This could not be good news for President Muhammadu Buhari and his anti-graft war. Corruption is not in retreat. It is bad news, really bad news, for him, the war and the country. Buhari assumed office as president on May 29, 2015, waving the sword and the shield in his declared war against corruption. He left no one in any doubts that having staked his integrity on wrestling corruption to the ground, a corruption free Nigeria would be his most enduring legacy. After all, he did battle with the same cankerworm in his 20 months in office as military head of state and would easily reconnect from where he left office in 1985.
It does not seem to be panning out.
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Nearly six years into the anti-graft war, we are far from becoming a cleaner and more honest country to do business with. The latest bad news comes not from Transparency International but from the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC. The chairman of the commission, Professor Bolaji Owasanoye, on December 29, released the country’s local equivalent of the global annual corruption index issued by Transparency International. The ICPC report is titled: Nigeria Corruption Index: Report of a pilot survey. It must shock the president that according to the survey, the judicial sector, the branch of government that sends thieves to jail for corruption, sits atop the corruption index in the country between 2018 and 2020.
On October 8, 2016, operatives of the Directorate of State Services, DSS, carried out midnight raids on the homes of some senior judges ranging from state and federal courts to courts of appeal and all the way to the apex court, the Supreme Court of Nigeria, said to be suspected of corruption. It was the first time that the gowns in the third branch of government, arguably a stable island in the swirling sea of venality, would be dragged before the washermen. The raid found the sacred gowns of justice reeking of the same rot that has fouled every institution and individual integrity in the land.
In a statement issued after the raids, DSS said: “The searches have uncovered huge raw cash of various denominations, local and foreign currencies, with real estate worth several millions of naira and documents affirming unholy acts by these judges.” The operatives seized $800,000 in cash in the raids. You must wonder why judges, so high up on the social ladder, could not appreciate the wisdom of putting their money in the banks. It was truly careless of them to leave what reporters would gleefully describe as such a whopping amount of money under their pillows or drawers and risk the self-invitation of armed robbers to their homes.
The raids served notice that in the prosecution of the anti-graft war, no animal is sacred. It was important in this regard to look into the moral standing of those who sit in judgment over the alleged criminal behaviour of their fellow men and women. If they remain untainted by the same greed and venality for which many a former state governor is feeding on the unhealthy rations of prison food, then there should be hope that no matter how long the anti-graft war lasts, corruption would one day stop smirking at efforts to chain or kill it in our country. I say that with my tongue in my cheek.
It did not pan out.
The “unholy acts” by the judges have not stopped. It is interesting to see from the ICPC report that the facilitators of the unholy acts are lawyers whose umbrella national body, the Nigerian Bar Association, condemned the manner of the raids, describing it as “a Gestapo-style” operation and demanded the immediate release of the judges in DSS custody. The ICPC said in its pilot survey report that about N9,457,650,000 was offered and paid as bribes by lawyers. It is an 84-page report full of shocks and surprises that delivers an unsettling message to the president that his anti-graft war faces the clear and present danger of falling on its face.
The report confirmed what we had always suspected but were too afraid of the legal backlash to say so. According to the report, “The level of corruption in the justice sector was heightened by stupendously high amounts of money offered as bribes to judges by lawyers handling high electoral and other political cases. Money involved in the high-level corruption in this sector,” the report goes on, “was categorized into money demanded, offered or paid. Demands are made by court officials including judges, while lawyers or litigants make bribery offers and payments.”
Perhaps only those who have not sought for justice in the hall of our justice system would find its blatant corruption through a well-oiled network of collaboration between lawyers and judges strange. I think it was Femi Falana, the irrepressible defender of the poor, who was once quoted as saying that the senior lawyers were the problems of the judiciary because it is they who run the errands between litigants who offer to buy justice and judges willing to sell justice.
It is quite often apparent in the open court to see the pendulum of justice swing between litigants with deep pockets and those with unpatchable holes in theirs. When money talks, injustice walks and justice is in chains. The finding in respect of the high-profile election cases also points to the problems at the root of our elections, the endemic corruption in their conduct and the rigging that is often settled in the courts merely as a matter of course and a travesty of justice. The courts were always meant to settle election disputes in a manner that ensures that justice is not bought and sold; it was never their duty to engage in forensic mathematics that award victory to those rejected by the people but who have no qualms in bending the system. When money melts or bends the truth, the cause of justice can never be served. You do not need me to tell you that the road to the recovery of the soul of our nation is long and the trek is weary.
The anti-graft war since Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu drew national attention to the cankerworm has always concentrated on the public sector, particularly political office holders who are tutored in the intricate system of manipulating figures but left the private sector alone, as if it was a bastion of probity. At least, the ICPC report shows that we are mistaken. It threw its search light on the private sector and found that the private business sector comes in at number two next to the judiciary in the corruption index. The private sector, it says, “contributed greatly to the national level of corruption.” No surprise there. There are only two sectors – public and private. It is impossible for one sector to smell like Ajegunle gutters and the other to smell like Bulgari designer perfume.
It does not pan out.
I have no intention of dampening the president’s zeal in the anti-graft war and his ambition to leave a corruptionless Nigeria as his attested legacy but it would appear there are too many exploitable breaches in the manner the war has so far been prosecuted. At the risk of offending a president who is profoundly allergic to suggestions, I would like to suggest these. One, re-examine how the war is being waged and possibly correct or change course. The fact that his own anti-graft czar has been laid up by the heels on allegations of corruption is a fair indication that there are problems with the command structure in the war.
Two, the war is still hobbled by ambivalence, to wit, the government fights corruption yet it embraces the corrupt in both the ruling party and the administration. I refer to those with known cases with EFCC who, all things being equal, ought not to be anywhere closer than 100 miles from the president himself. But this does not appear to be the case.
Three, the war is still waged selectively such that the foot soldiers go after political orphans but protect those with godfathers in the protective corridors of power. This has always been the major problem with the anti-graft war. Time to end this dichotomy to protect the integrity and the honest prosecution of the anti-graft war.