JJ Omojuwa: Dollar Republic of Nigeria and Babachir Lawal

And then there was Andrew Yakubu. A thief is a thief but surely, there has to be a difference between a thief who steals and then sends the money abroad to create jobs elsewhere and one who steals and is bold enough to retain the money in the local economy to be some sort of useful capital for value creation. Andrew Yakubu is a different type though, he had over $9.8m cash kept in a house. How many Nigerian banks even have as much as $9.8m cash in a vault without depending on the Central Bank of Nigeria? As far as rogues go, this Andrew Yakubu tops the pyramid of evil, not because of the size of the stolen money, he is a small fish on that front – but because he was so insensitive to the cost of depriving the economy of such sums.

We must be careful not to get carried away by the unusual reality of seeing one man keep over $9.8m cash in a private apartment. We must ask questions about the system that makes it possible for such a thing to happen. Let us face it, even Yakubu could have more dollars hidden elsewhere. It does not stand to logic that a man who decided to keep some of his loot in raw cash would decide to keep it all in one place. Pablo Escobar did not play it that way, I am certain Yakubu did not either. It must also be said that, no matter how far the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission go in this fight against corruption, it is not going to catch every thief with a private dollar bank. Since the current administration appears more fixated on the cure, the future of Nigeria must be established on preventing these unwholesome realities. It will always cost more to fight corruption than it’d be if some more focus could be directed at preventing it. This should not be understood to mean that the fight should be stopped. I find it hard to trust those who say we should forget about what has already been stolen and just look to prevent more stealing. It almost sounds like a defence for those who already got away with milking the system and depriving Nigerians of their already limited resources. Every thief that can be caught should be caught but we must always remember that our best bet would always be to prevent corruption.

A thought must be spared for those who insist on pretending these revelations are no big deals. It is not impossible to fight corruption and also build a thriving economy. To say, “bring back corruption” so that we can have an improved economy is certainly not a request about the economy, it is a naked thirst for the order of impunity that made it possible for people with no known means of livelihood to own properties that even those who earn their money legitimately can only dream of.

As soon as Yakubu’s loot was discovered, those in charge of revising the recent past immediately went to town to tell us he had been sacked by then President Jonathan for corruption. An obvious “alternative fact” that falls flat against a simple search on Google. Just searching ‘Jonathan fires NNPC Yakubu’ on Google immediately dispelled the intentional lies. He had actually been fired, but because he dared to challenge then Petroleum Resources minister, Alison-Madueke. It matters that Yakubu was not fired for being corrupt because it further cements the reality of impunity that held sway under the government Yakubu served.

President Muhammadu Buhari could easily find himself in a Yakubu situation years from now. If the Secretary to the Federal Government, Babachir Lawal, does not get the boot concerning the hundreds of millions of naira he allegedly used through his company to “cut grass,” a time would come when after the EFCC is further emboldened by another administration, many would further question Buhari’s anti-corruption legacy if Lawal loses his job for any other reason other than the fact that he had too dark a cloud of corruption around him. Someone with a bias for Lawal would be thinking, “but he hasn’t been convicted, so why sack him?” but that would be your bias getting in the way of rational thinking. Lawal is a blot on Buhari’s anti-corruption escutcheon. No one will prosecute him, let alone jail him as the Secretary to the Federal Government. If we want justice to come at him with a balanced scale, he has to be tried as another private citizen. He’d still wield some influence but certainly not with the bargaining plate of “I am the SGF!” The earlier this one got fired, the better for Buhari and his government. It is not even like he is such an outstanding SGF. He is among those who that have ensured that the Buhari administration does not move forward and when it does move forward, they have kept the speed limit of the administration at just below “snail speed.”

The Nigerian government must now commit to transparency. Accountability automatically suffers in the absence of transparency. How can you be accountable when you already operate in an opaque environment? It is like asking the National Assembly to account for its budgetary allocation when we have never seen the breakdown of its lump sum. It becomes a national contradiction when the same National Assembly is partly responsible for ensuring some form of transparency in the execution of the budget. If we really want to fight corruption, let us fight the past by making people pay; let us avoid the errors of the past by institutionalising transparency and accountability in public spending.

This piece was originally published in Punch Newspaper of 15/02/2017