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Nigerian Government Cannot Fight Corruption when People are Living in Poverty – Falana

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By Femi Falana

Introduction

I am delighted to address this meeting convened by the Human Rights and Environmental Development Agenda in collaboration with Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism, National Orientation Agency, Technical Unit on Governance and Anti-Corruption Reforms and African Centre for Media and Information Literacy to review the efforts of State and Non-State Actors in the fight against corruption in Nigeria in 2019. No doubt, state and non-state actors have successfully produced reports and launched them, held seminars and workshops and staged a walk against corruption. In spite of such measures the Transparency International has alleged that corruption is on the ascendancy in Nigeria.

As usual, both Independent and Corrupt Practices and other offences Commission and Economic and Financial Crimes Commission dismissed the report of the TI. However, while the efforts of both anti-graft agencies are appreciated in the fight against corruption they are alone as some highly placed officials and agencies are openly promoting corrupt practices and abuse of office. Having been overwhelmed by the forces of impunity the anti-graft agencies have not been able to address the refusal of the federal government to stop the selective investigation and prosecution of corrupt officials, annual padding of budgets, inflation of contracts, daily  extortion of money from motorists on all roads by police and military personnel, open distribution of money by politicians to purchase votes, illegal imposition of candidates on political parties by political parties by god fathers, alleged bribe of electoral officers, substitution of the decisions of election petition tribunals and courts for the verdict of the electorate, monthly payment of salaries to ghost workers, diversion of money earmarked for procurement of arms and ammunition to fight insurgency, appointment of indicted persons as ministers and heads of public institutions, usurpation of political by a cabal of unelected persons and recruitment of public officers in violation of the Federal Character Commission Act.

In his address at the corruption summit of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission held at Abuja last year, President Buhari challenged the Nigerian people to join the fight being waged against corruption by the Federal Government. The President pointed out that ant-corruption fight should not be seen as an end in itself but “as an instrument not only to fight poverty but a means to restore the right order of things.” In combating the menace of corruption in the next 4 years the President listed the following 8 priorities:

i.              Strengthen the capacity of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and other anti-corruption agencies by providing additional material, organisational and logistical support;

ii.             Close existing legislative loopholes, facilitate collaboration with the judiciary, and strengthen the criminal justice system;

iii.            Enforce effective asset declaration by public office holders and ensure sanctions by professional bodies against lawyers, bankers, brokers, public officials, and other individuals facilitating corrupt practices;

iv.           Ensure comprehensive support and protection to whistleblowers, witnesses and victims of corruption;

v.            Adopt and formulate the policy of ‘naming and shaming’ all those who engage in corrupt practices while encouraging and honouring those who do not;

vi.           Educate, mobilise and encourage Nigerians at the grassroots level to take ownership of the fight against corruption,

vii.          Press for a crackdown on safe havens for corrupt assets, abolishing of bank secrecy jurisdictions and tax havens on the continent and beyond;

viii.         Insist on the unconditional return of looted assets kept abroad and further strengthening of international cooperation through information and mutual legal assistance;

In his keynote address delivered at the same conference President Paul Kagame of Rwanda said that corruption must be fought from top to bottom, using four key principles, “culture, responsibility, accountability, and effectiveness”. He urged Africans to discard the myth that “corruption is endemic to particular cultures. Corruption is a universal weakness, not an African one, and it is not part of our destiny as a continent.” He said that research has shown that the biggest sources and beneficiaries of corruptions are outside of Africa. As far as President Kagame is concerned, “This is a fight that can be won; tolerating corruption is a choice, not an inevitability. It is within our power to end it. That is the most important starting point, otherwise, it will be a waste of time to keep talking about it. Corruption does not take decades to eradicate once we decide to break the habit. We have to set our sights high, it is not enough to fight corruption just as merely fighting poverty, it is too small an ambition for Africa. We want to create value, we want to create wealth, not merely fighting corruption.”

With profound respect, both African leaders have failed to address the root cause of corruption. As no nation can fight corruption outside its political economy the discourse has to take cognizance of the impact of the neo-liberal policies being religiously pursued by the majority of African governments. To that extent, the implementation of the aforementioned policies cannot seriously tackled the problem of corruption. It is submitted that corruption cannot be meaningfully fought by governments that pay poor wages to workers, owe workers and pensioners arrears of salaries and pension and implement economic programmes that promote poverty and underdevelopment.

It has to be realised that that the progressive withdrawal of subsidies from social services by the State which is a key component of the IMF/World Bank sponsored Structural Adjustment Programme has led to mass poverty in the land. Wealth cannot be created by countries whose economy is operated to serve the interests of imperialism. For instance, two years ago, Rwanda which was spending $2 billion per annum on the importation of second hand dresses decided to develop her textile industry. Accordingly, the Kagame regime banned the importation of all second hand dresses from the United States and other Western countries. The Trump administration kicked against the ban and threatened to impose economic sanctions on Rwanda. We supported the ban and called on Nigeria and other African countries to develop their textile industry. But the call has been ignored to the detriment of the economy and the dignity of the Nigerian people.

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In a similar vein, the Trump administration which warehoused part of the Abacha loot has set arrogantly set conditions for the repatriation of the sum of $308m negotiated by the governments of Nigeria, United States and Jersey Island in the United Kingdom. Upon signing the tripartite agreement for the release of the stolen fund the representative of the United States government threatened that the fund would be recovered if is re-looted by officials of the federal government. There was no protest from the Justice Minister, Mr. Abubakar Malami SAN who signed the agreement on behalf of the federal government. A respected newspaper columnist, Sonala Olumense has criticised the federal government for not rejecting such humiliation. But the federal government could not have protested as the bulk of the over $4bn recovered from the Abacha loot has been criminally diverted by some unscrupulous public officers. In fact, the order of the federal high court secured by the SERAP for the publication of all looted wealth since 1999 has been treated with disdain by the Buhari administration.

Apart from inviting Nigerians to participate in the fight against corruption the Buhari administration has partially fought corruption on the basis of the above listed priorities. Having realised that the fight against corruption cannot be fought and won by the federal government alone the Buhari administration has rightly decided to “educate, mobilise and encourage Nigerians at the grassroots level to take ownership of the fight against corruption.” But no attempt has been made by the federal government to mobilise the people to fight corruption. As a matter of fact, the federal government has engaged in budget padding and manipulation. For instance, the President presented a budget of N10.2trn for the 2020 financial year.

The national assembly increased the estimates to N10.4trn. After the enactment of the Appropriation Act, 2020 the national assembly has been passing the budgets of about 65 agencies of the federal government including NNPC, CBN, FIRS, NDCC, NIMASA, NPA etc. The NFIU has challenged the CBN for budgeting the sum of N1.1trn which is 10 per cent of the nation’s annual budget. In passing the budget of the Central Bank the House of Representatives had to send media men and women packing and secretly increased the budget to N1.3trn.

Having conceded that the anti-corruption fight should not be seen as an end in itself the Buhari administration has refused to view corruption as a manifestation of impunity. In other words, the diversion of money that has been earmarked to build hospitals or the refusal to remit funds earned by departments of the government to the accounts of the government constitutes a violation of the Appropriation Act and the Constitution. The public officers who engage in such criminal behaviour deserve to be treated like armed robbers because they have robbed the people and sentenced them to eternal agony and want. But since the violators of budget laws are top officials of government the system is too weak to punish them. Hence, the menace of corruption has become so rampart due to lack of political will on the part of the government to arrest and prosecute the major culprits.

The way forward

1. The fight against corruption should be linked to the struggle to free the economy from local saboteurs and foreign vampires. President Buhari has promised to rescue 100 million poor people from the labyrinth of poverty in the next 10 years. The President should be told that it is impossible to achieve the objective with the religious implementation of neo-liberal economic policies which have continued to promote poverty among the generality of Nigerians.

2. The Central Bank of Nigeria has fixed interest rates at 14 per cent per annum. Realising that the economy cannot develop with 14 per cent interest rate the Central Bank has authorised the Bank of the Industries and Bank of Agriculture to lend at less than 10 per cent per annum. Since no economy has even developed on the basis of high interest rates we urge the Central Bank to peg the rate at not more than 5 per cent per annum.

3. The economy should be planned by the government and not by the so called market forces. Instead of substituting Chinese imperialism for western imperialism the federal government should empower Nigerians to take over and manage the economy. The Central Bank of Nigeria should be stopped from further manipulating the foreign exchange market and remittances from Nigerians in the Diaspora. By an illegal policy of the CBN the dollar component of the sum $25bn remitted to Nigeria is retained abroad while benefiaries are paid in local currency and at the exchange rate. The dubious policy of the CBN is manipulate the exchange the rate in favour of the United States Dollar.

4. The Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria has repeatedly maintained that 350 individuals and corporate bodies are indebted to the tune of the N5.4trn. But the AMCON has refused to disclose to Nigerians that not less than N3trn of the huge debt is owed by the commercial banks. Since the banks have continued to declare profits of hundreds of billions per annum they should be made to pay their debts.

5. According to the Nigerian Extractive Industry Transparency Initaitive the sums of $22bn and N481 billion have been withheld from the Federation Account by a few local and foreign oil corporate bodies. The huge fund should be recovered forthwith and remitted to the Federation Account.

6. The federal government is reported to have recovered not less that N1trn from treasury looters. From the fund, the sum of N1bn should be earmarked for the establishment of a factory in each of the 774 local governments while the balance should be allocated to equip schools and public hospitals in the country.

7. Adequate fund should be provided to empower the agencies set up to enforce welfare laws such as Child’s Rights Act, Compulsory, Free, Universal Basic Education Act, Minimum Wage Act, National Health Act, National Health Insurance Act, National Immunisation Act, Adult and Literacy Education Act.

8. The Buhari administration has announced plans to “educate, mobilise and encourage Nigerians at the grassroots level to take ownership of the fight against corruption”. The national orientation agency and all public media should be funded to embark on mass enlightenment of the people.

9. Labour unions and other progressive bodies in the country should mobilize the people to own the fight against corruption. Henceforth, there should be popular participation in the preparation and execution of the annual budgets of the federal, state and local governments.

10. To empower citizens to monitor the disbursement of public funds the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation ought to resume the publication of the monthly statutory allocations paid to the 3 tiers of government.

11. Section 1 of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011 and article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act have guaranteed access to information. Accordingly, the Buhari administration has resolved to “enforce effective asset declaration by public office holders.” Therefore, the Code of Conduct Bureau is legally obligated to grant all legitimate requests for copies of asset declaration forms submitted to it by all public officers. 

12. Owing to the illegal award of contracts by the Federal Executive Council some serious corruption cases have been dismissed by the courts. To avoid the loss of more corruption cases President Buhari is called upon to constitute the National Council on Public Procurement in line with the provisions of the Public Procurement Act.

13. Section 15 (5) of the Constitution has imposed a duty on the State to “abolish corrupt practices and abuse of power”. The federal government has set up the CCB, EFCC and ICPC to fight corruption. Only the governments of Kano and Oyo states have established anti-graft bodies to fight corruption.  Other state governments including those who are calling for restructuring should no longer allow the EFCC and ICPC to investigate and prosecute corruption cases.

14. In order to strengthen the EFCC and ICPC to perform their duties without interference the national assembly should amend the relevant laws to grant them autonomy. The proposed amendment should ensure that the majority of the board members of the agencies are nominees of accredited representatives of credible civil society bodies.

15. Section 85 (2) of the Constitution provides that “The public accounts of the Federation shall be audited and reported on to the Auditor-General who shall submit his reports to the National Assembly; and for that purpose, the Auditor-General or any person authorised by him in that behalf shall have access to all the books, records, returns and other documents relating to those accounts.” Each house of the National Assembly shall cause the reports to be considered by the Committee of the House of the National Assembly responsible for public accounts. Henceforth, the national assembly should stop passing the budget of any department or agency of the government indicted by the Auditor-General until the money diverted is refunded.

Conclusion

Permit me to conclude this address by insisting that the fight against corruption cannot succeed without the involvement of the people who are the direct victims of the menace. Therefore, the labour movement and other progressive forces in the country should not hesitate to take advantage of the new official policy to mobilise the masses to demand accountability from all public officers. This should start with popular participation in the preparation and execution of annual budgets of all tiers of government. President Kagame has said that “we want to create wealth, not merely fighting corruption.” Let the federal government to take up the challenge by creating wealth to fund the rights of the Nigerian people to education, health and other basic amenities.

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