Is Corruption Really The Problem?


Many commentators to my last week's piece, 'Buhari's Bakare's Choice' disagreed with my contention that Buhari appears to rely only on his charisma to win the election rather than develop a saleable programme. Most of those who wrote or  sent text messages argued that Buhari's anti-corruption credentials are sufficient, and that once the cankerworm of corruption - the abuse of public office by officials - is tackled head on, every other issue would fall in place. I respectfully disagree with this position but more on it later.

  The flood of critical comments on the piece is perhaps an indication of the level of adulation Buhari enjoys, especially in the North. I have tremendous respect for the retired General's sense of patriotism and honesty. However, I also believe that as ordinary citizens we help our leaders to become better not by adoring them uncritically but by having the courage to critically interrogate their choices and policy options. To believe that our heroes can do no wrong is to imbue them with a messianic complex, which often leads to complacency and deterioration in their critical skills. We saw this vividly in 1979 when the highly revered Awolowo committed a mortal political sin by choosing a fellow Christian and fellow Southerner Chief Philip Umeadi as his running mate. Had Awolowo's strategists and admirers not been so star-struck or cowardly to question that choice, perhaps the outcome of the 1979 presidential election would have been different. Now back to the argument that corruption is the bane of our society. I do not believe this. While I accept that corruption is a serious issue, my personal opinion is that it is merely the symptom of a larger malaise. It is wrong to elevate the institutional manifestation of a problem to its defining characteristic.   The belief that corruption is the bane of our society in fact raises other fundamental issues:  

  One, most Nigerian leaders generally see corruption   as resulting from moral lapses on the part of the affected individuals rather than a symptom of a more fundamental systemic problem of underdevelopment, which interfaces with the crisis in our nation-building project and our weak institutions. This wrong diagnosis in turn seems to have led to the uncritical deification of people with the courage to go after 'big' corrupt men and women. If we have been right about corruption and the way to fight it, why has our ranking in the corruption perception index by Transparency International continued to deteriorate despite the noise about EFCC and ICPC? For instance the list released by Transparency International on October 26, 2010 showed that we moved down from a ranking of 121 in 2008 to 130 in 2009 and to 134 in 2010. And by the way, what became of the previous contraptions and rhetoric used in fighting the ailment such as Obasanjo's Jaji Declarations of the 1970s, Shagari's Ethical Revolution, Buhari-Idiagbon's War Against Indiscipline, Babangida's MAMSER and Abacha's dreaded Failed Bank Tribunals?

  Two, it will seem that the current strategies for fighting corruption exacerbates our underdevelopment crisis by undermining the growth of institutions while entrenching the fear of the 'strong ruler' who controls the contraptions used in the so called fight against the social ill. In development circles, it is commonly believed that what Africa needs is strong institutions, not strong men. This means that credible leaders with the right vision and roadmap for addressing the problems that give rise to social ills like corruption will be more successful in the fight against the ailment than those whose credentials are based on fighting the symptom of a more fundamental problem. I am not by any means implying that Buhari is incapable of developing such a vision. In my opinion, Buhari is the most believable of all the presidential candidates in the field, meaning that had he developed a clear vision and roadmap, and based his candidacy on them, he would have broadened his support base. A good road map by the way is not just headline sound bites but must be able to tell us how an identified problem will be solved, the timeline and milestones as well as where the money will come from. Three, the fight against corruption in the country has historically been intertwined with political vendetta. For instance though both the Foster-Sutton Tribunal (1956) and the Coker Commission (1962) found Zik and Awolowo respectively guilty of corruption, everyone knew that politics intruded in their findings. Similarly could the federal government have withdrawn the charges against Nuhu Ribadu, including allegations that he sold confiscated properties to fictitious companies when he was EFCC chairman, if Yar'adua had remained the President? What role did vendetta play in Obasanjo's celebrated pursuit of the 'Abacha loot'?  

  Four, based on the above, it is time to consider a general amnesty programme for corrupt politicians and individuals not only because the whole fight against the malaise has been distractive and grossly ineffective but also because the country desperately yearns for a new beginning and a new social contract. It is in fact a mistake to equate the humiliation of some politicians with progress in the fight against an ailment that is generalised in the society and manifests in different forms. Can anyone show how the monies allegedly recovered from corrupt individuals have impacted positively on the material circumstances of ordinary Nigerians? Can the recovered loots even be properly accounted for? All over the world amnesty programmes are used to deal with problems that appear intractable or to offer a new beginning. In 2004 for instance, George W Bush enacted tax amnesty programme, which allowed US corporations to bring home, tax-free, the billions of dollars they stashed away in tax havens.   In 2006, the government of Colombia granted amnesty to some 21,000 paramilitaries linked to drug cartels. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered amnesty to people who confessed and apologised for crimes committed under apartheid. Just before he became gravely ill and subsequently died, Yaradua also offered amnesty to militants of the Niger Delta in exchange for their laying down their guns. An amnesty programme will also encourage the repatriation of much needed funds hidden in different parts of the world to help accelerate our economy.

  The proposed amnesty shall be one-off, and shall extend to other financial criminals such as drug barons and '419ers' because their crimes are no worse than the crimes of those who have benefited from amnesty here or in other countries. The amnesty shall of course be predicated on certain conditions such as forfeiture of a certain percentage of the loot to the state which shall be managed as trust funds solely for employment generation and combating the problem of electricity. I sincerely believe that what the country urgently needs now is a new beginning and a leader who has the vision and roadmap to offer us such.  

  Jideofor Adibe can be reached at:

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