14 July 2017

Nigeria: How to Solve a Problem Like Magu

This National Assembly appears quite anxious to make laws that might improve our lives. One example is the bill this week by the Senate for victims of gunshot wounds to get treatment without first paying with their blood. There has been quite a basketful of bills like that, promising to show us that federal lawmakers have hearts of flesh.

The dangerous edge to their zeal is the growing feeling among them that they can make the law, interpret it and also enforce it and no one can do anything about it. After a bruising fight with the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Raji Fashola, over whether or not the National Assembly can top up the appropriation bill, including removing significant national projects and replacing them with budgets for boreholes and similar "constituency projects" in their constituencies, the Senate turned on Acting President Yemi Osinbajo for insisting that the EFCC Chairman, Ibrahim Magu, will not be removed.

In a disgraceful tit-for-tat, they vowed that Magu would only be confirmed over their dead bodies, adding that they would withhold further screening and confirmation of executive nominees until Magu is removed. The Clerk of the National Assembly may well order body bags and call in the ambulance because we're fed up with politicians who are so obsessed with their ego that they hardly show any regard for the common good.

What's wrong in a healthy debate? Osinbajo is Acting President and the Senate may disagree with him without insisting that he has to sacrifice his freedom of expression to retain his post. That is wrong. Recently, I've found Osinbajo's tentativeness on a few matters quite annoying. So, I was pleased when he told the Senate pointblank that 1) the National Assembly has no business topping up the budget and, 2) the Senate has to get used to Magu being EFCC chairman or wait for possibly another six years.

What is it about the appropriation bill that they cannot keep their sticky fingers in check and use it as a tool to get the best value for the country for every naira budgeted? Why should the National Assembly become so blinded by the narrow interests of its members that it would, for the second consecutive time in a row, disregard an existing high court judgment against mutilating the budget to its own advantage? And as for Magu, what is his crime? Politicians, at least those in the ruling APC, say they want to fight corruption. Magu has been doing his bit for the last 18 months without a letter of appointment and in spite of opposition from the same politicians and career influence peddlers who say they want to fight corruption. Where the lawmakers want to make a law to grant amnesty to looters, Magu has said he is determined to follow through their prosecution. Where they considered themselves sacred cows, he has called them out. And where they have tried to blackmail him, he has defended his integrity.

It's a matter for regret that the convictions have been few and slow but that's precisely because politicians, judges and senior lawyers have made no secret of their vested interest to frustrate the process and protect one another. They think we're helpless, that's why they insist on fighting corruption on their own terms and when they are challenged they threaten to take the government hostage. The arm twisting and blackmail have gone beyond the limits of subtlety. They have become glaring and dangerous. The federal legislators consider themselves so infallible and their seats so impregnable that Senate President Bukola Saraki and his deputy, Ike Ekweremadu, told us that the only sovereign that can remove a senator is the Senate itself - everything else, including a constitutionally provided recall process, is a waste of time. Without seeming to know it, they are constituting themselves into a body of hostage takers, with the country, its people their interests as their supposedly helpless victims. It's also a measure of the conceit of the National Assembly that not only does it remorselessly whip any dissenting member into line; it thinks it is entitled to deal with non-members with the same ruthlessness.

That explains why they summonsed Customs CG, Hameed Ali, for not to wearing uniforms; PACAC Chairman, Itse Sagay, for rebuking them; and Fashola for appealing to their conscience and common sense. And it's precisely because of this their exaggerated sense of their worth that they have threatened to paralyze government if Magu is not removed. Of course the government itself has not made Magu's job - or the fight against corruption - easier. For example, in spite of two separate court orders asking it to publish the names of treasury looters since 1999 and the recoveries made so far under President Muhammadu Buhari, the government is still speaking in tongues.

The combination of a spiteful Director of State Security, a weak Attorney General and Minister of Justice and a dithering, almost aloof, President, has often produced mixed signals about the government's resolve to fight corruption openly and relentlessly. I've heard lawmakers complain that the press treats the National Assembly unfairly, that there's more corruption and lawlessness in the executive branch than anywhere else, but that the executive has learnt through years of practice and connivance with the press, to hide its dead bodies.

Maybe that's true, even though it's the moral equivalent of saying if two wrongs don't make a right, try a third. Instead of mounting barricades of greed and self-interest in the way, without a care in the world for the public good, lawmakers will be in a stronger position to face the executive if they put their own house in order first. But there's little evidence that self-examination is of any interest to them. They prefer to blame the press - perhaps justifiably up to a point - for their "over-exposure", and for helping to pile on pressure from their constituencies that leave them perpetually broke.

Yet, they conveniently forget that for every Dino Melaye that parades his collection of exotic cars on social media; for every senator that hosts a sex fair; for every senator that is a fugitive from justice; and for every one of them who makes a dance video, there are millions of people out there who think that only two things happen in Abuja: clowning and money sharing. Federal lawmakers are in a hurry to make record bills that might save us. That's grand. They should start with the small things: homework, punctuality and a little honesty with their constituencies and about their remunerations.

Their failures in these areas, and not Magu's continued stay at the EFCC, have done them and the country far greater disservice.

-Ishiekwene is the MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview magazine and board member of the Paris-based Global Editors Network

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