In April 1983, shortly after then Major General Muhammadu Buhari launched the War Against Indiscipline (WAI) in his new capacity as Nigeria’s Head of State, I published an applause in The Guardian on Sunday headed “A Major General War.”
I was in my 20s, and jumping for joy in anticipation of developmental leaps should Nigeria really seize control of her excesses.
As we all know now, that military government, which had ended the tumultuous 2nd Republic, did not travel very far. It was itself brought to an end in the middle of 1985 in another military coup. When Buhari returned as an elected leader last year, it was 30 years after that event.
In most of the intervening years, with corruption eating Nigeria not simply alive but in broad daylight, he cultivated the image of the one man who could bring it to an end.
I was 56 when I endorsed him for the presidency in 2011, describing him in my citation as “the missing link” and “an opportunity” Nigerians needed to seize.
“Nigeria needs a leader who is capable of holding himself and those around him to high standards of accountability and performance, not one who simply preaches about them in public,” I wrote. “Nigeria needs a man who has demonstrated he can stand up to Nigeria’s army of the rich and influential, not one whose friends, colleagues and mistresses are exempt from the law.”
In 2015, when he again staked his claim to the presidency, I still supported his candidature, arguing that it was vastly superior to that of his rival, the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan.
Actually, that choice was easy, with corruption on such a rampage and such intense impunity that Mr. Jonathan—whose wife claimed to live with him in Abuja at the same time as she held a “job” as a Permanent Secretary in Bayelsa State—infamously advocated that stealing was not corruption.
Nigerians scandalized and traumatized, turned to Buhari en masse. Peacefully and patiently waiting in long lines, they voted for him. Resisting the pangs of hunger and of sleep, they waited until their votes were counted.
The problem is that the war against corruption has been slow in coming. And it now seems to be clear that such an onslaught will not be, as John Paden, author of "Muhammadu Buhari: The Challenges of Leadership in Nigeria," has written.
According to a few excerpts of the book in The Punch, Buhari’s anti-corruption objective is to retrieve the funds that have been stolen, not to jail those responsible for stealing them.
The revelation is drawn from certain letters, now in the possession of President Buhari, that were written by Mr. Jonathan during his tenure to obtain “off-budget funds.” Immediately coming to mind would be certain NNPC accounts, and portions of the Sani Abacha loot that were repatriated to Nigeria, for which nobody has accounted.
Nonetheless, according to the authorized biography, Mr. Buhari merely wants Nigeria’s funds back.
“The fact that Buhari was enlisting the help of the international community in the probes lent weight to the seriousness of his effort – and also meant that alleged offenders had nowhere to hide,” Prof Paden’s writes in the book.
“Would the trail lead to former President Jonathan himself? As of the early months of 2016, it appeared that the EFCC was not going after Jonathan. Nor was it going after former President Obasanjo.
“The question of the stability of the entire political system seemed at stake. In addition, a number of senior military officers, who had served as Heads of State – from Babangida to Abubakar – seemed off-limits.
“Indeed, rumors swirled that if the probes went after senior officers, they might push back because they had extensive networks in the active military services…”
It is unclear at this point what this exercise in speculation is in aid of, and we’ll see if the writer, given the access that was evidently accorded him, provides any answers in the book.
What is alarming is the very suggestion that Nigeria can undertake what may be alluded to as combating corruption simply by quietly and confidentially prevailing on the thieves to return their loot.
To begin with, not only would such an approach contradict the platform on which the All Progressives Congress and Mr. Buhari contested the presidency last year, it is against Nigerian laws which require criminals to be prosecuted.
"Efforts to establish a convention against corruption needs to be expedited so that we can have global action against corruption," Olusegun Obasanjo, our then president, told the UN General Assembly in September 2002.
The UN acted swiftly, and the following year, adopted the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. It was on that basis that Obasanjo championed the EFCC Act in 2004.
It is on the basis of that law, which in its title has the word, crime, that the agency has its national role. It is in that connection that it is currently prosecuting many Nigerians, including former military generals, Ministers, and a former Head of Service.
It is on account of looting that the agency is currently prosecuting the following former governors: Aliyu Akwe, Attahiru Bafarawa, Gbenga Daniel, Abdullahi Adamu, Chimaroke Nnamani, Rasheed Ladoja, Alao Akala, Sule Lamido, Murtala Nyako, Timipreye Sylva, Saminu Turaki, Uzor Kalu, Joshua Dariye, Jolly Nyame, Danguma Goje.
Similarly, the ICPC law arms the commission with power to investigate and to prosecute corruption, and it currently has hundreds of cases on its plate, some of them dating back to 2001 and 2002. They include the case against Umar Ghali Na’aba, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, which the commission reported in March 2015 the Attorney-General of the Federation had taken over and given to an independent lawyer.
The point is that Nigeria has been eloquent on the anti-corruption front over the years. Speak or write the law, and Nigeria will sign or support it. What we have not done is find the political will to implement them, and actually confront corruption.
That was how we got lost, but that is also why so many Nigerians put their faith in President Buhari. This is why they will be immensely disappointed to learn he has decided that loot-recovery, is enough to put corruption in its place.
This approach also contradicts current prosecutions, especially of former National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki. We should simply have shaken him down and told him to go home.
And then we would have disbanded the anti-corruption bodies, and in their place, set-up debt-collection agencies.
In other words, the asset-recovery approach to fighting corruption ignores the justice imperative. It re-humiliates all of the decent people and families who were looted and denied in the first place, some of them into debt and death, and establishes the danger that more citizens will now consider corruption to be a wise investment.
“Stealing is not corruption…” they might say. “At worst they will make you return part of it.”
Finally, let us keep in mind that the current insurgency issues in the country are partly attributable to corruption. It is easy to see that without punishing the thieves, you imperil national security in a thousand ways.
To recover assets, no matter how much, but not punish corruption would be another mighty coup for corruption, and another mighty step for Nigeria on the way to perdition. It is a major, general mistake.