Elected on an anti-corruption platform, President Muhammadu Buhari’s frequent missteps are hobbling his own pet agenda. Fresh confirmation of this came at the weekend with anguished calls for decisive action on a probe report on corruption allegations against two top officials, Babachir Lawal and Ayo Oke, submitted to him. Buhari should act fast, flush both men out if they are culpable and hand over their cases to the anti-graft agencies.
The Arewa Consultative Forum, Arewa Youth Forum and Itse Sagay, Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Corruption, voiced the concerns of many Nigerians when they called on Buhari to take swift action on the report.
Indeed, Buhari’s inaction is inexplicable. On August 23, after a three-month delay due to his illness, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, who headed a three-man presidential probe committee, submitted its findings and recommendations to the President. Considering that the basic outlines of the two scandals are already in the public domain and had attracted much odium to the government, the delay in taking action is only causing further damage to the President’s reputation and harming the credibility of the government’s war on corruption.
Public exasperation is acute as these appear to be open-and-shut cases of malfeasance. Lawal, the substantive Secretary to the Government of the Federation, had been named chair of the Presidential Initiative on the North-East, an ad hoc intervention to provide succour to the people of a region traumatised by years of Boko Haram terrorism and a counter-insurgency military occupation. As usual in Nigeria, however, the operation exploded in a scandal in 2016 as funds earmarked for the welfare of Internally Displaced Persons were allegedly misused. A subsequent Senate investigation found that PINE had awarded a N200 million “grass-cutting” consultancy contract – to clear invasive plant species at a site in Yobe State – to Global Vision Engineering Limited, a company in which Lawal had proprietary interest. According to a Senate committee chairman, Shehu Sani, the company was registered as an IT firm, but managed to get a grass clearing contract.
After an initial bluster, Lawal’s defence was self-indicting: he admitted being part owner of the business, but said he had resigned his directorship in September 2016. Despite this, alleged Sani, “…it is on record that he (Lawal) is a signatory to the accounts of the company.” Translation: Lawal had abused his office by using his position to preside over the award of a contract to his own company. The Senate promptly recommended his sacking and prosecution. Buhari instead suspended him and empanelled Osinbajo, the National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno, and Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, to probe the allegations and make recommendations. According to the Senate panel, Lawal brazenly breached the rules and his case deserves immediate sacking.
Oke’s case made headlines around the world. A late night raid in April this year on a posh Ikoyi, Lagos flat by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission turned up a king’s ransom of $43 million, apart from other currencies. Oke, the suspended Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency, claimed ownership for his agency and that the cash was for “covert national security projects,” approved and released to him in 2015 by a former president, Goodluck Jonathan. It is difficult to find justification for keeping such huge public funds in an apartment registered in his wife’s name and in clear violation of money laundering laws in the name of security.
Corruption is effectively fought when no one is spared, and swift, decisive punishment is meted out to high profile offenders. When, in 2014, Chinese anti-graft investigators found a hoard of cash and jewels in the home of Xu Caihou, a ranking general, he was promptly sacked, publicly disgraced and expelled from the Communist Party, as part of a campaign that has seen one million officials punished for corruption. In August, Vietnam sacked its deputy trade minister, Dien Quang Lamp, and charged him with corruption. Brazil’s ongoing corruption scandals have felled former presidents and serving lawmakers and is also threatening President Michel Temer. A 2015 report by Jacobs, Cordova and Associates, a consultancy, found that one of the four elements that Lee Kuan Yew adopted to fight corruption in Singapore was to deprive all officials and their families immunity, including the reformist prime minister’s own family. Today, it is ranked the seventh least corrupt country (2016) compared to Nigeria’s dismal 136th.
Buhari should stop disappointing Nigerians who voted him into office expecting change. Time is running out on his four-year term without any headline conviction of a high profile suspect and in the face of lack of articulate strategy in the war on graft. He should be decisive and dump his laid-back approach to governance even in the face of severe economic stress, insecurity, deep divisions within the polity and alienation by significant sections of the polity.
There should be no sacred cows in fighting corruption: he displayed the same indifference when Tukur Buratai, the Chief of Army Staff, was found to have acquired property in Dubai and has failed to address mounting concerns over the conduct of his kitchen cabinet. Meanwhile, a number of former senior generals are facing trial for corruption.
For the sake of equity and to afford the officials their day in court, Buhari should take action on Lawal and Oke today, beginning with their ouster from office.