Memos to GMB: No 1 – Corruption

 

In August 1985, though I had completed my final examinations at the then University of Ife, Ile Ife, I happened to be on the school’s campus when your removal from office as military head of state was announced on television. In the Awolowo Hall main ‘buttery’, where students gathered to watch television back then, I was amazed that most of the students were quite happy that your austere face had been replaced by one with a permanent smile plastered on it. They seemed to think that was the Change Nigeria needed at that time even though it was a pretty obvious ruse in my view. Nigeria had been blessed with your necessarily stern leadership for 20 months and we all could see the difference you and your crew, particularly Babatunde Idiagbon your deputy, had made though some incorrigibly ‘indisciplined’ people had chosen to fixate on your unsmiling miens as if leaders take office to laugh at our problems or ease our burdens with their bonhomie. Even as a youngling I knew the citizenry would soon regret it but I wasn’t a good enough prophet to realise that it would take us three decades of pretty chequered history, an uninterrupted downhill slide and perennial dicing with national suicide to regain the leadership that we so cavalierly tossed aside when we first had it.

 

Though the odds were stacked against you I was happy to enthusiastically support your run for the Presidency spiritually and financially in 2011, the first time it was possible for the man on the street to chip in his widow’s mite. Knowing what you represented I wasn’t surprised that you could not pass through the eye of the needle. I am one of those who still believe that you either won that election in reality or lost by a much narrower margin than the landslide engineered by unprecedentedly high voter ‘turnout’ in some regions and a notorious backroom deal made in another region. The courts thought otherwise when you appealed to them and most Nigerians, at least in the Southern part of the country, agreed with them. We thank God that you kept your faith in the system and that you backtracked on your threat never to contest office again if you lost in 2011. Since you did not really lose in 2011 in the view of some of us it could be argued there has been no volte-face.

 

From the get go in the 2015 race I promptly joined you again in the fray with the same mix of support even though your new partners made street level financial support less crucial. As I told many, we should generously support you just to prove to your new friends that they didn’t solely bankroll your effort and should never dream that they thus own you. We should with our pocketbooks express our oneness of purpose with you so that, in the difficult decisions you will often have to make in the next four years, you will remember that, while you had rich supporters, those who made the greatest sacrifices for you were those who gave much of the little they had and you thus must keep their interest paramount at all times.

 

Today we are here, on the cusp of history and a new Nigerian, nay, African Renaissance. I have long held that if four or five key African countries could break out from the defects Africa is so well known for then the continent’s future would be assured. Nigeria has always led the pack of Egypt, Ethiopia, Congo and, a late joiner, post-apartheid South Africa. This selection was never hubristic but based on the realities of this stage of world development where size is almost everything. The many examples of European countries who preceded the United States of America (USA) in commerce and technology but are now essentially satellite states to this relative behemoth is a classic case in point. As antidote, Europe tried the European Union and the Euro but khaki isn’t quite the same as leather as we say in these parts. While we have had fitful moves towards rebirth in the other large African countries Nigeria has remained an unrelenting source of sobering news for the past three decades reaching its nadir in recent months when Chad, Niger and Cameroon had to enter our territory to help extirpate a miserable bunch of miscreants allowed by a severe leadership deficit to grow into a regional menace. Bad enough that these relative minnows had to save the ‘giant of Africa’ from itself but much worse that we weren’t even able to take over recovered territory from our helpers thereby upping the risk of becoming a nation occupied by foreign armies which would have been just the icing on the fact that, at almost 200 million strong, we were paying mercenaries from all corners of the world to do our Army’s work for us while the Army itself was deployed for crucial election stealing assignments. We were that close to becoming Congo, ravaged for five decades by much smaller regional forces and now with Chinese mining interests joining the rapine melee. We thank God and all who kept faith with you that just in the nick of time you came riding up on your white charger aptly named Integrity to combat the greatest force that has crippled us since 1960 – Corruption. It is thus apt that the first of many intended memos from me to you is on how the fundamental war against Corruption that you pledged can be effectively fought in ways that will be easily sustained when you must leave us again be it four or eight years from now.

 

About seven years ago I was at an Africa wide anti-corruption workshop in Tema with the then Federal Inland Revenue Service chairman as one of the resource persons. Come question time I asked her three questions:

  • If it was true that a Human Resource and Payroll software company had been investigated by her agency for implementing payroll software that concealed parts of the salaries paid to staff that should have been subject to tax thereby criminally shortchanging mainly state governments all over Nigeria,
  • If the outcome of her investigation had led to any sanctions on the software vendor or its clients that chose to make use of these ‘extra’ services,
  • Why the ‘corruption fighting’ federal government that she had been a part of had failed to push the long pending Whistle Blowing legislation through both houses of assembly.

 

On the first two questions she responded that indeed such an investigation had happened, the malfeasance had been confirmed but she had curiously determined that the companies involved, most importantly banks and insurers, had acted ‘innocently’ to steal billions of dollars in taxes from state governments thereby corruptly enriching themselves and their employees. That left me aghast but my jaw hit the floor when she answered the last question by saying it was the citizenry that had the duty to push the Whistle Blowing legislation through the assembly despite the volume of noise the Obasanjo regime that appointed her had made about seriously fighting corruption. My week would have been ruined had then Malam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi not taken the podium and wowed us all with his forthright presentation. I was able to buttonhole him for about an hour during lunch time and had my faith in Nigeria restored because I realized like Elijah that indeed God had preserved millions in Nigeria to fight the patriotic cause and they weren’t even all ‘Christian’!

 

The point of this anecdote is to point up the urgent need for a progressive and empowering Whistle Blowing Act in Nigeria. Countries like Ghana and the United States of America not only ask citizens to blow the whistle on acts of corruption they have witnessed but actually reward them with a fraction of recovered funds which can run into quite significant amounts. For example in 2014 the US Securities and Exchange Commission announced the award of more than $30m to a whistleblower http://www.sec.gov/News/PressRelease/Detail/PressRelease/1370543011290#.VR4hlPzF9QE

 

N6b for performing a civic duty! Now that is serious encouragement. In Ghana I reported a tenant for bypassing the meter on two phases on which he installed all his power hungry devices. One of the first statements I heard from the Electricity Company of Ghana representatives was that I should expect a fraction, 30% if memory serves me right, of any amount recovered from him.

 

Encouragement of whistleblowing is pretty common in the corporate world even within our shores and two recent examples we have are the Institute of Charted Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN) whistleblower fund that provides N50m for the protection of ICAN members and the public who are assailed for performing their civic duty in this area. Just yesterday I heard on the radio an advert by Dangote Cement asking the public to blow the whistle on any of its trucks seen carrying non Dangote cargo. A handsome reward was on offer. I have myself implemented a whistle blowing program in a regional gas transport company while functioning as its Internal Auditor and I was gratified by the enthusiastic response of the multinational staff body.

 

An effective and progressive whistleblower’s law must be the first order of business after May 29, 2015 as it is one of the strongest foundation stones we can build a sustainable war against corruption on.   

 

We have all heard your assurances that your government will be forward looking in all regards including the fight against corruption. This was the correct position to take for many reasons considering the ‘peculiar mess’ we have gotten ourselves in. However we cannot simply ignore the fact that anything up to one trillion dollars has been stolen from this nation in the last 55 years. Indeed, if the USA and Europe were to grant to us free use of their anti-crime agencies for the rest of this decade and your first term in office, we would barely scratch the surface of this long running plunder. We however cannot afford to appear to pat the corrupt on their heads and say they should simply sin no more. In most world religions genuine repentance is evidenced by some restitution. A law should be made to encourage voluntary restitution by those ‘who just happen to find state money in their pockets’. Such volunteers must describe the ‘accident(s)’ that led to state resources winding up in their coffers and the amount realized. A major fraction, defined in the enabling law, of the money that ‘missed road’ should be the minimum acceptable reparation after which such ‘custodians’ of state assets should be granted immunity from prosecution for any related offences. However any undeclared and unremediated accidents would still be open to prosecution if evidence EVER becomes available.

 

In addition to the voluntary restitution program there should be a law enabling induced restitution. Where the EFCC has credible and sufficient evidence that financial crimes were committed in the PAST the perpetrators should be approached with a restitution program. Where this is rejected or agreement cannot be reached the EFCC should prosecute such suspects to the fullest extent of the law. We cannot create a moral hazard where those inclined to be corrupt in the new dispensation feel only an accident of timing differentiates them from those who stole our resources before May 29, 2015 but were told to simply go but sin no more. None of us would manage our homes with such spurious distinctions and we must start to apply the same wholesome standards to public office and decision making as we would apply in our homes and private businesses.

 

All future cases of corruption (or stealing if you like) should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and expeditiously. Special financial crimes courts should be set up to avoid the logjam of the general legal system. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation should be invited to resume its partnership with the EFCC.

 

It is scriptural that the labourer is worthy of his wage yet we have for too long paid government employees peanuts but expected better than monkey behavior. A minimum wage of less than $100 a month is simply unconscionable especially in a country that no longer provides free medical care or education and simply requires any worker intent on surviving and having any degree of comfort in his life to make money in creative ways. Unfortunately most of the alternative ventures employees go into are ultimately in breach of the law. Even more unfortunate is the fact that many Small and Micro Enterprises don’t pay even the minimum wage. We must review what workers are paid in the public sector and enforce the minimums in the private sector. It would be more productive if we have half the public servants currently employed but paid at twice today’s rate. None of us can claim not to know at least one government agency where possibly 80% of the staff seem to have nothing to do or simply choose to do nothing until palms are generously greased.

 

I am not however counseling an overall reduction in the size of government. There are so many things left undone at state and federal level especially outside the offices of our MDAs and these must be the focus of the government. We don’t need more benchwarmers but we do need more forest rangers, rural doctors and midwives, traffic controllers, waste collectors, sanitary inspectors, agricultural extension officers etc. It is a well-known fact that some states created tens of thousands of jobs simply by setting up agencies like the Lagos State Traffic Management Agency (LASTMA) and no matter how many times each of us has had a run in with them we still feel relief when we see them in the thick of some unholy traffic snarl. In Lagos most of us feel the impact of LASTMA more than virtually all other state agencies combined. Similar value is derived from the street cleaners. They are the lowliest of government employees yet they impact us all most directly and powerfully. Those are the kind of value adding government jobs that need to be created.

 

The social security net your government is proposing will be another useful plank in shifting our social paradigm in ways that will make corruption something that is once again exceptional and frowned on by the vast majority of us.

 

Your personal example and the examples of those you choose to surround yourself with will be most critical for the fish rots from the head and a cacophonous or malign tone from the top will achieve nothing more than cosmetic change to Nigeria’s corruption burden. Choose wisely who you prefer in your government as that is Nigerians greatest worry about your ascendancy. Buhari we know and trust but we hope and pray that your fire will not be quenched by adding too much deadwood to the firebrand.

 

I hope to publish more memos to you, between now and your swearing in date, on the various aspects of governance that that will determine if Nigeria finally is able to lift off from the developmental Launchpad. May God guide you and us and may the   sycophants that have ruined virtually every ruler of Nigeria find no purchase in your government.

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