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Anti-corruption war: What’s EFCC saying?

The EFCC boss had frowned at the “situation where multi-national firms encouraged corruption in Nigeria through bribes in their bid to win huge contracts.” She…

The EFCC boss had frowned at the “situation where multi-national firms encouraged corruption in Nigeria through bribes in their bid to win huge contracts.” She went further, “ Nigeria has suffered a lot in the hands of some of these conglomerates who use the excuse that Nigeria is a corrupt country to perpetuate same by offering bribes before contracts are awarded.” And yet she added that “both the givers and receivers of bribes are guilty and must answer charges.” All this with reference to the multi-million dollar bribery scandals involving American and German multinationals – Halliburton and Siemens respectively. Mrs Waziri has a point in making these comments. Some other high-profiled individuals have said the same in the past.

But there is a question? Why should multinationals that seek to get contracts in foreign countries start out by putting funds aside to compromise foreign officials. In an investigation into a scandal involving the printing of polymer currency notes by Securency of Australia, for instance, it transpired that the first thing the company did when it wanted the contract from the Central Bank of Nigeria was that it went to London in search of a  middle man or commission agent. That agent later provided a list of highly-placed Nigerians that have since been mentioned as receivers of bribe money for the contract. The agent, reportedly, did not only bribe, he got his own commission for doing exactly that.  Now, it is educative, what an insider said of the role of a commission agent when multinationals go after contracts in foreign companies. He is John Burbridge, a former British Banknote Executive, and who had worked for many years for British paper banknote suppliers, De La Rue.  “The classic use of the agent is to be able to help you in that country, to network with the right people ethically.” Such people give feedback on “what’s going on in that country” and they serve as eyes and ears, and represent the company,” Burge said.

Klaus Bender, a journalist and the author of  ‘Moneymakers’ spent years investigating the secretive cabal of mostly European bank note suppliers, and he said of a commission agent, “he  needn’t understand a thing about banknotes printing or machinery or security features. He has to open doors. He works in an environment which is close to the top of the country with the top secret service people, the top central bankers…”  This rhymes with Burbridge’s description of a commission agent, and there is nothing outwardly wrong in the job he does.

But Bender asked: “What goes bad?” This is a way of asking: At what point does a legitimate job bring about a scenario that made Mrs Waziri talk of “multi-national firms encouraged corruption in Nigeria through bribes in their bid to win huge contracts”? Bender said, as a clue, that the multinationals “accept everything they (commission agents) say as verbatim and pay every commission they ask for.” Multinationals “don’t bother to question or follow up where they are going. And…that’s when maybe a commission turns into a bribe.” He added that multinationals which employ the services of a commission agent don’t know the details of such bribes until the companies are “implicated in a corruption scandal.”

This leads back to the point: when a commission agent tries to influence legitimately, but the influenced asks for bribe, or his body language indicates it, what does the commission agent do? Turn back to his principal and announce he has failed? He won’t, and it is the reason the multinationals oblige him by parting with huge sums of money that he asks for to take care of things such as bodyguards (prostitutes), “earmarks, (for preferential treatment) or ‘engineering’ which means setting the stage to get officials to cooperate.  In combating this trend, the mentality of the giver, under a circumstance in which the influenced asks for compensation needs to be understood and taken into consideration. This is necessary or blaming the giver in the attempt to curb contract bribes may not achieve its purpose. There is an example.

One Mr. Wilkes was is in the news in the U.S. because, in order to procure defense contracts, he paid over two million dollars in cash and gifts to U. S. Rep. Randy Cunningham of California. Rep. Cunningham confessed to the bribes in a plea bargain with Federal prosecutors, and he was sentenced to prison. Mr. Wilkes, on the other hand, felt that he himself did nothing illegal.

As far as he was concerned, he was playing the game by the rules he had learned. Unless a contractor pays for preferential treatment in the form of “earmarks,” Wilkes argued, he doesn’t stand a chance. The New York Times reported that, as at 2006,  over 12,000 such earmarks were inserted in that year’s Federal government spending bills; this amounts to a total of some $64 billion, and the number of earmarks is rising every year. While not every earmark is the result of a bribe, some clearly were.           

It is doubtful if the implication of this needs to be further explained, except to add that though someone gives bribe, it must be argued that it is more likely for a person to change himself that to change others. One senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria took this position recently. He stated in the hallowed chamber of the National Assembly chamber that if the present penalties don’t scare bribe takers, then death penalty or life imprisonment should be imposed. China and some other Asian countries practice this.

Now the renewed fight by EFCC under Mrs Waziri, to bring corrupt official to book, is commendable. The declaration by the EFCC boss to set up special team to probe ill-gotten properties is also laudable. But it is seeing such cases to their logical ends that will serve to deter people from taking what does not belong to them, or play ‘cash and carry’  with their country. Lack of prosecution of corrupt officials led to the perpetuation of this culture in the first place. EFCC should not turn back from its renewed effort to bring highly-placed corrupt officials to justice. That way, there will be less of Halliburton, Siemens and Securrecy scandals to investigate in this place.       

Tunji Ajibade, lives in Abuja. [email protected]

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