Of Corruption And Federalism

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DIALOGUE WITH NIGERIA BY AKIN OSUNTOKUN   akin.osuntokun@thisdaylive.com

In balancing the books for the outcome of the last presidential election, three factors stood out to be counted — corruption, security and ethno-regional parochialism. Of the three, hoisting the banner of corruption and national security is politically correct and valorised across national and international boundaries, and it is, to this extent, rich in propaganda and publicity value. Fighting corruption and securing national borders is a universal political value to which every society is expected to uniformly pledge allegiance and subscription. It serves, in equal measure, to confer legitimacy and otherwise delegitimise political platforms and regimes.

Confronted with the poor governance perception of the Nigeria public, the government of President Muhammadu Buhari has relentlessly milked the populist appeal of anti-corruption crusade to shore up its rapidly depleting fount of public goodwill. Escapism through the demonisation of the corruption scarred preceding regime of former President Goodluck Jonathan has become the sole item of weekly information dissemination of the Federal Executive Council (FEC). It has to be acknowledged, though, that it is difficult to minimise the significance of the magnitude of the impunity and corruption perpetrated under Jonathan’s watch.

In the wisdom of the political sage of our time, President Barack Obama, “What you do when no one is watching is more important and revealing than what you do when others are watching.” The adaptation of this adage to our circumstances could be reproduced as follows: what you did and said when you were not seeking office is more representative than what you did and advertise when seeking public office. The Obama tenet is universally applicable and for the purpose of this presentation, the two individuals in focus are President Buhari and Professor Itse Sagay — the two frontline public figures entrusted with taming the monster of corruption in the public life of Nigeria today.

Of all those who have had the privilege of governing Nigeria, Buhari rates highest in personal integrity and seriousness in fighting corruption but he has also contributed his damaging quota to the erection of a national ideology of corruption. He did this when he brought the weight of his public respect to make the call-against the preponderance of evidence including admission of culpability by the late dictator’s family that “Abacha did not steal any money”.

I stand to be corrected but my interpretation of the embarrassingly defiant and blind exoneration was borne of political identification with the late Head of State Sani Abacha, warts and all. I will go further to qualify the statement as the exhibition of ethno regional parochialism (my brother, right or wrong) whose reinforcement by the over centralised federal government is at the root of public corruption in Nigeria. The twin brother of corruption namely abuse of office is manifested in the political nepotism inherent, for instance, in the declaration by Buhari that he would discriminate against those who did not vote for him.

What is good for the goose is sauce for the gander and if it was right to so absolve Abacha of culpable corruption, why would partisans of Jonathan now accept from Buhari that Jonathan stole any money? By a quirk of providence, the man appointed by Buhari as chairman of the anti-corruption advisory panel is none other than hitherto Niger Delta irredentism personified Professor Sagay. Years ago, he stood on a similar pedestal of ethno regional chauvinism to urge Jonathan and the Niger Delta political unit to the barricades and ensure his own corner of Nigeria gets adequately compensated in sharing the national booty, by means fair and foul.

He fumed: “This is a wake-up call on the people of the oil-bearing region. For instance this is the time to come together and fight intellectually for the anomaly in the uneven allocation of oil blocs in the country. You will observe that because of the long stay of the north in power at the centre, they manipulated the process and cornered these blocs to the disadvantage of the south; today, you have all juicy oil blocs in the hands of the north. Now that Jonathan is there, I would not want to sound being immodest by calling for a revocation of the blocs allocated to the northern businessmen, but from the look of things, they have decided to take the entire South for a ride, so Jonathan should ensure that he corrects this imbalance by allocating more oil blocs to people in the South to make up for the inequity in the sector.” He goes further to formulate the corruption problem as arising from ‘a strong, almost unitary constitution…

“The only explanation in favour of a strong, almost unitary constitution, in which the federal government owns everything including the mineral resources in my backyard, (and we all know that federal government means the Arewa North) is the obsessive love for the proceeds of the Niger Delta’s Oil and Gas proceeds . … At the Political Reform Conference in 2005, we went to the Federal Ministry of Finance to get figures and facts about what each of the zones contributed to the commonwealth. What we saw was amazing; the North-west brings nothing, the same with the North-central and North-east. The South-east and South-west brings minor but the South-south contributes 91 per cent.”

The escalating political revolt in the Niger Delta region encapsulated in the return to guerrilla insurgency of groups like the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) is significant in the manner in which it has demonstrated how corruption is entwined with ethno regional parochialism; how they both feed on one another. The unstated and the most significant revelation of the renewed insurgency is the correlation that can be drawn between the fate of top Niger Delta personalities standing trial for corruption and the renewal of militancy hostilities. Between this trend and the pronouncement of exculpation of Abacha by Buhari, there is really no ideological gap and difference. Both are governed by the same ideology of corruption sanctified by a predisposing context of ethno national parochialism. The question then arises, can corruption in Nigeria be meaningfully addressed without regard to the prior and predisposing context of ethno regional parochialism and the constitutional structure that sustains it?

Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar responded thus, “As some of you may know, I have for a long time advocated the need to restructure our federation. Our current structure and the practices it has encouraged have been a major impediment to the economic and political development of our country. In short, it has not served Nigeria well, and at the risk of reproach it has not served my part of the country, the North, well.

“The call for restructuring is even more relevant today in light of the governance and economic challenges facing us. And the rising tide of agitations, some militant and violent, require a reset in our relationships as a united nation… Some may say that we are saddled with more urgent challenges, including rebuilding our battered economy, creating jobs, fighting corruption and securing our people from terrorism and other forms of serious crimes. I believe, however, that addressing the flaws in our federation will help us address some of those very economic and security challenges facing this country.

“An excessively powerful centre does not equate national unity. If anything, it has made our unity more fragile, our government more unstable and our country more unsafe. We must renegotiate our union in order to make it stronger. Greater autonomy, power and resources for states and local authorities will give the federating units greater freedom and flexibility to address local issues, priorities and peculiarities…It will help to unleash our people’s creative energies and spur more development. It will reduce the premium placed on capturing power at the centre. It will help with improving security. It will promote healthy rivalries among the federating units and local authorities. It will help make us richer and stronger as a nation.” The unforgettable take away from Atiku’s propagation was this one liner …”In short, it has not served Nigeria well, and at the risk of reproach it has not served my part of the country, the North, well…”

It is a safe bet to wager that were a referendum conducted on the acceptability of restructuring Nigeria towards true federalism, it would be carried by a landslide in the south of Nigeria and would correspondingly fail in the north. And as such, no political leader from the region appears persuaded of the argument, much less commit to it as a desirable agenda, as noted by the former vice-president. The truth of course is that going by all indices of socio-economic development, federalism as practised in Nigeria up until 1966 has served the country far better than subsequent phases of our history. The evidence of the trajectory of the three comprising regions of the east, north and west, was that those regions would have individually and collectively prosper considerably more than what obtains today.

Days before Atiku, his erstwhile principal, former President Olusegun Obasanjo proposed the allied radical measure of privatising the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), where 70 per cent of Nigeria’s corruption is domiciled. He made the recommendation within the general context of privatisation as remedy for the hydra-headed economic ill plaguing Nigeria, especially, corruption. Ideologically, privatisation is rested on the free market philosophy that economic wealth is more efficiently and rationally produced and managed by the logic of profitability and viability unencumbered by political and governmental interference. Wholesomely adapted to the Nigerian situation, privatisation has enormous potential to free Nigeria of corruption which substantially occurs at the level of governmental management of public utilities and resources.

Less conventionally understood is a commensurate utility for devolution and decentralisation of power. In Nigeria, for instance, it takes away the power of patronage and management control from the over centralised power of the pseudo federal government. If the allegations against the government of President Jonathan can be believed, it would mean that taking away the NNPC from governmental control would critically reduce the latitude for corruption at the federal government level. There would be no allegations of the disappearance of $50 billion; there would be no short changing Nigeria in the arbitrary allocations and sharing of oil blocks; there would be lesser need for quota and federal character principle and all such derivatives of political nepotism. Indeed there will be less desperation and mad rush to grab power at the centre.