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Anti-corruption : The Debate on Partisanship

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A fresh debate broke out last week on the status and political colouration of President Muhammadu Buhari’s anti-corruption war. The intellectual duel was kick-started by the Peoples Democratic Party, following the brief arrest of the Senate Minority Leader, Chief Godswill Akpabio, by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission over corruption related charges. The Peoples Democratic Party’s spokesperson, Olisa Metuh, alleged a witch-hunt of its members, at the same time that former governors of the All Progressives Congress accused of corruption, he argued, were being rewarded with ministerial nominations or governorship positions.

In response to these allegations, Mr. Femi Adesina, Special Adviser to the President on Media and Communication, insisted that Buhari does not micro-manage the anti-corruption institutions, but simply allows them to do their work as they deem fit. Adesina’s explanation, though alluring, does not quite rebut the charges of partisan selectivity and targeting of opponents, but distances Buhari from a plot to skew the playing field against the opposition. Let me put a global perspective on the debate, by remarking, that the allegations of the partisan use of corruption prosecution are not peculiar to Nigeria, but are extant in an advanced democracy, like the United States, where Republican prosecutors have taken more than a casual interest in bringing to book Democratic politicians and vice visa.

Many will recall, for example, the scandal that broke out under President George Bush in 2006, following the attempt of the Republican President to change nine Attorneys, who had resisted political pressure to prosecute Democratic politicians. Interestingly, the timing of many such prosecutions, many of which occur close to the elections, tends to give them political slants. Indeed, Matthew Stevenson has gone so far as to say that the “United States Department of Justice is more likely to prosecute states and local officials for various corruption offences if they belong to a different party, than the ones in the White House.” It is almost needless to cite the notorious cases of democracies like Russia, Turkey or Italy, where state power is often blatantly abused to tilt the scales against the opposition, who are often targeted for prosecution. One of the cases that gained international prominence, recently, in the wake of the Suchi Olympics in Russia, was the way in which the Putin administration turned a blind eye to massive corruption among its business friends, and went on to arrest a well-known critic and blogger who was framed for corruption. The point of this excursion into the goings-on in other countries is not to justify the abuse of prosecutorial powers, but to provide a wider context for the conversation.

In doing this, it is important to draw a distinction between systematic corruption of anti-corruption, and the, by no means, widespread occurrence of biases which occur in the older democracies. In other words, semi-democracies, or to use Richard Joseph’s term, “Illiberal democracies”, where institutions are weak and democratic values shallow, are more likely to witness structured biases or partisanship in the deployment of anti-corruption instruments. The other point to be made is that, as lawyers insist, being a victim of a witch-hunt is not a defence that stands up to legal scrutiny, considering especially that those accused, are likely to drum up sympathy by alleging political persecution. That is another way of saying that, where reasonable evidence exists to commence prosecution, it is legitimate to do so, even if repetitive targeting of opponents will, in due course throw up cynicism and trust deficit among citizens. Before pursuing the argument further however, I crave the readers’ indulgence to digress in order to enter a short take.

on Tuesday (October 20, 2015) reported the gripping story of Daniel Makanjuola, a former employee of the Wema Bank Plc, who had forged a degree certificate and a National Youth Service Corps certificate, in order to gain entry into his dream job of working in a bank. Makanjuola, who has been both dismissed from the bank, and arrested, told The PUNCH that, “I did it in order to put an end to the suffering of my poor family. I am the only son of my father. I was only trying to live a better life.” At least, this is one explanation that did not evoke the devil as the source of wrongdoing; and, knowing what the plight of many stranded young Nigerians is, the defence touches cords of sympathy. In a nation awash with forgeries, it will be interesting to speculate on what a nationwide search for fake certificates will throw up. In one government institution, where this writer worked several years ago, I recall the panic that attended the announcement of a certificate screening exercise. A few colleagues, under the ostensible reason that they were going to their villages to fetch their original certificates, did not show up subsequently. Recall too that, some of our distinguished senators have had to publicly attest to the validity of their certificates. It is time perhaps, to begin to redeem this unworthy and pervasive aspect of the Nigerian character by enforcing sanctions. Importantly too, there is the need to create a work culture that is not necessarily tied to certificates, but to skill, acumen, and experience. Finally, on this score, is there any hope for the millions of Makanjuolas trapped in an ever swelling unemployment market?

To get back to the anti-corruption reform, it is most likely the case that Buhari, whose personal honesty no one seriously contests, has left the ant-corruption agencies to do their thing. In retrospect, that decision, considering the prime place, which the anti-corruption agenda occupies in the administration’s policy universe, does not appear to be a good one. The fact that Buhari does not interfere in their work, does not mean that his party members will not, or alternatively, personnel of those agencies may seek to curry favour by going hard on the opposition. Also, the moral credentials of the heads of nearly all of these agencies are suspect, to the extent that they have corruption charges, hanging over their heads. The tendency, increasingly observable to pick on members of the opposition, appears to have revealed the underbelly of the decision to use the same personnel inherited from the Jonathan’s administration.

In the opinion of this columnist, Buhari should take active interest in the work and workings of these agencies, and how they arrive at decisions or indecisions. It is possible as some have argued, that Buhari, bowing to political pressure, has nominated as ministers, members of his party, who not too long ago, were publicly accused of corruption. If they have been cleared by the anti-corruption agencies, after proper investigation, then the public, if they must be carried along, have a right to know. A situation where the President’s nominees were being publicly grilled by senators over corruption charges, is quite untidy.

In sum, for the public, many of who are not card carrying party members, to continue to believe in the anti-corruption war, it must be prosecuted, not randomly, but according to a template that is spelt out in advance.

Finally, while it is legitimate to call on any public figure to answer corruption charges, it is important to straighten out the playing field which at the moment is a little skewed.

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