Nigeria’s War on Grand Theft: Will effective institutions ever matter?

By Thompson Ayodele

ThompsonThe current Chairman of the African Union has urged critics of African governments not to forget that corruption is as old as Adam. Besides, he adds, the canker occurs everywhere on the planet.

Such irresponsible comments only strengthen politicians against the people they serve.

Corruption is one of the banes of development across the world. Corruption in America or Europe makes a minor dent on the economy. Corruption accounts for 25 per cent of the continent’s GDP. It accounts for the failure of government to provide adequate security for its citizens as well as basic public goods. It accounts for the weakness of the rule of law as it politicizes life.

In my country Nigeria, it has dwindled economic growth and prosperity. For many non-Nigerians, it is hard to believe that the country is poor considering the country’s huge oil proceeds alone.

Until recently, Nigeria’s international rating on the corruption index has been dismal. This prompted the last administration to set up the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) to combat the menace.

The EFCC under the chairmanship of Alhaji Nuhu Ribadu excelled even among dodgy politicians. When some bank directors were investigated and made to cough out some of the funds fraudulently acquired while at the helm, the commission received a pat on the back. For that and similar feats, the EFCC were praised to high heaven.

With more than 56 convictions on corruption, money laundering, oil pipeline vandalism and related offences, assets well over US$5 billion have been frozen and seized from corrupt officials, their agents and cronies. The fight against advance fee fraud (419) which has given many innocent Nigerians a bad name has been doggedly pursued, leading to the prosecution and conviction of kingpins, including the celebrated $242 million case involving a Brazilian bank.

The EFCC also recovered and returned the sum of $4 million to a victim of advance fee fraud in Hong Kong and has seized and returned over $ 500,000 to various US citizens. These are no mean achievements.

The real challenge for the commission began when it decided to take on politicians, particularly the so-called ‘sacred cows’. The one that has gained wide currency is the arrest of one of the governors who was reported to have bankrolled the election of President Yar’Adua.

At a point, efforts were made to whittle down the powers of the Commission if not altogether eliminate it. The open confrontation between the EFCC and the Attorney-General over the former’s insubordination is one hell of a spanner thrown in the EFCC’s works. A closer look however, shows that the furore is not over EFCC’s refusal to report to the AG’s but the crude manner with it the AG demanded such subordination.

The most critical period for the commission was shortly before last year’s general elections. Opposition to the EFCC’s prominence so vehement that it was used by the Political administration to settle political scores, leaving the Commission’s image badly dented.

Whatever might be the shortcomings of the EFCC, imaginary as they are, the commission has exhibited strong commitment to the war against graft. It has investigated a vast number of people, including political leaders and private individuals. The fight against corruption would remain elusive if those who steal are well connected and escape justice.

Alas, a clique with deep roots in government succeeded to personalise the war against graft and have its Chairman forced out to go on a study leave. It is not surprising to gauge public’s displeasure with this naked attempt at fighting justice.

The question on everyone’s lip is after the exit of Ribadu, would the EFCC have the same clout to arrest and even prosecute the big names in the corruption industry?

However, a key lesson from the Nigerian case is that fighting corruption should not be centered on one benevolent authority. It would seem sensible to invest in building effective institutions with tough biting teeth, but also with a desire for rewarding honest and diligent workers. This builds trust among public office holders and provides the incentive to perform.

With time, the success of such institutions and the high ethical standards they set will permeate all facet of society making it unattractive to dishonestly acquire property.

The present administration needs to show strong commitment both in words and actions that the war on graft is waxing stronger.

Should there be any indication that the administration is backing down, it would reverse whatever gains the nation has made in the anti-corruption war. It would further worsen the nation’s rating on the international corruption index.

It would further lend credence to the allegation that this government is an offshoot of previous passive administrations that allowed powerful minority political architects with questionable credentials to steer the boat of public leadership. Nigeria needs a better leadership to fight corruption.

This article has been edited by Mr. Ayodele is the Executive Director of Initiative for Public Policy Analysis, a non-governmental organisation based in Lagos.