Corruption is fighting back…Punch Editorial

WITH only a few real steps taken to tackle the monster, the forces of corruption are pushing back and their counter attack is gathering momentum. From the accused persons and recipients of stolen funds to politicians who suddenly found themselves in the unfamiliar opposition benches, beneficiaries of the past dispensation, clever lawyers, bent judges, religious contractors and media cheer squads, familiar weapons are being deployed. Neither the government nor the people must waver or bow to these forces of retrogression.

President Muhammadu Buhari, who rode to power primarily on his promise to confront corruption, has finally begun the campaign. So far, a $2.1 billion scandal has been uncovered where funds allegedly withdrawn for arms purchases were liberally dispensed to individuals and organisations; fraud has been detected at the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, while investigations are underway at the National Broadcasting Commission and a few other agencies. Given the scale of the rape of the last few years, observers know that the handful of cases now in the public domain represent just the tip of the iceberg. The full magnitude of the pillage is yet to unfold. Nigeria is still reeling from the theft of N1.7 trillion in fraudulent fuel subsidy claims exposed in 2012; from the $1.1 billion Malabu Oil payout, and from the missing billions at the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. Though Global Financial Integrity, an NGO, estimates that about $109 billion was stolen from Nigeria between 2001 and 2010, another report says about $80 billion vanished between then and 2015, through crude oil theft, theft of oil and gas revenues and plunder of state funds.

Yet, the forces ranged against justice are daunting. Over the decades, a vast infrastructure of graft and impunity had taken root, taking in the political class, the business and financial community, traditional institutions, the security services and, sadly, sections of the judiciary and the mass media, the supposed last refuges of the oppressed. Corruption, according to the United Nations Development Programme, has atrophied development and kept over 60 per cent of the population in poverty. The 40 per cent of all contract sums that the US Department of Commerce estimated to be lost to graft 10 years ago is believed to have climbed to 100 per cent in some instances as in the Niger Delta Development Commission, where some N183 billion is alleged to have been paid out for fictitious contracts.

Corruption is aroused and fighting dirty. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate, declared, “When you fight corruption, corruption strikes back,” adding that those who fight corruption also “have to fight the aggressiveness, the impunity of the corrupt.” Their weapons include manipulation of the judicial system, cynical deployment of regional, ethnic and religious sentiments, as well as trying to reduce the issue of corruption and economic sabotage to partisan politics.

To win a war, you must thoroughly study and counter the strategies of the enemy. To deal with the strident propaganda of “witch-hunt” by venal elites, the government should communicate effectively with the public and enlist the support of the civil society. The information ministry should apply professionalism and robust engagement. Openness; laying the cards on the table, avoiding falsehood, doublespeak and abuse of opponents should be paramount. Failure is guaranteed if this government follows its predecessors in turning state-owned media outlets into despised, unreliable megaphones.

Most importantly, the President must muster strong political will to lead the war. Buhari once described corruption as the “greatest form of human rights violation;” the enormity of the negative impact of corruption on development should be articulated to counter those deceitfully hiding behind rights agitation. The Attorney-General of the Federation should infuse thoroughness into the prosecution process and ensure that water-tight cases are quickly brought to the courts to secure convictions. The anti-corruption agencies should be very professional in their investigations. We prefer that they file a clutch of credible charges against accused persons rather than hundreds of repetitive counts that are neither well-articulated nor scrupulously prosecuted.

Nigerians should not be taken in by the appeal to base sentiments of regionalism, religion or party affiliation. The critical question in every case is to insist on the veracity of allegations, due process and the right of every person to legal defence, as well as the presumption of innocence until proven guilty by the courts. There is nowhere in the world that every single offender is prosecuted at the same time. The campaign must be systematic.

We should never forget that since independence in 1960, the elite have managed to elude justice even while stealing the country blind, manipulating the judicial system and employing endless delay tactics. The government and the judiciary should enthusiastically line up behind the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 to eliminate what eminent lawyer, Itse Sagay, called “prosecution fatigue,” whereby Highly Politically Exposed Persons and their lawyers tie up cases in the courts for many years until they fizzle out with no convictions or end with dubious “plea bargain” arrangements. Our judges should no longer delay in applying this admirable legislation that provides for the consolidation of all motions during a trial to be heard by the trial judge, instead of endless appeals to superior courts.

The continued granting of injunctions by judges to protect accused persons from arrest, prosecution and investigation and spurious permission to travel abroad for medical care are deplorable. The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mahmud Mohammed, and the National Judicial Council should go beyond warnings and begin to impose severe punishment on errant judges. The law enforcement agencies should urgently seek the overturning of such spurious injunctions at the appellate courts. Buhari should remain focused, fair and firm. As he has repeatedly promised, he should not spare corrupt members of his own circle and party.

But the anti-corruption war will never succeed until it begins in the judiciary. The evidence everywhere suggests a compromised and complicit bench whose sympathies appear almost always to be on the side of elite treasury looters. We urge the government to be respectful always of the constitution and the rule of law while deploying all lawful means to recover all stolen funds and prosecuting offenders.

Copyright PUNCH.

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