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Designing effective anti-corruption war: opportunity missed by this govt

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Emeka Ugwuonye

Image: The author, Emeka Ugwuonye

Does it occur to you that every Nigerian leader for the past 20 years waged one war or the other against corruption? Abacha had his own war against corruption, which led to the arrest and prosecution of several bankers. Obasanjo had his own war, which led to the arrest, prosecution and persecution of politicians who posed any challenge to his political domination of the country. All have been warriors against corruption. But corruption has worsened over time.

When President Buhari asked Nigerians for their votes, his hottest selling credential was his ability to assure the country that he would finally lead the country to victory in the war against corruption. We believed him. I still believe he has the best chance to do so. As the sitting president, he will always have the best chance to lead to country to victory in the war.

However, we really need to go beyond the slogans and ask the practical question of how to fight a winning war. I was hoping that President Buhari, unlike his predecessors, would appreciate the need to rethink the methods, and not just repeat the passionate promises, coupled with blind actions. To get the votes, you need the slogans. But to win the war, you need a proper combination of strategy and tactical maneuvers.

Buhari seemed to understand that he must move beyond the slogans, but he didn’t quite know how to go about it. So, he made several public statements that suggested action, but which indeed were really not well thought out. He spoke of special courts. He spoke of US catching some corrupt politicians for him. He spoke of not appointing his ministers on time because he was vetting them for corruption. He spoke of recruiting “fearless and honest” judges. But in the end, these were mere slogans and speeches that seemed to have ended at the very spot where they were uttered.

On any critical appraisal of the government’s effort to fight corruption what you will now hear is how hard it is to fight corruption, and how insurmountable the problems of the past are. Indeed, we now hear of excuses in place of results. And now and there, we now hear of the number of corners that must be cut in order to get the war against corruption going. Some even say it is okay to dispense with our constitutional system of due process and fair hearing because fighting corruption requires extreme measures. This school of thought forgets that this was exactly Obasanjo’s argument – that fighting corruption was such a compelling emergency that it should excuse the removal of governors by unconstitutional means.

For critical observers, for Buhari to have any chance of faring better than his predecessors in the fight against corruption he must approach the war with greater intelligence and new approaches. So, the question is: what must he do differently?

His starting point is to realize the importance of rule of law and the need to see our constitution as an asset rather than as an obstacle. It was precisely the effort to wage the war against corruption viewing the constitution as an obstacle that derailed all past efforts. Abacha thought that he could create order at lower institutional levels, without addressing the ultimate question of constitutional order in the country. 

He did not realize that his government and method of governance were in themselves antithetical to order. Obasanjo also did not realize that obedience to the constitution is the prerequisite to any form of justice and order in his country. They all saw the constitution as something that must be defeated in order to win the war against corruption. As history has it now, they all failed and they worsened the problem ten folds.

Buhari seems to now have his own moment to get it right. Unfortunately, he is towing the path of his failed predecessors. He tends to see the constitution and the due process package of our laws as obstacle. He tells lawyers not to defend “corrupt” people. He makes several remarks that are aimed at denigrating and demoralizing our judicial institutions. In his first moves to go after the “corrupt” people, he seriously undermined our judiciary by disobeying court orders and engaging in some dodgy practices.

As an illustration of this tendency to assault the judicial system, we look at what has happened in Dasuki’s case. The Government could not come out clear and straight on Dasuki. The DSS (not the EFCC) first went after Dasuki. They searched his house and took away all vehicles found there. They took away guns found there. They interrogated him for days about guns. They placed him under house arrest for gun possession. Dasuki got tired of this “harassment” and went to court. The court ordered the government to stay away from Dasuki’s premises and to stop the harassment. It was at that time that they shifted gear and went into corruption allegations.

Of course, we all reasonably suspected Dasuki to be corrupt. But remember it is a system thing. He could not have done that without support from the President and a number of other people in that government. Nigerians would be happy to see justice against Dasuki. But why did the government pursue the matter in such a clumsy and dangerous manner as to attract the rebuke of the court? Why start off playing games, when you ought to have gone straight into clear action?

Because of the way the government started against Dasuki, it now appears as if the timing of the corruption charges was calculated to frustrate the court order. A similar approach was applied in the unrelated case of Nnamdi Kanu. You first took him to a Magistrate court and waited until that court granted him bail before going to a higher court with more serious allegations. 

And it was the same government that charged Nnamdi Kanu to a Magistrate Court that was now telling the Magistrate court that it had no jurisdiction and should dismiss the case. These are a few instances of bizarre approaches to law enforcement. Why play the courts? Why antagonize the courts and make it look as if the Judges are not interested in the fight against corruption?

Also, there have been elements of similar dodgy practice in the Dokpesi case. The government seeks dangerously to antagonize the ill-informed masses of Nigerian against the judicial system. The government seeks for the masses to cheer for it as if it was in a soccer match, rather than focusing on doing things the right way, which will bring enduring positive results to the country.

The concern of the enlightened is that going about it the way the government has done means that the government is likely going to fail. Buhari’s war against corruption so far is waged in a manner which makes victory impossible. When politicians fail, they lie to cover up their failure. What will President Buhari tell Nigerians when his anti-corruption effort ends in a disaster? He will blame it on everybody else. He will blame it on the judiciary. He will blame it on the critics. He will blame it on the lawyers who continued to represent “corrupt” people despite his admonition. He will even blame it on the Nigerian peoples for their lack of discipline and patriotism.

We must sound the warning therefore: the best and the only way to truly fight corruption in Nigeria is to follow the law and the constitution. Every sensible farmer must till his farm with the tools he has. The law and the legal institutions are the tools Buhari has in his war against corruption. The law is not his enemy. The law is his tool. He must learn how to use the tool he has.

Indeed, we have already begun to see in Buhari the effects of a wrong approach to the war against corruption. Two little things pointed in this direction. Two days ago, the story emerged that Dasuki gave Buhari two vehicles during the time he was campaigning, and Buhari accepted those vehicles. Ironically, Buhari’s men have been splitting the legal hair to show that Buhari did not commit any crime by accepting the gifts from Dasuki. But these are the rejected argument of Dokpesi – that he did not commit any crime by accepting payment from Dasuki. Indeed, Dokpesi’s argument held more water because he rendered some service to somebody. But what services did Candidate Buhari render to deserve two vehicles worth nearly 500,000 dollars? And why did he not know that Dasuki was not the right office to pay him for whatever services he thought he rendered to Nigeria to justify the payment with cars?

Everybody understands that such story of gifts to the President from the same people that are being prosecuted for corruption is a terrible irony that demoralizes everybody. The President should never have found himself in a place where he would be explaining any gift from a person being prosecuted. This dilemma has led to the second thing we observed. 

Yesterday, it was reported that the President is considering some soft landing for the corrupt people who would come to volunteer to refund. This is a dramatic development, coming at a critical stage in the prosecution of Dasuki. It sounds like the President has been boxed in by the revelations of the Dasuki gift to him. In fact, it couldn’t be otherwise. As Dasuki’s case progresses in court, he would seek to call the President of Nigeria as a witness. 

The constitution granted the President immunity against being compelled to testify in court. But if a critical witness cannot come to court, then Dasuki will claim that he did not get fair hearing. And that could terminate the case of Dasuki.

Some of the most parochial Nigerians have viewed my opinions as an attack on this President, notwithstanding my wholesale support for this President during the elections. If it is this army of the blind that President Buhari needs to fight his war against corruption, then we must be prepared to consider that war lost even before it would begin.

[‎Emeka Ugwuonye‎ wrote via Due Process Advocates (DPA)]

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