Power of incumbency, impunity and corruption: the linkages

Is corruption an issue in Nigeria? What kind of question is that? Isn’t the answer obvious? Apparently not– obvious, that is. In fact, judging by the way the government and the apathetic-cum-cynical public are going about it today, one should be forgiven for asking whether corruption is, or will ever become, an issue in the struggle for, and exercise of, power. At a time when Transparency International ranks Nigeria among the most corrupt countries in the world (144th among a total of 177 countries ranked in 2013), our attitude to corruption remains largely nonchalant. There is no evidence that the “massive, widespread, and pervasive corruption” which the US’s 2011 Country Report brought to the attention of Congress has abated. From all indications, it continues, as the Country Report notes, to affect “all levels of government and the security forces.” Worst of all, not many give a damn.

There is no sign of indignation when corruption rears its ugly head. Only a few Nigerians take umbrage at the extension of presidential pardon to ex-convicts, or at the sight of criminals rubbing shoulders with our country’s high and mighty. The irony of career public servants being treated as auxiliary staff of political functionaries is yet to register in our private or public consciousness. Public facilities are commandeered by chieftains of the ruling party without anyone calling them out. High-level vacancies that should be filled with the best and the brightest–as is the practice in presidential systems worldwide–have instead turned into spoils to be shared among party loyalists in Nigeria. Those appointed to fill the vacancies (like occupants of the offices of Advisers on “New” and Old Media) spend all their time hastening their political benefactors’ personal agendas rather than looking out for Nigeria’s best interests. Public institutions are hijacked to further private interests to the neglect of the challenges that the institutions were created to tackle. Cynical leaders know our people inside out. They reckon that what readily gets the average Nigerian’s attention is not good governance or the war on corruption, but which tribe gets what post or which slice of the “national cake”. The cynics therefore leave corruption well alone and instead play on ethnic, and recently, religious, sentiments.

All these lead to one question: is indifference to corruption rooted in ignorance or in our very nature or both? In other words, have we implicitly or explicitly tolerated the misplacement of values (as well as institutionalized corruption) because we have no idea how to define corruption, much less, assess its impact? Or it is because, no matter how it is defined, corruption is in our genes and cannot be exorcised?

I personally reject the thesis that it is in our nature to be corrupt. I am of the conviction that as members of the human race, we are endowed with the faculty of reason, and in particular, the capacity to choose between fickleness and reliability, between the good and the bad, between virtuous and immoral conduct, and between righteousness and depravity. My belief is unshaken that if we move from the positive to the negative end of the rectitude scale, it must be largely because of powerful external stimuli to which we are subject, rather than because of the “devil” that just won’t let us conduct ourselves properly. There is a devil within each of us quite alright, but it does not spring into action until it receives the go-ahead signal from the one without.

The reference to ‘the devil without’ brings me to the subject of today’s post, notably, two factors that directly or indirectly dictate, or at least, shape, our choices, but which we have curiously paid little attention to. The first is the power of incumbency and the other is the impunity which the power most often, albeit, unfortunately, begets.

Roughly defined, corruption means the exercise of public authority to attain undisclosed, hush-hush, frequently anti-social ends, the use of public office and facilities for private gain, or the deliberate merger of official with domestic jurisdictions. This definition somehow resembles that of the “power of incumbency”, at least, in the manner the power has been exercised in contemporary Nigeria. It does not matter whether the reference point is the office of Local Government Chairman, that of Executive Governor of a state, or the office of President and Commander-in-Chief. The incumbent has almost invariably (with the encouragement of overzealous lieutenants and the implied consent of the people) developed an overly magnified view of his authority. Where our constitution leads us to believe that we, the People, are the source of the sovereign power of the state, each incumbent of the highest executive office has consistently invested himself with divine powers such that he feels confident to dispense with the sovereignty of the People and instead tell the whole world, in the manner of Louis XIV that, l’etat cest moi..

For those whose French is as rusty as mine, l’etat cest moi roughly translated means “I am the state/The state is me.” The original founder of the Nigerian state, Great Britain, might have a point if it asserts that it, and nobody else, was the state. But even Great Britain’s claim of ownership would be open to challenge, more so, as the claim rested on forceful annexation of foreign territories–territories that were not lacking in their own, albeit, rudimentary, systems of government. The lawful and logical claimants of the ownership of contemporary Nigeria will therefore not be Great Britain, and certainly not those that took over the reins of government in recent years–that is, after Nigeria had moved from being a dicey project to a century-old reality. For better or worse, the true claimants of Nigeria’s proprietorship are the nationalist leaders who, at great personal risk, led the struggle against colonial rule, negotiated the terms of our independence, built our institutions from the ground up, and headed the first indigenous governments at the local, regional and federal levels.

And this is the intriguing part. None of those that had a legitimate claim to the birth of contemporary Nigeria–be it Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, or Dennis Osadebay–carried himself in a way suggesting that he said l’etat cest moi. The first generations of leaders not only knew the limits of their power, but applied whatever was left of the power to creating tangible structures and tackling real problems. Here then is the puzzle: if the pioneers did not consider themselves gods to be worshipped, on what ground would their modern-day successors anchor the mindless pursuit and unbridled exercise of power? Where is the logic in cultivating a habit that destroys rather than build nations?

The power of incumbency is inescapable and, for many, intimidating. The incumbent virtually dictates who gets any position of consequence in the Executive Branch, what projects to start or abandon midway, how and to what ends resources are to be allocated, what private tasks those on public payroll should spend their time on, what grievances to heed and which to ignore, which rules to obey and which to throw out the window. The power of incumbency rests on the inherent power to control information as well as the information’s gatekeepers. By deciding who needs to know, the incumbent maintains a tight control on information flow and on what gets done at any particular time.

Nowhere is the skill for the adroit “management” of information deployed with devastating effect as in the allocation of public resources. Where the incumbent seeks legislative authorization for the commitment of resources, he would either be silent on the actual object of expenditure or remain totally non-committal on the expected outputs and impact. Ambiguity in budget preparation allows the incumbent maximum latitude in the allocation of resources. Once he obtains the blanket approval he needs, the leader is well on his way to allocating the resources to any end he (or any of his proxies) fancies. A recent news report clearly illustrates the point about the absolute lack of limit on the resource allocation power of an incumbent–besides exposing the weakness in our budgeting process. A few weeks back, Pastor Tunde Bakare returned a cow donated to his church by the Presidency. Please don’t ask me when the National Assembly got into the business of approving budgets allowing the President to donate cows! Just take my word for it: a cow was donated by the presidency and was promptly returned by the intended recipient.

We thank God that Pastor Tunde Bakare’s church or household did not need a cow. The cleric not only returned the unsolicited gift to the sender, but attached a message reminding the presidency about the plight of the average Nigerian. The cost of a few cows, Bakare observed, would go a long way in alleviating the suffering of the masses. That was of course Tunde Bakare, a man in the service of God. How about the countless men and women who act hands-in-gloves with the Devil–men and women who would take the cows, no questions asked, and proceed with equal alacrity to request additional cash to meet slaughtering, carving, and roasting expenses? How about legislators, traditional rulers, political buccaneers and adventurists and countless others who were alleged to have been enticed with substantial sums of money in return for political support? How about oil earnings running into billions of Naira which, before reaching the Central Bank vaults, were allegedly diverted to private coffers for onward transmission to the ruling party’s 2015 war chest?

The power of incumbency rarely stands alone. It walks hand-in-hand with impunity. Long before Lamido Sanusi Lamido, the suspended Governor of the Central Bank, raised an alarm about vanishing billions, well-meaning Nigerians had persistently called on the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission/EFCC to examine the books of the National Petroleum Corporation with a fine toothcomb. The Nigeria Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative/NEITI for one was convinced that the EFCC would uncover irregularities in the Corporation’s accounts. The EFCC looked the other way while NEITI was reeling off facts and figures on missing monies. The Crusaders for Good Governance then followed up with their own allegations, citing the urgent need to sanitize the oil sector. The EFCC again feigned deafness. Others were not discouraged. In fact, long before the season of Open Letters, individual citizens had sent their own open letters to Mr President pointedly asking that the Petroleum Resources Minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke, be relieved of her cabinet appointment. The Minister is still sitting comfortably in her office laughing her critics (or is it detractors) out of court. It took months, countless public petitions, and National Assembly hearings to get another cabinet Minister, the one for Aviation, to be kicked out.

As if revelling in scandal, the government dismisses one corruption allegation after the other with a wave of the hand. Corruption is not our problem, the government brazenly claims. The assumption here is that Nigerians have a short attention span and even a shorter memory. The Government believes that by the time it gets to 2015, it Nigerians would have gotten tired of the noise and forgotten about the allegations of malfeasance in high and low places. All the allegations would soon become history. The uproar over the missing oil money, the private jets maintained at huge public expense, Stella Oduah’s armoured cars and certificate scandals, Reno Omokri’s “social media” misinformation attempt that backfired, the pension scam, the police equipment fund fiasco, and the countless corruption leads that the EFCC and other anti-corruption agencies refused to follow–these and others would soon fizzle out.

While Nigerians are forgiving and forgetting transgressions, the power of incumbency continues to team up with impunity to entrench a culture–the culture of corruption. After all, if the top refuses to fix a problem considered grave, it cannot in clear conscience blame the bottom for not stepping up with a solution. It takes minimum effort to trace the breakdown of discipline and esprit de corps in the police and in other arms of the public service to the brutal, arrogant and unaccountable exercise of power at the highest level of government. The situation is so bad that no sector is immune from the corruption contagion. Even the private and the non-profit sector (including the legal profession) is now up to its neck in baksheesh and underhand operations.

By allowing the problem to fester, the government may yet discover that it has miscalculated all along. To its shock, Nigerians may turn out to be more attentive and less forgetful than it gave them credit for. Even subtle and oblique appeals to ethno-religious loyalties may not dim the memory of sleaze and, in particular, of corruption’s devastating impact. In fact something tells me that corruption is going to be the Number One issue in the 2015 elections. How will it not be the hot-button issue, considering the negative and clearly demonstrable effect it has had on capital formation, employment generation, security of life and property, and the delivery of essential services like electricity, water, and police protection? Look in any direction and reflect: corruption is behind any irregularity in our national life. It is behind any election whose integrity is compromised by voter bribery and intimidation, any project that fails to end successfully, any job-creation effort that creates no job, any highway contract that is fully funded but gets uncompleted, any judicial decision that delays and denies justice, any intellectual property rights violated and any Nollywood creative genius stifled by pirates, any defect that sullies our image, and anything that stops Nigeria from realizing its true potential.

The only chance of corruption not becoming an issue is if it continues right up to the eve of the election and (God forbid) succeeds in overwhelming the electoral process with ill-gotten gain. If Nigeria is awash with corruptly obtained money and the money finds its way into the pockets of election riggers, the “victor” in 2015 will be the alliance forged by the power of incumbency with impunity and corruption. Considering the danger that sham elections portend for our country’s peace and stability, now is the time for everyone to be vigilant. We must keep our eyes and ears open, ready to pick subtle signs of abuse, and to stop the buyers and sellers of our suffrage rights before their nefarious acts send us adrift.

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