The inspiration for this article came from a contribution that I posted on Facebook last month, February 2017. Noting that President Muhammadu Buhari had heeded the popular call for the resubmission of Ibrahim Magu’s name to the Senate, I weighed in with a recommendation, to wit, that Senators facing corruption allegations recuse themselves when the matter of Magu’s candidature for the chairmanship of the EFCC comes up for deliberation. Apparently, a few of my readers thought I was on to something. One of them urged me to write a full-length article articulating my thinking on the subject. A loyal (but currently unaffiliated) public servant that I am, I dutifully accepted the challenge.
Conflict of interest is one, perhaps, the most sinister, form of corruption. It is an ethical violation of the worst kind, one that is hatched in the inner-most recesses of the mind and perpetrated with a face too inscrutable for even the most discerning observer. It is a plot by one or a few against many, a plot that is enacted with the intention to profit at the expense of others, while simultaneously projecting an image of benevolence and altruism. Conflict of interest arises when one is placed in a situation requiring one to take, or to participate in taking, decisions the outcome of which has the potential of advancing or adversely affecting one’s, or an acquaintance’s interest. Conflict of interest by definition implies conflict of motives, some pure, others devious. Failure to disclose the conflicting motives is all but certain to corrupt a decision or take an entire organization in a direction other than the one originally intended.
Decisions frequently presumed to be susceptible to conflict of interest include those concerning evaluation of contract bids and shortlisting of tenders, award of contracts, as well as the recruitment and promotion of candidates for public offices. However, conflict of interest goes well beyond the dilemmas associated with conventional policy and administrative decisions. It extends to wide-ranging decisions, including decisions whether to privatize or re-engineer an ailing enterprise, to layoff or retain particular classes of employees during a period of downsizing, and, as regards the subject of this article, whether to stand aside, far away from, or participate in, Magu’s confirmation hearings at a time when corruption allegations are fastened on one’s neck.
The Magu’s case, indeed, raises salient conflict-of-interest questions. It will be recalled that on his watch as Acting Chairman, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (hereafter referred to as the EFCC) had diligently investigated corruption allegations levied against hitherto untouchable members of society. He knew that among those on his sight were Big Men (and Women) who had held key positions and had taken decisions in need of explaining. Magu knew that these were individuals capable of determining his fate down the road, and that they were lying in wait for him. He knew that, at one time or other, the President would have to forward his name to the Senate and request this august body of Big Men and Women to consider his candidature for the substantive post of EFCC chairman. None of these considerations deterred or stopped him from performing his statutory functions. He pursued corruption allegations relentlessly, and he did not shy away from ruffling the feathers of a few Big Men (and Women).
Then came the opportunity which Magu’s adversaries were waiting for. As expected, the President submitted his name to the Senate. Predictably, the Senate sent the nomination back, unconfirmed. The matter did not stop there. The Senate justified its rejection of the President’s candidate by citing reports of indiscretions allegedly committed by the said candidate. In a nutshell, the Senate would like us to believe that its refusal to confirm Magu’s appointment was not driven by malice but was actually anchored on good faith. Really?
As it so happens, assertions are no proof. This particular assertion (of the Senate’s good faith) is highly suspect. It will take more than mere avowal of good faith to convince sceptics of the purity of the Senate’s motive—that is, the motive behind tossing Magu’s file back to the President, unprocessed. As far as the majority of Nigerians are concerned, excavating Magu’s deep, dark secrets at this crucial moment sounds, at best, cynical and opportunistic, at worst, plainly diabolical and despicable. The rejection of Magu’s candidature in the middle of a major war—the war on corruption—also has ominous consequences for the war’s successful prosecution.
Under normal circumstances, Magu’s confirmation ought not to raise so much dust, let alone, drag on for so long. But then, circumstances, especially of the pecuniary and/or political kind, are rarely normal in Nigeria. Ours is a country in which alliances of disparate characters are apt to be forged at short notice, not around noble ideals, but for the sole purpose of protecting or advancing mutual interests. Such alliances wax or wane depending on who stands to reap the fruits of primitive accumulation and outright corruption at any point in time.
For reasons that are all too obvious, Nigeria is home to many of such alliances, the shifting alliances of corruption, impunity, and cynicism. In comparison to many other countries, Nigerians tend to be highly tolerant of corruption. This tolerance sometimes manifests as ethnic-based justification of turpitude or outright and stiff resistance to measures designed to banish venality from public life. I shall in fact not be surprised if some Nigerians recoil at the suggestion that Senators with skeletons in their closets should recuse themselves when their colleagues begin to review Magu’s case. After all, it is this same category of Nigerians who staunchly defended the decision of high-ranking public officials accused of corruption to sit tight and block the law’s determination to take its course.
The relatively high tolerance of corruption in Nigeria raises the question what type of country ours is and what manner of people we really are. Generalizations can be misleading. However, corruption would not have been so pervasive, and its impact would not have done so devastating, if the Nigerian worldview had been truly rational. If it is any consolation, it is not the country that is abnormal. What is abnormal is how the Nigerian cynically wires his/her own brain. Efforts at injecting a dose of sanity into national life will not succeed unless and until we grasp the actual workings of the proverbial average Nigerian’s mind.
Take for instance, the Nigerian’s notion of the truth. In ordinary circumstances, the truth is independent of who is telling it. Among a certain category of Nigerians, however, truth depends on who is telling it. This class of Nigerians will swear that their kinsmen and “fellow believers” do not lie, and that only strangers and adherents of “other faiths” who are never to be trusted. The Nigerian’s apologia for alternative truths is underpinned by the notion of “alternative reason”. In a peculiarly Nigerian way of thinking, reason is a tyrant that the smart individual learns to avoid or to replace it with “substitute”, and personally contrived, even if warped, logic. This contrasts sharply with the usage in other countries where the really smart individual quickly comes to terms with the inescapability of reason’s “tyranny”. In these really smart countries, the people realize that sooner or later, reason will prevail and its so-called tyranny will be all that is left to meet challenges and resolve contentious issues.
Nigerians will of course snigger at the advocates of reason. They will persist doggedly, and to the very end, in their rejection of reason. They will continue to argue that wisdom, after all, flows, not from reason, but from following the ‘ways of one’s ancestors, and maintaining the solidarity of one’s primordial group.
It is this sentimental attachment to illogicality which leads our compatriots to hold that lack of progress in life or crisis on the political front is attributable not to one’s own actions but to the whimsical behaviour of nature, the malevolence of “evil spirits”, or the conspiracy of one’s adversaries. Success in life’s pursuit, the non-evolving Nigerian will argue, is not dependent on one’s own efforts or on good deeds, but on the capricious behaviour of nature or the support of powerful patrons.
Whereas in other countries, the law is no respecter of tribe, tongue, or position, Nigerians still go about life thinking that exemption from the rules is justified, provided you are the one doing the rule-breaking. However, if others, particularly, “stranger elements”, follow suit, they are “bad”, “irresponsible”, “uncivilized”, and deserving of the harshest punishment.
With the type of mindset just described, how can one convince our compatriots that corruption is bad for business, or that recusal in Magu’s confirmation hearings is the only option open to Senators facing corruption charges? As luck would have it, we do not have to answer this question. After all, this article is addressed not to the generality of Nigerians as such but to the highest law-making body in the land, the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The article alludes to the peculiarly Nigerian mindset simply to highlight the abnormal conditions under which anti-corruption battles have been waged over the years. The Senate does not have to wait for Nigerians to get their thinking right before doing what is right on the EFCC chairmanship. As a body of honourable and respected citizens, the majority of Nigerians are counting on Senators with corruption clouds over their heads to follow the honourable path by removing themselves from a serious conflict of interest situation.
In the event that the Senators concerned decide to sit tight when Magu’s candidature is being reviewed all over again, or seek, through proxies, to influence the outcome of the nomination hearings, the Senate must do the needful by suspending its rules to allow the disqualification of any Senator that is either facing corruption and related charges, or is otherwise supporting a colleague with cases to answer. The Senate has an opportunity to redeem its image. It should not pass it up.