By Tayo Odunlami
Corruption is responsible in large measure for the broken promises, the dashed hopes and the shallow dreams that have characterized the existence of the multitude of Nigerians in the last few decades. The choice before us is clear: We either go to war against corruption in all its ramifications or we shall soon be totally consumed by this hydra-headed dragon.
— Catholic Secretariat Forum (Nigeria).
In Nigeria, corruption remains a way of life, especially in government and business. For the past year, the Nigerian media has been awash with reports of shady deals in the executive and legislative corridors. Of course, all the reports attracted the usual concern and criticisms from the civil society—including the Catholic Church of Nigeria, whose clergy have been vocal in the condemnation of vice. And of course, little has come of the allegations, and only a few people have been prosecuted. With top public officials and their private-sector collaborators consistently reported to be involved in shady deals, it appears that corruption in Nigeria has in no way abated.
One scandal in particular exemplifies the extent of the sorry situation. Implicated are members of the Senate. The upper house of the National Assembly has consistently been the target of allegations of scandals. Among the scandals: in 1999, a sum of 850,000 naira (about US$6,000) was allegedly paid to some senators in exchange for their votes for Evan Enwerem, President Olusegun Obasanjo's choice as Senate president. The senators had favored Chuba Okadigbo, the charismatic—and recently deceased—orator, but Obasanjo preferred Enwerem. Cash, rather than argument, is said to have swayed the senators to the executive's choice. The scandal kicked off what has since become the hallmark of the chamber.
In 2003, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai claimed that senators demanded 54 million naira (US$393,000) from him if he wished to be cleared for his ministerial appointment. El-Rufai, who was previously the director-general of the Bureau for Public Enterprises, was screened for his ministerial slot in July 2003 upon being nominated by the president. Newspaper reports of a Senate clique that demanded bribes from other, unnamed nominees filtered out; later a senator said he had heard similar allegations. But the reports gained little attention until early September 2003, when el-Rufai made the allegations a national story when he repeated them in an interview to The Guardian newspaper. El-Rufai also said the senators told him that because he was head of the body charged with the privatization of public companies and parastatals (large, state-owned enterprises), he would have skimmed a tidy sum of money for himself from the sales. The senators allegedly demanded their share of the booty—required payment if he wished to be cleared by the Senate and graduate to minister.
On Sept. 23, 2003 the Senate, embarrassed by public outcry over the scandal, mandated its committee on Ethics, Code of Conduct and Public Relations to investigate el-Rufai's accusation. The exercise promises to be a practical test of how far the legislature can go in the war against corruption, especially when it is directly implicated. It will also stretch Obasanjo's will. It affords him the rare opportunity to highlight his touted anti-corruption stance. But the belief nationwide is that, as usual, the committee's investigation will be all hot air and no prosecution.
Within the past year, allegations of corruption have enveloped the president's men and state executives. In July 2003, TheNEWS did an extensive story detailing the alleged corrupt practices of Tafa Balogun, inspector-general of police. The report spoke of how Balogun used his office during the April 2003 general elections to line his pocket.
In spite of the weight of the allegations against Balogun, no action is known to have been taken against him by the president. In Nigeria, the talk is rife that prosecution of corrupt practices is defined by the whim of the president. And the talk is not without reason. Despite Obasanjo's anti-corruption rhetoric, since taking office in May 1999 very few high-ranking officials have been brought before either the regular court or indicted for prosecution by any of the three agencies established to curb corruption. These agencies are the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), set up to act as a check on the conduct of public officers; the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), established by an anti-corruption act that was signed into law in June 2000; and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), created last year by Obasanjo to fight the so-called Advance Fee Fraud, a fax or e-mail scam popularly known as "419 fraud," and other crimes related to business and the economy.
The weeks leading to the general elections in May 2003 provided a litmus test for the CCB and the ICPC to justify their creation and relevance in the anti-corruption war. The war against corruption in the country has never been short on petitions—formal allegations to the committees of misconduct by officials—many of them strong on facts. In one petition, the then-governor of Ondo State, Chief Adebayo Adefarati, and two of his commissioners were accused of being involved in a 500 million naira property scam. The three allegedly inflated the cost of a property bought with state funds. On Jan. 27, 2003, the CCB wrote Adefarati to inform him that he was being investigated on charges that, in addition to those related to the land sale, included the alleged illegal transfer of money abroad. The bureau gave the former governor a deadline of February 6 to respond. But as with all other cases before the bureau, the investigation has seemingly ended with the letter, with Adefarati facing no prosecution to date.
Another embarrassing case of corruption for which strong petitions were written to the CCB and the ICPC involved the Bayelsa State governor, Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha. The petitions described a method by which some governors have allegedly been fleecing the states and the people. Apart from the petition, some leaders of the state met with Obasanjo in December 2002 to express their anger with the fraud. They revealed details of an alleged Irrevocable Standing Payment Order (ISPO) racket through which they said their governor has siphoned 12 billion naira.
Obasanjo, angered to learn how the ISPO deal was purportedly being used by a number of governors to defraud the people, was said to have summoned the accountant-general of the Federation, who confirmed the ISPO racket. Obasanjo promptly ordered its stoppage. But critics called for stiffer response and, in essence, action from the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission. The ICPC probed the issue and made some noise about a possible prosecution of the governor and, indeed, other governors under investigation. But Nigerians are still waiting for the commission to act.
The inability of the ICPC—which many claim is influenced by Obasanjo—to act on the ISPO deal was not unconnected with the president's desperation for a second term. Obasanjo needed the support of governors under investigation by the ICPC to win the presidential primaries of the Peoples Democratic Party. And in the horse-trading that ensued, he supposedly influenced the ICPC to back off. So the commission lost a good opportunity to justify its existence. In fact, the ICPC has been unable to record a single solid case that could be held up as proof that Obasanjo is sincere in his fight against corruption
Peer review commentary is presented as a counterpoint to this report. The views expressed are those of the peer review panel, and not the author.
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