Corruption, Opposition, and the Ribadu experience by Dr. Ken "SKC" Ogbonnia

Corruption is Nigeria’s number one problem and has continued to endanger the chances of any meaningful national development and unity. But why have the different anti corruption programs failed to yield the desired results? What leadership conditions or situations can realistically facilitate an efficient war against corruption? What happens if one is a good leader but cannot be equipped to be effective? What measures are to be taken to ensure that good programs and leaders remain accountable to sustain checks and balances? How could many of the Nigerian leaders who had previously excelled in other environment succeed in a Nigerian government structure? That is, why has anti corruption measures that have succeeded in other societies failed in Nigeria? In an attempt to address these questions, it is necessary to review the notable efforts on corruption in national history, the attendant conditions and challenges, the role of opposition on corruption and leadership, including the complexity surrounding the tenure of the first chairman of Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) Nuhu Ribadu, his eventual removal, and solutions for the future.

The two most sensational governments in the fight against corruption have been the Muhamadu Buhari’s military rule (1984-1985) and Obasanjo’s democratic regime (2003-2007). Even though some gains were recorded; overall, both programs failed to meet the expectations of the Nigerian people. On one hand, General Buhari’s War Against Indiscipline (WAI) definitely had good objectives, but his government’s decrees which outlawed opposition easily led to an authoritarian government. An unguarded use of excessive force ignited an elitist scorn and consequently the overthrow of that government. On the other hand, General Olusegun Obasanjo mirrored Buhari’s initiatives, by establishing the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC). Regrettably, his anticorruption efforts were conspicuously selective and better remembered for witch hunting political opponents or party members who posed any threat to his style of governance or choice for his eventual successor.

The anticorruption dilemma has persisted because the problem is being approached from the periphery. Competition as an important component of democracy has been too often ignored in discussion of Nigerian leadership development. The result is a history of weak opposition parties which has led to lack of checks and balances and consequently corruption. According to Nigeria’s foremost constitutional scholar Ben Nwabueze, “The political responsibility of the government to the governed can only be realized in the context of an organized opposition party, alert to expose to the public the weakness and failures of the government, and capable of accepting the mantle of office should the people be inclined to bestow it”. Nigeria’s first president Nnamdi Azikiwe stated it more succinctly, “When an individual is placed in a position to exercise omnipotent authority, there is always a likelihood that he may become power drunk” and falter. In simple terms, for effective leadership to occur, the country must embrace a democracy that promotes not only broad participation but also meaningful competition, which can engender the dynamic opposition activity essential for accountability. These true statements explain why it was possible for General Buhari to deviate from the original intent of his war against indiscipline and instead allowed an overzealous military dictatorship to perpetrate a draconian rule. Similarly, it can be argued that the absence of a strong opposition party made it possible for General Obasanjo to succeed in manipulating anticorruption agencies against the wishes of a deserving people.

To demonstrate the impact of opposition on the war against corruption, it can be recalled that Obasanjo’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was more efficient during the brief period when the legislature under Chief Ken Nnamani enjoyed some level of independence from the Executive branch of the government. An internal party wrangling fueled by President Obasanjo’s plan to perpetuate himself self in office influenced a significant number of senators from the ruling party to pitch tent with the opposition parties to create two strong political groups: pro-Third Term (pro-Obasanjo) and anti-Third Term (the opposition). This unusual but historic emergence of two contending forces was bolstered by the dissentions caused by the arbitrary political bias exhibited by the EFCC towards the political opponents of the president. The senate president, Ken Nnamani, ridding on the support of the Anti-Third Term alliance of the National Assembly was able to compel EFCC to expose many corrupt office holders (particularly governors) regardless of their relationship to the president. This seemingly balance created efficient legislative oversight which was essential in checkmating executive excesses, including Obasanjo’s fanatical drive to circumvent the constitution for tenure elongation and the activities of other regulatory agencies. The Legislature had soundly exposed the ills of the central government which, of course, heightened national outcry and desired scrutiny. Before then, both the legislature and the war against corruption program were merely a propagandist ricochets with imaginary accomplishments.

There is a consensus that Nigeria is blessed with abundant human resources to eradicate corruption and produce effective leadership. A good number of world class Nigerians have also served in different Nigerian governments, but without measurable results. Even the Noble Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka once served in Babangida’s government! Some functionaries in the Obasanjo administration (particularly the erstwhile finance minister Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and the first Chairman of EFCC Mallam Nuhu Ribadu) can be said to have the qualities of dynamic and transformational leadership. However, the effectiveness of the various talents was hindered by authoritarian regimes and the lack of transparency created by a national nemesis—the weak opposition culture. The effectiveness of a leader depends on the prevailing conditions by which the leader operates. In other words, regardless of the nature or extent of the qualities of a leader, effectiveness can only be enhanced and sustained if the powers of the leader are not only augmented but also checkmated by the elements within his or her internal and external environment. Again, there is possibility, too, that President Obasanjo, a “born again Christian” and a distinguished soldier, initially meant well with his pronouncements against corruption but conveniently took advantage of a hole created by weak opposition to undermine the capabilities of good men and women that served in his administration, especially the EFCC and its leadership.

The later activities of the former Chairman of EFCC Nuhu Ribadu suggest that he has the abilities to have electrified the war on corruption from the beginning but were sadly conditioned to be selective so as to survive President Obasanjo’s administration. Immediately after the end of Obasanjo’s rule, it became apparent that Ribadu seemed determined to cleanse the ungodly practices that had continued to cloud the image of the country. The EFCC boss boldly exposed and charged the corrupt associates of both the former president and the new President, Umar Yar’adua. As a result, the Anti-Corruption Czar became very popular not only with Nigerians but around the world. A real change! Surprisingly, he was redeployed for no just cause. While some groups, particularly those who felt victimized with the ant-corruption agency during the Obasanjo administration logically hailed the decision; overall, the removal of Nuhu Ribadu has indeed dented the image of President Umar Yar’adua and the country across the globe. According to the Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, Senator Russ Feingold, President Umaru Yar’adua has failed his people by suppressing the few progressive initiatives of the previous government. The Global anti-corruption watch-dog, Transparency International followed by calling on the Nigerian government to reverse the unpopular decision. To the frontline anti-corruption crusader and conscience of Nigerian masses, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, the president’s decision could only be compared to a madman who divorced the wife because of good behavior.

Of course, there was a form of institutionalized opposition within Nigeria to the removal of Ribadu. The Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP), a section of the press, and some pressure groups swiftly condemned the move, calling it a reactive ingredient for social and economic disaster. There were also some musings in the Nigerian National Assembly against the awkward removal of an effective leader. But what do we expect in a quasi-democracy? The composition of the legislative house (where a great majority of the members was handpicked by the ruling Peoples Democratic Party) hindered the chances of any serious opposition to the presidency. The relationship between opposition and corruption is well chronicled in democratic history. It can also be said that the word corruption was not originally extracted from any of the 300 Nigerian languages; it exists everywhere. How then is corruption being addressed in other societies that have shown good results? Granted, leadership and its attributes are contingent upon the environment and attempts to linearly compare trends in different societies have not always produced the desired outcome. But if Nigeria has courageously adopted the US styled presidential system of government, it can be important, then, to consider the notable factors or conditions that have sustained democracy in that country. For instance, the powerful but disgraced US Congressman and the Republican Chief Whip Tom Delay of Texas could have remained in power today, if the other party, the Democrats, did not condemn the corrupt activities and realistically initiate proceedings for the congressman’s prosecution. In the same token, the Democrats would not readily prosecute their own Congressman William Jefferson of Louisiana (who was indicted for bribery), if the Republicans were willing to ignore the crime. Therefore, while individual Nigerian leaders can not be exonerated for the continued failures of anticorruption programs, it is crucial to draw attention to the conditions through which the leader operates. That is, is there any consequence for bad behavior in Nigeria, especially where the culprit is in position of power? What realistic political structure does the country have in place to facilitate accountability, besides individual efforts of people like Gani Fawehinmi, Balarabe Musa, Bedford Nwabueze Umez or Wole Soyinka?

Indeed, the need for practical solutions on corruption should be more urgent than ever. Despite overflowing human, natural, and capital resources, and after nine years of uninterrupted democratic experience (1999-2008) and in an era of unprecedented oil boom, precipitated by high global prices and demand, the nation has witnessed no significant improvement in both the economic or human development index. There is nothing to show for the billions of dollars sunk into various infrastructures—as the state of vital areas, such as steel development, power generation, energy services, roads, aviation, hospitals, schools and security remained worse than when President Obasanjo took over power nine years earlier. The clear lack of separation of powers and transparency has sent a bad signal around the globe that political or economic opportunities in Nigeria depend on the intrinsic relationship between businesses or individuals and the government in power. Unfortunately, elections (which are supposed to be a measure of performance) and other regulatory services are constantly manipulated by the ruling party. What else?

President Umar Yar’adua recently named an accomplished criminal investigator, Chief (Mrs.) Farida Waziri, to replace Ribadu in the war against corruption. But even if the new EFFC boss was truly selected to improve on the efforts of her predecessor, what specific measures are in place to ensure that it is not a déjà vu all over again? Accordingly, Nigeria needs a truly independent anticorruption agency that is backed by a dynamic legislature with a vibrant opposition activity, which can efficiently evaluate and prosecute, where necessary, offenders from both the ruling party and the opposition groups without fear or favor. Thus, even as the numerous national and global initiatives to fight corruption can be definitely appreciated; it is important to focus on other strategies or programs that could produce an enduring opposition structure, that is politically independent but in competition (ideologically and financially) with the ruling party. As the country reviews its constitution, serious considerations should be given to a two party system concept or coalitions that can provoke the needed consciousness within the civil society and legislature to checkmate the government in power.

The thrust of this article remains that a history of weak legislatures, which has led to lack of checks and balances, is responsible for why Nigerian leaders have continued to engage in corrupt practices with little or no regard to the consequences of doing so. War against corruption is more attainable in countries with dynamic opposition culture, where the oversight functions of the legislature are readily promoted. Simply stated, corruption will remain unabated as long as an overwhelmingly majority is drawn from the ruling party. Such unfortunate phenomenon led to the misguided decision to remove an effective leader like Nuhu Ribadu. President Umar Yar’adua is simply following the footsteps of Obasanjo before him by capitalizing on the absence of a strong opposition party to control the activities and leadership of the anticorruption agencies. Painfully, the most enticing treasure for Nigerian leaders has also been the root of their downfall: Their penchant for absolute power, which abhors checks and balances usually leads to abuse of office—particularly corruption and, of course, the eventual but unfortunate fate with history.

*Ogbonnia is the Chairman of First Texas Energy Corporation and also an Adjunct Professor of Leadership at the Sneden Graduate School of Davenport University. Email: SKCOgbonnia@firsttexasenergy.com Phone: 281-802-3449