Friday 27 November 2015

#MustRead: Buhari And The Returned Loot

President Buhari
by: Abimbola Adelakun

The age of the New Media is characterised by, among other appurtenances, the ubiquity of digital devices that enable us to grasp fleeting moments and freeze them into evidence. This easy accessibility to proof generated its own aphorism in the electronic world of the social media: pics or it didn’t happen! The meme is a cynical response to outlandish claims: either you substantiate it or you are lying.

In the same vein, I think President Muhammadu Buhari owes us some proof of his claims that some former government officials who robbed the nation in times past are gradually returning their loot or he risks being called a liar, a label I can assure him will have some impact on his image.

In Iran on Tuesday, while speaking to the Nigerian community, he claimed that his government’s efforts at recovering stolen funds were yielding success as those who stole those funds were wilfully returning their loot. He added that his government was currently investigating those people who by the way – he noted – are innocent until they are proved guilty. When they have enough evidence of their sins, he said they would charge them to court.

All these sentiments seem nice but they raise more questions than they answer.

For one, this is not the first time we would be told that some people were returning stolen money. In June, barely two weeks after Buhari was sworn in, the Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, made a similar claim. According to el-Rufai, some unnamed “patriotic” and “Good Samaritans” who looted during the last administration had already started returning money to government. This feat would have been worth celebrating if he had mentioned the names of those involved and how this came to be. One needs to know, were they returning their loot out of guilt-ridden conscience or there was an active loot recovery process that was hidden from every other Nigerian that is not part of their exclusive club? Is this part of an ongoing process or not? When did the process start and how much has been recovered? How come there has been no public engagement on the issue, just occasional media references? Are these recovered funds being documented? If yes, can we see some proof? We are entitled to it.

Again, if these claims were true, which agency is the government working with and what are the terms of engaging these innocent-until-proved-guilty looters? Is there some kind of plea bargain arrangement?

Buhari referenced a “we” all through his statement but everyone else needs to know what only he and el-Rufai seem to know. It is unhelpful for democracy when serious issues, with serious implications for the nation, are treated with such degree of casualness. We cannot hope to build strong institutions or strengthen democratic processes when we resort to secrecy and rumour mongering.

Can the “we” be – for instance – the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission? How possible it is that looters, hard of heart and bereft of conscience, would suddenly take the castrated EFCC that seriously? Was it not lately that the head of the agency himself, Ibrahim Lamorde, was eased out of job for the ignominious role he was said to have played in the culture of corruption in Nigeria? So, who are these people and why would they be admitting their own guilt by returning their loot? Were they investigated prior to the return of the funds or they were simply harried by the President’s “body language”?

These questions are necessary because the idea of people wilfully returning loot is a novel one. In Nigeria, nobody ever admits to being corrupt openly. You can catch a Nigerian with their hands in the public till at 12 noon in Tinubu Square in Lagos and they will defend themselves to the end that what you saw was in fact, a fight against corruption. Just lately, the immediate past Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, who snubbed the press for much of her time in public office snagged a chance to refurbish her image. She not only denied every accusation she was glibly confronted with, she went ahead to claim that she lived such a modest life that she bought clothes and jewellery on credit! This was a woman accused of spending N10bn on private jets yet boldly claimed that public service actually impoverished, not enriched her. If no Nigerian admits in public that they are corrupt, and they manipulate the law to every extent they can stretch its spirit and letter so as to stay out of jail – and so far most of them have succeeded – why would they refund any loot to the President in private? What will be their motivation to indict themselves when there is no concrete risk involved in doing otherwise?

Even more importantly, I am worried how little Buhari – a man who spent 12 years contesting the Presidency all the while clinging to a single story of how he would single-handedly rid Nigeria of the corruption virus – has actually engaged corruption. Fighting corruption in Nigeria under Buhari has been reduced to making loud and empty claims in the media. Nothing one can term impressive has happened so far.

Eight months since he won his election, Buhari has yet to roll out his big plan for fighting corruption in Nigeria. Where, for instance, are the major changes to existing laws he promised to sponsor to make wriggling out of prosecution more difficult or impossible outright for those accused of corruption? Rather, his party, the All Progressives Congress, is toeing the same worn path as the Peoples Democratic Party they upstaged. When they are confronted with their double standards, they look in another direction as if it does not matter. When you directly accuse them, they throw up the specious argument about “innocent until proved guilty” as if that was the standard they previously preached. The kind of conversations they should be making about corruption is largely absent, replaced by the fairy tales and exaggerations of their achievements.

By now, one expects Buhari to have divested himself of this simplistic understanding of corruption as some dishonest people stealing public funds and evolve a more nuanced and complex understanding. How about talking about the socio-cultural systems that nurture corruption and the hydra-headed ways we can undercut them?

Corruption in Nigeria is not only complex, it is a culture that implicates everyone of us one way or the other.

Corruption is legitimised into our daily existence such that though we blame it for everything, we do not see it when it is up and close to us. To uproot it will require a major re-engineering of our social DNA; the kind of which cannot be triggered by lame and unsubstantiated reports of corrupt yet patriotic people returning their loot.

If truly people are returning their looted funds, the public deserves the details. Because, unlike boastful claims of social media that request a picture, Buhari’s yarn cannot be easily drowned in endless twittering. It will return to haunt his reputation, the very cauldron in which his electoral victory was cooked.

Finally, it is time this government realised electioneering is past. The kind of fiction about a President who can solve knotty national problems with his personal clout that Nigerians bought at a desperate moment when they needed to edge out the PDP no longer sells. Put differently and most succinctly, Buhari and his people need to stop believing their own fiction and get serious.

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