Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah

Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah was a sacrosanct moral institution for most Nigerians until a few days ago when he dared to go against the current public appetite for anti-corruption investigations, prosecutions, and asset recovery in a Channels TV interview, the footage of which has now gone viral. The Bishop may have misread the mood of the country and made his nuanced but controversial remarks at an inopportune time, but while some of his comments can legitimately be critiqued for their insensitivity to the current hunger for accountability and restitution, the bishop made some mainstream, fairly non-controversial points that several other lesser-profile people have been making. Any outrage directed at him should at least be tempered by recognition of the validity of some of his points.

Atmospherics aside, what are the bishop’s essential points? Here they are in itemized form:

  1. President Buhari should not become so consumed or obsessed with punishing the wrongdoing of Jonathan's government as to neglect the important task of governance, forget the healing effect of Jonathan's concession, or further divide a country already divided by the last election by embarking on a selective and narrow program of anti-corruption investigations.
  2.  The Bishop further argues that if "getting" Jonathan becomes the driving force of ongoing investigations rather than a desire for justice, restitution, recovery, correction, and a new baseline of accountability, the government will be distracted from problems it was elected to solve and become mired in the ugly political repercussions and perceptions that are sure to be triggered by a one-regime anti-corruption investigation. An addendum to this point is that a program of probes should not preclude a program of problem-solving governance.
  3. Any anti-corruption investigation by the government should follow due process and not be driven by the raw emotions and anger of public frustration.

In the days after the bishop made his remarks, a cottage discursive industry of sorts seems to have sprang up in for the form of numerous online debates and commentaries on the points raised by Kukah. This has been a largely healthy and productive debate, but some of it seems predicated on a gross distortion and caricature of the bishop’s point. Several online interlocutors inferred or outright interpreted the bishop as having argued that Jonathan should be allowed to keep his loot or that he should not be probed. I have challenged them to point me to the part of the interview in which Kukah made this point but none has done so. The bishop never said the former president should be spared, but he did use language that suggested that he was mitigating the case against Jonathan in the court of public opinion. I will discuss this shortly.

First, to reinforce the bishop’s second point above, governments can chew and walk at the same time. There is no reason why the planned or ongoing investigations cannot proceed alongside serious policy formulation and efforts to chart a functional direction for the new government. As things stand, governance is being sacrificed in the interest of probes that are politically popular but will do little to fulfill some of the consequential electoral promises of the president. An obsessive and selective preoccupation with probes that precludes attention to serious governmental tasks will have a disruptive rather than a constructive effect on the polity.

The president was inaugurated at the end of May. This is August and key appointments are yet to be made, a cabinet yet to emerge. Furthermore, there has been no articulation, let alone implementation, of coherent policy directives for sectors that require policy clarity and institutional intervention, as opposed to personal ones. Kukah is not the only public commentator to express concern at Buhari’s seeming inattention to the rudimentary architecture of governance: cabinet, appointments, a chain of delegation, assigned tasks, and clearly set and communicated goals. Several others have privately and publicly made that same point, and the president himself has taken notice since he recently self-deprecatingly referenced the evolving meme of Baba Go Slow, which points to the near absence of a governing methodology in his government so far.

Second, I understand that probes and monetary recovery can provide a solid fiscal beginning and send a powerful message that could cascade down to reflect positively on the way government works. My friend and senior colleague, Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim, argues compellingly in his latest syndicated column that recovery of looted funds and the prosecution of culprits should be points of departure for good governance. I agree.  But such a program requires a national conversation about where the probe should begin and end, not an arbitrary decision to restrict it to a particular regime, which, while pragmatic, may be counterproductive in the long term.

If there is no debate as to the necessity of anti-corruption investigations as a precursor to more traditional matters of statecraft and governance, pertinent questions remain about how to pursue such investigations (the issue of process), and whether they should be restricted to Jonathan's regime or go back further to cover egregious thefts in prior regimes. President Buhari does not seem interested in entertaining the last question about cutoff and baseline, having inexplicably made up his mind to focus only on the government of his predecessor.

Selectivity is bad policy in this context because, to support such a program with a good conscience, one would have to become cognitively dissonant and believe that corruption began with Jonathan’s administration, that Halliburton never happened, that Siemens never happened, that $10 billion was never wasted and relocated to private pockets in the name of improving the energy sector under Obasanjo.

One would have to believe that the billions stolen in other recent regimes need not be recovered and that the culprits need not be brought to account. One would have to believe that the monies stolen under the regime of Jonathan is sufficient to fuel our developmental needs or that those stolen in other regimes are not necessary to boost our fiscal position.

Even if you believe as I do that you cannot probe every regime from independence as that is impractical and as our poor record-keeping culture would make going too far back impossible, you’d still have to believe that the egregious thefts of the post-1999 period occurred only under Jonathan in order to support this selective investigative regime.

In short, to subscribe to the selective policy of one-regime probe, one would have to ignore the tapestries and continuities of corruption, which cross regime lines. Many corruption schemes emanate in one regime and are then perfected and expanded in another. Others continue as webs of corrupt enrichment that successive regimes are drawn into. An arbitrary focus on one regime ignores this reality.

As I said, there are details to quibble with in Bishop Kukah’s remarks. Many Nigerians did not take kindly to his "even if Jonathan stole the whole money in the world" quip, and I join those Nigerians in disagreeing with whatever that turn of phrase was meant to signal or preface. At best it was a poor choice of words and at worst a disturbingly cavalier attitude to the serious matter of the brazenly spectacular looting that occurred in our recent political history. Jonathan’s electoral concession helped spare Nigeria from a potential catastrophe, but that gesture should not be summoned to mitigate or minimize any wrongdoing in which he may be implicated.

I also disagree with Kukah's idea that Jonathan and others should not be smeared because they have not been charged with a crime. If we followed that logic, we would have to leave at least 90 percent of those who creamed off the national patrimony alone and we would not be able to call people like Babangida, Obasanjo, Yar'Adua, Abacha Diezani, Tinubu, Amaechi, and others what they are because none of them has been convicted or seriously prosecuted for any crime. In a climate of impunity, our only comfort is precisely the public smearing and shaming that is being condemned.

I disagree with this logic as much as I disagree with the equally legalistic rhetoric that those who have not been convicted of corruption should not be labeled corrupt. Legally, of course, we cannot put the label on them, but outside the court of law, outside the realm of legal protocols, in the public discursive arena where the luxuries and esoteric niceties of legal procedure give way to justifiable anger targeted at public officials who live a thousandfold above their legitimate means, such legalism has little purchase.

This injunction of “don’t smear those who have not been charged with a crime” is so out of touch with our political realities that one would have to ignore the fact that only an insignificant number of the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats have ever been or will ever be charged or prosecuted for their infractions. It is analogous to spanking a child and taking away his right to cry about his pain. These folks have stolen our resources and, in some cases, our futures. There has been no consequence for the theft. They continue to not only enjoy the loot but to deploy it to further oppress us. And we are being told that we should exercise the only remaining instrument of psychological relief, emotional recourse, and catharsis, which is our right to verbally, textually, and digitally smear, curse, condemn, and document the crimes of these same people. That, my dear bishop, is unacceptable.

I do however agree with Kukah's critique of selectivity and his stance on the near absence of governance in a political atmosphere dominated by an infectious clamor for probe. I share his position that the probes, selective or otherwise, should go on alongside steps to get the government off the ground, such as making key appointments and charting a clear policy direction for key sectors. Here is the thing: whatever we think of Kukah in light of his remarks, we should at least appreciate the fact that he has inadvertently touched off a debate whose terms now reference him and his comments as touchstones.

It is not that what the bishop said about the counterproductive nature of selective anti-corruption regimes is novel. It is not. I have been making the same point since the days of Obasanjo and his politicized EFCC campaign.  My friend Professor Pius Adesanmi has echoed the same critique of selectivity and the detrimental end product of a one-regime probe obsession. My other friends in public commentary, Sonala Olumhense and Okey Ndibe, have written in the same vein, pleading for a holistic probe that is not focused on one regime or one personality but on projects and the continuities of Nigeria’s corruption tragedy. It only took a man of Kukah's visibility and stature for the same point to get noticed and trigger a debate.

I have my quibble with some of Bishop Kukah’s points, but we can disagree with his position without caricaturing or distorting it. I would rather we engage the points raised by Bishop Kukah than dismiss him as a turncoat or sellout.

Finally, if Buhari has indeed made up his mind to go after only Jonathan’s regime, he has done so I am sure with full knowledge of the political fallouts and tradeoffs, and we can only root for him despite our concerns. Even a selective anticorruption project pursued in the orbit of a corrupt and compromised judiciary can result in modest gains in asset recovery, justice, institutional correction, and deterrence. In that sense, it is perhaps better than none.

Moses Ochonu, PhD, is Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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