I want to begin by appreciating the Osigwe Anyiam-Osigwe Foundation for its impact on the development of ideas through its annual lecture series. The fact that the themes of the lecture series have focused on critical puzzles bordering on human development lends credence and justification for the sustenance of the lecture series.
It is no doubt that an event like this demands a lot of sacrifice financially and otherwise. Apart from the contribution of the lecture series to human development, it has also unveiled the genius personality of Emmanuel Onyechere Osigwe Anyiam-Osigwe, whose philosophical insight is gradually finding place in the psyche of academics globally, particularly at a time when Africans are determined to rewrite their own history.
The topic of discourse at this session, which is corruption, significantly ties into my vision for our great country, Nigeria, that we must kill corruption before corruption will kill us. My being here to deliver the keynote address at today’s session is instructive on the resolve of this government to interface with initiatives that are fundamentally patriotic and assisting in our path to socio-economic and political recovery.
In the last general elections, in the midst of a number of issues upon which we campaigned as a party, the one that gained higher currency in the psyche of our people was that Nigerians needed leadership that could be relied upon to tackle the orgy of corruption in the country.
While our program of action identified corruption as a very dangerous challenge that must be curtailed if our country could ever generate a future of hope, the issues of collapsing educational system, diversification of our economy, fostering a welfare based agenda for the disadvantaged, infrastructural development, among others, were also very prominent in our campaign focus.
The primary attention that tackling corruption earned in the course of our campaign and in determining the final outcome of the election underpins how seriously Nigerians see corruption as a fundamental factor crippling the progress and development of the country. Nigerians are, indeed, convinced that except we curtail corruption, the country will remain in perennial regression.
It is upon this conviction of our people that corruption poses great danger and should be curtailed that we anchor our hope. It underpins our assurance that the efforts of this government in checking corruption will yield significant successes in the final outcome.
In other words, we note that sheer heroism cannot achieve the elimination of corruption from our social space. What is most required is the conviction of the populace that corruption is an antithesis to social cohesion and development, and must be eliminated. We must get to a point where every Nigerian begins to hate corruption with a passion, and collectively determine to root it out of our body polity.
Any effort to try to deal with corruption without a convinced populace will end as spasmodic, ephemeral exercise, lacking the appropriate social impact. When we are talking about corruption conventionally, it is a manifestation of the human mindset. It is the human beings that manifest corruption.
To win the war on corruption, therefore, begins with the people accepting that there is an error to be corrected in their lives, that there is a need to refocus and re-orientate the values that we cherish and hold dear. It requires change of mindset, change of attitude, and change of conduct.
The decision of the Osigwe Anyiam-Osigwe Foundation to choose corruption as the topic of discourse at this session is, therefore, encouraging to this government, pursuant to our vision that winning the war against corruption requires our synergy, a collectivisation of our resolve that corruption must be eliminated in the social psyche of the Nigerian nation.
Even in my earlier years in service to our country, I had personally identified the destructive impact of corruption. Taken from the narrow perspective of the embezzlement of public funds, its social consequence of gross economic inequality alters the basis for social peace and security.
When given the opportunity to play a leading role in our national history in 1984, we acknowledged that corruption is not just about the embezzlement of public funds but that the perversion of our consciousness and mindset was the point at stake. This was the basis of our WAR AGAINST INDISCIPLINE (WAI) – Indiscipline in any way and manner is a form of corruption of the human essence. That was why we waged campaigns against indiscipline, and its many manifestations in the 1980s during my tenure as Head of State of our great Nation.
Sadly in this season, we find ourselves in a Nigeria where indiscipline has been taken to an unprecedented level. The rule of law is grossly perverted, and corruption has been elevated to a way of life at all strata of the society. In striving to reorder our country and put it on the path of recovery, we have thus identified the need to tackle corruption head-on. In this regard, we have taken steps towards recovering a reasonable amount of the money that was looted or misappropriated from public coffers. Investigations are ongoing on public officers who served, or are still serving, and those whose conduct are questionable will be compelled to accept the path of honour and surrender their loots.
As I stated recently, a good number of people who abused their positions are voluntarily returning the illicit funds. I have heard it said that we should disclose the names of the people, and the amount returned. Yes, in due course, the Central Bank of Nigeria will make information available to the public on the surrendered funds, but I must remark that it is yet early days, and any disclosure now may jeopardize the possibility of bigger recoveries. But we owe Nigerians adequate information, and it shall come in due course. It is part of the collective effort to change our land from the bastion of corruption it currently is, to a place of probity and transparency.
Quite frankly, the anti-corruption war is not strictly about me as a person, it is about building a country where our children, and the forthcoming generations, can live in peace and prosperity. When you see dilapidated infrastructure around the country, it is often the consequence of corruption. Poor healthcare, collapsed education, lack of public utilities, decayed social services, are all products of corruption, as those entrusted with public resources put them in their private pockets. That must stop, if we want a new Nigeria. And that was why I said at another forum that people need not fear me, but they must fear the consequences of their actions. Corrupt acts will always be punished, and there will be no friend, no foe. We will strive to do what is fair and just at all times, but people who refuse to embrace probity should have every cause to fear.
Look at the corruption problem in the country, and tell me how you feel as a Nigerian. Our commonwealth is entrusted to leaders at different levels of governance, and instead of using the God given resources to better the lot of the citizens, they divert them to private use. They then amass wealth in billions and trillions of naira, and other major currencies of the world, ill gotten wealth which they cannot finish spending in several lifetimes over. This is abuse of trust, pure and simple. When you hold public office, you do it in trust for the people. When you, therefore, use it to serve self, you have betrayed the people who entrusted that office to you.
Again, how do you feel year after year, when Transparency International (TI) releases its Corruption Perception Index, and Nigeria is cast in the role of a superstar on corruption? In 2011, out of 183 countries, Nigeria was 143 on the corruption ladder. In 2012, we were 139th out of 176. In 2013, we ranked 144 out of 177, and in 2014, we stood at 136th out of 174. Hardly a record to inspire anyone. In fact, it is sad, depressing and distressing. Our country can be known for better things other than corruption.
In the process of trying to recover stolen funds now, we are seeking the cooperation of the countries where these loots were taken. Time it was, when such nations may have overlooked our overtures for assistance to fight corruption. However, we now live in an era where corruption is anathema, looked upon as something that should be tackled head-on because the actions of the corrupt can have global impact.
It is to be noted that resolving the problem of corruption transcends merely arresting and trying people that have held public office. This is because, to curtail corruption, we have to reorder the mindset of all. Empirical facts have shown that even those who are critics today are most times not better than those they criticize. When they are availed the same or similar opportunities, they act likewise. In other words, those who didn’t have the opportunity criticise and blow whistle but when they get into office, they become victims of the same thing they criticize. Nigeria must grow beyond that point, and be populated by people with conviction, a new breed without greed, radically opposed to corruption.
This points to the fact that curtailing corruption might require a more broadened social engineering. It, indeed, requires conforming every mindset in the social order to the moral tenets in which propriety anchors as a way of life.
That was why in the earlier dispensation, we saw corruption beyond the embezzlement of public funds. We knew that a morally upright personality, a disciplined person, will not embezzle people’s money or betray the confidence reposed in him after being elected or appointed to manage any office.
We knew that due to the perversion of our mindsets, people would rather abandon pedestrian bridges and flyovers and run through the traffic in very busy highways. We understood the economic and social worth of every Nigerian and the need to preserve their lives; we tried to enforce compliance with commuters using the pedestrian bridges provided for their safety. We even went as far as enforcing the discipline of queuing to board buses and not the chaos of scrambling with its attendant dangers. The people saw where we were headed, and cooperated with us.
That effort of the past was under a military regime, a dictatorship as it is classified. Now we are under a democracy. The democratic system has its benefit in the rule of law and the fact that a man cannot be assumed guilty until it is so determined by the court of law.
With the rule of law and its advantages, the same could however pose as serious limitations to curtailing corruption when the legal system is not adequately reinforced. The onus, therefore, is on those who run our legal process to ensure that the corrupt does not go free through exploiting the weakness and lacuna in the system.
I agree with Anyiam-Osigwe that corruption is an attitude and it is about the wrong attitude. The problem with tackling corruption is that when people have become used to a particular way of doing things, even if it is not the proper way, they find it difficult to change.
We all know that to lie is not good. But we have a sense of justification each time we tell lies. This sense of justification encourages us always to do the wrong thing. It is in this context that the mindset becomes an issue. There is the need to bring back our minds to the pure state of the human identity.
While changing the mindset of the people is integral to dealing with the manifestation of corruption socially, it is also important to heal the wounds inflicted by the corruptive indulgence of specific people who have been entrusted with public positions or funds.
Thus, it is the responsibility of government to investigate reported cases of corruption. In the process, suspected culprits could be arrested, detained or questioned. All these efforts would eventually end up with prosecuting the case in court. A government that closes its eyes to brazen corruption loses its essence, the very reason of its existence. Such a government is sheer flippancy, a waste of time, moral and sociological absurdity.
In Nigeria, it needs be said that two problems stare us in the face. First is that our laws need to be strengthened if we must realistically contend with the miasma of corruption. The second is that we must correct the gaps in our legal system that are exploited to frustrate the process of justice. A number of anti-corruption cases have been rendered inconclusive due to legal limitations.
Dealing with corruption, requires the collective will of every Nigerian. Without our collective will to resist corrupt acts as a people, it will be difficult to win the war. We in the leadership will provide the right example. We will not pay mere lip service to corruption. We will eschew it in every aspect of our lives. However, we are but few, in a country of more than 170 million people. We need the mass army of Nigerians to rise as one man, and stand for probity in both public and private lives. It is only then that we can be sure of dealing a mortal blow on corruption, which will engender a better country.
Nigeria has been brought almost to her knees by decades of corruption and mismanagement of the public treasury. We must come to a point when we all collectively say Enough! That is collective will, and that is what will bring us to a new state and status. If this country will realize her potentials, and take her rightful place in the comity of nations, we must collectively repudiate corruption, and fight it to a standstill. It remains eternally true: if we don’t kill corruption, corruption will kill Nigeria.
I thank you for listening.
— This keynote address was delivered by President Muhammadu Buhari at the Anyiam-Osigwe Foundation Lecture held on Friday 11December, 2015, at the International Conference Centre, Abuja.