Fight Against Corruption In Nigeria: Challenges and Prospects for Sustainability, By Nuhu Ribadu
I will not indulge in much academic exercise of textbook definition of corruption. I am a practical person, not an academic, I would therefore speak largely on practical terms.
In simple terms, we can say corruption is an evil that is very much recognisable. When you see corruption, you know it; when you are engaged in corruption, you also know it. Corruption is recognisable because those who engage in it know that what they do or propose to do is wrong, thus they go about it discreetly. It is an under-the-table deal in which one person tries to take advantage of his official position to compromise to the advantage of another person in exchange of rewards, or to use the office for direct personal benefits.
Corruption is the chief reason many societies remained underdeveloped, wallow in ignorance and poverty largely because they have been deprived for many years by a selfish few. Last year, the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Gutters announced that the global economy loses up to $3.6 trillion every year to corruption. In the same year, the African Union puts the figure of monies leaving the continent illegally at whopping $148 billion, representing 25 percent of the continent’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). These are monies that would have been used to cushion biting poverty and harness development that is, sadly, lost in bribes and outright stealing.
Nigeria has a large chunk of those figures. Over the years, our abundant national resources have been squandered and largely stolen by those who had the responsibility of managing them for our collective benefits. At one time, national resources, like the oil wells, were shared to individuals at will, at other times proceeds accrued to the government were stolen by individuals at different rungs of the leadership ladder.
Corruption has unfortunately eaten deep into our national fabric. It is the major reason why we are where we are today. It is also the reason why we are unable to address our problems and challenges. Years of mindless stealing and waste of public resources has dimmed the light of prosperity that was all over our country at Independence. Little wonder that we now find ourselves in tough economic condition with the attendant security challenges troubling us from all angles.
Our economy stagnates because of corruption as key enablers of economic prosperity, namely; integrity of the system and efficiency are deprived of us by corruption. When critical infrastructures are lacking, there is nothing to expect in terms of economic progress. Similarly, when the cost of doing business is high and processes are compromised due to corruption, no investor would want to invest in such an economy.
Fighting corruption therefore is key to the survival and progress of our country.
It is perhaps due to this realisation that subsequent governments evolved one measure or another aimed at tackling the corruption monster, starting with General Yakubu Gowon who promulgated the Public Officers (Investigation of Assets) Decree No 5 of 1966. However, there were no noticeable implementation until the coming of the Murtala/Obasanjo administration. Murtala gave life to the Public Officers Decree and went on to start fighting corruption practically by establishing the Assets Investigation Panel. He also reinforced the legal provisions by further enacting the Corrupt Practices Decree of 1975. Despite all the criticisms against his methods, it was clear that for the first time in Nigeria, that administration underscored the need to give corruption a fierce and spirited battle and not tolerate it.
The military government, under Major General Muhammadu Buhari was to promulgate decrees that include Miscellaneous Offences Decree of 1983 and Recovery of Public Property (Special Provisions) Decree. These decrees enabled the creation of Special Investigative Panels and Tribunals to try offences bordering on corruption and abuse of office. Politicians that were tried under these decrees were handed down various prison terms and their assets confiscated. That action was however short-lived as the government was kicked out after just 18 months.
However, with the change in regime, the Ibrahim Babangida administration ordered a review of the cases ostensibly because, just like the case with Murtala about a decade earlier, the method of the Buhari regime was equally considered rather hasty and harsh, and therefore devoid of due process. The regime made series of amendments to the laws which largely watered down the provisions and effectively reversed the gains recorded by the previous administration.
Under Abacha, the government continued with the laws it met. The only significant addition was the Failed Banks (Recovery of Debts) and Financial Malpractices decrees which also came along with tribunals to try offenders.
His successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar did not promulgate any law in respect of the fight against corruption but it was under him that the recovery of what is now known as the Abacha loot began.
On assuming office on May 29, 1999, President Olusegun Obasanjo pressed on with the actions on Abacha loot. And for the first time in the history of Nigeria, Obasanjo went on to institutionalise the fight against corruption by establishing the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), and later, in line with international requirements, set up the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). These institutions are the pillars of the war against corruption in Nigeria till date.
The Obasanjo administration also went on to evolve other institutional avenues of fighting corruption by carrying out wide-ranging public service reform and establishing pro-transparency agencies such as the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) and the Nigeria Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (NEITI).
Nothing positively significant happened in the fight against corruption since then, until the coming of President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. It is instructive that the Buhari administration rode to power on the back of its promise to tackle corruption which was pervasive under the immediate past administration.
I bring this rather long historical review to illustrate our journey with corruption and how it has been a recurrent national topic for a very long time. My objective is also to show that the attitude of political leadership to the fight against corruption, at any given time, helps in changing the narrative and driving the attitude of the larger population to the issue as well.
Tackling Corruption: Measures and Methods
At the centre of corruption is money. Money, often public money, is the target of the corrupt with the objective of self-enrichment. It is also the driver for private sector corruption as seen in malpractices such as mispricing, over-invoicing, tax avoidance, et cetera.
Broadly speaking, curbing corruption is a two-dimensional fight with the preventive and punitive aspects going hand in hand. The crime must be made unattractive and difficult to commit. When it is committed anyway, strict sanctions should be in place to provide deterrence for the culprits and would-be offenders.
The tripartite actions for greater results in tackling corruption would have to come through strict control and greater transparency, tougher sanction regimes and enforcement, and greater demand for accountability from non-state actors in the media and civil society.
Control Measures Against Corruption and Money Laundering
In tackling corruption the first and most important step is to take charge of the financial activities in all ramifications. It is by tightening the control of the banking and non-banking financial sectors that anti-money laundering regimes can be effectively applied, and breaches detected. This is possible through transparency infrastructures that bring everything under vigilance and control.
Making corruption difficult to commit entails adoption of pro-transparency measures. One of such early ideas in taking control of the financial sector was the idea of the Bank Verification Number (BVN). The concept of BVN is to enable transparent banking by making all banking customers identifiable across platforms using one number. This is a global best practice under the concept of Know Your Customer, a transparency measure intended to profile real persons behind transactions, and eliminate secrecy. With ban, or drastic cut, on cash transactions, and the employment of BVN, anti-money laundering measures and sanctions can be more easily applied and illicit money easily trackable. This will also make it easy to follow public funds from beginning to the end.
This idea of transparent banking makes the Financial Intelligence Units (FIUs) from around the world work with ease in flagging suspected illicit movement of funds whether by drug cartels, terrorists or public officers. The role of the FIU, as an intelligence agency, is to alert those concerned about such movements of money and work with law enforcement agencies to track source and destination of such funds for sanctions. With such effective oversight and implementation of control measures, like what the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) is trying to do now, incidences of corruption and insecurity can be greatly curtailed. If the financial sector is porous and prone to abuse, in form of unregulated cash transaction, we cannot be free from our current challenges, including the menace of kidnapping and sundry crimes. Opposition of moves to regulate our public accounts are therefore misinformed and largely self-centred.
Aside banking transparency, other areas with high transparency requirements is the management of our resources in terms of sourcing and expenditure. In this regard, and specific to Nigeria, is extractive industry transparency—how do we make sure every bit of our natural resource is protected, processed without being stolen, and the proceeds accounted for without any leakage. The second, which is the flip side of the first one, is ensuring judicious use of that money through open-contracting and transparent governance.
For these, there are anticorruption laws in forms of Conventions and Protocols of international bodies such as the United Nations, the African Union, the World Bank and non-state bodies like the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), Transparency International, etc. which give guidance on operating a system that is open, transparent, accountable, and one that checks abuses and enforces sanctions.
Over the years, some of these conventions and charters have been domesticated by the Nigerian government to come up with agencies and pro-transparency mechanisms such as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Nigerian Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (NEITI), Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP), Nigeria Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU), Fiscal Responsibility Commission, the Freedom of Information Act, among others. The essence of these laws is to open up our systems, introduce transparency and probity as requisites against frauds and economic crimes. These are basic global best practices.
In addition to making our system open, transparent and corruption-proof, these conventions also help us in keeping trail of what is ours and making it difficult for stolen money from here to find a safe haven. In this regard, we need to hasten actions on important legislations, which are part of global regimes of money laundering and terrorism financing. These include the Mutual Legal Assistance law, Proceeds of Crime law, Whistle Blower (Protection) law, among others. The collective of these laws will enhance our cross-border collaboration, encourage those working in the anti-corruption sector here, boost citizens’ confidence and make the country easily recover and make use of proceeds of crimes.
Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice
Application of laws on corruption and related offences is another strong means of attacking the corruption cankerworm. Penalties are means for deterrence to show would-be criminals that the long arm of the law can get at them, and they may end up like past offenders. In application of sanctions, the law is expected to be no respecter of social standing or other extraneous considerations. On the other hand, I always advocate for maximum possible sentence for high profile offenders, as such usually send positive signals.
But before we arrive at the D-Day, there are a number of things that go into bursting financial crimes, leading to successful prosecution. First is thorough and professional investigation. To attain this, you need trained man-power led by a fearless and perhaps even reckless person who is ready to absorb all the attacks and threats. Fighting gangsters like corrupt elements is not for the faint-hearted or the corrupt. As I often say, corruption cannot fight corruption. If the seeker of equity doesn’t appear with clean hands, he cannot succeed in that search for equity.
Over the years, Nigeria has produced fine investigators whether at the Nigerian Police, the EFCC, and elsewhere. A lot of resources is also spent or invested in training of fine investigators, some of whom have turned out to be world class. These are gentlemen and women who engage in a yeoman’s job in going into the roots of financial scandals that has seen thousands of criminals sent to jail. They are a special breed that need special recognition for helping the country address its most important challenges. Sadly, in place of honour, some of these persons end up as victims of persecution as we witnessed in this country around 2008 and 2009.
The work coming from investigators end up in courts through their colleagues – the prosecutors. They also go through hell to make their cases and obtain justice for the deprived poor. This is one part that is not within the sphere of control of the anticorruption agencies. Our judicial system is accusatorial, not adversarial, meaning that the prosecution has to file a watertight case that it has to prove “beyond reasonable doubt.” What this means is that any mere identification of a loophole or technicality could be explored to thwart a case, as we have seen in many instances. Unfortunately, in cases of loss of case, the public only adds to the misfortune of the persons who worked on the case by attributing the issues wholly to shabby investigation or prosecution. Such happens at times, but it is often more than meets the eyes.
The Bench is key to the success or otherwise of this part of the anti-corruption work. Judges and other judicial officers, like the rest of the persons along the chain of justice system, often come under intense pressure in handling high profile cases. Some bad eggs cave in and abuse the most important trust you can vest in human – justice, by compromising to favour the bad guys. Often, however, we see honest and patriotic judges giving shining examples of how justice should be served—without fear or favour. If strictly observed, the Administrative of Criminal Justice Act (2015) and the affirmation judgment on Section 306 of the Act and Section 40 of the EFCC Act by the Supreme Court in 2017 will further aid speedy dispensation of justice in corruption trials.
At the top of these is a strong and upright political leadership that can uphold public good, at all times, and is dispassionate in addressing the issues of corruption without any consideration. As our history in recent past would show, there is marked difference between a leader who is keen on addressing corruption in all its ramifications, and one who gives it only politically correct lip service. The rest of the system tend to promptly fall in line if the person at the top shows disdain for corrupt tendencies, as we are witnessing today.
The Role of the Citizens
Democracy promotes the concept of active citizenship. Active citizen is one who is not an onlooker on how the affairs of his country is run, he is a participant. Active citizens are important to the sustenance of democracy and good governance because they ask questions, they demand good deals, and they protest. As citizens in a democracy, we have to demonstrate that we are citizens, not subjects. We are the real owners of our country and states, and leaders are only their on our mandate. For this reason, and for the war against corruption to succeed at all levels, citizens have to take more than passing interest in what happens in the society.
As individuals, and as groups of non-state actors, such as media and civil society organisations, the involvement and demand for accountability is mandatory if we desire the change we yearn for. Citizens can get involved and stop corruption from happening, by declining to participate and blowing the whistle, despite the temptations. They can demand accountability for public resource and value for whatever is appropriated. If the deed is done, as citizens we can advocate to ensure that culprits are brought before the law.
It is good to be critical, and even circumspect, but it should not be an excuse for cynicism. Quite often, we see persons casting aspersions on law enforcement agencies unjustifiably, making themselves inadvertent corruption cheerleaders and advocates of the corrupt. Criticism could be positive ingredient for better result, but a misguided one can embolden the bad ones and weaken those working to bring them to account.
There is never an anti-corruption campaign in Nigeria without baseless de-campaigning or allegations of bias and sentiments. The effort of the Murtala regime was criticised. Buhari/Idiagbon’s regime was censured. We were called names during the time of President Obasanjo, those doing the work today are also not free from such attacks. Those quick to deploy those demoralizing allegations always forget to ask the vital questions about the culpability or otherwise of the persons being investigated or prosecuted. The larger public needs to come together to side with the fighters of corruption against the corrupt and their friends. Instead of encouraging individuals to shout usually empty cries of persecution, citizens should always advise them to go through the courts and clear their names.
Looking Into the Future
Fighting corruption is an existential fight; it is one that we have to win or die trying. As explained at the beginning of this lecture, corruption deprives the society of development and further impoverishes the poor. It is therefore one fight that should be relentless, ruthless and holistic. It is a liberation war to free our country from the bondage of selfish individuals and set it on the path of progress and development for the benefit of all. For this, the war needs every hand and a common front from all citizens. To consolidate on the present wonderful strides being made against corruption, here are a few thoughts as ideas for sustainable fight against corruption in Nigeria:
Cleaning and Reforming the Justice Sector: A major step towards attaining sustained result in the fight against corruption is by first cleaning up our entire justice sector. There would only be limited or no success in anti-corruption campaign if the justice system is not properly sanitised to shoulder that important responsibility. Some steps have been taken in the past in this regard, but going forward, a more holistic and strategic approach has to be adopted to ensure maximum impact and meaningful result. Every individual within the chain of the justice sector needs to be above board, those who cannot uphold the basic tenets of integrity needed for such job should be shoved aside.
Sustained Political Interest and Cleaning up Electoral Process: It is gladdening that corruption featured prominently as a campaign tool in our last two general elections. Nigerians have spoken loudly that they would rather go with a person of high moral integrity than propagandists who wanted power at all costs. This attitude has to be sustained. The awareness should be deepened about the importance of having persons who uphold moral values dear, persons who will not steal or deceive to acquire positions of power.
The electoral process also needs to be adequately sanitised to bring an end to the ugly practices of voter inducement and compromising of electoral officials to corrupt the process or bend the wish of the people for the highest bidder. Clean electoral process is a sine qua non to a system that fights corruption. Leaders who emerge through crooked means would ultimately have to indulge in corrupt practices to recoup what they ‘invested’ in the process. They would also lack the guts and the will power to address corruption.
National Data Centre: Data is a huge challenge for Nigeria. We collect huge amount of data at various levels in various places, but we are yet unable to have a comprehensive hub for all this data. Data centre, which will house a beneficial ownership register, is the most important modern tool of following money, tracking transactions and information sharing among law enforcement and other agencies of government. The authorities should be able to have their fingertips on details of basic information of all citizens as well as records of financial transactions, tax records, assets, crime history, physical addresses, movements, etc. This is important both in fighting corruption and financial crimes, and indeed in addressing all forms of insecurity challenges.
National Anti-corruption Charter: For all this time, the fight against corruption and institutionalisation of probity and transparency have remained largely a federal government affair. Yes, by our unitary police arrangement, the federal government is responsible for law enforcement. However, there are opportunities for states to replicate some laws and initiatives that promote openness and accountability, and discourage corruption and abuse of office. In this regard, I propose the establishment of a national charter and strategy for the fight against corruption which brings together all layers of governance in this country. The charter should outline specific requirements, responsibilities, commitments and performance indicators. Governors and other persons manning the subnational structures should also lead by example in their conduct.
Extend Frontiers: To the credit of current management of the EFCC, and the political leadership under President Muhammaud Buhari, otherwise unexplored or less investigated areas have now been brought under scrutiny. For a long time, security, both in concrete and abstract terms has been used to conceal expenditures that are largely fraudulent or dubious. If we learn lessons at all from the famous arms probe of the last three years, is that not everything written in the name of security actually gets spent for the intended purpose. We must insist that for accountability and transparency, Nigerians are told what monies are budgeted for our security apparatuses and for what purpose the monies are spent.
The practice of political leaders spending humongous amounts of money in the name of security votes should also be checked. For example, I see no reason for governors and some other officeholders to be expending billions of naira without budgetary provisions or accountability under the vague code of security. These are some of the areas that need opening up as a way of demonstrating that no one is beyond reproach. Accountability should be a no-holds-barred affair.
Developing Public Confidence: Public support for the fight against corruption is necessary for its success, but the public too needs to be proven to that those in charge are equally serious about the campaign. We need constant engagement with the civil society and demonstration of seriousness in the anti-corruption campaign. This confidence-building is what would garner support and lead to the ultimate success of the whole thing, namely; change in attitude towards corruption and citizens’ takeover of the fight as their own battle. One other way of building this confidence, also, is proper management and utilisation of recovered proceeds of corruption.
One fatal action that damages public confidence is political interference. Fighting corruption is a serious business that should be insulated from politics, at all times. Anything short of that rubbishes the whole effort. In a recent VOA interview, the acting EFCC chairman, Ibrahim Magu, gave testimony to President Muhammadu Buhari’s nonpartisan stance and freehand for them to work, which is commendable. Experience show, however, that even as the principal tries to maintain balance and objectivity, some jobbers and appendages to power would try to interfere. I had similar experience and worked hard resist them. Political hangers-on should not be allowed to use corruption cases for trade-offs and personal gains.
Sustaining the Political Will: It is important to not only continue to demonstrate the political will but also take steps to intensify it. This government has started well in this regard. It can only continue to succeed in the fight against corruption in the eyes of the public if it firmly steps on toes, ensure corrupt people are made to face justice and those who blow the whistle on corrupt acts are fully protected from all kinds of victimization.
As parting words, permit me to reiterate that the fight against corruption is cardinal to our progress and we should not falter until the war is won. We should also know that we are all fighters in this warfare against the many evils of corruption, and the more we come together and speak with one voice the better. The greatest victims of corruption are the poor and this same class of citizens, with resolve and commitment, can play greater role in reversing the tide of corruption. I want to urge you to resist the temptation of corruption and speak up whenever you see something wrong happening. Nigeria is our country, it is you and I that can shape it into a nation we desire for ourselves and our unborn children.
Nuhu Ribadu was the pioneer chairman of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).