Trivialise Corruption, Neutralise Justice!, By Wole Soyinka
It is heartening news that some 20 CONCERNED LAWYERS have come together to undertake the mission of cleaning up the Aegean stables that seem to pass today for the Nigerian Judiciary. Some of us do need an institution to which we can look up, of which we should even live in awe. Some find that in religious institutions, others in traditional fixtures, some even in family and so on. All agree that the Order of Justice is a pre-eminent candidate for collective regard and even self-regulation. No matter, we all know that, without Justice, society unravels at the seams, and its citizens resort to self-help.
I feel especially exercised by recent happenings within that Body currently from a dominant perspective: it has become increasingly fashionable to sneer at any anti-corruption preoccupation. No, no one actually ever goes so far as to condone corruption. Perish the thought! Gradually however, the nation’s psyche is being both subtly and brazenly retuned to accept not simply corruption as the norm of social relationships, but its heightened product, impunity, as a national emblem. The justification? The machinery that was launched against corruption with such fanfare, it is claimed, has run aground. Selectivity has been cited as proof. Insincerity, non-seriousness, cynical distraction, are routine assessments of the current governmental campaign. Even the heady draught of ‘stomach infrastructure’ – ‘na anti-corruption we go chop?’ is now applauded, accompanied by guffaws wherever decanted. Not surprising then, that it was only a matter of time before the flagbearer of one of the ‘parties to beat’ came out openly to dismiss the punitive option, delivering the promise of Amnesty as one of the corner-stones of his plans for the nation. It was a well-calculated gambit. That candidate, an astute politician with his nose to the ground, found that ground primed, ready and conducive. Soon, this will be topped by some rivalling knight in shining armour from rivaling parties who promise prosecution and prison sentence for anyone who bad-mouths corruption – of course, always with a caveat – until all the ills that infest society have been completely eradicated – guinea-worm, river blindness, soil erosion, oil pollution, rape, kidnapping incest etc. etc. not forgetting the transformation of the entire national infrastructure and the full elimination of the last vestiges of Boko Haram, killer herdsmen, Lassa bearing rodents and potholes on the road.
Must one reiterate the obvious? It seems we must. A basic awareness of the link between corruption and all the above named preoccupations is fast disappearing. Such as hospitals that were never built, or never provisioned. Unthinkable is the proposition that a military commander who diverts funds meant for the elimination of Boko Haram to his family is even more despicable than Boko Haram which does the actual killing of innocents. And what of high-profile murders that had their roots in the open adoption of corruption as a life-style, and the increasing sophistication of cover-up operations? No connection between the rising tide of unemployment and the corrupt wastage of resources meant for industrialization and job generation? For the stubborn skeptics, and/ or those who understandably mistrust the testimony of former government associates, such as Okonjo-Iweala’s FIGHTING CORRUPTION IS DANGEROUS, perhaps they will at least credit the personal testimony of a battle scarred Nigerian businessman as expressed in a passage from his recent autobiography. That work, artlessly and refreshingly frank, written by a businessman, Newton Jibunoh makes the following revelation in the chapter titled, CORRUPTION, aka GIFTING IN CONTRACTS:
“I would go to Mr. Farrington (Jibunoh’s boss) on so many occasions and say, this is the situation, this is the truth (i.e., it’s ‘gift’ or lose). Farrington would refer it to London and London would say, no way. I tell you, if you go into how Dumez left Nigeria, how Boutgyes left Nigeria, how Guffanti left Nigeria, how Taylor Woodrow Nigeria, it came from this issue. They all packed up. Taylor Woodrow used to be beside us at Costain. They packed up.”
So, ‘na anti-corruption we go chop?’ is not entirely rhetorical Some do chop and distend on corruption. Others however starve from job losses and die of it!
Yes, it is election time, and issues that are normally generalized take on enhanced desperation. A recent image sticks to the mind, and for it, we must be thankful to that very desperation that is born of elections. Those who are familiar with the culture of organized crime – as perfected, structurally and sociologically by the Italian Mafia, will have caught that image. Perhaps it struck me forcefully because earlier, the nation has been treated to alarms of a Sanni Abacha coming back to rule the nation. It is the image of a Mafia lieutenant paying due homage to the Capo di Capi Tutti. At freedom Park, only this last day of January, I bade the nation beware of the convocation of the Conclave of the Corrupt. The warning was prompted by that most evocative image. Many have only seen such scenarios in cinema – the Don Corleone narratives. I have however seen it in gruesome activation. I witnessed it first-hand in the ‘before and after’ of the civilian revolution that was – coincidentally – led by two lawyers. They fought, and restored the rule of law in Sicily under seemingly impossible conditions. One of them lost his life in the process, the other lived to tell the tale of the rescue and transformation of a society whose mayor he also became. Sicily, that erstwhile island of fear has now become a beacon of liberal culture and social enlightenment.
By contrast, here, to put it charitably, our lawyers appear to be confused about what their role should be when confronted by the spectre of impropriety within their own Guild – note, I do not even say ‘corruption’. Impropriety will do for now. Is it really that hard to pursue the letter of the law and provisions of the constitution, simultaneously with the pursuit of an ethical imperative and thus, guide this nation in the morality of balanced perspectives? Is it really impossible to interweave both? The latter – the ethical imperative has gone missing in the overall collective voice of the NBA over the affair of the Chief Justice of Nigeria. The scantiest lip-service has been done to that social plinth, and I find this most distressful.
Impunity covers all crimes, not just material corruption. And any social or governance institution which, through act or negligence, fails to stem the tide of criminality within its charge, flings open the sluices of impunity. This has been the case of President Buhari in his lacklustre, indeed hands-off approach to the menace of the killer herdsmen – at least at the beginning, before swathes of Nigeria were reduced to slaughter fields, thriving farms erased off the food supply chain of the nation. (They are back, by the way, reported to have recently set fire to farms in Oyo State!) Leadership lapse was further compounded by admission by the governor of Kaduna State that he had been paying ‘blood money’ to the killers responsible for that human and sustenance campaign of depletion!
Impunity stalks the land, indeed it is virtually lording it all social interstices. Let no one take my word for it – simply turn the pages of the media any day. Impunity’s ravages churn the mind. Somehow, this nation – and here again we turn to our learned friends – this nation generally failed to recognize, much less learn from the murder and enabling implications of the unsolved murder of Bola Ige, the nation’s Attorney-General and Minister of Justice. The Bar Association accepted the casual disposition of its erstwhile captain and has – understandably perhaps? – moved on. For some of us however, the files are not closed. Others also appear to be determined to keep them open, though of course, remain blissfully unaware that their boastful, impenitent conduct in other departments constantly re-ignite the time clouded embers. I believe that the present crisis in judicial ranks offers yet another opportunity to bring up that tragedy starkly and rub the nation’s face in its horror. Only thus do we make all understands why it remains intolerable that any attempt be made at trivializing the nature of corruption. especially in order to score dismissive political points. The work of the Reformist Twenty – now firmly established in our minds as a pledge – is clearly cut out for them, and must not be shirked.
For those whose memories have faded on that crime: Bola Ige was murdered in his bedroom by professional assassins, his police minders having abandoned him to his own devices. Before his final posting as Minister of Justice, he was Minister of Power – and what a frustrating tenure that was for him, frustrating and humiliating. As I have remarked elsewhere numerous times, his was a ministry in which I took keen personal interest. He kept me posted on the ups and downs – the betrayals, conspiracies and actual bouts of sabotage. When he left Abuja to set up camp in Lagos in order to slice through to the centre of sabotage, we remained in constant touch, either in person, or through his Special Assistant, Dr. Olu Agunloye. Bola Ige had been named to a prestigious legal position in the United Nations and was then on his way to take up the posting. His past in the Ministry of Power pursued him however. It had pursued him into the ‘face-saving’ ministry of Justice. That transfer however only placed been in an even more powerful position to bring to justice those who had held this nation to ransom for years and retarded her development through systemic corruption of gargantuan dimensions in his former ministry. He had to be eliminated.
That was tragic enough. However, what happened next is what remains to haunt this nation, at least those portions of it that still attempt to cling to even the barest shreds of social conscience. Talk of history repeating itself! A shaming round of judicial penkelemes, near identical to present proceedings, ensued. Even before the trial proper, judges sat, fulminated, cooed, withdrew, were re-assigned, recused themselves, sat tight, defied pressure, succumbed etc.etc. on the issue of bail to some of the accused. Virtually all complained of external interference. One of them, Justice Abass, kept a diary in which he accused – among other culprits members of the Bar – that is, members of the Nigerian Bar Association – of improper importuning on behalf of some of the accused. One of them was set down as actually bringing messages from highly placed “least expected” quarters. The the judge was moved to soliloquize, in his diary: What is their interest?. What is at stake that officers sworn to uphold the law should attempt to exert improper influence on me, and in such a brazen manner. The importuning included material inducements.
Justice Abass put up a struggle but eventually threw in the sponge. The pressure, the harassment, proved too much. Before that however, he made copies of his diary and distributed the pages for safe-keeping. Three or four of these pages came into my possession – I made this public knowledge at the time. I asserted that, at the very least, in attempting to solve that murder mystery, the diary was one place to begin. Who were these highly placed people who had such a prohibitive stake in Bola Ige’s murder trial as well as the situation of the suspects that they suborned sworn officers of the law. The crime, incidentally, was littered with clues – this was just another wedge through which it became mandatory to penetrate through to the sordid crime and identify the conspirators. The case had developed unsavory but exceedingly useful ramifications. Who were these forces so bent on subverting the processes of justice in the investigation of the murder of the highest Law Officer of the land? We screamed in vain. The NBA did not take up the challenge. That Association had a primary responsibility of ferreting out the tools of subversion in their midst. Justice Abass set down dates, place, hour and witnesses – in writing. He used a code of initials for participants.
This narrative remains incomplete without reference to another form of intervention. Along the way, during our own ‘busybody’ forays, we invaded the American Consulate. Why? Simply because we had learnt that the American government had offered help, that they had assigned some experts to assist the Nigerian police in unearthing the mystery of the murder, but that the police had rejected help. We headed for the embassy to insist that they should ignore the Nigerian police. Bola Ige was already an international civil servant of the United Nations anyway, and was entitled, even more so in extra-judicial death, to considerations of international intervention. The Consul-General received us cordially. She confirmed our information, that the Nigerian government had refused the offer of assistance. I asked permission to use her phone and we called the president, who was none other than Olusegun Obasanjo. Was it true, I asked, that his government had rejected external assistance?
Details of the exchange are not relevant to this narrative, though they are readily available if of interest to anyone. What matters is that there was serious talk of introducing lie-detectors to be used on the accused, its effectiveness or whatever or acceptability. We were put on Hold while Obasanjo called the Inspector-General of Police, and put him on the speaker-phone. All that is of interest, but is not really crucial to the subject of this intervention. There will be further elaborations in due course.
I have brought it up principally to exclaim: History Strikes Again! Also to decry yet again the unbelievably short memory span of that breed known as Nigerians. Amnesia is often a contrived tactic of escapism, which, to put it bluntly, is another word for moral cowardice. I have brought it up principally to remind the judiciary, and associate orders such as the Bar Association, that the war between impunity and Justice is an incessant one. Corruption is not a trait to be trivialized for political opportunism or locker-room guffaws. Corruption murdered the Nation’s Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, and Justice was rendered helpless in the defence of its own Prime Advocate. The reign of impunity will prevail as long as the legal community continues to betray its calling, its oath of office, even its rites of professional collegiality and its responsibility to the rest of us. It is disappointing that even under a government that promised to dust up the files of political murders and end that reign of homicidal impunity, the Association has not thought fit to demand from the Buhari government its findings. There is more than ample material to warrant a Judicial Commission, and that demand has come up again and again. It will continue for as long as there remains a shred of conscience somewhere in this nation, especially when provoked into resurgence by the antics of those who murdered Justice to enthrone corruption and bask in the miasma of Impunity.
As always, election time brings out the worst of animalism in political participants. Justice was betrayed on that edition, repudiated, hung up to dry, and the door left wide open for commissioned killers. Bola Ige, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, died in the line of duty. Justice Salami at least survived the rites of passage – I felt honoured to have been invited by him to deliver the lecture for his valedictory occasion. The government at the time of Ige’s killers know the truth. That government protected – I repeat – protected, and rewarded his killers. Those who wish to dispute this had better first immerse themselves in the circumstances of that murder, and the unconstitutional, indeed illegal trajectory of the principal accused, one that not only facilitated his unconstitutional participation in the ensuing election but catapulted him straight to the occupancy of the seat that had been kept warm for him during his trial and absence. On release, he was ushered straight into the slot of Chairman of the Appropriation Committee of the House of Representatives. That was not all. The head of that government, General Olusegun Obasanjo, proceeded to burnish Ige’s memory with characteristic zeal. With that victim in no position to defend himself, that inveterate letter-writer sent a reference letter to Ige’s new abode – just in case there are ministries of power over yonder:
“We put Bola Ige there to rectify the power situation. It turned out that he did not know his left hand from his right”
Bola Ige’s murder took place at election time. Once again, we are confronted with another election. Killings and kidnappings have escalated. Once again – coincidence be damned! – the judiciary is in disarray. A political association – which I once described as a den of killers – is regrouping, wishes to direct the fortunes of this nation yet again. This nation needs no reminding that, yes indeed, the rule of law must prevail, and constitutionality must not be trivialized. Neither however, must criminality, or else, history merely repeats itself in increasingly dismal accents. Justice becomes neutralized.
Citizen Forum welcomes the Reformist Council of Twenty. On the political forum, we urge: Let the ghosts of the past be laid to rest. Let a new breed emerge.
Wole SOYINKA is convener of Citizen Forum.