Buhari’s Anti-corruption War is on Course, Says Owasanoye

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The Executive Secretary of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Professor Bolaji Owasanoye, who is also the Chairman-designate of the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), in this interview with Iyobosa Uwugiaren and Senator Iroegbu, reviews President Muhammadu Buhari’s fight against corruption and concludes that the president has not only expanded the frontiers of the battles against graft but has also remained focus despite all odds

What is your assessment of the anti-corruption war by President Muhammadu Buhari-led government in the last three years?
I think that the war against corruption has been fairly successful, there are still many gaps, but the challenge is far more than anticipated. But we knew it was deep but all things considered, I think if we look at the environment, the war against corruption has not been too bad. Firstly as everybody acknowledges, the government has made a huge success out of recovering stolen assets from quite a number of people, those within and outside the country. The government has succeeded in introducing major preventive mechanisms to diminish corruption in revenue and expenditure. For revenue, the Treasure Single Account (TSA) was introduced, which was a policy we inherited, but because of the lack of political will, it was never enforced. The TSA policy ensures that revenue earning agencies deposit what they earn into the federation account; this government has successfully done that and of course complementary to that is the BVN, which is designed to prevent corruption in expenditure outlets including the discovery of ghost-workers and the elimination of that phenomenon in different ways. Everybody knows that Nigeria’s revenue dipped, everybody knows that price of oil for 2015 to 2016 was very bad; it was only in 2017 it started moving up a bit, but in spite of that, for far less revenue, the government has been able to escalate improved expenditure in capital projects. The federal government does not owe salaries and all that. So, I think that if you look at a number of these issues, one cannot but agree that the government has made some progress. The biggest gap is with sanctions and enforcement and that, we are talking about prosecutions specifically which is what would appear to resonate with the people, because they believe that if you don’t put thieves in jail, you are not yet fighting corruption, but that itself is not the fault of government. It’s a process, and we all subscribe to that process. That same process protects you as journalists, protects me as a public servant and protects the ordinary Nigerians, that if there is an allegation — that you have done something wrong, it’s has to be proved in court, but of course you as a journalist, if you were alleged to have done something wrong, you would do everything to defend yourself. You would request time to get to your evidence, you would request time to prepare for defence, that’s exactly what we are saying. Although, we recognize that there are various areas in which the process is being manipulated by people who are not interested in fighting corruption, and again, we are responding to all of that; working with all the arms of government especially with the judiciary. So on the whole, the fight against corruption is going on well, in spite of the cynicism of a few.

Your perception about how President Buhari is fighting corruption does not tally with Transparency International’s recent report, which shows that corrupt practices have increased in the past three years?
Just recent, the Board Chair of Transparency International, Ms. Delia Ferreira Rubio, was in this office and we had a meeting with her. As the index itself suggests, it is a perception index, and perception they say, can be stronger than reality; so I admit that you need to deal with perceptions as well. That report does not reflect the reality on the ground in many areas. It would interest you to know that the CPI is a aggregation of various other reports, which Transparency International puts together. In seven of those eight reports, Nigeria either improved or stabilized. In other words, if we were 20 the previous year, we remain 20th this year. It’s only in one that Nigeria went below and the kind of questions that were being asked, who exactly were the respondents? For example, does Nigeria have a budgetary process? Are there special funds that are kept somewhere that can be spent without anybody knowing about it? Very apparent and obvious things. Is there still mismanagement going on in public funds? Of course most people will say there is still mismanagement, and I will say there is some level of mismanagement as well, but you know it’s not at the same grand level as it used to happen before. So if you look at the kind of questions that were asked, you would wonder who the respondents were. Who responded to those questions? Are they people who are familiar with the governance structure in Nigeria, because, for example, as you and I are speaking now, the budget is yet to be passed because it’s with the legislature and they have their own rigorous process to run through the budget to ask questions, to demands answers before the budget is passed. So, when you ask in a perception index questions like, do you have a budgetary process? What sort of response do you expect someone to give? It is baffling to us, but in spite of that, the government does not see Transparency International as an antagonist. We believe that the government needs to work better on communication mechanism to explain better what it is doing, to explain better its own challenges, its own failure and its own successes. So, that’s the way we took it, and the meeting with the board Chair was a very good meeting.

There is this noticeable lack of transparency and accountability in the way government conduct their businesses. There is still that culture of secrecy that fuels the perceptions that government is not ready to be open. For example look at the Freedom of Information Act that was passed during Goodluck Jonathan, they just submitted the report recently, stating that nearly 90 percent of public offices still deny access to public information. Are you not concerned in this area? How can we solve that problem?
I think we need to understand that some of these challenges are deeply rooted; they are historical, and some partly cultural. Historical, because the civil servants, and the structure itself were based on Official Secrecy Act; see no evil, hear no evil, don’t talk!, don’t say anything! Okay? And, the Freedom of Information Act is designed to reverse that trend, in order to put transparency into governance. That’s number 1. Breaking that culture will demand more than just passing a legislation; we need to do far more than passing a law. We need to use technology to make things and information automatically available to the public. Some of those measures are going on. Before I lose that trend of thought I will give you an example. Some few weeks back, we were with our partners, as I said we do back channel consultation with very critical agencies, we spent hours with the Bureau for Public Procurement to discuss our own ideas, the things that were said and what they are doing. Before the end of the year, very likely, there is going to be an open contracting system up there on the internet that gives journalists like yourselves access to who is getting what contract, at what amount and so on and so forth; because that is the only way to break some of the challenges. They are already working on it; and you can see indeed, this was part of the report that was given as part of Nigeria’s commitment to the Open Governance Partnership (OGP) some few weeks ago. President Buhari was committed when we joined OGP that he was going to open up the space for more information to be available and that while some of these things are being done. PACAC is represented in the OGP Steering Committee, and we make inputs. So, some of those steps are already on-going to open up the space. The second thing of course is that there must be a structure that enables information to be shared with the public; because the public has a right to know. Sin thrives in secrecy, so the more you cover up and you don’t open up, the more iniquity that goes behind. So, we are in support of that. Indeed, when we got into office, one Civil Society Organization made an FOI request on PACAC, saying where you are people getting money, how much are you spending? And we responded within the statutory period and the fellow was very surprised. He said, because they have made many request to National Assembly, to government agencies and nobody replies. Now, the FOI structure is situated within the Ministry of Justice, so there is need for more interaction, and education and capacity building to break the existing mind-set of civil servants — that in spite of FOI, they are not supposed to share information. Once it’s not security related and will not threaten the stability of the country, why shouldn’t you share it? Every Nigerian has a right to know that. So it’s a process and it will take time to break that culture. It is a challenge for example, as an academic, I face this kind of frustration, when I’m doing research and one of my areas is international Economic law and commercial Agreement. Nigeria signs an agreement with a company and I go to Ministry of Justice and I ask, can I get a copy of this agreement to review and see, they say ‘oh! We can’t give you.

Because I was focused on international financial agreements at that time, if it’s with The World Bank, I would go to the World Bank and a copy of the thing is there with the World Bank’s library. And l got a copy from the World Bank’s library. Sometimes, I will even make a photocopy and I go back to Ministry of Justice and tell my friends there, well, since you said you didn’t have a copy or you can’t give me, here, take a copy I have got one. They will say where did you get i? I will say from the World Bank, it’s there, open source. It will take time to break this culture and mind-set; but we support open governance, we support the openness of information, it is the way to go. It’s an anti-corruption measure because if you succeed in knowing who is getting contract, which companies are getting contract and all that, you are are able to fight corruption better.

You worked closely with the EFCC, and there is that perception among many Nigerians, that EFCC is persecuting the opposition members in Nigeria, and that in the true sense of it, the agency is not fighting corruption. What is your take on that?
You know this is an accusation and a perception that would be recurring. When this government finishes its term, if another government comes, the same allegation will be made. We hear it all the time that the fight against corruption is one sided. If you, my dear brother, take over in THISDAY today as the Managing Director or the Chairman, you will start reviewing from the immediate past, the way things were being done, somethings you want to change, and you will be accused, why you are not looking at so and so. These allegations would always come, but there is no substance in it. If you profile people who are being prosecuted, both by the EFCC and ICPC, they include people who are in APC. They certainly include people who are in PDP and recently President Buhari said that those who are corrupt, no matter how long it takes, they will be brought to book. Let’s assume for whatever reason that EFCC does not get to you under this regime does that mean that you are free? It doesn’t make, things can change and they will still come after you. I think that the decision about where to start from is often that of the prosecuting or the law enforcement agency. On an average day, let’s say 100 complaints may come to a police station about crime that has been committed in an average. Do the police follow through all of them? They don’t even have the capacity to follow all. It does not follow through all of the; it decides which one it will follow through, follow up the investigation and from there, decide whether or not it is going to prosecute or not to prosecute. It is not for the suspect to say ah, you investigated 10 of us, why is it only me that you want to prosecute. The second thing that I say when people raise this argument is that if you accuse me of corruption or any other crime, which I have not committed, it is in my interest to prove innocence. My best defence is not to say, why I am the one you are prosecuting, that cannot be my defence; that defence cannot stand. My defence is I am innocent. This is my proof that I am innocent. I think that it will serve the purpose better for those who are complaining to go to court and say I am innocent;

Are we to believe that corruption is still very pronounced in the country?
There is still corruption. There is no country that does not have corruption, but it is not at the same level as you heard it before. And I will give you examples: when people make general statements like oh! There is also lot of corruption in this administration, the question I always ask is: can you bring proof? Some people will write us petition that there is corruption in the housing sector, just a general statement, then you say thank you, but can you be specific? No feedback! People don’t come back; they just make general statements out of anger, out of frustration, out of annoyance, out of bias. It doesn’t matter they make general statements. Take a look at the present government, as I said, some of the measures that government has introduced automatically reduced the ability and capacity for corruption. Unless you don’t want to be honest; go and talk to civil servants, whether it’s the same way that money is being stolen before that they are having it now. You need to do that. I am not saying that Nigeria is corruption free; no, we are far from that. But, as to whether the government has succeeded in diminishing corruption significantly and to an extent, it has.

Somebody said that in the past corruption was democratised and now it has been privatised. In other words, few people who are very close to the power are the ones involved in the current corrupt practices. Do you share that?
If people have information on all those allegations you heard of them each time, they can bring it with evidence. Look, if you can help us, since you have that information, the identity of the person will be protected; the security of the person will be safeguarded. You need to help the system by putting that information on the table; it is not good enough to make the allegation to say, look those who are corrupt are those who are close to government, this is what they are doing. So, to that the extent that you have that information, you have a duty to put it on the table otherwise how is government going to be able to deal with it?

Corruption is also an abuse of power and many people believe it is well pronounced in this government. Can you deny that?
When you say that corruption and abuse of power is pronounced in government, I will give you another example. Recently, a certain section of the country was saying that they were marginalized in appointments and stuff like that. So the government asked for an audit of some sort of all the appointments and said look, let’s even map out geopolitical zones, the appointees in the government and where they come from, and when the data was presented to the leaders from that section of the country, to say this is the existing position, if you disagree with it, please point it out. They never said a word. It showed in the data that was supplied that they actually had an edge and that all of the things they had been feeding the media was not correct. There is no time that we were told that this is happening and we ignored it. We would go back to the source and say give us something we can work with, I’m not going to mention your name, but since you’ve asked I will ask for discreet investigation to be done, 99% of the it’s unfounded.

There is a strong argument that for us to be able to fight corruption, we need to re-structure the institutions. The recent report by the NJC confirmed that most of the anti-corruption agencies for example, the EFCC lacks the capacity to do its job — in terms of prosecutions. So what should be done in order to be able to correct that?
I think there is no doubt that there is merit in that observation — that given the level of corruption in the country, it is epidemic and systemic and anti-corruption agencies are not coping well. The focus is on EFCC and ICPC at the moment; but, indeed, there are other agencies that are not able to fight corruption as well like the Police. The police is the biggest and the most wide spread, but also under resourced; as you know, there is a recruitment drive going on even right now as we are speaking for the police. The EFCC has recently increased its own manpower but beyond that you also need training for them, you also need to provide infrastructure, you also need to fund the agencies very well because you see, the key and critical factor in any anti corruption effort is in the investigation. The capacity to investigate, to be able to trace the source and ultimately to be able to block it; because as they say, prevention is better than cure. Basically, what we have is that anti corruption agencies right now are only able to respond. In my view they are only able to respond to just a small percentage of the problem that we have however, that is not to say that that small percentage cannot add value or make impact.
When you focus on the big issues in the short to medium term, because ultimately, you got to make the anti corruption effort a people’s effort — that is what will help us fight and diminish corruption.

Are you not worried that the institutions for example or the personnel within the anti corruption institutions that are supposed to be fighting corruption have become parts of the problem — rather than fighting corruption?
There is no doubt that there are bad eggs in every institution and we have had some of the complaints and reports — that anti-corruption agencies themselves are corrupt or have been compromised; it has to be dealt with, and when those reports come up and we give them these feedbacks they do take measures.

From your interrogation with the system, what is your perception about this government in terms of transparency and accountability?
To be honest with you, speaking for myself and perhaps people on the committee, I wouldn’t be in government if I didn’t think that this government meant well and was determined without being immodest. I have been offered place in government before now but I didn’t accept it. I didn’t accept it because I was not sure that there was the determination and the political willingness to make changes, no matter how small. I think that the government means well and the government is determined. I think the government is doing well and corruption is not at the same level at which it was in the past, unless we want to be uncharitable. Corruption is not at the same level, indeed some of the people who are highly critical of government, they are critical today because a number of the avenues that they used to feast on government, have been closed.