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“Umaru…Umaru…Are You Dead?”

October 6, 2007

On this page last week, you could not hear me.

I was trying to say that the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mr. Nuhu Ribadu, has to understand why Citizen Nigerian is beginning to hold him in suspicion: he has not delivered on his war. 

I do not denigrate the great things he has said about the damage corruption has done to Nigeria, or the great role he has played in a few prominent corruption cases, or his continuing battle against Advance Fee Fraud.  He deserves credit for these, and more. 

However, these are but drops in the ocean of Nigerian graft.  That is why he also deserves questions for his current feebleness on corruption in high places.  

The man said he had tremendous dirt on a lot of governors, and that as soon as they lost their constitutional immunity last May 29, he would hit them with folders bulky enough to knock each of them across the country into jail.   I was trying to say that, four months after the fireworks that never swept the skies, some of the jailbirds-to-be are enjoying the good life and able to meet with the President at their leisure.  Some of them have become bold enough to start to pre-empt the law in court.

It was important for me to say some of these things.  Mr. Ribadu, as part of an avalanche of high-level Nigerian public officers in New York at huge public expense for an event cynically dubbed “Nigeria meets the World,” was declaring he was ready to die for Nigeria in the war against corruption. 

I admire Mr. Ribadu.  My concern was: what war?  One Olusegun Obasanjo promised one, and set up a few anti-corruption agencies, including the EFCC.  But the war has been more song than dance; more smoke than fire.  There has been no fire to roast anyone, partly because Obasanjo himself had the honor of leading a very corrupt party and a hypocritical government.  He could not roast anyone without getting third degree burns.  In any case, he never believed the law applied to him.

Asked in New York why Obasanjo and former Works Minister Anthony Anenih should not be investigated for corruption, Ribadu ingenuously said there were Nigerians more corrupt that those two.

Perhaps.  But we are not seeing them in court or in jail.  That is why it was difficult for me to understand exactly what was going on in Mr. Ribadu’s mind. 

I know: Ribadu has had problems with Michael Aondoakaa, the Attorney-General of the Federation, who had sought to bring the EFCC under his office.  That is significant, but even if the Attorney-General had won, it would not have explained the EFCC’s arthritic performance.

Mr. Aondoakaa’s first concern in office seemed to be the prosecution of former Abia State Governor, Mr. Orji Kalu, which he seemed determined to pre-empt.

Since last week, however, it has all quickly gone far worse for the Umaru Yar’Adua government.  In London, a court unfroze accounts totaling some 35 million pounds belonging to former Delta State Governor, James Ibori.  In August, the court had frozen the assets, which include an elegant Bombadier private jet, reported to be worth 20 million pounds. 

How did this happen?  It turns out that it was not a question of law at all: Nigeria’s all-powerful Attorney-General had promptly sent a letter to Mr. Ibori’s defence soon after the assets were frozen to offer their client a clean legal bill of health.  Mr. Ibori, Nigeria’s Attorney-General testified in the letter, had never been charged, tried or convicted in connection with “money-laundering or any other offences.”

Given the magnitude of the charges, I am not sure how information persuades any self-respecting kangaroo court to set a man free, but it was exactly what Ibori’s lawyers needed, and they showed up before the judge proudly waiving it. Handcuffed by the situation, the court said Mr. Ibori could walk away with his money. 

We have to remember that only a few days before, upon his return from the General Assembly in the United States, President Yar’Adua said he would not protect any former Governors.  This followed his ill-advised meeting with some of them in New York.  He did not say he would protect the cause of justice.  He did not say he would insist that the men be tried, only that he would not be protecting anyone.  And then, based on his government’s help, Ibori walked free. 

Obviously, President Yar’Adua must now come out of hiding.  It is not enough to say what he is not going to do; he must tell us how he intends to protect the cause of justice. 

He is going to explain Mr. Aondoakaa away.  What is the man’s brief?  Where was he exhumed, and who is he working for?  Why does he give the impression he is in office to serve these former governors?  And why is President Yar’Adua comfortable with this?

We know the President said he would fight corruption.  He began by declaring his assets, which was a bold and wonderful gesture. But he did not persuade or compel anyone else—including those he directly invited to the dance—to do so.  Indeed, it took public outcry for Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan to declare his assets.

Senate President David Mark, who is widely alleged to have a lot of things to hide, has not supported Yar’Adua with a declaration of his own.  Neither has the Speaker of the House, Patricia Etteh, who is embroiled in a historic scandal of her own in the legislature.  Three months later, only two or three current governors and ministers have declared their assets.   Where, then, is Yar’Adua’s war?  This is indefensible. 

I am not a believer in the tradition of assessing people after the first100 Days in office.  I do not believe that much can be achieved in three months.  On the other hand, 200 days, or six months, is a period in which a lot can be accomplished.  It is certainly enough time for a nation to know its leader. 

In the first four months, President Yar’Adua has kept the rhetoric flowing.  But we are tiring early of yet another government that “vows” to do one thing or another, or “reaffirms its commitment to the war against corruption.”  This is posturing, not war.  It is the termites that are ahead.  His war rings hollow and lacks substance.  If anything is happening at all, it happens abroad.  At home, we give people who stole billions half of the money and give them a few months of jail time.

Enough, now, of the clichés. 

The history of Nigeria is a testimony to the point that in a war against corruption, there is no time to hesitate or to blink.  You fight, candidly, or become a victim.   It is time for President Yar’Adua to pull the trigger. 

This weekend, he should begin by firing the Attorney-General, who must be probed.  He should ask Mrs Etteh to stop posing as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. 

He should ask everyone in his Cabinet and every PDP Governor and legislator to declare their assets within one week.  He should get to work on the legislation he promised to ensure that officials of state declare their assets as a matter of course, not of choice. 

He must explain his strategy for combating corruption.  That should include why, at federal expense, he hobnobs with people who should be in jail.  If he is really serious, he should ensure, this week, that prosecution of all the errant former governors now begins.  Perhaps the President is too comfortable in Aso Rock to know it, but his credibility is tottering.

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In the famous words of his predecessor, “Umaru…are you dead…?”

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