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What Buhari Should Do On Corruption By Moses E. Ochonu

May 15, 2015

Even if Buhari were to move against corruption along the lines of the above suggestions, the real test of his presidency’s anti-corruption stance would be in the way he confronts and manages the corrupt politicians and interests that funded his political ascent. How will he balance their interest and their continued stake in his presidency against his well-known desire to fight corruption and do right by Nigerians?


President–elect Muhammadu Buhari is two weeks away from being sworn in and he has no illusions about the challenges that will confront him upon his assumption of office. It is not only Buhari who should be anxious about how to combat these challenges. Nigerians are jittery with the nervous energy of anticipation. That is in order, for responsible citizenry entails an intimate engagement with the processes of governance.

We are all invested in the Nigerian project for as long as it lasts and must push political office holders, Buhari being the highest of these, to do things that may not come naturally to them. We must force their hands to take actions that are out of sync with the familiar political calculus of playing it safe and maintaining the delicate elite consensus that undergirds any power formation.

In this spirit of nudging empowered politicians to act in spite of themselves in the interest of Nigerians instead of those of powerful political elites, Nigerians have been offering recommendations on what Buhari should prioritize when he takes office. Some have gone so far as to outline actionable and detailed suggestions.

Understandably, corruption has featured more prominently in these articulations than any other challenge. The reason is clear: corruption overlays, compounds, and produces all other challenges such as security, unemployment, infrastructure, power, and healthcare. Corruption should thus command priority attention in the incoming government.

Buhari rode to power on a wave of outrage directed against corruption in high places and its seeming acceptance as the fuel of the political machine superintended by the PDP government. If his victory was birthed in the crucible of a national anti-corruption anger, the least Buhari should do is to pay Nigerians back by prioritizing the fight against this foundational national vice.

But Buhari is a politician, even if one possessing integrity and an unusual propensity for candor. His political instinct would not be to risk upending the APC coalition that brought him to power by moving too radically against corruption. This is where citizen activism comes in. Buhari needs the unrelenting energy of citizens as well as practical, reasoned recommendations to proceed on this front.

When it comes to anti-corruption, we have to go beyond outrage and the rhetoric of indignation, although that is a prerequisite for forging a national consensus, which in turn is a prelude to formulating solutions. In the end, though, only concrete ameliorative recommendations will make it to the policy realm and perhaps to the table of a President Buhari.

My brother, Okey Ndibe, has set the ball rolling in his latest essay, in which he recommends, in the short term, a hybrid of restitution and amnesty. Under his proposal, the corrupt come forward, confess their theft, return 30-50 percent of their loot and are granted amnesty from prosecution. Those who refuse to come forward are fair game for investigation and prosecution.

I agree with Ndibe that this would be a fair, pragmatic resolution. It would avoid the charge of selectivity and political witch hunt because it gives everyone, regardless of political sympathy or party affiliation, an opportunity to make amends for their participation in the long-running national orgy of state revenue looting. My own modification of this solution would be that the percentage be gradually increased beyond 50 percent as we move to more recent regimes, since recent generations of looters are likely to have more of their assets intact or invested productively. Asking looters of the post-1999 period, many of whom are still active in the illicit revenue sharing bazaar in Abuja, to return 50 percent of their take is not adequate recompense or restitution in my opinion.

The modification I made to Ndibe’s solution is a minor quibble. The the big elephants in the room are 1) what base year or base regime to use as the point of departure; 2) how to prevent public servants from stealing going forward; and 3) how to ensure that those who refuse to fess up and perform restitution are prosecuted with alacrity and integrity without the ability to use their loot to wrangle a favorable outcome from a broken judiciary.

Ndibe has suggested that only people of proven integrity be appointed by Buhari into judgeships and I agree. In addition, I would suggest that, because there are way too many corrupt judges already serving in the judiciary who cannot be removed or replaced by fiat because of the protection and autonomy they enjoy, Buhari should seriously consider constituting special anti-corruption courts in consultation with the national assembly, civil society, and the human rights community. Surely there is room to maneuver on this in our constitution. Legal creativity and consensus building can make it happen. Besides, constitutions are open documents; they are primed to be amended when they fail to respond adequately to the challenges posed by events and developments following their enactment.

On cut-off year, I would start from the Yakubu Gowon regime to ensure a holistic historical moral reckoning. Although corruption preceded that regime, and there were corruption scandals during the first republic, the Gowon regime by all accounts marked the period when the torrential rain of political corruption, to paraphrase Chinua Achebe, began to beat Nigerians. It was when the national political pathology of reckless spending and unauthorized access to the national treasury became the modus operandi of petro-dollar governance.

What should be done about deterrence and prevention? Here, I suggest something that I have advanced on multiple occasions and which I restated during a discussion with a former senior federal official in a conversation two weeks ago. We need a constitutional amendment or an amendment to our anti-corruption laws that flips the axiomatic rule of "innocent until proven guilty" and puts the burden of proving innocence on those whose verified assets, possessions, investments, and lifestyles are patently far in excess of their legitimate earning as public servants.

If by some remote happenstance, a serving or former public servant married into the Dantata or Ibru family and inherited some of their wealth and opulent lifestyle, it should be pretty easy for them to prove this. Otherwise, all unaccounted wealth in excess of reasonable assets from legitimate incomes in the course of public service should be confiscated for the state.

In this regard, we need an asset forfeiture law as a matter of national urgency, a law similar to what most developed countries have on their books and in their canon of jurisprudence. Such a law would authorize the seizure of assets and wealth verifiably owned by serving or former public officials who are unable to justify their possessions within the context of their lifelong public service incomes and after taking into account businesses they and/or their spouse may have legitimately invested in or founded on the side to supplement their income.

Finally, perhaps the biggest elephant in the room is not one person but a coterie of people for which former Lagos Governor, Bola Tinubu, is a composite stand-in — a group whose members invested their illicit funds heavily in Buhari’s campaign and who would be expecting generous payback and/or protection.

Even if Buhari were to move against corruption along the lines of the above suggestions, the real test of his presidency’s anti-corruption stance would be in the way he confronts and manages the corrupt politicians and interests that funded his political ascent. How will he balance their interest and their continued stake in his presidency against his well-known desire to fight corruption and do right by Nigerians?

Moses Ochonu is Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University, USA, and can be reached at [email protected]