess of that estimated based on the approved crude oil price benchmark, the so-called “Excess Crude Account” (ECA), the legal issues are a little controversial. Some stakeholders also wonder about the coincidence with recent security events. The new military spending is coming weeks after the abduction of some schoolgirls in northeastern Nigeria. There is also a sense of déjà vu. Just like a similarly huge amount was approved by the previous Goodluck Jonathan adminstration ahead of a crucial re-election campaign, some are wondering whether the Buhari administration is not also seeking a clever way to fund the president’s re-election campaign. Consistent Buhari-critic, though not often objective on issues relating to Mr Buhari, raised some of these questions. It would be wrong to simply dismiss them. Mr Fayose also wonders how the monies provided by international donors to fight the Boko Haram insurgency were spent, for instance. Some have also queried the request by the public for transparency on the planned military spending. Predictably, the government might be reluctant to do so in reality even though its spokesperson has declared it would. I would suggest some secrecy nonetheless; as is the practice with national security issues. Even so, there are well-established ways for such sensitive national security issues to be dealt with in secret while still ensuring that the process of appropriation is abided by. Typically, the relevant legislators are granted security clearance to do the job. Afterwards, they are at liberty to only reveal broad category headlines to the public to ensure national security is not compromised. And for those military hardware purchases that would naturally be in the public domain, the procurement of uniforms, say, or the imminent purchase of fighter jets from America, which would be made public over there anyway, there should be no hesitation to reveal those. And even as the ECA mechanism is still a matter of legal interpretation, the austere anti-corruption posture of the Buhari administration and the risk that its recent action might be misconstrued to be for political gains, put on it a greater responsibility to be transparent.
Thankfully, presidential spokesperson Garba Shehu says due process would be followed; in comments to Channels Television, a well-regarded local TV station, on 6 April. In that interview, Mr Shehu initially claimed the approved funds were in the style of an emergency. Later in the same interview, he dubbed it a “special intervention”. He also added that the intention was never to bypass the National Assembly. According to him, what the president has simply done is to grant his approval, but that the matter would still be deliberated upon by the cabinet and subsequently sent to the legislature for approval. As Mr Buhari is scheduled to depart for the UK imminently for private matters, there could be some truth to this. He may have wanted to deal with the matter while he was still around to avoid any delay or hesitation on the part of his deputy, who would be in charge in his absence. That said, it does seem that the desire to seek legislative approval was an after-thought. I would not want to dwell on that overmuch, however. Better to just assume that the government realised its misstep after the public outcry and back-tracked. The public should thus continue to be vigilant and raise objections when the government does things that might seem untoward. And to its credit, even as there is much to worry about, the Buhari adminstration remains quite sensitive to public opinion. Could it be due to the upcoming elections? I do not think so. Although the government’s record on many things is mixed, there has been one consistency: it is very attentive to what the citizenry says.
We should also bear in mind that the renewed violence across the country is underpinned by corruption. There are many angles. I will focus on one here. Recent killings were bizarrely ramped up at just the moment it became clear Mr Buhari might seek re-election. Hitherto, because of his health condition, which some say was instigated by a mysterious event, his detractors, especially the corrupt ones who have been feeling the heat of his anti-corruption efforts, were almost sure he would not seek a second term in office. In better health now, and with clearly improved security to ensure that another mysterious event does not succeed again, Mr Buhari seems determined to exercise his right. Consequently, the detractors have gone into overdrive to make sure the country becomes ungovernable and Mr Buhari unelectable. Incidentally, their objective also coincides with the north’s desire to keep power in their region for another eight years. (With Mr Buhari, they can only get another four years.) The president is fighting enemies from all corners it seems. But are those who say the APC-led government is simply harassing opposition figures under the guise of fighting corruption right? When challenged on this in the earlier mentioned TV breakfast programme (“Sunrise Daily”), Mr Shehu, to his credit, was able to quickly mention the name of a prominent member of his party, a former governor, that was being similarly scrutinized. All said, corruption remains a fact of life in Nigeria. True, Mr Buhari has made some progress. But like his predecessors, his efforts are likely to be similarly seen through the prism of politics.