The Looters Curse

By Chidi Amuta 

The Minister of Information, Mr. Lai Mohammed, needs a new tailor badly. The garb of a minister of the federal republic ought to fit better than the rough tunic of a casual party entertainer that the man seems so fond of. More seriously, I presume that Mr. Mohammed is paid to speak for the government and people of Nigeria irrespective of our party affiliations. His core assignments ought to include making Nigeria look good or at least better at home and abroad. While he reserves the right to love his party more than his nation, he has no business exploiting his elevated ministerial podium to deepen our national image deficits.
Yet, by initiating the publication of what he deems an exclusive national looters directory, Mr. Mohammed has worsened our global perception crisis and may end up portraying himself more as a pathetic partisan rather than the voice of a respectable nation. Lest we forget, we are variously maligned around the world as easily the world’s most corrupt nation. President Buhari pushed this narrative very hard by exporting it wherever he went in his first two years in office. He was obviously marketing his anti corruption fixation abroad ever before it took hold at home. Lai Mohammed has just reinforced this campaign, backing it with dodgy figures, crooked statistics and very embarrassing high school arguments.
We are in a world where Nigeria is ready quarry for juicy corruption stories. Quite recently, a number of influential books have emerged on the international scene based on this unusual distinction: The Looting Machine by Tom Burgis, Thieves of State by Sarah Chayes and This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organised Crime by Stephen Ellis are the most noteworthy instances. Add to that Transparency International’s abysmal corruption perception ranking of Nigeria in 2017 as 148th out of 180 nations worldwide. Yet a government that went all over the world advertising the corruption of its citizens and begging other nations to help return Nigeria’s loot in their banks was the first to complain about Transparency International!

Even the worst of governments manages to defend their nations from negative perceptions held by others even in the worst of times and circumstances. Rare is the government that waves the flag of national infamy to the world just to score a domestic political point. The Buhari government has just scored a lethal own goal by initiating this politics of brandishing treasury looters lists.
Let me quickly enter an important caveat. My reservations on this politics of looters lists are non-partisan. I am yet to join any of the power hungry collectives. I am by no means a supporter of the kind of mindless treasury looting that has continued to happen here over time. Looters of our commonwealth ought to be treated as common criminals whether they are in the APC, the PDP or the shadowy private sector. As a matter of fact, where the rule of law prevails, it is the outcome of credible judicial processes that ought to name and shame culprits in a serious anti corruption engagement. Where courts or tribunals of competent jurisdiction rule anyone or group of persons guilty of looting the public treasury, no credible government would need to advance its political frontiers by issuing a list of its wealthy opponents as treasury looters. 

In the count down to the 2019 general elections, people were hoping that the ruling APC and its rival opposition gang, the PDP, would go into the election season with clear, even if conflicting, policy road maps. We are still expecting issue- based discourse and civil campaigns. But no chance. Instead what we have seen so far in the last few weeks is a nauseating relapse into a pathetic blame game. In the back and forth tossing of blames between the two major parties over the prodigality of their leaders, the nation and its multiple afflictions seem lost. More depressingly, a certain motor park grade hurling of insults across all known divides is beginning to rage. Not to talk of the liberal exchange of undisguised abuses by leading political actors on both sides. Yet there is no divide on issues since both parties are devoid of any hints of ideological anchoring.

On its part, the ruling party remains frozen in its fixation with Jonathan’s obvious foibles as if our national history came to a halt with Mr. Jonathan. It seems intent on blaming the opposition PDP for its own tragic failure to either rule or govern. The tragically over rated Mr. Buhari who has been president for 3 years, has neither ruled, governed nor reigned.

To the utter consternation of most Nigerians, the PDP foolishly rendered a tepid apology for ruling badly especially under Jonathan. In response, Mr. Lai Mohammed, who confuses his role as government spokesman with that of a party thug proceeded to release an embarrassing list of alleged treasury looters derived apparently from EFCC charge sheets and ongoing court proceedings. Not wanting to be beaten in this cheap diversionary antic, the PDP also published a scandal sheet of alleged looters from the ruling party, which, if truth be told, is the other side of the Nigerian political mafia family. The public has greeted this pageant of infamy with the scorn it deserves. People feel insulted, short changed and generally embarrassed by the adolescent displays of supposed leaders.  An obscene parade of rival gangs of treasury looters, real or imagined, cannot assuage the angry yearnings of a nation in desperate need of visionary and transformative leadership. 

In reality, there is no distinction between the looters of the PDP and those of the APC. They share a common political DNA. There is no ideological distinction between both parties either. Their leadership selection process is one and the same. What distinguished them is perhaps he location from which they are shouting insults at each other. One is dug in at Aso villa, the other is screaming from the street corners. 

As a matter of fact, their members are mostly one and the same. More than 35% of the membership of the APC were card-carrying members of the PDP. By the logic of Mr. Lai Mohammed, by simply changing party symbols from the tattered umbrella to a scattered and uneven broom bunch, these people were cleansed and cannot feature in his phantom list of looters. By this fraudulent logic, all it requires to make Nigeria free of official corruption is for all politicians and public office holders to decamp to the APC. That way there will be no need for a list of looters!

Beyond political bad manners on both sides, however, there is a failure of political and public communication in this open parade of infamy. First, as political diversion, the publications impress no one and cannot sway voters either way. As a communication event, the crude exchange of gutter grade abuse by both sides degrades our political discourse. There is no new information in this overhyped exchange of palm wine joint ‘exclusives’. If this is in the service of some anti corruption fad, it falls flat on its face. Fighting corruption as an exclusive malaise of the politically exposed misses the whole point.  Corruption in Nigeria is too serious an ingrained sociological and psychological problem to be trifled with as political cosmetics. 

As we trek into the election season, what Nigerians expect from the parties is a serious engagement on the national problems that will not go away. On national security, we no longer need grandstanding and imaginary victories. We need to understand and debate the scope of a scourge that is nearly engulfing the entire nation. We need to hear the perspectives of the parties on whether we need combat soldiers to protect and secure a democracy or a better trained and equipped police force. 

On the economy, we need serious perspectives on why our people are getting poorer while our leaders insist we have never had it so good. Fancy graphs, power point presentations and expensive foreign consultants cannot assuage the hunger of the many who are unsure of the next meal. On education, we need to hear the parties proffer solutions on how best to get our kids to compete with the best in important disciplines. Our healthcare needs better attention and more resources if we must wrestle most of our people from the fangs of common diseases that less endowed nations have since eradicated. We need to be better informed by the parties on the best strategies to fight corruption first as a primary social epidemic before it becomes a tertiary disease that afflicts mostly those in government and their business friends.
There is quite a possibility that the APC government does have a credible report card of demonstrable achievements to show for the last three years. Let us know what it is. It is also conceivable that the ruling party has learnt some lessons on the job and now has a basket of issues and corrective policy plans on which to build its case for the next election. We the people deserve to know. In the same vein, the PDP should have a rich institutional memory of policies, projects and achievements as well as future plans. It needs to show that it has spent the period out of power in penitent reflection on national issues.
As a people, we need to use the next general election to rescue our people from the recurrent cycle of the looters curse.
*Dr. Chidi Amuta is a member of the Editorial Board of Thisday.