Those watching for clues to emerge of the tone and mettle of Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency will have the opportunity, much sooner than they expect, to take a measure of the man. In fact, there will be two early opportunities. One opportunity – in the coming days – will lie in the caliber of men and women that Mr. Jonathan asks into his cabinet. Many of the president’s supporters fantasize about a cabinet of people whose proven technocratic credentials are complemented by a certain moral fiber and passionate love for Nigeria.

Whether the machinery – within and outside the Peoples Democratic Party – that engineered Mr. Jonathan’s controversy-dogged electoral triumph will permit him to assemble a ministerial team of focused, driven and committed experts remains to be seen. And it will be seen soon enough.

My major concern today has to do, however, with the other opportunity that the man has to reveal something about his statecraft, his stamina as a leader, and – most telling of all – his capacity for transformation. That opportunity has to do with how President Jonathan duels with the persistent crisis of corruption.

As soon as the May 29, 2011 hand-over date neared, the Nigerian press came alive with reports of defeated governors who had skipped out of town to evade possible indictment on corruption, as well as speculations about other governors who were thinking of disappearing from the scenes of their crimes.

What this points to, simply, is that Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is meant to be in a highly busy season. On paper, the agency is supposedly free to trail and give grief to corrupt officials. In reality, everybody knows that the anti-corruption agency often waits to receive clearance from the Presidency before summoning certain connected suspects for questioning. And even after the EFCC has received a nod to proceed, the president – or the nation’s attorney-general or some other discerner of the president’s mood – often sends signals about whether the EFCC should do a serious job of interrogating and prosecuting a suspect, or carry out a merely cosmetic, feigned effort calculated to hoodwink. And woe-be-tide the anti-corruption crusader who ignores these presidential cues.

Last Sunday, Next newspaper reported that “the EFCC and its counterpart, the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) dilly-dallied on the corruption cases involving Mr Bankole.” According to the paper, “In one of the cases involving the outgoing speaker, and investigated by the EFCC, Mrs. Waziri, on June 7, last year, told journalists her commission had concluded investigations and submitted its report to the presidency, a claim the presidency promptly denied. All efforts to get the EFCC to make the report public or act on it failed as the commission chose to keep mum.”

That strikes me as illustrating the pitfalls of combating corruption in Nigeria. The would-be anti-corruption agent first has to contend with a state whose impulse is to protect the most corrupt elements in order not to jeopardize the gargantuan, highly profitable corruption industry.

There’s little question, for example, that former Governor James Ibori’s money-laundering trial in a federal high court in Asaba was, from the outset, programmed to end in his acquittal. Mr. Ibori was treasured by the Umaru Yar’Adua administration, and that regime was in no hurry to reward one of its most generous sponsors with public embarrassment much less a jail term.

All of last week, just-gone Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole, engaged the EFCC in a run-around. The agency wanted Mr. Bankole to clarify some allegedly suspect financial dealings, but the speaker apparently had other plans. In the end, after the EFCC reportedly laid siege on Mr. Bankole’s residence and then pulled back, there were press reports of a deal under which the speaker would be allowed to preside over handing over rituals before seeing interrogators this week. Quoting a source, Next suggested that “the anti-corruption body was prevailed upon by higher authorities to put the action on hold.”

It would be revealing to see how President Jonathan handles Mr. Bankole’s case as well as a litany of other cases of alleged corruption.

He may maintain the fiction that the EFCC is independent, absolutely immune from presidential meddlesomeness. That nostrum would only impress those who don’t know that Nigeria is a nation where the EFCC and many other critical institutions are terribly weak, bereft of the kind of muscle, initiative and tradition that create and sustain independence.

Jonathan needs to take two clear and – in some ways – drastic steps to signal that, under his watch, the fight against corruption will no longer be part deception, part distraction. One simple step would be to look Nigerians in the eye and declare that, henceforth, neither he nor his agents would intervene on behalf of any citizen who is the target of a corruption investigation.

But a proclamation alone won’t cut it. After all, many Nigerian politicians are afflicted with the syndrome of saying one thing and doing the exact opposite. Mr. Jonathan would need a new anti-corruption manual.

One proposal is for the president to champion a truth and restitution option. The import would be to offer public officials the opportunity to confess to their participation in graft or money laundering, and then to return their loot in exchange for the offer of no jail time.

There should be certain elements to this proposed method of addressing the nation’s Number One blight. One, participation in the program should be voluntary to serving and former government officials. Those who choose to enlist in the program would agree to submit themselves to a thorough asset verification by the EFCC or other agencies. The idea is to have an independent agency corroborate the veracity of each official’s account of the size of his loot. The recovered funds or physical assets should then be placed in state or federal accounts that are periodically audited, devoted to massive infrastructural development.

Public officials who refuse to take advantage of this amnesty should then be subjected to scrutiny and – if found to have pocketed public funds – compelled to face prosecution and certain imprisonment.

For a man like Jonathan, embedded with many corrupt elements, this kind of initiative provides a challenge and offers an opportunity. The challenge has to do with personal transformation, in this case Mr. Jonathan’s desire, will and ability to transcend the burden of his history and the encumbrance of his instincts. It is only through such transformation, a rebirth, that the man would be able to come to terms with the necessity to do something serious, significant or meaningful to address the plague of corruption. The opportunity for Jonathan is to have another option to offer his friends and associates if they run to him seeking protection from investigation or prosecution.

I suspect that Mr. Ibori, given his troubles in London, would have welcomed an arrangement that stripped him of his loot if he could then be spared of jail time in Nigeria – and possibly in the UK as well.
 

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