Skip to main content

Governance As Gamesmanship By Sonala Olumhense

The federal government is spreading a dangerous rumor: that next year, Great Britain will give Nigeria information about Nigerians who own property on its soil.

It was generated last week by Bolaji Owosanoye, the Executive Secretary of Nigeria’s Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption.

Mr. Owosanoye, who spoke to the News Agency of Nigeria in New York, declared that negotiations were now advanced, describing the plan as “a step forward in the fight against corruption [in Nigeria]”.

He sounded as though Nigeria was in negotiation with the British government, but was referring to the Unexplained Wealth Order (UWO) initiative first proposed in the United Kingdom in June 2015 by Transparency International.

“Britain has promised that by 2018, she will provide Nigeria with the information about who owns what and where,” he said.  These include all the houses that have been bought by public officials or accounts that are held by public officials on which they are right now not paying taxes or which they cannot explain the sources.”

I advise you not to get too excited, as this is no more than another titillating tale in Nigeria’s ramshackle “war” on corruption.   A war is led by a general, Nigeria’s is led by words.  

The reason Nigeria’s much-advertised effort under President Muhammadu Buhari has collapsed is that the former army general appears to be afraid.  Of something.  Or somebody.  Or some people.  The Buhari who bragged on the electoral campaign trail is not the one in Aso Rock who cannot find the courage to call the corrupt by name in public. 

In other words, what if the United Kingdom were to give him a list of 5000 properties and their Nigerian owners all over the country?  Is the same Buhari who failed to honour his promise to name looters last year going to name the same looters because another country has listed them?  

Is the same Buhari who early in 2016 loudly asked Nigeria’s diplomats in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to compile a similar list but has whispered not one word since then going to broadcast a UK list?  

What happened to his much-advertised signing with the UAE of the Judicial Agreements on Extradition, Transfer of Sentenced Persons, Mutual Legal Assistance on Criminal Matters, which received thunderous celebration in Nigeria. 

Buhari always spoke about how the US had repeatedly promised it would help his cause, to which end he received from them confidential information that exposed many corrupt Nigerians, including a former Minister who had reportedly taken as much as $6billion.

Remember also that at the Anti-Corruption Summit in London last May, President Buhari waved aside the opportunity to obtain an apology from the then Prime Minister David Cameron for his “fantastically corrupt” remark.

“What I am demanding is the return of [Nigeria’s] assets,” he said, with little proactive done by Nigeria about that demand since then.  

Curiously, following that summit, Transparency International organized an important panel discussion of top international experts on financial crime to discuss the recovery of Nigeria’s stolen assets.  But “corruption-fighting” Nigeria did not attend.  

On the actual state of the war, we are flailing, much of the “work” being in the media.  In one actual courtroom last week, an accused judge, along with his wife and a lawyer, was acquitted of all 18 charges of corruption the government had brought against them.

In another court the following day, former First Lady Patience Jonathan was sent dancing in the streets after the court unfroze her $5.8 million account the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission had said in November possibly held dubious funds.

Everyone in Nigeria knows Mrs. Jonathan has never earned that kind of money in her life.  But that is beside the point: she defeated the government in the court.

Last week, and nearly two years after he took power, President Buhari launched his economic recovery scheme, the Nigeria Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP), which he said would focus on agriculture and food security, energy, industrialization and social investment.

I have seen these schemes launched by various governments, the most persuasive and best advertised being the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS) of President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2004.  But as everyone knows, it is the dancing—not the drumming and the singing—which counts.  NEEDS collapsed in just months.  

The omens are not good for ERGP.  An economic plan set on overzealous new borrowing has a serious problem.  Furthermore, given Buhari’s inability to get his WAI dog to grow into a Change monkey; his failure to deploy personal example; his preference for loyalty over expertise; and his poor rule-of-law track record, the ERGP comes from the same playbook as his electoral promises, and faces the same fate.  

As we know, those campaign promises have come back to haunt him so much that the terms “incompetence” and “clueless”, which were widely used to hang President Jonathan, are now being used for Buhari.  

One issue is his appreciation of health and human welfare.  “I have never been so sick in my life,” he declared upon his return from his 49-day medical timeout in London.  

Being sick is human, but being hypocritical is not necessarily so.  Hopefully, he understands that medical treatment abroad, at vast public expense, without disclosing how much he is spending as he pleases is not merely hypocritical, but also looting.

His concern for his personal well-being ought to extend to the victims of the rampaging, rapacious and murderous cattle herdsmen his government has failed to address with any conviction.

It ought to extend to Nigerians who, first displaced by Boko Haram or flooding, are now suffering at the hands of officials of a barely-concerned government. 

It ought to extend to our refugees, about 130,000 of whom are now gathered on a desert highway outside Diffa, on Niger’s National Route 1, according to a New York Times story one week ago, with no home, no water, no country and no hope.

The irony is that where true leaders work frantically to save or protect the life of their citizens, ours has cut the tragic figure of being strongly concerned about his.  

Yes, some progress has been made on Boko Haram, but it is only some.  Nigeria is not safe and not secure.  Security—indeed warfare—is not bombing a vast expanse of forest in the hope you will end the menace.  Security is caring for your citizens, even in the middle of battle.

But there are a few things President Buhari can do to enhance both security and the economy, and nurture credibility.  He can obtain treatment locally, and rationalize the cost of governance.

As a doer, not just a preacher, Buhari can reduce the presidential aircraft pool to two or three.  The presidential and ministerial car pools are much too large: sell them.

He can demonstrate capacity for the rule of law and publish the full account of recovered loot ordered by the court.  

He can overhaul the government, replacing party hacks with experts in their fields; and relatives of the powerful with go-getters obtained in open competition.  

And he can initiate Nigeria’s own UWO, using the BVN as a handy baseline tool.

[email protected]
Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense