Stemming Corruption: By Nuhu Ribadu

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After one civil war, seven military regimes, and three botched attempts at building real democracy, the one connecting factor in the failure of all attempts at making Nigeria a global contender is corruption. The history of countries like Nigeria, Congo, and Kenya, where corruption has been institutionalized, offer an adequate illustration of the wrong road to development. In comparative terms, the provision of infrastructural facilities by countries which were on equal threshold of development with Nigeria in the early 60's such as South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil and Singapore, are no more a challenge now because these countries have attended a higher level of development, leaving Nigeria far behind.  

T he grievous harm that corruption has done to Nigeria, and Africa, over the years cannot be overemphasized. Nigeria, and indeed Africa as a whole, needs to refocus and give issues of corruption the attention they rightly deserve. The challenge before us, to my mind, is to set our sights on making corruption, rather than poverty or any other socio-economic malaise, history. For, as soon as we do so, everything else, like a worrisome jigsaw puzzle, will fall in place. Making corruption history is the surest way of making all the problems of Africa history. Making corruption history is the surest way of making all the problems of Africa history.

The whole purpose of political action is to ensure effective governance. The people of Nigeria, South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya, or any other nation state, are not seeking the attention and concern of their government because of any abstract ideal. They seek things that will better their lives, and bring shelter, food, good health, education and security of lives and property to them and the families. That is the basis of governance, to make politics meaningful.  

  I hold the strong view that Africa's democracy and development face severe danger today more on account of an alarming prevalence of grand corruption; and that this practiced abuse of public power and resources for private gain is the major factor that is strangling the life process of our polity and alienating our civic sector, while also draining active cells from the economic life of our region. To this extent therefore, corruption, as far as I am concerned, is the most destructive force ranged against society and the state in Africa and if we will make any significant breakthrough, we must first wage a disruptive and devastating war against corruption.  

  Corruption as a global phenomenon
I do not share the notion that corruption is a native of Nigeria, Africa, or indeed of any region of the world. This is not the case. Corruption is certainly a global phenomenon and anyone who has keenly followed contemporary world events could not have missed the dizzying reports of the Enron, Arthur Anderson, Citibank, and WorldCom scandals in the United States, the Parmalatt scandal in Italy, or even the central role of corruption and cronyism to the Asian financial crisis of the late nineties. Numerous other examples of large-scale malfeasance around the world show beyond doubt that corruption is not a native of one nation or region.  

If corruption therefore stands as the single most damaging force against economic growth, social stability and democracy; if corruption is the very reason why, after about half a century of independence, we still cannot proudly hold our own among nations that have built an enriching community life for their citizens, then there is a problem on why Africa has been so complacent in our quest for solutions.  

Why are national and community sense of outrage and revulsion so disproportionately lame in response to this ravaging cancer such that Africans would rather engage in ethno-national and religious carnages yet content themselves to whimpers, or at best cynical commentaries, against the dizzying reality of corruption?   There is now, after all, a demonstrable correlation between the realities of corruption as the abusive of public power and the monumental failure in governance in Africa.  

My answer to this apparently innocent question that underscores the reason why we continue to be in the woods, forgive my brusqueness, is partly because our civic institutions have abdicated their community responsibilities.   They have either abstractly defined their mandate out of any relevance or they have completely missed the point; or perhaps, out of a poverty of vision, failed to see how their mandate can become a mechanism of social, spiritual and indeed community transformation.  

When we speak of political transformation in the sense of accountability and transparency, we are after all talking of major shifts, of qualitative leaps, and of a paradigm scaling of reality and of methods in the delivery of the substance of governance through participation and inclusiveness.  

Thus when people genuinely become indignant at failed infrastructures, failed services, failed officials, we must pungently ask the million naira question: Where are our elites? Where are our watchdog institutions? Where are the whistleblowers? Where are the civic groups? Where are those who ought to be untiringly protesting and struggling towards recovering a little more foothold of the moral waters-edge in the vast fungi of corruption that is consuming Africa?  

If we pose the question well, I suspect that we would come to an embarrassing conclusion on how we all have abysmally failed in the discharge of our moral, social and political responsibilities. Another important fact of the matter, which has made matters worse for us, is that a large part of the new African elite classes, who are the traditional engines of social leadership, are failing to make sense of the connections between political promises and policy delivery.  

Why is this case? Partly because these elites seek refuge in other diversionary engagements, like in the faith communities, which have not offered a needful jolt but have rather provided chloroform against those damning, and hard questions that give spiritual neural connectors their truly tangible meaning. There is, after all, nothing like the failure of a system that is not the failure of its component structures, and my proposition is that the failure of the African project at this point is a direct result of the failure of its institutions and the moral center of which is the civic community.  

  The role of civil society
Our civic communities must ask one cogent question: how can we make an impact by doing things differently? How can we make a difference by putting a stop to the pervasive culture of corruption so prevalent and destructive to our various national institutions? To be sure, posing this question earnestly will result in, I expect, a methodological review that in turn prompts new strategies of appreciating and resolving many of our regional social contradictions.  

Above all too, the resolution will force us to review fundamental lapses in our organization of the civic space that is so decisive and critical for Africa's challenge in evolving an accountable culture of governance. Let us all be honest, the contemporary history of the African civic culture has been characterized by two major lapses: lack of transparency; and failure of internal democracy  

The major challenge of our time now is the cancer of corruption.   This is the scourge of our time and of our region where the failure of governance triggered by corruption, has enacted some of the worst pogroms and fratricidal carnages of the late 20 th Century.    

We all remember the story of Zaire, that enormously rich country whose wealth and resources were shredded to ground zero by one of the worst and most shameless thieving leaders of this continent, Mobutu Sese Seko. At the end of the day what happened to the country? The state failed as an instrument of authority and organisation, paving the path for a horrendous bloodbath.  

Today, Zaire is no more; its treasury is dry. Mobutu is probably resting in peace - depending on your think about the hereafter; but millions of his poor compatriots have been killed and murdered in a senseless war that was crafted in ethno-national colors rather than a simple case of failure of governance triggered by corruption.  

The examples are countless: Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Sudan. These are relics of failure of governance, countries that have now become poster boards of the effect of elite greed and corruption that have resulted in the mass misery of their people.   Nigeria has not gotten there yet; but chances are that we will if we do not confront corruption, the single most important of issue of our time.  

  Fighting corruption in Nigeria
In this regard, we most strip bare the false notion that nothing positive has happened in Nigeria in the quest to deal with corruption. Those who had no appreciation of just how bad things were can wallow in lurid illusion. To be sure, some baby steps have been taken regarding charting a new path for Nigeria's greatness. A lot of that actually happened between 2003 and 2008, and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was part of that active value restructuring process. But we are not out of the woods yet.  

The effort we made at the Commission was a marriage of two currents: pressure from outside and the force from within. The international community deployed the instruments of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to trigger necessary reforms which provided us the platform to build a strong local program of cleaning up our financial institutions, and prosecuting the bad guys in the industry.   

Between 2003 when the EFCC was established and 2008 when our effort was prematurely aborted, we aggressively challenged the national image profile by taking on the powerful advance fee fraud (419) king-pins and hauling their one-time untouchable captains into jail.  

After our encounter with the leadership of the 419 trade, we moved our searchlight into the banking halls and cracked down with massive and overwhelming force on the bank barons who were perpetrating the most heinous financial fraud. That battle of wills ultimately helped the consolidation process in the financial sector that is now restoring confidence into our financial and banking system. When we started the campaign we had to endure blackmail, lies and insults.    

After that, we lobbed the ball into the basket of the political elite. Expectedly, these over-pampered and soiled elite cried 'selective justice', and 'Gestapo tactics'. They pushed forward all sorts of diversionary propaganda. Unable to deal with the message, the Nigerian political elite reverted to that discredited tactics of hacking down the messenger.    

For one, their claims were tenuous, and merely hysterical. For instance, those who advanced the argument of selective justice did not help their audience understand how selective justice amounted to an act of injustice. As one famous national commentator put it, 'you have 10 robbers in a den and you arrest 4, but they fire back at you with the defence that there are other robbers in the field. Why not catch all before you pronounce us as robbers'! Such was the puerile nature of their arguments and those of their hired and professional propagandists.  

Corruption fights back
The privileges that come with the ongoing elite raid on our patrimony and the material and cultural resources at the disposal of these abusive elite are so enormous that a counter offensive from the political class against the EFCC's attempt to confront the corrupt stratum of that class was inevitable. So it was that after almost half a decade of our attempt to deal with corruption frontally, we were overwhelmed by an elite conspiracy that succeeded in turning back the hand of the clock.  

I would like to pay homage to the extraordinary will and belief of young Nigerians who saw corruption as the barrier to the progress of our country and wanted to contribute their own quota. Unfortunately, many of the active operatives who led the brave investigations and prosecutions have been hounded out of the EFCC.   They should be consoled, however, by the fact that things changed, at least for a while.   

Regrettably, many of the cases in court have slowed down; and the most ironic of all is that many of the actors we were prosecuting, including a governor who personally offered me $15 million bribe, are today the kingmakers and until recently were seen parading presidential corridors in Abuja as advisers.   

I was, of course, thrown out of the agency and not too long was made the subject of the most bizarre rumor industry of alleged impropriety that was never proven because nothing ever happened. Suddenly, I became a target of assassination plot. I say this only to illustrate the challenge in fighting corruption. When you fight corruption, corruption fights back.   

Therefore, in a globalized world, the fight against corruption must assume a trans-border dimension.   Our own modest success at the EFCC was supported by efforts of institutions of the United Nations, regional bodies and many bilateral bodies like the US Secret Service, the FBI, the US Postal Service, and the Department of Justice.   In a global economy that has assumed oneness, stemming corruption must be a collective effort as the actions and inaction of one affects the other and a hiccup here can trigger severe consequences affecting all.   

We better be sure we do not let societies with weak institutional safeguards like Nigeria be the point of rupture for us all. One lesson of the current global financial crisis is that only effective regulatory institutions can solve the problem we have; and in that respect it makes good sense not to allow errant members of the international community to sink the boat.   

To be sure, societies with poor records on account of corruption are the potential mines lined up to sink the boat. There is need to emphasize this point a little more. In the particular case of Nigeria, with its potentially explosive population challenges, any explosion or even implosion on account of poor state management could have dire regional consequences.   

We are of course talking of a Nigeria which was once the epicenter of the worst excesses of money laundering, drug trafficking, and advance fee fraud. It took an incredible effort to restore a modicum of sanity between 2003 and 2008. Sadly, today, evidence suggests a return to the pre 2003 era.   

The history of failed states tell us clearly that at the heart of their tragedy is the assumptions neighbors and friends make that it might not get worse, that it won't get that bad. Sadly, it gets worse because it is a misplaced optimism. The world must not allow Nigeria to unravel; and part of the lessons of Somalia which is today the poster boy of the world's outlaw states is that it can happen anywhere.  

Nuhu Ribadu is the pioneer Executive Chairman of the Economic & Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in Nigeria and currently the Presidential Candidate of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) He contributed this chapter to the book, Half a Century of Progress and Challenges