The minister of transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, stepped into the cauldron of controversy this week. In an interview with the Daily Trust, he was quoted as saying no individual could steal public funds openly under Buhari. Said he: “Let us assume we are corrupt, can you openly take money from this government? In the past governments, what happened? You can take money in the streets. But here, if you are stealing, it is done quietly. I am not saying it is good, it is a sin punishable.”
Is this what ace British television interviewer, David Frost, once called a cascade of candour – an honest admission of what everyone knows but no one wants to own up to? I am chewing on that question until the jury returns.
Amaechi could not have expected to get away with this novel view of corruption in the Buhari administration, to wit, stealing quietly is a sin but stealing loudly is corruption. And he didn’t. For Kola Ologbondiyan, the National Publicity Secretary of PDP, it was the ‘aha’ moment welcomed by his party. He instantly threw the punch and declared that the minister’s statement had validated his party’s position that “the All Progressives Congress is a haven of thieves and treasury looters.” It is worth thinking about if a government out to catch thieves and treasury looters and jail them has unwittingly turned itself into a haven for the same unsavoury characters. I advise you to ignore the hyperbole by the PDP man.
In a manner consistent with opposition politics, it may be tempting to see Ologbondiyan’s statement as building a molehill into a mountain. It may, indeed, be seen as a rather liberal interpretation of Amaechi’s statement to fit the PDP template about what it has always suspected in the Buhari administration but had no way to validate it. The minister has actually confessed nothing but admitted that corruption is not dead. As an opposition party, PDP has a duty to monitor the government and its missteps to validate its own right to replace it in the next election season. But there are obvious takeaways that stick out and cannot be simply ignored as mere politics in what Amaechi said. It is about the current state of the anti-graft war. The minister clearly handed the PDP the club with which to thrash the Buhari administration, an administration that came into office six year ago with virtually a single agenda: to win the anti-graft war, the longest running war in our country.
It would seem that victory is not yet in sight. And that would be a thousand pities. Buhari staked his integrity on winning this war and freeing our country from the cankerworm that has retarded its progress and development. Winning the anti-graft war would help to spruce up Nigerians as honest people respected by the rest of the world. Because of pervasive corruption, the rest of the world treats us like necessary lepers. If under Buhari and despite what he has done so far to chain the rogue, corruption has merely moved from over the table under previous administrations to under the table under his watch, then the war is likely to outlive his administration. As former President Ibrahim Babangida sees it, with what is going on in the civilian regime, “we are saints.” Wahala dey.
Conspicuous living expressed in bulging bank accounts, expensive traditional wears, stately mansions, state of the art vehicles and the modern toys of the wealthy called private jets, has always qualified, rightly or wrongly, as evidence of corruption. If, because of the fear of Buhari, there is less conspicuous display of ill-gotten wealth in his administration; if because of the fear of Buhari, there is less blatant and arrogant theft of public funds over the table among the president’s men and women and if because of the fear of Buhari corruption is driven into and thrives underground, then corruption has the right to eventually claim victory. Perhaps, corruption tends to defeat every administration and thrives because it has become more technical than Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu’s description of the corrupt as the ten-percenters. Now we have 1000 per centers – and counting.
In journalism schools we were taught that if a tree falls in the forest and no one sees it, it is not news. In other words, what you do not know is not news because news is information passed from one person to another. In this instance, it means the Buhari administration is winning the anti-graft war because stealing has moved from over the table to under the table where we no longer see it in full display in conspicuous living. What we do not see cannot be happening and cannot hurt us and our country. If the corrupt live modestly, they are whistle clean. It is a twisted logic.
Former President Goodluck Jonathan once said that what was happening in his administration was not corruption but stealing. He was right. After all, corruption is the face, not the body of stealing. Perhaps anti-stealing war is more like it. Corruption has held this country by both ears since January 15, 1966, when Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu told us it was destroying the country and making it look big for nothing. Eradicating it and saving the country was instantly recognised by a slew of our generals as an urgent task that must be done. It was the reason successive generals invited themselves to the political podium as men of valour who would not only not truck with corruption but would kill it dead and save successive generations of Nigerians from the shame and the trauma of being citizens of a country that advertises itself as a sister country to Bangladesh. It was the reason for coups and counter-coups; it was the reason that military propaganda wholesomely saw corruption wired into the DNA of the agbada politicians; and it is still the reason this country rises and falls, hobbled by the greed of its own citizens, 100 million of whom are extremely poor and live the paradox of an oil rich nation humbled by rampant graft.
It has been 55 years since this country under khaki men and agbada men committed itself to the eradication of corruption. It has been 55 years of unending war with occasionally wounded men and women who bounced back with public applause. It has been 55 years and yet there is nary evidence that corruption is nursing existential wounds sustained in the war. The 55 years of the anti-graft war have seen the paradox of more, not less, corruption in the land. Every year, Transparency International, the global corruption monitor, numbers our country among countries with a deficit of honesty and where public offices confer on their holders the impunity to treat corruption as the privileged fringe benefits of their exalted offices. Every year, the World Bank and the IMF tell us that there is more smoke than fire in the anti-graft war.
We are neither winning nor losing the war. That, I think, is the most charitable one can say about the anti-graft war. It is no use pretending that everything is right with the war and the way it is waged. If we pause and review its prosecution, it should be possible for us to see the many obstacles and contradictions in the path of clear victory.
We would see, for instance, that attitudinal contradictions in which the government that wages the anti-corruption war provides protection for those widely believed to have openly soiled their expensive traditional clothes; we would see that while the goat might have problems passing through the eye of the needle, the camel saunters through it; we would see that what The Guardian newspaper once described in its editorial as creative corruption is at the root of our collective ambivalence towards corruption; we would also see that as long as EFCC ignores the advice of the late CJN Kutigi, to prosecute on the basis of evidence, not on the basis of investigation, anti-graft cases would continue to proceed on the back of a tortoise. We excuse corruption in some individuals and seek to throw others under the bus and expect corruption to wither on the boughs of our ambivalence and unequal treatment of the accused.
We have a choice – either to end all pretences about the anti-graft war or continue it in its present fatigued state in which motion is held as evidence of movement. A few years ago, a member of the House of Representatives from Ebonyi State introduced a bill in the house in which he offered a creative approach to managing corruption in a manner that would decriminalise corruption and make the people benefit from each man’s loot of the public treasury. Under his proposed legislation, the looter would pay 30% per cent of his loot to the government and keep 70%.
He was not being cynical; he was offering what he thought would make corruption beneficial to the looter and the looted treasury. I do not recall it here as the right approach to managing or ending corruption; I do so to underline the ordinary man’s desperation over the paradox of the enemy growing stronger even as the anti-graft rages on attended by bells and cymbals and whistles.
Buhari, certainly, would not leave office a failure but he certainly would leave with a smirk on the face of corruption.