Buhari and the Anti-corruption War: What Happened to Our Strongman?, By Oluseun Onigbinde

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This is where the Buhari we knew before the election should rise to leadership and take a stiff hand to be the beacon of transparency, removal of gross discretion and build enduring institutions. If these things prove too difficult, we can ask again and again: “What happened to our strongman”?

Globally, December 9th marks the International Anti-corruption Day. Every nation renews its commitment to fighting corruption on this day, and Nigeria usually does not miss out in some of its blitz. A bit of parade goes on, with face caps, buttoned shirts and nice speeches never missing from staged government events. Most times, I hear Nigerians declaim statements like, “Corruption is a cankerworm that has eaten deep into the fabric of our society.” It is so trite and incomplete. If one reads every coup speech or any address by a president or governor, it suffuse with platitudes like, “fight against corruption”, “we are committed to transparency and accountability”, etc. If Nigeria and corruption have ever been in the boxing ring, why have we not left the first round?

A critical look at our current government:

In the earlier years of his campaign for the highest office in the land, President Buhari had reiterated that his mandate, if elected, would be to fight corruption. I wish he took time to re-read his 2011 speech, during which he wept on the stage when it was clear that the alliance meant to defeat Goodluck Jonathan had fizzled out. In a sober state, the then candidate Buhari had said, “After being head of state, I am sure I could easily have retired into a life of comfort and ease as an elder statesman, as a contractor or as a beneficiary of any one of the nation’s many generous prebendal offerings. But that is not what I wish to do with my life.

“And so, if I don’t take any of these alternative courses of action, it should be clear that I am not in this for the love of office or for pursuit after personal glory or in order to achieve some personal goal. Far be it from me that this should be. I need nothing and I have nothing more to prove. I am in this solely for the love of my country and concern for its destiny and the fate of its people.

“And that is why, despite the many disappointments along the way, I am still in the struggle and will remain in it to the end. I have decided to dedicate the remainder of my life to fighting for the people of this country—until their right is restored to them.”

Most of his campaigners basked in the euphoria of his early stint in leading Nigeria through an autocratic regime that came in to mop the excesses of democratic rule. A year and half into the present Buhari administration, we should ask ourselves, are we really fighting corruption?

Most Nigerians believe fighting corruption starts with the political leadership will. That is why they chose Muhammadu Buhari, a man of spartan and anti-establishment posture. Maybe uttered in the heat of the election but these words from Jimi Agbaje kept buzzing in my ears in the midst of the cacophony: “The Buhari of now (2015) is not the same Buhari of 2007 and 2011 and I can defend this anywhere. The Buhari of 2011 was running on his own steam.” Did Buhari change? Is he still the same or has averaged to gradualism?

However, beyond the acknowledged good intentions of the president, good intentions have never been a plan. Corruption needs at least four things to thrive – the absence of political will, gross secrecy, excessive discretion and weak institutions. On the four counts, I have not see enough will to rein on these demons. Once there is a signal that here is a free for all with the institutions and countervailing will clearly absent, humans usually abuse the opportunity. This has nothing to do with race, gender or environment. Siemens and Halliburton were indicted for giving bribes in Nigeria. This is not to oversell the place of exemplary leadership but it is key to set the tone in places where institutions are still evolving. In the early days of this administration, zealous officers were arresting those who wanted to flee. The first press release of the government was that it has not barred anyone from travelling. The signal was there, buzzing of the arrival of the strongman.

Buhari steeped in the reactive approach to fighting corruption, bringing up the dreaded EFCC into limelight again. Nigerians kept wondering at the brazen cases that were released, records of theft beyond imaginable scale. It was a wait for action, to put the first man to the sword. It has not happened. The judiciary is a very compromised space and the EFCC now seem weary of multiple prosecutions. I have advocated for a special court system for fighting corruption, with TVs blazing, shaming the corrupt. This is yet to happen till the drama fizzled out and currently the FG is mulling a bill. When Federal Government started pushing for a secret trial for Dasuki, it became obvious there were names to protect.

A Case for Radical Transparency

If we traced the lines of how Dasuki allegedly provided security funds for political purposes, it would be crystal clear that there is so much opacity in contracts awards, wide discretion and abuse of institutions. Did Mr. President launch a landmark transparency initiative upon inauguration? Is there a framework to reform campaign finance, a scourge that shortens the public treasury? Did we immediately deploy open contracting, a system of interlinked data standards where all public contracts are put online and competed for? What happened to the budgets of independent revenue generating agencies or a bold statement on the opaque budget of the National Assembly? It is Buhari’s administration, the Mai Gaskiya government.

Still, our bureaucracy continued the journey of tacking contracts on notice boards, sprinkling some in selected newspapers, creating a secret system known to civil servants and allies. In fact, some appointed persons in the Buhari government took it further. They were interested in watering down the Procurement Act or restricting bidding to selected companies in a geo-political zone. This is why the investigation into the IDP funds should surprise no one. It was meant to happen and many more are still coming. Citizens keep seeking government information through FOI requests but ministries are now at liberty to decide what to respond to; budget implementation reports are not published; there is no detail of the N750 billion released for capital projects on a per project basis; and the FIRS has stopped releasing quarterly results. Are we still fighting corruption?

Sir, You Promised

Even there is no definitive list of returned funds or the persons who did so? While Buhari was interested in publishing names, an elitist cover-up emerged, citing legal jargon to protect those who stole public funds – I mean those who denied children schools and the youth of a future, are allowed the information blanket of the state. No one can say, this is the exact support state governments have taken as bailout or extra-budgetary funding! Has Buhari not failed on his basic inaugural address promising to unbox state finances?

In that inauguration speech, President Buhari said, “Elsewhere relations between Abuja and the States have to be clarified if we are to serve the country better. Constitutionally there are limits to powers of each of the three tiers of government but that should not mean the Federal Government should fold its arms and close its eyes to what is going on in the states and local governments. Not least the operations of the Local Government Joint Account. While the Federal Government can not interfere in the details of its operations it will ensure that the gross corruption at the local level is checked. As far as the constitution allows me I will try to ensure that there is responsible and accountable governance at all levels of government in the country. For I will not have kept my own trust with the Nigerian people if I allow others abuse theirs under my watch”.

As a citizen, I am interested in this and the FOI application to the CBN to know the exact support given to states, which has not been answered. Last week, a governor claimed that states get N1.2bn for budget support, which had never been earlier mentioned despite my intense interest in state finance.

Discretion has to be the next thing and the most dangerous ones are the examples allowed by the law. Imagine the discretion or audacity of a House of Assembly to award huge pensions to a state governor in a period of recession, and budget support from CBN printing presses. Infact, Lagos State Assembly wants to give pensions and benefits to its leaders, setting a new precedence. We have regressed to the state of ‘anyhowness’. These are people from President Buhari’s party of “CHANGE”.

I am happy with what the Treasury Single Account (TSA) has done but does it end there. What is the discretion available at the independent agencies level? If their budgets and contracts are not meant to be seen, would there not be abuse? The idea of TSA is to see the account inflows. Has there been a wholesale review of efficiencies of these agencies to truly determine if they accept the austere times? Is there a whistleblower act to protect the kind ones who want to put the system to correction? A recent report by Natural Resource Governance Institute stated that after NNPC ended televised bidding round, it added six new companies as winners. Who checks these discretions? What happened to the efficacy of the Efficiency Unit? Is it working and where are the clear savings where government has used standardisation and group buying to force down prices?

Institutions Beyond You

The lack of interest in reforming institutions is very evident. An example is our Auditor-General’s Office and how no single report has effectively convicted anyone of corruption so far. Recently, a Senator Solomon Olamilekan was lamenting that MDAs don’t respond to audit queries. What happened to your directive? Has anyone thought of improving the capacity gaps? Have we confronted the human right abuses of the police and the military officers? Is abuse of power not also corruption? What happened to NEITI reports when they were released? There are over 27 agencies with a mandate or legal apparatus to fight corruption but are they coordinated? Where is our “Thuli Madonsela”, the kind who is independent and can look up to the president’s face if he errs. Is there a plan to review immunity for the Executive and limit it to civil matters? Even the National Assembly is daring to make itself and other tributaries immune from the law.

What I have found is Buhari’s government has only kept the lights on EFCC, which only seems to be interested in collecting some “change” from a few politicians. It seems that asset recovery matters more to the president than anything else. For me, this is more of an economic issue since there is no punitive measure but to repatriate foreign exchange. Some even understand the trick and willfully submit themselves, risking a few days in detention, to throw back some pennies. They know their names will be protected.

Another Shance, Mr. President

Nigeria just submitted its National Action Plan on the Open Government Partnership in Paris with a delegation led by the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of State for Budget and Planning. You might hardly hear of this but this is the kind of news that government bureaucracy should treat with seriousness. With no disrespect to his ministers, I expected that the president should have made the presentation himself. Is his entire cabinet aware of these commitments? Did they all raise their hands, fully devoted to it? Well, we learnt in the APC manifesto that the president will encourage his ministers to declare asset publicly but there are no known steps to liberate Code of Conduct Bureau data. This time should be different.

The OGP commitments represent the new flicker of hope but these will need coordinated action to make it happen. This is where the Buhari we knew before the election should rise to leadership and take a stiff hand to be the beacon of transparency, removal of gross discretion and build enduring institutions. If these things prove too difficult, we can ask again and again: “What happened to our strongman”?

Oluseun Onigbinde is the Lead Partner of BudgIT.

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