As Gowon Stirs New Debate on Corruption…

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Former military Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, recently sparked an interesting debate on corruption, when he said corruption started after his administration. But the kinds of commentaries that have since trailed his statement say more about the endemic nature of corruption in Nigeria, writes Shola Oyeyipo

Former military leader, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, recently stoked a new debate in the country, when he attempted to exonerate his leadership from corruption, since debates on corruption seem to share a very long history in the country.

The widespread belief is that successive political leaderships are most culpable hence Gowon got nearly spontaneous reactions, when he told participants at the Eighth Annual General Meeting and Conference for Heads of Anti-corruption Agencies in Commonwealth Africa that he did involve himself in corruption.

He said, “It is sad to read reports that all former Heads of State are thieves. During our time, we did not know anything like corruption. Some of my ministers were accused of corruption but we did not allow it to get into the public service. After I left office, apart from my salary, it was the staff that contributed their estacode so that I have something to live on.

“During our time, we did not know that thing (corruption). We were afraid of being exposed.”
Some Nigerians, however think otherwise. For instance, the Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Prof Itse Sagay, thinks since fighting corruption was the fulcrum of the General Murtala Mohammed take-over, it was an indication of the misdemeanour in the system. Worst still, 10 of the 12 military governors during his regime, were found guilty of corruption.

The likes of second republic governor of old Kaduna State, Alhaji Balarabe Musa; former senator, Mr. Femi Okurounmu; Founder of the Oodua Peoples’ Congress (OPC), Dr. Frederick Fasehun and many others corroborated Sagay’s position. They argued that there were issues of corruption in Nigeria under Gowon.

The takeaway from the trending debate is that corruption has been a recurring decimal in the political evolution of Nigeria. Though successive administrations and their arrowheads may nurture a genuine intention to curb it, hardly has any government really succeeded.

Records have it that between 1960 and 1966, under Sir Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa’s tenure, and 1966, under Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi, while there were allegations, there were little concrete evidence of corruption, but between 1966 and 1975, when Gowon was at the helm of affairs, corruption started becoming an issue of public concern.

However, from 1975 through 1976, when Muhammed was in the saddle, there was noticeable zero tolerance for corruption and indiscipline. It is believed that his assassination was not unconnected with his fight against the growing scourge.

But by the time Obasanjo came on board between 1976 and 1979, corruption started taking a place of prominence in the scheme of things. Leadership among some started meaning owning multi-million dollar property around the world.

Matters came to a head between 1979 and 1983 under President Shehu Shagari, considered one of the weakest leaders, whose tenure permitted so much loopholes that allowed government functionaries to loot public funds and properties.

During his first coming as military ruler between 1984 and 1985, President Muhammadu Buhari had zero tolerance for corruption, indolence and indiscipline. Corrupt politicians were jailed a minimum of 100 years in prison, beneficiaries of corruption still lurked in the corner.

From then on, till date, it’s been stories of woe for Nigeria and Nigerians. Under General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, corruption gained freedom. He freed all the corrupt politicians jailed by Buhari. Public servants had field days looting. At a point, about $12 billion mysteriously disappeared.

General Sani Abacha’s era was worse. Several billions of dollars were taken from the nation’s treasury in his five-year rule. His successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar fared no better as the foreign reserves under him plummeted rapidly a few days to his hand-over to President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Obasanjo’s second tenure had its share of corruption or alleged mismanagement of public funds, even though his administration as a civilian took more conscious effort than any before and after it to contain corruption.

But his government spent about $16 billion dollars on power projects without much improvement on electricity supply to the country. Another N300 billion earmarked for road projects did not translate to good roads across the nation.

Late President Umaru Yar’Adua’s ill-health did not allow him enough time and energy to fight corruption, but his successor, former President Goodluck Jonathan, has been under massive scrutiny that is revealing a lot of corrupt acts were allegedly committed under his watch.
In what ranked as the highest disappearance of public funds in Nigeria’s history, in the build-up to the 2015 election, about N2.6 trillion were allegedly moved from the public purse. His former aides are regular visitors at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) offices nationwide.

While that has been the summary of corruption outlook in Nigeria, a chronological ordering of ‘Corruption in Nigeria: A Historical Perspective (1947-2002) by Rina Okonkwo, based on the work of George Ayittey as presented by Emeka Okafor, noted that “Africans in the public service seeks to further their own financial interest,” and that as early as 1947, commissions of inquiry were held to investigate cases of corruption.

The discovery of rampant corruption in affairs of the Igbo-Etiti district council in May 1954, just seventeen months after it was set up, attests to the long presence of corruption in Nigeria.
Appalled by the discoveries, the colonial officer, who conducted the inquiry, FP Cobb, said back then that “public indignation was widespread and strong.” He was obviously outraged at the corrupt behaviour of their representatives.

The report on Igbo-Etiti district council revealed that there was “systematic corruption” in the appointment and promotion of staff and in the awarding of contracts. Bribes of L80 to L100 were demanded for unnecessary appointments.

The brother of the Secretary to the District Council was hired above a more qualified applicant. In one case, a man paid a L400 bribe to secure a post and was never refunded his money when he did not get the job.

Contractors routinely paid ten per cent of the value of the contract as bribe. The contracts were not awarded to the lowest bidder or to the most experienced or competent persons.
At the end of its first seventeen months of existence, the Igbo-Etiti District Council was L6000 in debt. There was great wasting of public money due to “gross dishonesty in handling council affairs.”

Even where Gowon did not make adequate ‘retirement plan’ for himself by eschewing corruption, boasting that there was no corruption under him is simply ‘holier than thou’ taken too far. Judging from the above scenario in 1954, would he say all those responsible for the Etiti council mismanagement have all been dealt with? Are there no more corrupt elements in the system? The answer is that the scourge of corruption has been in Nigeria since a long time.

Words of the 47th Vice-President of the United States from 2009 to 2017, Joe Biden, “Corruption is a cancer: a cancer that eats away at a citizen’s faith in democracy, diminishes the instinct for innovation and creativity; already-tight national budgets, crowding out important national investments. It wastes the talent of entire generations. It scares away investments and jobs,” aptly capture where Nigeria stands today.

There have been series of suggestions on how best Nigeria can address this major problem setting it back. Part of it is that the anti-corruption and other security institutions should be strengthened to effectively carry out their functions, devoid of petty politics of affiliation and nepotism. Also, the legal framework should be fashioned in a way that guarantees justice delivery.

Another suggestion is that those apprehended for corruption-related offences should be strictly punished as deterrence to others.

Though the present leadership under President Buhari has continued to talk about its interest in combating corruption, the inbuilt corrupt system, weak institutional framework, less than active legal system and the structural imbalance in Nigeria have all combined to slow down the gains hence government would have to do more to ensure a corruption-free Nigeria.