When General Olusegun Obasanjo became president in 1999, he was under pressure from the international community to tackle corruption frontally. Obasanjo himself described corruption in Nigeria as cancerous, saying it required surgical operations. He established an anti-corruption agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, in 2003, to do the job. But 20 years later, Nigeria remains a “fantastically corrupt country” as a former British prime minister memorably put it. The cancer of corruption has festered and spread malignantly, destroying every facet of Nigeria’s polity.
In the EFCC’s early years, governors, ministers and other public officers allegedly stole millions of naira from public funds. Today, they are allegedly stealing tens, even hundreds, of billions of naira. So, progressively, corruption has increased stratospherically.
Every successive government, particularly the just-departed Muhammadu Buhari administration, purported to fight corruption zealously, using the EFCC. Yet, despite 20 years of anti-graft “war”, Nigeria’s appalling position on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, CPI, has not improved; rather, it got increasingly worse.
Take the 2022 CPI. Nigeria ranked 150th out of 180 countries, and scored 24 out of 100, where 100 equals “very clean”. In February this year, the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, FATF, placed Nigeria on its “grey list” for failing to improve its ability to fight money laundering.
So, if, in 2023, Nigeria still ranks as a highly corrupt country, what exactly has EFCC been doing over the past 20 years? Why has it not moved the dial on corruption?
Successive leaders of the EFCC since its inception have not been above board or beyond reproach, and the institution itself has failed abysmally to reduce, let alone stop, corruption in Nigeria
The easy answer is: “the Nigerian factor”. The logic goes thus: if corruption is so endemic and widespread in Nigeria, then it’s futile to expect any institution manned by Nigerians to tackle it. Are those running the EFCC not Nigerians? Are they not part of Nigeria’s deeply corrupt ecosystem? So, why expect them to have different values, norms and motivation from the wider society? The same logic applies to the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, the judiciary and other state agencies.
Recently, former President Goodluck Jonathan was so concerned about INEC’s failure that he suggested on Arise TV that, in future, foreign companies “like Google” should run election technologies, such as the BVAS, on the basis that “they have their integrity and reputation to protect”. But why would Nigerians tasked with public duties not want to protect their integrity and reputation? Do they not have integrity and reputation to protect?
In truth, the spectre of corruption exists everywhere. The difference between highly corrupt countries and least corrupt ones is that the latter’s anti-corruption agencies, such as the UK’s Serious Fraud Office, SFO, and the US’s Federal Bureau of Investigations, FBI, are absolutely independent and impartial. For them, there are no sacred cows, no untouchables. For instance, the FBI would investigate President Biden’s family without inhibitions, and the SFO would probe the British prime minister, if it has to, without blinking an eye.
But since its inception, the EFCC has consistently been accused of being a political tool in the hands of the incumbent president, of being selective in its investigations, and thus guilty of double standards. It is interesting that every past president removed the EFCC chairman appointed by his predecessor, and every EFCC chairman faced serious allegations. Thus, since its inception, the EFCC and its successive leaders have not covered themselves in glory.
Nuhu Ribadu, the EFCC’s first chairman, was a politically ambitious anti-graft czar. In 2011, he ran for president under Bola Tinubu’s party, Action Congress of Nigeria, which invariably raised questions about when Ribadu’s relationship with Tinubu began and about the nature of the relationship. Surely, if, as EFCC chairman, Ribadu seriously investigated Tinubu and kept him at arm’s length, it’s hard to believe that he would become his party’s presidential candidate barely three years after leaving the EFCC.
In 2009, Ribadu’s successor, Farida Waziri, said the EFCC was making efforts to prosecute Tinubu. What did Waziri see that Ribadu didn’t? Waziri also said that the “files” of former governors investigated under Ribadu’s leadership “did not exist or had disappeared.” That showed a lack of transparency, accountability and professionalism. At best, it smacked of a slapdash performance!
Ribadu said in 2015: “Everything that is wrong about Nigeria has to do with dirty money,” adding: “When I look around, I see a lot of investments done with dirty money.” But if he knew those behind such investments, what did he do as EFCC chairman? And was he not, as a politician, fraternising with them? Was he not, as a politician, keeping company with those who used dirty money to muscle their way to high political offices? Political ambition blinded Buhari to grand corruption by his political benefactors, as it did Ribadu, who was probably nursing his political ambitions while still leading the EFCC and was arguably compromised!
Since Ribadu, EFCC has had Farida Waziri, Ibrahim Lamorde, Ibrahim Magu and now Abdulrasheed Bawa. Which of them has not been dogged by controversies and even serious corruption allegations? Magu was arrested for corruption and found guilty by a panel, only to be cleared, controversially, by a panel set up by Buhari. Bawa faced serious allegations of corruption even before his appointment in 2021 and was recently accused by former Governor Bello Matawalle of Zamfara state of demanding a bribe of $2million from him. Matawalle, himself accused of N70bn graft, has yet to produce any evidence against Bawa, although, in denying the allegation, Bawa admitted that “nobody is 100% clean”, meaning he himself is not!
But the point is that successive leaders of the EFCC since its inception have not been above board or beyond reproach, and the institution itself has failed abysmally to reduce, let alone stop, corruption in Nigeria. We often hear allegations of corruption and money laundering running into hundreds of billions of naira against governors, ministers and other public officers. But they almost always fizzle out. Just as politicians rig elections and tell their opponents to go to court, they loot the public purse and dare EFCC to do its worst. Sadly, the EFCC is a toothless bulldog!
Yet, I defy anyone to put their hand on heart and say things would be better under Tinubu; that, with his unexplained and inexplicable wealth, Tinubu can fight corruption with a moral conscience. No, he can’t! How would he even define it? Then, the next Senate President may be someone with multibillion naira corruption allegations still hanging on him. Both the heads of the executive and legislative arms of government would thus be tainted by serious corruption allegations, and, inevitably, the global perception of Nigeria would be as a country where the fish rots from the head, discouraging foreign investors.
Of course, the problem is societal. The respected Catholic clergy Bishop Matthew Kukah once posed a pertinent question: “If corruption is so evil, how come we are so much at peace with it?” He’s right. Nigerians are relaxed about corruption. Nigerians tolerate, even celebrate, corruption. The general attitude is that public office is an opportunity to have a big share of the public cake, of public largesse, directly through self-help.
Yet, if Nigeria must succeed, it must root out corruption and not normalise it! To that end, Nigeria must introduce an Unexplained Wealth Order, UWO, and reverse the burden of proof in corruption cases. UWO means that if a public officer can’t explain the source of his excessive wealth, he will forfeit it. And reversing the burden of proof means the onus is on anyone accused of massive corruption to prove innocence. With those tools, all Nigeria needs is an independent Office of Public Prosecutor, not the moribund, ineffectual EFCC!