Nigeria Matters

Corruption: Time For General Amnesty?

The fight against corruption – the abuse of public office by officials – predates Nigeria’s independence and has always been embroiled in politics. Corruption was thought to be so pervasive in the First Republic that anger against the malaise partly triggered the first military coup of January 1966. Every subsequent regime in the country has made fighting the cankerworm a key policy.

The intertwining of the fight against corruption with political witch-hunting is rooted in the country’s political history. For instance one of the earliest attempts to use charges of corruption to smear political opponents was in 1946 after the NCNC raised £13,000 from its well publicised tour of the provinces (April 1946 to December 1946) to send a delegation of seven people to London to protest against the Richard’s Constitution, and its ‘four obnoxious ordinances’. The delegation, which was led by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and included Mrs Funmilayo Ransome Kuti and Mallam Buka Dipcharima, left for London in June 1947 and returned two months later. Though it was welcomed by an enthusiastic crowd of over 100,000, the initial euphoria was quickly overshadowed by insinuations of corruption. The Governor-General of the time, Sir Arthur Richards, had never hidden his displeasure at Zik’s brand of radical nationalism. In July 1945 for instance the colonial regime banned Zik’s two Lagos dailies, West African Pilot and Daily Comet, for ‘misrepresenting facts relating to the 1945 labour strike’ – a move that eventually led to Zik writing his ‘Last Testament’ and claiming plots to assassinate him. But to what extent were insinuations of corruption and wasteful spending part of the government’s efforts to tarnish Zik and the NCNC? It is instructive that the government-owned Daily Times, in its editorial of August 15, 1947, led the charge: “We would like to remind the delegation that what has been achieved could have been obtained in Nigeria by airmail at the very modest cost of one shilling, whereas the delegation has been ever so expensive. If therefore this is the sort of unthinking and wasteful leadership being thrust on us, we will have none of it”. The rival Nigerian Youth Movement gladly made political capital out of this.

The blurring of the boundary between the fight against corruption and political vendetta has become a feature of every civilian dispensation in the country. For instance though both the Foster-Sutton Tribunal and the Coker Commission found Zik and Awolowo respectively guilty of corruption, everyone knew that politics intruded in their findings. In the same vein, could Bode George, a strong Obasanjo ally, have been convicted of corruption under the regime of Obasanjo? If the cabal around Yaradua had emerged victorious in their battle of wits with supporters of Goodluck Jonathan, would Vincent Ogbulafor have been made to face corruption charges over allegations that he had purportedly already been cleared of a decade ago? Could the federal government have withdrawn the charges against Nuhu Ribadu, including allegations that he sold confiscated properties to fictitious companies, if Yar’ adua had remained the President? Would the EFCC have been mandated to bring Ibori dead or alive if Yar’ adua had remained the President? What role did vendetta play in Obasanjo’s celebrated pursuit of the ‘Abacha loot’?

There are additional reasons for recommending a general amnesty programme:

One, the current system of fighting corruption is very distractive. Virtually everyone who has ever occupied a public position has one corruption allegation against him or her and even those convicted by competent courts of law believe they are victims of political persecution. You could be convicted today and your conviction quashed with the change of a regime. On the other hand, being cleared of corruption charge today does not mean that you may not be re-tried of the same offence tomorrow.

Two, despite the setting up of high profile contraptions like the EFCC and turning some of their key personnel into celebrities, there is no evidence that the fight against the malaise is being won. It is a mistake to equate the humiliation of some politicians with progress in the fight against corruption. A true measure of effectiveness is the extent to which any measure helps to reduce corruption or serve as deterrence to others. Telling us how much was recovered from corrupt individuals is also not a sign of progress especially when the alleged recovered loot has not made any difference in the material circumstances of the people or can even be properly accounted for.

Three, countries all over the world have used amnesty programmes to deal with problems that appear intractable. In 2004 for instance, George W Bush enacted tax amnesty programme, which allowed US corporations to bring home, tax-free, the billions of dollars they stashed away in tax havens. The US also routinely offers amnesty to illegal immigrants who met certain conditions. Similarly, the Italian government in October 2009 launched a tax-amnesty plan, the third in the past eight years, which allowed Italians to repatriate funds deposited in tax havens. In 2006, the government of Colombia granted amnesty to some 21,000 paramilitaries linked to drug cartels. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered amnesty to people who confessed and apologised for crimes committed under apartheid. Just before he became gravely ill and subsequently died, Yaradua also offered amnesty to militants of the Niger Delta in exchange for their laying down their guns. These instances suggest that there is a history of granting amnesty to people who have broken the law, including people who have committed murders, in exchange for everlasting peace or to ensure a new beginning. The proposed amnesty shall be one-off, and shall extend to drug barons and those accused of advanced fee fraud because their crimes are no worse than the crime of those who have benefited from amnesty here or in other countries. The amnesty shall of course be predicated by certain conditions.

Four, an amnesty programme will encourage the repatriation of much needed funds hidden in different parts of the world to help accelerate the economy. People repatriating money shall not be questioned on the source of their money but shall forfeit a certain percentage to the state, which shall be managed as trust fund solely for employment generation and combating the problem electricity.

Five, to ensure a complete separation between vendetta and a future fight against corruption, a special corruption tribunal shall be set up to speedily and transparently try corruption cases. Those found to have maliciously accused others of corruption shall be made to pay both reparative and punitive damages to deter others from wilfully damaging others’ reputations.

Six, a future fight against corruption shall recognise it as a systemic problem rather than an issue of moral laxity, which appears to underlie the philosophy of the current strategy used in the fight against the malaise. For instance a future strategy must pose the question of the extent to which aspects of our culture such as gift giving, glorification of materialism and unbridled display of affluence facilitate corruption. It should also recognise that it is just not a problem that is exclusive to the political class but something that is pervasive. For instance, is the policeman who asks for N100 bribe better than the politician who steals N10bn? Is the social critic who corners the funds donated by some foreign agencies better than the politician he constantly riles against? Is the lecturer who demands money or sexual favours to pass an undeserving student any better than a corrupt politician?

Nigeria needs to re-think the fight against corruption, and a general amnesty programme could offer the needed break with the unproductive, selecti

ve justice and vendetta-driven strategies of the past.

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