The confirmation by President Muhammadu Buhari that former government officials are returning looted money may not be the good news he intended it to be.
“…We are collecting documents and some of them have started voluntarily returning something,” he told Nigerians in Teheran last week. “But we want all [of the loot]. When we get those documents, we will formally charge them to court and then we will tell Nigerians to know those who abused the trust when they were entrusted with public funds. So, the day of reckoning is gradually approaching."
To name and shame: this is remarkable. On close review, however, this may not be as bad for those officials and the government(s) they represented, as it may be seen as a positive response to Buhari’s anti-corruption message.
But Buhari did not say how he is collecting the refunds, what he is doing with them, or what he is doing with those who are making them.
He simply indicated that he will not be satisfied by such limited or abbreviated responses to the threat which he poses. "We want to have everything back – all that they took by force in 16 years,” presidential spokesman Garba Shehu quoted him as saying.
The report did not say if the Nigerians present raised a cheer. They may have offered a cautious response, after all, the Nigeria leader did put the qualifier, “by force,” in front of his 16 years.
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and other parties that dominated the “yam-eating” years between 1999 and 2015 barely used any force. They were basically 419-ers and sundry conmen and women who waited until our people were asleep, looking the other way or off their guard. That was when they robbed: with great impunity and comprehensively, but quietly.
My conclusion is that Mr. Shehu, who sent one of the dispatches from Teheran, probably misheard his principal, who may have said “farce”, not force. What the PDP and other parties operated between 1999 and 2015 was more farce than force. They plundered and pillaged with such systematic crudeness and insensitivity they did not need force to enforce.
Nonetheless, whether by farce or by force, it is heartening that Nigeria stands to recover some of what was stolen in the years of rampage and shamelessness.
There is only one slight problem: how does Buhari do this in the three and a half years he has left on his mandate? His style is known for its atrociously slow stride of pace, and there is little reason to hope that he can accomplish much in this direction during the period.
Still, short of a revolution, Buhari remains our best hope for any change, and I urge his government to show greater energy. Of greater importance is the need to build and reinforce the institutions necessary to continue the fight well into the future. Buhari’s worst error would be to leave a legacy in which the hopes he has raised are dashed upon his departure because they did not take root in the country. That would be the same as the yam-eaters depending on one person at a time to keep their looting flourishing.
It is in this connection that President Buhari’s confirmation of some of the loot being “returned” presents a startling problem. Kaduna State governor Nasir El-Rufai made the announcement a few weeks ago.
Buhari suggests that the funds are being accepted by his government. I agree that stolen funds, wherever found, should be collected for the people, to whom they belong. But there is a danger, in the absence of an unimpeachable administrative and accounting mechanism, in accepting a free-form acceptance of “returned” forms.
It is not wrong that certain persons who found themselves with public funds and who wish to return them in the kind of atmosphere we now have are discouraged from doing so. Indeed, they should be encouraged to do so without making it appear as if every such person owes the same level of guilt.
I do not believe they all do: some goats grabbed every tuber of yam they were ever close to, and some goats even robbed other goats; some goats were given yams to hoard, while others were given yams to hold; some goats ate all yams without discrimination, while some goats appear to have developed a conscience.
Every single tuber should be recovered where possible, and if the first few tubers are coming back without any argument or violence, even of a legal nature, we should accept them. In the absence of clear guidelines, however, let it be clear that the answer could become more menacing than the question.
This is why Buhari must clarify exactly what he is doing, so that participants and spectators are clear as to what lies ahead. Yams being returned should not by default fall into the hands of presumed angels in the new dispensation. If some kind of plea-bargaining scheme is in play that is unknown to Nigerian law, let it be clear that the same fire that is used to cook for the home can eviscerate the home.
Beware of the danger of mixed messages.
In Kogi State, two-time former governor Prince Abubakar Audu was set to become governor for the third time last weekend on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC), and was seemingly on the way to victory when he died suddenly. My condolences go to his family.
A month ago in this column, I said Audu should never have been running in the first place, as he was on trial for allegedly misappropriating a ton of public funds—N11billion worth—his second time around. As part of his campaign, Kogi party boss Hadi Ametuo even stated that Audu would return the N11billion when he was re-elected.
“No governor can claim he has not done any malpractice or stolen anything during his time in the office…” Ametuo said, appearing to confirm the looting. Strangely, “corruption-fighting” APC openly campaigned for the corruption-allegation-fighting Audu.
Beware of the danger of mixed messages.
Finally, is Nigeria conferring National Honors on anyone in 2015? As the year crawls to an end, the federal government has not tipped its hand, but it should confer the honors.
In the Goodluck Jonathan years, it was customary to make a big bonanza of the event, with most awards going to decisively undesirable crooks. What Buhari should do is re-establish the true character and mission of the awards by ensuring they go to a few people of character and achievement who deserve to be celebrated.
We do have an ugly story to tell, but it is dangerous and unproductive to give the impression that all we have to offer is ugly. By all means, send the bad to prison, but it is equally important to honour the worthy, and bookmark their sacrifice and example.
History must beware of mixed messages.
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