Senator Arthur Nzeribe is hardly a saint in the Nigerian political arena. Why, the man has his imprints on some of the most catastrophic intrigues that have dogged Nigeria’s attempts at democracy. The example that readily comes to mind is the activities of his infamous Association for Better Nigeria (ABN) in the run up to the June 12 election of 1992. Furthermore, since the inception of the current democratic government, the senator has been mired in one controversy after the other. He has shown on more than one occasion that he has only one constituency and one constituent – Francis Arthur Nzeribe.
In his article entitled “End of the Road for Mr. Maverick?” published in This Day of October 10, 2002, Joseph Ushigiale describes his character thus:
“Nzeribe established a reputation as an enigmatic politician who thrives in stewing from one political and intriguing controversy to another… Nzeribe has attracted the toga of a politician who revels in endless webs of intrigues and schemings and is largely viewed as very very inconsistent and unreliable… Nzeribe has carved a niche for himself within political circles as a highly ambitious and insatiably greedy politician with scant regard for decorum. He is believed to be motivated by the craze to make money than the conviction to sustain democracy and is described as capable of reaching whatever length to make money.”
There is therefore no gainsaying that here is a man that one needs to dine with, with a very long spoon. However, the wisdom of our fathers is that we do not disregard the message simply because we do not like the messenger. It is in this light that I believe the senator’s recent “message” on the accomplishments of the EFCC deserves some attention by well meaning Nigerians even if for the senator, this may very well be another attempt at hugging the limelight by generating some controversy.
The Guardian of Thursday, Oct 14, 2004 reports that in reaction to Mr. Nuhu Ribadu’s claim of “phenomenal” achievement of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the senator had retorted that the “EFCC goes after “small thieves” and spares bigger thieves in government.” Regardless of the appropriateness or otherwise of his interjection during that particular meeting, the relevant question to my mind, is whether or not there is any truth in Nzeribe’s statements.
It is widely acknowledged that Nigeria is a very corrupt country and this is the bane of the nation’s socio-economic and political problems. Before I am branded as being unpatriotic, let me mention that I am not merely repeating Transparency International’s Corruption index or the “biased” profile on Nigeria by most nations (whether Western or African) but what government officials at the highest levels have publicly attested to. Recall that in 1999 during his swearing in ceremony, President Obasanjo highlighted this problem and made fighting corruption one of the main focus of his administration. This resulted in the anti-corruption bill being one of the first bills that were sent to the federal legislature. Fast forward to 2004 and in spite of the passing of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2000 and the establishment of bodies such as the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and the EFCC, the cancer of corruption is yet to be effectively tackled. Mr. Ribadu himself confirms this in his recent speech at the Nigerian Bar Association Annual Conference held at Abuja in September 2004.
In that speech, Mr. Ribadu said,
“While we now have legislation to regulate the conduct of both public officers and the private sector for corrupt practices, the vices are still very much with us… Despite the large number of law enforcement workforce and the numerous agencies, nothing seems to be working. No person is serving a jail term for corruption…. Show me a single individual serving a jail term for these serious crimes against the nation… Why is it so?”
Admitted that the problems existed long before the EFCC came into being and that Mr Ribadu was referring to the general state of affairs rather than a commentary on the work of his commission. However what has been achieved by the commission since its inception? During the meeting at which Nzeribe made the statement, Mr. Ribadu had stated that the commission had over 500 suspects undergoing trial in the various High Courts for alleged advanced fees fraud. In the same vein, in the speech at the Bar Association conference in September, he also stated that the commission had “assigned special investigation teams to handle Bank Frauds, 419, stock exchange frauds, money laundering, pipeline vandalization and crude oil thefts, smuggling, etc”. Interestingly, none of these mention government fraud or official corruption.
This is spite of the fact that corruption at this level is so common place that Nigerians have become “unshockable”. This is in spite of the fact that allegations of corruption by highly placed government officials are routinely being made by highly placed officials of the same government. For instance, none other than the “helmswomen” of the finance ministry accused state governors of diverting abroad allocations made to their states. Were these responsible government officials just part of the rumour mill? Has this allegation been investigated? If so what is the outcome? Recently, Governor Orji Uzor Kalu of Abia state publicly claimed to have information on holders of foreign accounts in government. What has been the reaction of the EFCC? In his speech at the Bar conference, Mr. Ribadu fingered corrupt law enforcement officers as being part of the problem of enforcement of economic crimes. How many of these have been investigated and prosecuted? How many are in jail? Or is this outside the remit of the EFCC?
Unless this particular cadre of officials are targeted and held to account, the commission cannot shake off the feeling among Nigerians that this is once more business as usual. Whether rightly or wrongly, the reaction of most people will be same as the comments of Nzeribe, – that is,
“We have heard all these things you have said since 20 years ago. You are simply rendering lip service to the fight against corruption and going after small boys who just collect small money.”
This conclusion is not however to disregard the serious constraints that the commission or indeed any other body set up to fight corruption faces in the country. Apart from logistics and procedural factors, as Mr. Ribadu himself pointed out at the Bar conference, “the principal reason for the failure of our law enforcement agencies is corruption.” Nevertheless, he and his commission must work to extricate itself from this vicious circle. They are hardly going to get anywhere if they do not actually initiate investigation and prosecution. Research has shown over and over again that one of the greatest deterrents to criminal behaviour is the knowledge that contravention of the law will lead to detection and punishment. In the same vein lack of enforcement will only serve to encourage continuation of the prohibited behaviour. The commission may not have the resources to take on all of the cases. However, even one diligently investigated and prosecuted highbrow target will make a lot of difference. Nigeria and Nigerians deserves this much.
If as he suggests, his commission is incorruptible, this should be achievable. If not, or if things continue the way they are, we are just on another merry go round.