Corruption: Nobody Should Be Deceived

by L.Chinedu Arizona-Ogwu

The funding of political parties raises interesting economic, political, social and ethical problems. Nigerians seek to address these problems with the intention of contributing to the general debate, but, above all, of understanding the issue from the viewpoint, since we are directly implicated in political party finance, being abiding citizens; perhaps as donors, as supposed beneficiaries of political activity, or as the sufferers of the consequences of illegal party funding. The party funding scandal that has engulfed the government will undoubtedly be used as an excuse for more regulation and more state funding of political parties. This is a mistake. Ex-governors were partly in trouble precisely because they have broken existing laws and been found out, not because there was not enough regulation to guide their conduct. Indeed, what this new scandal should show us is that placing restrictions on party funding doesn’t really work. More regulation does not produce better ethics, just as more state funding would not reduce political corruption – it would just make the taxpayer foot the bill.

Despite some progress by the government of ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo in fighting corruption and improving the economy, Nigerians are deeply disappointed with how the country has turned out. In 2000, suffused with the euphoria of new freedoms, 84 percent of the citizens believed well and satisfied with the state of the new democracy. But eight years later, the same survey found that just 5 percent of Nigerians felt that way. It was worse than colonialism, worse than military rule. He was never the choice of the people. He imposed himself upon us. In any case, Nigerian politics shouldn’t be an industry awash with money, and all parties coming under pressure to make ends meet. So why not go for a more straightforward approach and say: “Let them get it where they can”. The role of the law should limited to insisting on transparency. The usual argument posed against this approach is that it would enable a few rich people to dictate the policy agenda. But political parties are ultimately driven by a desire to win power, and thus it is the will of the people that dictates policy (for better or worse). A rich man’s money is no good if it is conditional on the implementation of a programme no one wants to vote for. It is also generally unfair to ascribe sinister motives to party donors. Like most people in politics their desire is to make the world a better place (as they see it), rather than to pursue a purely instrumental agenda. And when ‘influence’ is sought, it usually only takes the form of after dinner speeches or informal ‘face time’ with politicians.

Privatization was the main thrust of the Obasanjo regime’s neo-liberal economic policies, since its inception, in 1999, apart from devaluation, commercialization and cuts in government expenditure on social services. Which are all anti-poor economic policies determined by IMF/World Bank. By design, the privatization programme is to transfer ownership of public properties and investment to mega-rich, privileged private individuals and corporate bodies at give-away prices. The beneficiaries of these transactions are mostly government officials, their fronts and foreign partners. The Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) and the National Council of Privatization (NCP) are the government’s octopus bodies perfected to hand over public property to private hands. Recently, the past activities of the bureau under El-Rufai, have been called into question, even from unexpected quarters – for example, the National Assembly with respect to the privatization scandal in Nitel -Pentascope deal, the Ajaokuta Steel debt buy back, and Sheraton Hotels, which ran into billions of naira. Yet today, El-Rufai is the apple of the ex-president’s eye.

The same regime has conveniently looked the other way against all cries that then Works Minister in the onset of Obasanjo regime in 1999, without probing him for squandering over 300 naira billion (US$ 2.25 billion) meant for federal road construction and maintenance. With nothing to justify the huge sum, the former minister and a close confidant of the president, rather than being investigated, was promoted to Chairman of the ruling party’s (PDP) board of trustees. In the recent exposure of the fraudulent sales of 207 choice properties of federal government at Ikoyi, Lagos, five of the beneficiaries were direct relations (brothers, sisters and in-laws) of late first lady, among other top government officials, including serving ministers, governors and senators.

The Ikoyi house sale scandal is a vivid example of what privatization means in the true sense – legalized stealing of public wealth. Quoting ‘The Guardian’ (Sunday April 17, 2005, page 10) one of the affected occupants of the sold houses, a woman who resides at 25, Ilabere Street, called Ikoyi, has an agonizing tale to tell: “I am one of the victims. My house was sold. My husband, a Colonel, is still in service. As far back as 3rd of February, some guys came to inspect our house. They said that my house has been sold along with my neighbour’s house. They said they have documents from the ministry of Housing to back up their claims. They didn’t allow me to read the letter…I asked him who bought the house? He said it is a directive from the presidency, that an official in the presidency bought the two houses”. The cancellation of the deal by the ex-president was not a self-righteous step but a pre-emptive one, hurriedly taken to forestall embarrassment the deal would have caused him with the involvement of his household. The demised First Lady, using fronts, has her fingers in many blue chip companies. Her business involvement, and that of her husband’s son in other shady deals, remains un-investigated.

The major face of corruption in the government is the privatization programme, which sees government officials rush to buy under-valued public property with stolen public money. These properties/establishments are, in most cases, re-sold at exorbitant prices, while workers and residents are thrown out in order to maximize profit. Obasanjo’s regime has made over N10 trillion, mainly from oil, in its six years in office, yet there is no visible development in infrastructure or standard of living of the poor masses. The lot of the people is unemployment, mass retrenchment, and insecurity of life and property. So, while government makes more money than ever before in the history of the country, life has become more miserable for the poor working masses.

According to the United Nations Industrial Organization (UNIDO), about $107 billion of Nigerian money is held in private accounts in Europe and the US. With the country’s fictitious foreign debt quoted at $35 billion, the World Bank says the country is now poorer in terms of income levels than Bangladesh. The Department For International Development (DFID), says over 70% of Nigerians live on US$1 daily. Between 80 and 90 million are living in absolute poverty, while 29 percent of the country’s children are underweight.

Yet, government embarks on wasteful spending on ‘white elephant’ projects, such as the 8th All-African Games (COJA), which swallowed N3 billion on official figures. The President has spent, as at the time of going to press, 512 days outside Nigeria, since coming to power, at a cost yet to be determined. Before the end of this year, another twenty one government establishments, including Nigerian Ports Authority, are to be sold off cheaply, to corrupt government officials and their business associates. The effect will be mass retrenchment of workers in those establishments, adding to country’s misery. The regime is united in corruption against the poor working masses.

Nigeria‘s oil-reliant economy, in which royalties and rents paid into state coffers are the main resource for development and self-enrichment, raises the stakes in competition for public office. For some time before elections, the prospect of new political opportunities can turn into a dynamic of deadly winner-takes-all competition, both among elites where assassinations have become a commonplace method of eliminating competitors and among communities, where groups vie to place their own representatives in strategic local positions. Such heated campaigns can lead to the destruction and displacement of entire communities, as is presently the case in many parts of the Niger Delta. Meanwhile, at the upper echelons of the political system, aspirants for office undermine the very institutions they wish to inherit in the process of trying to gain a footing in the system, for example in the large-scale diversion of public funds to their own campaign chests. During the latter part of election campaigns, as politicians seek to build power-bases, the use of hired thugs and of large-scale political corruption increases hugely. As political actors seek to tip the playing field in their own favour, the undermining of institutions and the politicization of elements in the electoral administration bodies and security forces also becomes a worrying issue.

Abuses of freedoms of speech also become a concern as influential actors use state power to keep unwelcome disclosures out of the news. And if rival candidates in a given area are strongly associated with rival constituencies, old fault-lines, such as those to do with religious or ethnic differences, may re-open as they are politicized, leading to large-scale loss of life as seen in the past. Furthermore, heavy-handed police reactions to incidents of electoral violence are also in themselves a serious source of human-rights abuses. But just as observers concur that the 2003 polls were in many places marred by fraud and violence, the 2007 polls also contain huge potential to go badly off-track; to become not a milestone in democratic consolidation, but instead one marked by malpractice, injustice, criminality, violence, human rights abuses and increased instability, the April 2007 edition transmuted as well.

Consequently, politicians who divert public funds to finance party activities may now have nowhere to hide. There seem to be reversal of the 1966 raid where several politicians were sent to prison for diverting government funds into financing political parties. The possibility of that to occur is the way ICPC intends to approach this problem. A practice of parastatals and public bodies remains to ensure that funds are utilized according to the budget and not diversion. Regulatory efforts could only be effective if there was a transformation of attitudes of the people. it is interested in the diversion of public funds and we want to assure ourselves that funds are utilized according to budget to bring about a change in the transformation of integrity. So what about state funding of political parties? I seem to remember supporting this in principle many years ago – which no doubt coincided with the election victories of the then-big-spending PDP. I’d throw out the argument that we’d be faced with the unpalatable prospect of funding parties we don’t like as a matter of course, but I guess I don’t like the idea that people with no interest in politics find themselves having to pay parties, giving them yet another axe to grind – as well as the feeling that it ‘institutionalizes’ parties, giving them a recognition by the State and the Exchequer that their ideological battles make them unworthy of. Besides there would, uniquely, be no scrutiny of how effectively this public money was spent.

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