IDEAS Radio 14 August 2020

“No Sacred Cow in Fighting Corruption”

Aghogho Oboh: Alright, a fine, great afternoon, I hope you’ve been enjoying our programming all the way from the morning Crossfire, incidentally I was here then, all the way through to Collins Decker, Jimi Disu and Joyce and Sandra Ezekwesili.  A fine array of fine broadcast journalists who’ve kept us informed.  And so on Public Square today, remember, you can join the conversation @NigeriaInfoFM,  @PublicSquareNG, @ideasradiong, as well as @AghoghoOboh, @RotimiSankore, @naijama.  Any of these handles, you get your comments read live.  Remember on WhatsApp 08095975805.  If you’re heading home do try stay safe, keep your seat belts fastened.  If you’re in the bus, tune in now to 99.3 Nigeria Info.  We are streaming live on our web page which is NigeriaInfo.fm which means you can listen live to the conversation straight away.  And like we usually do on Public Square, the Square’s usually opened by Ayo Obe, host of IDEAS, which stands for Integrity, Democracy, Ethics and Accountability.  Good afternoon Ayo!

Ayo Obe: Good afternoon Aghogho.

AgO: How’s the week been like?

AO: Oh, it’s been fine except for a trip to … through to the mainland yesterday.  Oh!  The traffic!  Ohhh!

AgO: Welcome back to the world!

AO: Well, that was what I felt when I … well, coming back was fine, but going … when you’re going … what used to be going against the traffic had become very … problematic because of the closed roads and bridges and all the rest of it.

AgO: Well, you enjoyed the sights and sounds of Eko.  Ok …

AO: Oh of course, yes, you get the feel of the city when you do that!

AgO: Exactly, exactly.  So let’s hit it off with the introduction where Information Minister Lai Mohammed was recently reported as saying that there are no sacred cows in the fight against corruption.  As you know Ayo, I mentioned earlier, IDEAS stands for Integrity, Democracy, Ethics and Accountability, the statement’s bound to catch the attention of IDEAS radio, and so Ayo Obe is going to look at what it means as an IDEAS context.  How do you see this Ayo?

AO: Well Aghogho, you’ve already told the listeners what IDEAS stands for, and the reason why we emphasize those qualities is because in our view, they have to be present if we’re going to have a successful fight against corruption – you know ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’.  So when you’re fighting corruption, yes you have the push of holding those guilty of the vice of corruption to account, but you also have to have the pull of the virtues with which we would like to see it replaced.  And for us, we want to fill … to fill any space with Integrity, Ethics and Accountability because as far as we’re concerned, if you don’t do that, you’re going to leave a void, and if there are any victories in the fight against corruption, what is going to fill that void?  Because corruption is what happens when you don’t have those values.  But we also say Aghogho, that the fight against corruption itself has to be fought with those qualities being pres(id)ent, especially when it comes to Integrity and Ethics.  And that’s why IDEAS thinks that it’s important that we don’t just dismiss the Minister’s statement as the usual political self-glorification.

AgO: Absolutely.  Very important.  But the Minister’s statement is also important Ayo.  Why is it important?

AO: Well Aghogho, I think you … we all remember the very … graphic statement made by Senator Shehu Sani, when he complained that the government uses insecticide for its political enemies, but deodorant for its political allies.  Now, the Minister’s statement is supposed to directly refute that when he says that there are no sacred cows in the government’s anti-graft war, in other words, being a political ally of the government is not going to protect you if you are engaged in graft.  No deodorant.  And I think the statement is important because if the perception (and you know I always say that in these matters, the perception is as important as the reality) but if the perception is that you can avoid liability or avoid being held to account for corruption once you are a member of the ruling party, then the impact of that can be very devastating for the battle against corruption.  And the reason for that is because when you have the kind of political carpet-crossing that we’ve seen in Nigeria, without any apparent requirement that the carpet-crossers commit to any ideological or policy positions of the party that they are crossing the carpet to join, then people who want to engage in corruption, or who have charges of political corruption hanging over their heads, will not feel inhibited about corruption.  And of course, while it’s always my view that fighting corruption is not a policy but should in fact be the normal way of doing things; if you take any poll of Nigerians, they always put corruption at the top of the list of things that need to be tackled if the country is to make progress.  And the reason for that is that if money that’s meant for the benefit of the people is stolen, then that prevents the development that the country so desperately needs.  And of course, if you abuse political office for personal gain, and the perception is that you can do that without any consequences (at least to the person who is doing the abusing), then it makes the struggle for political [office] by any means that much less ethical and even violent.  So I think that the message that being in the right political party will not protect you, is a really important one.  Of course, the question is whether that’s the reality or the actuality.

AgO: Mmm, mmm.  So let’s look at this quote here Ayo, where the Minister says “… if we go deep down, most of the things that we were even investigating in some areas are things that predate this administration.”  What does that mean in the context of his claim that there are no sacred cows?

AO: Well I would say that at first sight it appears as if it’s going counter to the assertion that there are no sacred cows, because if the things that are being investigated predate this administration, that would confirm the concern that many people have that the administration feels that it and its own supporters or its members are perfect, above corruption, and therefore they’re not being investigated or pursued.  In other words, that members and supporters of the administration are indeed being treated as sacred cows (and I will come back to it later).  

But, I think you will also remember that at the end of last year, we had the Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, Professor Bolaji Owasanoye …

AgO: Very true.

AO: … on the programme, and he talked about why an incoming administration deals with the matters immediately in front of it, and I’ll just quote him a little bit.  He said … and he gave the example of … Nigeria Info.  He said:

“…if you take over as head of this radio station today, and you need to do some reforms, where are you going to start from?  Are you going to start from forty years ago?  You start from the immediate past.  What are the things that happened just shortly before you assumed office, and then you can work your way back if you like, that’s the logical way that you do things.”  

And he said that even in churches, it happens, that “if Pastor Ayo Obe comes in and makes some changes, the congregation will say “Oh, Ayo Obe is already reversing all the legacies!!”  So he said that: 

“… the cogent argument you could present if a Law enforcement agency said that you’ve done something wrong, the answer is: I didn’t do it, this is the evidence that I didn’t do it.  Because it doesn’t go anywhere to say: Oh, it’s because I’m in the other party.  If you get to court, that is not going to hold up.”

So I think that … he made that point, but Aghogho, let’s also say that in one sense the Minister is right and the ICPC Chairman is right in referring to investigations into what happened in the past, or which predate this administration.  But this administration has been in power now for over five years!  So it’s not going to remove the suspicion that there are indeed sacret cows … sacred cows rather … if there’s any pretence that corruption has all stopped now.  Because it is very clear that the penchant for corruption and abuse of office hasn’t taken any kind of break, whether political or COVID-19, no break at all.  I mean, we know that the ongoing investigation of the Niger Delta Development Commission revealed that its staff – who were being paid their normal salaries – awarded themselves the humungous sum of N1.32 billion (I say billion, not million o!) billion naira as COVID19 palliatives, in just this very year!  I mean … Aghogho, people will be asking: What does that even mean?  Most employees are saying: Ah, thank God we are saving the money we would have spent on transport because we are working from home.

So I think that … that’s just one example this very year, and of course … the same NDDC investigation shows that these were happening not … in the time of President Jonathan, but even their expenditure since 2017, very fully under the control of this administration.  So I think that we need  to recognise that where … when those investigations are going on, (I think at the same time I should say) that whether it is in to the NDDC, or even the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (because there’s an investigation going on there) Nigerians will expect to see some accountability at the end of it.  And … those are going on, very much, the public is very much aware that that is happening.  And that’s one style, and the other again, if I can again refer to Professor Owasanoye the ICPC Chair?

AgO: Right.

AO. He said:

“… when I’m doing an investigation, I don’t grandstand by hitting the media and saying: Oh, this person is being investigated or that’s going to happen.”

He said that 

“many people didn’t know we were doing any thing with Constituency Projects until we published our report.  They didn’t know we were watching the Ministries, Departments and Agencies and their practices until we published our report.  So when we have something to say [that’s the ICPC], because the public has a right to know, then we will say it.  But the media also needs to help, by understanding that you cannot just talk to the media every second about what you are doing.  It also undermines the integrity of the process and ultimately could defeat it because the people you are trying to investigate will then go and prepare for you.”

So, I think that’s … the two different styles that we’re seeing of the different agencies of the government, both of them have their …

Now, Aghogho, we know Nigerians get a lot of thrill, the thrill of schadenfreude when we see the big men, the movers and shakers being publicly humiliated in the name of fighting corruption, or demonstrating that there are no ‘sacred cows’, but I think that if the end of it is no public accounting … and public accounting can be a full public explanation and even exoneration, or, it may be findings of culpability, criminal charges, trial and sentence; but if we don’t have that done in public so that we all understand it, then all the discussion and the talk, as Shakespeare put it, becomes: “… a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”

AgO: It’s interesting when you say schadenfreude in a way that people would sort of assess whether the ‘big men’ in quote, have been caught by a particular administration, no matter how many times the EFCC for example, comes in and says: “This is our list of convictions” which may be running into several hundreds.  People will say: What person of influence has been convicted?  Prosecuted and convicted to show that he made away with billions of naira, to say that yes, the the war on anti-corruption is being won?  What are your thoughts Ayo?

AO: Well I think it’s a very valid point because we’ve seen cases where people have been quote and unquote “convicted”, but the penalty that they had been subjected to has been really quite laughable.  You know, either you have a fine that doesn’t even equal the amount that was taken (and I know that when those fines are imposed, there’s also the expectation that it’s supposed to be recovery or with restitution of the money taken) but still, the fines hardly hurt at all, and they are certainly … often possible to just pay the fine and not … suffer any jail sentence.  So it’s an important gap that we see.  But I think that we have seen some … some governors go to jail.  I think it’s unfortunate that where we had one governor that was sent to jail, and he came out, and the EFCC was saying: “We are going to … we’re going back, it’s a technicality, we’re going back, we’re going to …”  And then the next thing is, we don’t see the EFCC doing what it said it would do, we see the person who has been released on the so-called or the aforesaid technicality, giving out gifts and … donating largesse to constituents, and looking like the perfect citizen, philanthropic citizen for that matter.  I think that’s a problem when the EFCC … does not do what it says it was going to do, particularly in that case where it was simply a matter of the judge having been declared to be doing the wrong thing by coming back from his promotion to the Court of Appeal to deliver his judgment.

But I think we also need to remember Aghogho … and I mean if I quote the ICPC Chair a lot, it’s because he spoke a lot of self-evident truths, and one of them was that “Every influence has an expiry date”.  And I think that while that may bring … in the long term, it will bring satisfaction, I also think it’s not really enough to say that the sacred cow of today can become the scapegoat of tomorrow.  Because … if I can use the Coronavirus analogy: You have to tackle it as soon as it appears.  If you don’t, it’s going to spread.  And the fact is that the threat of later retribution in itself … in any case, everybody thinks that they are invulnerable, so the threat of later retribution may not constitute sufficient deterrence for those who think that … we know how to play the game of politics, we can weather any political storm.  So they take the risk (and anyway, as I said, they don’t really think of it as being a risk) and that has a very negative effect on the country and its development.  And also say, should say, that it has a very negative impact on the political party that is perceived to be protecting its own sacred cows.  There’s a political price to pay, so as I said, you have to tackle it as soon as it appears.

AgO: Absolutely.  Alright.  As we try to bring the conversation to a close Ayo.  I … for many years, I did have a sort of drop list of the corruption cases, and then who’s been mentioned, the who is who, dating back to the Nuhu Ribadu years, of those who had  at some point had been mentioned, and there were certain cases of corruption over them, and a colleague of mine who used to head the judiciary desk would from time to time go to that list we all had, and then try and see where the government  was going with many of them.  I think that Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration that did have some impact in the way that it did go after its own officers, whether it was the former Inspector General of Police Tafa Balogun, or the Minister of Education, I think Fabian Osuji, and a number of others who were involved in those matters.  But then it began to pile, with Umaru Yar’Adua and then Goodluck Jonathan.  And so, perception is very strong.  What do you think, if at the end of the day, this administration is done with its two terms, and we have more on that list: what people will think about what each government has done with the war on corruption.  Will they measure one against the other, or they will just look at that entire list and  measure governance in all the years since the military left office?

AO: In fact Aghogho, that’s why I said that I think it’s important that a political party may pay a price if it has held itself out as: We’re going to tackle this thing.  Because yes, people will not only look at the number of cases that are still pending, they will also look to see how many of those cases relate to matters that arose during the lifetime of this administration, and that it took action on.  Because one thing that we’ve seen in politics, is that when there’s a political contest on, the political class want the people who are going to win for them, and they want them at all costs.  I don’t want to mention any states, but we all know what is happening with the forthcoming gubernatorial elections, where suddenly … the capacity to win and attract votes overweighs all the other questions that are being asked about the candidates.  So that … that willingness to overlook these things can … can also come back and bite them in the end, particularly if they don’t win, and it can happen!

AgO: Alright, we’ll leave it at that.  But let’s get your closing remarks Ayo, on IDEAS this week.

AO: Well, yeah, as I said, I think that the statement that there are no sacred in the fight against corruption.  Of course,  a government will always go against some of its own people, but that doesn’t mean to say that there aren’t some sacred cows.  And we should distinguish between the fact that you may be in the government party, and you may be somebody that the government is just not ready to take any action against.  And I think that there’s a distinction between them … and the government, yes, it can point to some people that it has put in jail that belong to it … that are its own supporters, certainly.  But that doesn’t mean to say, as I said, that there are no sacred cows.  We need to be on the alert for all of those.

AgO: Absolutely.  Thank you very much Ayo Obe.  And thank you for opening up the Square as usual, this afternoon.

AO: You’re welcome.

AgO: Alright, do have a great weekend.  

AO: I wish you the same.  Take care.

AgO: Alright, thank you.  IDEAS with Ayo Obe this time every Friday from 4 pm to 4.30 p.m.  Always great.  You can catch Ayo Obe on Twitter @naijama as well as @ideasradiong, she’s got great thoughts, always entertaining tweets.  We’re going to take a quick break.