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Beyond ‘Fantastically Corrupt’ By Sonala Olumhense

British Prime Minister David Cameron last Tuesday did the world a massive favor, letting rip into an open microphone a description of Afghanistan and Nigeria as “fantastically corrupt.”

He made the assessment with Nigeria leader Muhammadu Buhari on his way to London for a corruption summit Mr. Cameron was due to host. 

A lot of people have criticized Mr. Cameron over it, but the criticism is justified only if you think he was wrong, or if you imagine that the incident was simply an error. 

But I say Mr. Cameron’s announcement was no accident because the British leader wanted something by which to anesthetize himself to the renewed attention to corruption on his side of the political family the event was certain to attract. 

Implementation of that plan began a few days earlier with a ‘news’ story in the Daily Mail which suggested that the United Kingdom would give the Nigeria leader an incredible £250million next year.

Upon reading the story, you learned only that the money is supposed to be aid to Nigeria, not a gift to an individual, even the leader of a corrupt African country.

Let it be clear: I do not think that children of Nigerian leaders, including governors and legislators, should go to school abroad when they are not normally resident there and registered for an age-appropriate academic programme as of the date that parent takes office. 

Nor do I think that any one person needs five homes to be happy.  But Buhari has declared his assets, at least partly, and the houses in reference are not beyond the reach of his legitimate history.  The litany of those all over Nigeria and the UK, if the Daily Mail really wants to know, is part of our real corruption story.

“Self-proclaimed ‘People’s President’ Muhammadu Buhari began a war on corruption after taking power last year, but critics allege it is a political witch-hunt,” the newspaper wrote.

Self-proclaimed?  We can accuse Buhari of several things, but only in the imagination of people working with some kind of “fantastically corrupt” mindset has he ever proclaimed himself ‘People’s President’.

Buhari ran for office crying that corruption would kill Nigeria unless Nigeria killed it first, and that he would make killing it his mission.  Nigerians believed, and they elected him.

Has he killed corruption yet?  Of course not, but while everyone is welcome to the argument as to how well he is doing in that war, there was no alternative to his leadership last year, and he was resoundingly elected. 

Under Buhari, Nigeria remains corrupt, perhaps even fantastically so, but corruption was never an ailment for which the country was going to take a pill in the evening and then be cured by breakfast.

“Nigeria has the highest-paid government officials in the world,” the newspaper said, gleefully.  

The first thing is that the claim is wrong.  Nigerian federal legislators are the world’s highest paid, but the same does not apply to the executive and judicial arms of government.

However, because Daily Mail seemed to prepare for the conference in the Cameronian faith the story is about is about the UK, it also wrote: “The president of [Nigeria’s] senate, Bukola Saraki, is due to face trial on corruption charges after it emerged he has a £6million London property in his wife’s name.”

Again, this is false.  Mr. Saraki is already on trial on charges of false declaration of assets from his time as a state governor.  As Mr. Cameron knows, the £6million property story is only #PanamaPapers weeks old.

As many have pointed out in the past week, the irony is that the UK is a key factor in global corruption.  Hundreds of billions of dollars looted from Nigeria since 1960 is in the country.  

That is partly why the real scandal is that a miserly £250 million is all that Britain is putting where its mouth is in Nigeria in return for the billions of pounds of Nigeria’s assets in and on its soil.

What is really important is that Buhari responded to the Cameron temptation by declaring that rather than seek an apology, he simply wants for his country the Nigeria loot Britain holds. 

What Nigeria should now do is present to the British government a list of property illegally acquired by its former and current officials; all it has to do is ask the public, especially Nigerians in the country.  They know the history and addresses of all the private mansions and businesses.

Buhari has cited the sad case of late Bayelsa governor Dipreye Alamieyeseigha, who fled the UK to evade justice.  Why is Nigeria “fantastically corrupt”?  In 2013, “democrat” Goodluck Jonathan granted the convict state pardon.

Former Plateau governor Joshua Dariye was first seized in London in 2004 on allegations of laundering about $1.7m.  In addition to the $235,000 in cash found on him during his arrest, Dariye had a solid gold mobile phone and several expensive pens, one of them worth $7000!  A London property he owned was subsequently sold for $850,000, while $5.7 million was seized from his UK bank accounts.  Why is Nigeria “fantastically corrupt?”  Dariye is currently a Nigeria Senator.  

In October 2007, a London court lifted an earlier order to freeze former Delta State governor James Ibori's assets worldwide on suspicion that the assets were the proceeds of crime.  The judge’s new order followed a letter waved around in court by Ibori’s lawyers affirming that Ibori was clean.  Why is Nigeria “fantastically corrupt?”  That letter was written by President Umaru Yar’Adua’s Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Michael Aondoakaa.

These three illustrate the close cooperation in Nigeria over the years between the Nigerian state and corruption, the major beneficiary of which is the UK.   Hundreds of former governors, deputy governors, permanent secretaries, diplomats and chiefs of parastatals and their wives, among others, have bought themselves significant slices of the country particularly since 1979. 

We may also recall that one of the Wikileaks revelations a few years ago was of a $10million house owned in central London by Yar’Adua.  Purchased around 2001, the property was conveniently excluded from his famous 2007 declaration of assets.  A United States diplomatic cable in 2008 said the property was confirmed by Zainab, Yar'Adua's daughter, who told her interviewer that two of her siblings resided in the mansion during their studies in the UK.

Corruption is a sad ailment from which most of Nigeria’s vast population has sought relief for nearly 60 years.  The attack by the tag team of Daily Mail and Prime Minister Cameron is a reminder of how hard, how urgently, and how transparently Nigeria’s leader needs to work. 

Buhari should resist the temptation to believe he can fight this monster by himself: a general leads a war but does not fight it.  He should set up a structure that is capable of attracting arms and ammunition from Nigerians and Nigeria’s friends, and a way to convert valuable intelligence into productive policy.  It is a wrong strategy to convert Nigerians into spectators in their own battle. 

I also do not believe the EFCC is capable of the size of the challenge Nigerian corruption presents.  This war should be managed in bite-sized pieces. 

That way, not only would they fit into the mouth; we will also remember what we were trying to eat.  

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Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense