Right War Against Judicial Corruption, Wrong Tactics By Okey Ndibe

Last week, agents of the Department of State Security (DSS) carried out a series of commando-style raids at the residences of numerous justices, including two members of the Supreme Court. If the DSS is to be believed—and I see no reason not to—the raids netted an astonishing haul of cash the targeted judges had stowed away in their homes. The implied subtext is that the judges are rogue, that they sell their verdicts to the highest bidder, that they have besmirched their exalted seats.

In a country where there’s consensus that corruption has metastasized, you’d expect the unmasking of judicial traders masquerading as judges to inspire near-universal approval. Instead, the DSS operation became controversial. Many lauded the action, hailed it as a long overdue devastating uppercut on the chin of desecrators of the country’s bench. But many also felt disturbed by the action, denouncing it as a chilling attempt to cow judges and ravage the independence of the judiciary.

I am not surprised about the dichotomy in public response. That split speaks to a broader problem with President Muhammadu Buhari’s anti-corruption agenda. In my view, that agenda is misconceived, on at least two grounds.

The first is procedural. Even in doing the right thing, it is essential that there be compliance with pertinent rules. There’s good reason why warrants are required in many cases before searches may be conducted or arrests made. Perhaps in keeping with a military mindset, Mr. Buhari and his team appear to mistake drama for effectiveness and impact.

Where Nigeria needs systemic change, the president and his advisers have offered symbolic gestures that, in the long run, are effete. The second is the absence of an overarching vision in President Buhari’s approach to corruption—and to other urgent crises besetting Nigeria. He has been content to deploy tried and failed methods to fight deep-rooted, structural problems.

When the Buhari administration began its prosecution of Senate President Bukola Saraki, I wrote a column where I stated my response: a yawn. It seemed clear to me then that the government, or at least elements within it, saw the senator’s ostensible trial as an opportunity to leave an impression. I wasn’t convinced that the trial would go anywhere. If anything, I was certain that the trial was altogether about something else: a settling of intra-party squabbles. Today, the government has withdrawn its forgery charges against Mr. Saraki and deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu. My money is on a similar outcome in Senator Saraki’s prosecution for alleged falsification of his asset declaration. For that matter, what exactly has stalled the government’s prosecution of former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki?

There are several reasons President Buhari cannot wage a sustained, meaningful war against corruption. One is that he has not taken time to acquire the tools for fighting such a war. He has not proposed one piece of legislation to strengthen the monitoring of financial transactions in Nigeria, to empower the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and other law enforcement agencies to act decisively against corruption, and to reform the judiciary in order to quicken the pace of court cases.

Truth is, the EFCC is so teetered to the Presidency that its chairman, Ibrahim Magu, dare not arrest a serving minister without seeking the president’s permission. Nor can there be an effective campaign against corruption unless the country addresses the way judges are appointed (ensuring the elimination of candidates who view the bench as a means to sudden, spectacular wealth) and a radical reform of the judicial process itself. Sadly, the current administration has shown no inclination to undertake the task of giving teeth both to investigative and prosecutorial entities.

It’s absurd that numerous cases filed by the EFCC during the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo are still languishing in courts. Meanwhile, many of the defendants in those corruption cases are deeply entrenched in the country’s business. Some are ministers or members of government boards. Worse still, many are “honorable” members of the National Assembly: a case of (potential) outlaws making laws for their country. If President Buhari has chosen to play by rules set by Mr. Obasanjo, then he cannot expect to get different results.

For all his vaunted detestation of corruption, it may be the case that President Buhari, deep down, lacks the stamina to take on the colossus of corruption. In a posture that most Nigerians must find bizarre, Mr. Buhari allowed himself to declare that the late dictator, General Sani Abacha, was not corrupt. A man capable of such ridiculous statement, such unabashed denial of reality, can hardly be expected to have a clear view of the extent of corruption under his watch. Might that account for the president’s conspicuous silence on the long-running saga of around the issue of budget padding in the House of Representatives? And what is to be made of the president’s indifference to press reports about suspicious financial transactions by appointees in his administration?

From the administration’s perspective, last week’s raid on some judges’ homes may have served its purpose: assuring Nigerians and the world that the promised war against corruption was afoot, that the change agenda, as far as graft was concerned, was still on course. But—the sheer drama of the move aside—there was nothing in the DSS’s operation that translates into proof of a principled, no holds-barred battle against corruption.

Of course, it would be silly to dismiss the gravity of the presumed case against the detained judges. While they are presumed innocent until their guilt is proved in court, they have an uphill task explaining the source of all that haul of cash in their homes. But there’s an even more important point. It is this: that corruption in the Nigerian judiciary, as in other sectors of Nigerian life, is much wider than was reflected in the arrest of a token handful of judges.

If the president were out to stamp out corruption in the judiciary, the DSS should cast their investigative net wider than they have done. And they should go about the task in a sober, methodical manner, scrutinizing judges’ financial and other assets in comparison to salaries and other earning for judicial officials. Such an investigation should not have been done in a flash-and-dash style, in a mode that could be perceived as a selective targeting of some corrupt judges or an attempt to intimidate the judiciary.

Another point is pertinent. A government with a serious anti-corruption agenda would define a broad, encompassing plan. Such a plan should involve the institution of measures designed to drastically reduce opportunities for corruption. I’d propose, for example, the redrafting of Nigeria’s immunity clause to empower prosecutors to arrest and indict governors and the president if they are seen to abuse their offices by committing crimes. The scandal called security vote should be expunged from our political space. And there should be a law barring the movement of huge sums of cash.

Chuma Nwokolo, a lawyer, writer and social conscience, has proposed a formula called “Bribe Code” (see www.bribecode.org for details) for detecting and fighting corrupt practices. He has tried to get the National Assembly to look at the sound prescriptions in his plan, but the legislators—perhaps out of corrupt self-interest—have been indifferent. President Buhari ought to look to Mr. Nwokolo’s document for an example of the kind of systemic program of action that is likely to make a real and lasting difference in Nigeria’s interminably postponed crusade against graft and other public financial crimes.

If Mr. Buhari does not envision a game plan against corruption, he’s likely to go down in history as his predecessors did—as leaders who merely paid lip service to a war in which they had no heart. In a few days, the titillation over the arrest of a few judges is bound to die down. Then the cases will languish in courts manned by other corrupt judges, bent on frustrating any serious prosecution by approving incessant adjournments.

You can reach Okey at okeyndibe@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @okeyndibe.

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