Emmah Isong Annual Lecture: A New Impetus to National Development

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Obong Akpaekong

The emergence of Emmah Isong Annual Lecture in the city of Calabar some three years ago has been seen as one big blessing to Nigerians, particularly those in the South-south geopolitical zone. Th e lecture aims at bringing politicians from various leanings together for discourses that promote national economic development and emancipation. Since its inception in October 2014, thousands of people within the academia, religious circle, business and industry, and the political class have embraced it as a platform for monitoring Nigerian politics and contributing their quota to the democratic process.

In the three outings so far, high profile politicians, technocrats and academics were selected to deliver the lecture. This year’s edition of the event was something to remember. Unlike the first two years, where the lecture held at Transcorps Hotel, the 2016 edition, which held on October 26, was at the ultra-modern auditorium of Christian Central Chapel International, Ikot Enebong, an edifice the immediate past governor of Cross River State, Liyel Imoke, described during its dedication on October 12, 2012, as “the soul of the community and centre for learning and interaction at all levels.”

The lecture, titled, “Nigeria’s Anti-Corruption War and Economic Recovery: The Connect”, was delivered by the speaker of Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, Onofiok Luke. Many believed the topic was very well connected to the state of affairs in the country – a time the nation is waging its fiercest war against corruption amid criticism that the war is selective.

The lecture examined the extent to which corruption was eating into the fabric of the nation. It took a good look at the argument that the fight against corruption was selective. There was evidence that the lecturer did good research into the cause(s) of the current Nigerian recession. Ask him the meaning of corruption and he gives you what he terms “Scholarly Definition” and “Organisational and Institutional Definitions”. The scholarly definitions include Heidenheimer’s “breaking the rules pertaining to a certain office.” Heidenheimer also says that economically, corruption can be defined as “acting against general interest”. Scott, another scholar, avers that corruption is acting against the laws that pertain to it, or acting against what the public opinion considers integrity or general interest. Byrne’s definition of corruption, quoted by the lecturer, was in line with that of Transparency International, which also classified it into grand, petty and political, “depending on the amounts of money lost and the sector where it occurs.”

The organisational and institutional definitions will include that of United Nations Development Programme: “the misuse of public power, office and authority for private gain through bribery, extortion, influence, pilferage, nepotism, fraud, speed money or embezzlement” and World Bank Economic Development Institute’s “abuse of entrusted power by politicians or civil servants for personal gains”. The lecture acknowledged that Nigeria was not just starting the fight against corruption but had already put so much into the fight over the years. Luke pointed to former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s determination to fight corruption, as enunciated in his electoral victory acceptance speech in February 1999: “I regard the result of this election as a mandate from the people of Nigeria and a command from God Almighty that I should spare no effort in rebuilding the nation. I understand the clear message of the Nigerian people in giving me their mandate, they have asked me to restore our dignity, they want me to alleviate poverty and destroy corruption completely.” To the lecturer, Obasanjo’s statement would mark the beginning of anti-corruption war in Nigeria.

When he spotted corruption as the bane of Africa’s development and Nigeria’s in particular, Luke supported this thinking with global economic indicators that said Nigeria was not on the right track both in terms of corruption perception and economic stability. They include Transparency International, which ranks Nigeria 136th out of 170 countries in its Global Corruption Perception Index; the World Bank Group, whose Ease of Doing Business Rating for 2016 puts the country at 169th position out of 189 countries surveyed; and the Heritage Foundation Economic Freedom Index, which ranks Nigeria 116th out of 178 countries surveyed. That report placed Rwanda 71st and Ghana 72nd.

Startling revelations from Nigerian agencies were also quoted: National Bureau of Statistics, which over a month ago declared that Nigeria was passing through a period of recession; Consumer Price Index, an instrument for measuring inflation, said inflation increased by 17.60 per cent in August and was 0.5 per cent higher than the17.10 per cent in July, thus putting inflation at 11-year high, the highest since 2005. The nation’s Gross Domestic Product was also said to have declined to 2.06 per cent. The NBS also stated that the value of capital imported into the country in the second quarter of 2016, estimated at $647.1 million, represented a shortfall of 75.73 per cent relative to 2015. That figure was said to be the lowest capital inflow ever. The bureau was quoted as reporting that the number of the unemployed in the labour market rose by 1,158, 700 persons in the second quarter of 2016, thus, increasing national unemployment rate by 13.3 per cent, from 22.1 per cent in the first quarter of the year.

The volume of research involved in the Third Emmah Isong Public Lecture made the occasion the more appealing to Nigerians. There was this frightening information from the files of Global Financial Integrity, the United States-based non-governmental organisation, that about $400 billion had either been stolen or misappropriated from the nation’s oil rents since independence in 1960 even as a total of $7.92 billion went out of Nigeria as illicit capital every year.

What really is the connection between the anti-corruption war being waged in the country and the nation’s economic recovery? Luke said President Muhammadu Buhari launched a crucial war against corruption on assumption of office last year, but warned that the war must not be fought at the detriment of a fully planned comprehensive effort to navigate the nation’s way to economic recovery.

“This country’s anti-corruption war should not be seen to be highly sensational, jaundiced and thoroughly compromised due to overbearing political undertones and motives. This, to my mind, is not how corruption is best fought,” he said. Luke said the fight against corruption had one way or the other exacerbated the instability in the polity such that political tension was having serious effect on the economy. He said the tough and stringent fiscal and monetary policies of government arising from the anti-corruption war had made businesses to grind to a halt and new investment initiatives were not being exploited.

He pointed to two such policies that, according to him, were negatively impacting on the people and the economy. One was the Treasury Single Account, which is known to have mopped all of government’s idle funds (about N3 trillion) from commercial banks to the Central Bank of Nigeria. The action was also said to have resulted in huge job losses, increased lending interest rates and obnoxious increases in bank charges. The second is the Dasukigate – the probe of alleged conversion of arms fund worth $2 billion by a former National Security Adviser. Over 300 companies that did business with the office of the NSA are said to be under probe. Luke said the probe made many to adopt a “wait and see” attitude rather than invest in what they believe is an unstable and tensed environment.

He advised that the war against corruption be fought side by side practical efforts to grow the economy. Hear him: “The fight against corruption should be given a priority but a formidable plan towards the nation’s economic recovery should be given greater priority because an economically prosperous nation would translate to lesser corrupt practices by the citizens.”

The lecture suggested new approaches to making the fight against corruption less criticised and more successful. They included that Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, which are directly charged with fighting corruption, be made more effective through establishment of mechanisms for greater accountability. Also agencies like the Code of Conduct Bureau, the Bureau for Public Enterprises, and Bureau for Public Procurement, be strengthened and made to function with less executive interference, while public agencies like Nigeria Customs Service, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Nigerian Ports Authority, Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, that are involved in funds generation, be put on the watch list, as such close monitoring would promote accountability and transparency.

In its three-year life, many have seen the Emmah Isong Public Lecture as a template and platform for some stimulating political engagement. In 2014, Stella Attoe, a professor of History at the University of Calabar, delivered the public lecture titled, “Nigeria: The Way Forward and the Essence of Democracy”. Attoe looked at the evolution of Nigerian politics from the time of the colonial masters to post-independence era and military politics to the nation’s nascent democracy.

She admonished politicians, the electorate and the nation’s election umpire to ensure peaceful election in 2015 for continuous success of the country’s democratic experience. Also speaking at the occasion was Emmanuel Ekanem, a former chief medical director of the University of Uyo Teaching Hospital, who recalled the efforts of British parliamentarian William Wilberforce in the abolition of slave trade. Ekanem urged world leaders to ensure that modern day slavery in any form was stopped in their domains so that the effort of Wilberforce will not be in vain.

Indeed, Emmah Isong Public Lecture has become a platform where politicians from various party backgrounds meet to brainstorm on the Nigerian and global political landscape without generation of rancour or fear. Isong, bishop of CCCI, is fast gaining recognition as a prophet to the nation and its political class. Quite a good number of politicians worship in his church. Many of them are his members while others belong to other Christian groups in the Niger Delta and South-east states. They consult with him before taking the first steps in the waters of politics. After succeeding in the election or getting a political appointment, the next is to look up to him for guidance and spiritual counsel on politics’ murky waters.

The 1987 University of Calabar Banking and Finance graduate went into full time ministry in 1990. The public lecture, which is believed every church leader that has the wherewithal should emulate, holds on his birthday.

–– Akpaekong is a former Senior Associate Editor of Newswatch.