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State of the mess – Part 1

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Buhari. Photo: TWITTER/NIGERIAGOV

My colleague, Soji Akinrinade, and I interviewed Major-General (as he was called then) Muhammadu Buhari sometime in 2003 in his presidential suite at the Nicon, Abuja. He was in his first foray into democratic politics, seeking the nomination of ANPP as its presidential candidate. His first outing was as a military politician in January 1984.

Our interview covered the entire gamut of our political, social and economic problems. We wanted to know his plans for tackling them if he was given the thumbs up by the electorate. He would not let us fully into his plans lest I would imagine, someone combed through our Newswatch magazine and appropriated them but in the course of his answer to our questions, he let slip this magisterial statement: “This country is in a mess.”

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We did not need to read between the lines to know that he was offering himself as the one man with the courage to clean up the mess, pull our country back from the brink and re-position it through a new development paradigm that would make it realise its true greatness. There was nothing particularly earth-shaking there. Self-promotion is the stuff of politics. Political office-seekers seek offices precisely because they believe that someone is making a mess of eating yam pottage and pushing the country off the path of development into the morass of stunted growth while mouthing feel-good slogans lapped up by the people.

But Buhari was right. There was a mess almost everywhere you looked in our country. It was as much a present fact as a historical one. A mess, be it political, economic, social and even religious, are problems in every polity. Every administration leaves a detritus of failed plans, promises and policy failures in its wake. An accumulation of the detritus by various administrations over a given period creates a mess the height of Mountain Kilimanjaro. Well, not quite, but you do get the drift of this.

A mess is not a bad thing either. Without it, no man would seek to replace another as president or governor. In other words, a mess is a challenge that draws champions to the market square in the contest for power. Cleaning up a mess of this nature requires something much stronger than a new broom from Eha-Amufu in Enugu State.

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Three times, Buhari offered himself to the electorate for the chance of a lifetime to clean up the mess; three times, the electorate gave him the thumbs down. He soldiered on – and the fourth time, the electorate gave him the thumbs up. President Goodluck Jonathan, his immediate predecessor in office, gave him the presidential sash on May 29, 2015.

That was nearly six years ago. I find myself asking myself the twin questions: what is the state of the mess today? Is it less or more? In this two-part series, I wish to take a look at the state of the mess under Buhari’s watch in an attempt to see how far we have come since the president came into office with the APC broom to sweep out the mess in our national closets.

On assumption of office, the one mess Buhari identified corruption is the number one mess. He immediately placed his integrity on making corruption history and freeing honest Nigerians to assume their rightful places as the drivers of our social and economic development. It was a war he waged as a military head of state and, although his former colleagues offered different reasons for his ouster, he still believes that he lost the power tussle because he took on corruption. Sweet revenge. He was back in the saddle, armed with the sword of the crusader.
It was, and it is true, that corruption has fouled salubrious fresh air and polluted all the waters in our country. This time, if you excuse a bit of exaggeration, Buhari inherited a society up in arms against corruption. He inherited an anti-corruption infrastructure, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, set up by President Olusegun Obasanjo through an act of parliament in 2004. We sought then and we seek now, first a clean and honest country so all other things shall be added unto us.

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The first chairman of the commission, Nuhu Ribadu, was both zealous and passionate in waging the anti-corruption war. He intrigues me as a lone police officer with whom the corrupt found no favours. He made the fear of the commission a restraining factor on itchy fingers in the public sector. He was removed from office in controversial circumstances in the Yar’Adua administration. By the time Buhari took over, the commission had had three chairmen, and the war had entered a new selectivity phase.

Buhari nominated Ibrahim Magu as his own chairman of EFCC and requested the senate, in accordance with the EFCC act, to confirm him. But a report on Magu by DSS indicated that the officer had dark spots on his police uniform. Based on this and on the fact that a man who heads the commission should wear spotless clothes, the senate rejected him three times as unfit to lead the anti-graft war. Buhari ignored the senate and retained him in office in an acting capacity from 2015 until he removed Magu from office in 2020 in wretched circumstances.

His faux pas has dogged the operations of the commission until this very moment and given rise to the weakened prosecution of the anti-graft war. The commission is still without a substantive chairman. Meanwhile, Magu is in suspended limbo, perhaps because the president cannot make up his mind on whether to return him to the office or retire him from the Nigeria Police.

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This is bad news because EFCC is a very important institution and should be seen to be properly constituted and empowered to carry out its statutory duty. Curbing corruption is much more than preventing men and women with itchy fingers from letting them roam freely in the public till. It is more importantly about preventing the weakening of the system and making it so ineffective that the cynical manipulation of the law makes the strong right and the weak wrong under all circumstances.

What is the state of the corruption mess under Buhari’s watch? It can be summed up in one phrase: mixed grilled. The mountain of mess has not been levelled. Transparency International, the global anti-corruption, remains unimpressive with Buhari’s anti-graft war. In its January 2020 report, it ranked Nigeria 146th out of 180 countries with palm oil on their fingers. Bad news but here is something even worse.

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The chairman of ICPC, Professor Bolaji Owasanoye, on December 29, 2020, released a report titled: Nigeria Corruption Index: Report of a pilot survey. The report said the judicial sector, the branch of government that sends thieves to jail for corruption, sat atop the corruption index in the country between 2018 and 2020. Nigeria has now rated the second most corrupt country in the West African sub-region. The leader here is The Gambia.

Why do nearly six years of Buhari’s anti-graft war still leave ashes in our mouths? I do not claim to know the answer but a possible clue could be found in the fact that the president’s own passion for the war has considerably waned. The zeal is almost dead and is now merely smouldering instead of burning bright. Buhari has been sucked into the vortex of politics where good policies are quite often ruined by the influence of bad politicians and political interests. The result is often an onset of ambivalence with its capacity for the confusion. We can see some evidence of this in the president’s appointment of men with cases of graft with EFCC either into his cabinet and those manipulated the judiciary to be installed as state governors. We did not expect such men to eat at the same table with the president. Perhaps we were naïve and failed to reckon with the simple fact that political interests trump promises and moral integrity. Perhaps, the president can still choose the path of statesmanship and proceed to use his remaining two years in office and live up to the image of anti-corruption czar he sold the electorate in 2015 and 2019.

To be concluded
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