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The other side of the anti-graft war



There are two dimensions to the anti-graft war: punitive and preventive. This is so elementary I find it rather painful to talk about it. But I need to remind us that our concentration on the punitive aspect of the war for so long has been detrimental to its successful prosecution. What other good reason could you find for the mixed results of the war that increasingly leaves the rest of the country befuddled?

The punitive aspect of the war deals with the arrest and the prosecution of those found to have broken the law and helped themselves, rather shamelessly, to our common wealth at our expense. This is the better known dimension of the war; for very good reasons. It is the dimension of the war the public appreciates and identifies with, not least because it carries with it some degree of the right to jeer and laugh at the discomfited. When some former big men and women are caught in the net or take the bullet in the groin, we applaud the anti-graft agencies. Their arrest confirms our unspoken suspicion, does it not, that their public persona of good citizenship and uprightness, is all but Teflon. We take it that their arrest and their often half-hearted prosecution provides us with the telling evidence that the good guys are winning the war.

Our concentration on the punitive dimension of the anti-war is supported by the conventional wisdom of the ages and fully supported by the egg heads, e.g. psychologists. We believe, like our ancestors, that punishment is an effective deterrent. If you jail a thief, he would not steal again. It would also prevent others who are inclined to steal, to say, perish the thought. The public execution of armed robbers was also informed by this reasoning. Publicly execute armed robbers and you can be sure it would drive enough fear into potential armed robbers they desist, advisedly.


But truth be told, these things do not work that way. The seventh commandment, thou shalt not steal, is still the most abused divine order to keep fingers off the till and clean. Ask the prison authorities and they would tell you how many times a petty thief returns to prison. Because his first punishment failed to stop him from stealing, he steals again and again. And he is punished again and again as if he is mocking the country and its legal system. The public execution of armed robbers did not diminish the tribes of armed robbers. It increased them with new members of the tribes being more vicious and deadly than those of the first generation. If punishment were an effective deterrent, what could more effectively deter armed robbery than the soldiers’ bullets?

I suggest there should be a rethink among the egg heads about this punishment and deterrence. Time they accepted the flaw in the reasoning about the effectiveness of punishment as a deterrent. I do not think punitive measures have ever equalled preventive measures. After all, prevention is still better and less expensive and messy than cure.

We cannot successfully prosecute the anti-graft war by concentrating, as we have been doing all these years, on only its punitive dimension. I am willing to admit that in our situation, the noise that attends the arrest of thieves in high places has a major psychological effect on the rest of the society. Nothing is more welcome than the have-nots seeing the mask of respectability torn off the faces of the haves, our big men and women who once strutted our social stage like plumed arrogant peacocks. Still, it would be rather naive to allow the anti-grant war to ride on the current of public sentiment – and laughter.

A war such this needs constant reviews and the adoption of new strategies to cope with exigencies that may arise from the changing tactics of the corrupt. We have so far seen, for instance, that robbing with the pen is anachronistic. Putting stolen money in the banks is now considered foolish and primitive. Talk of changing tactics.

I think it is time we looked at the preventive aspect of the war. Both the punitive and the preventive dimensions of the anti-graft war must be fought together. It is unhelpful to concentrate on one because it would be at the expense of the other. And, to borrow a simple metaphor from our farmers, if you pile a load on one part of a basket, it crumbles.

We cannot fight corruption on the one hand and on the other make it tempting for those who face the temptation daily. I draw your attention to the plight of civil servants, local government staff, primary school teachers and pensioners in at least 27 states of the federation. They have not been paid for between seven and nine months. How does anyone expect them to meet their basic family responsibilities? Well, they are better off in Benue State because they take Friday off to go to the farm. With bare hands and a rumbling stomach, of course.

The civil service is the citadel of corruption and corrupt practices. Those who are still in the service see what the retirees are going through after faithfully serving the country until they are too old to get any new employment. Every time there is a queue for the purposes of verifying the identities of living pensioners, the police have the unpleasant task of removing corpses of starving and emaciated men who only managed to drag themselves to the queue in the hope that some of what they are owed would be paid them.

It is not a pleasant story. And it comes down to this: If a civil servant sees the fate that awaits him from the plight of pensioners, he would need no one to tell him that there is some pragmatic wisdom in dipping his hands in the till now to take care of himself and his family after his retirement. Would you, in good conscience, blame him for taking steps to feather his own nest when he still has a chance?


There is wisdom in that. It is called self-interest. EFCC has not, as we speak, arrested even .0001 per cent of those who have reasoned this way and bought themselves good umbrellas for the inevitable sunny and dry days ahead.

I can find nothing worse than that by failing to pay civil servants and pensioners, our governments undermine the anti-graft war. I do not think the primary purpose of the anti-graft war is to merely catch and punish the corrupt. I think it is, or it should be, to prevent corruption by making sure that (a) you plug the leakage in the system and (b) you do not unnecessarily expose people to the temptation to steal.

I find both interesting and disgusting that while the civil servants and the pensioners are starving, they see their state governors and their families luxuriating in the luxury lanes. They see them embark on clearly white elephant projects for the singular purpose of collecting kick backs from the initial payments from the criminally-inflated contracts. They see them take off for holiday abroad. We know of no governor in this country who has not been paid his monthly salary and allowances regularly. We know of no former governor who has not been paid his gratuity and is regularly paid his monthly pension. This is a nation of two citizens separated by opportunities and privileges.


In this article:
Dan Agbese
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