In this exclusive interview, an anti-corruption expert, Prof. Jibrin Ibrahim, expressed mixed feelings over Buhari's anti-corruption agenda in the last five years. The interview was held with Dr. Suleiman A. Suleiman, Assistant Professor in Politics and researcher in Governance and Public Policy at the American University of Nigeria (AUN), Yola. Excerpts:
Has corruption reduced in Nigeria under the Buhari administration in the past five years?
I believe there has been a reduction in corruption in the country since Buhari came into power. This is within the context of the government he took over from, the Jonathan administration. We had a government which believed very strongly that it was there to eat, and therefore, they were quite unabashed in terms of their engagement in corrupt practices.
Of course, when a government is identified as openly engaging in corruption, then public officers are on their own. They feel they have a license to do what they want to do. So, I think in comparison with the previous government, there is an improvement. But that improvement is not as much as Nigerians had expected.
Buhari was elected on the platform of anti-corruption and people have memory of the actions he took when he was in power previously (1983 to 1985), and therefore thought there would be a massive onslaught against corruption and that there would be a significant increase in terms of prosecution of corrupt public officials.
The first thing I will draw your attention to is the work of the anti-corruption agencies; the EFCC in particular. When you look at the number, there has been an increase in terms of the number of successful prosecutions they have carried out.
At the policy level, I think both the use of Single Treasury Account (STA), as well as the increased use of BVN to crosscheck people's bank accounts, are significant indicators of a certain will to still fight corruption.
I just want to add that there is something which the president feels incapacitated about, as he says repeatedly, that he has to follow the rule of law and that he can't act the way he acted in 1985. This in a way cripples his capacity to do more than he could have done. But I will point out that there are some things we expected him to do, for example, bringing together all the anti-corruption agencies in one coherent organisation with enhanced powers, as well as setting up an anti-corruption court.
When I spoke to his people, what they told me was that the previous National Assembly was hostile to him that was why he couldn't engage in the legislative agenda. But I think at least he should have tried. If he tried and failed, we will know that he tried.
Although there is an improvement, but I think Nigerians are disappointed that the improvement is not as significant as they had expected, and precisely because of that, there has been a lot of concerns. I think there are specific issues that emerged which disappointed Nigerians. One example was when a former Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Babachir Lawal, was accused of corruption; even the National Assembly brought out significant facts about that. It took almost a year of pressure before any action was taken. I even felt that was a completely wrong signal from the administration which should have been much more proactive in terms of fighting corruption.
Regarding the coherent organisation you mentioned, how would such look like? Do you mean bringing all anti-corruption agencies under one ministry?
Not a coherent ministry; but one agency. I think there are multiplication of functions. The idea is to strengthen this new anti-corruption agency. Example, we have this difficulty where people challenge the rights of a particular anti-corruption agency to prosecute them and then bring delay in their work.
Under a democracy, you can't stop people from going to court, but if you clarify the rights of the agency to prosecute people, then it becomes more difficult for them to significantly delay their prosecution because the court will simply strike out this request. These are the types of things we think can improve the agency.
There should also be just a coherent agency addressing some of the current lacuna. For example, public officials are to declare their assets when they are coming in and when they are going out. However, people don't know what they have declared and these people have information. That information is of no use because they don't know what was declared.
And the reason why public officials are not obliged to declare is because the law setting up the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) requires the National Assembly to pass legislation to enforce the open declaration of assets; that was never done.
If you look at it, the government's anti-corruption agenda is based mostly on administrative policies like the TSA and BVN you mentioned, which can easily be reversed or changed by another government, rather than enshrined in law or acts of the National Assembly. How do we balance the administrative measures in fighting corruption vis-a-vis legislations that can make it more difficult for any administration in the future to just upturn or reverse?
The administrative measures are very important. This is what I spoke about earlier. It will make it easier to identify corrupt practices and curtail the practices, and therefore, enhance prosecution. Honestly, these legislative measures are very important. We do know that the current National Assembly is very supportive of the work of the president. They should just have a way now to pass these legislations that will curb corruption.
Going back to the prosecution issues, existing analysis of EFCC in particular indicates that it tends to be more successful when prosecuting low-level cases involving ordinary citizens such as "Yahoo Yahoo Boys". This is why there has been increase in the number of prosecutions as you stated earlier. But when it comes to prosecuting politically-exposed persons, people with affiliations in government, political parties, ministers, governors and so on; the success rate for convictions is comparatively very low. What can you say about this considering the fact that the existing analysis is for many years before his government, but also including years under Buhari's government?
I think it has been very difficult to prosecute these people (I won't say politically-exposed individuals, I will say wealthy individuals, because politically-exposed individuals are also wealthy) because some years ago, Barr. Femi Falana was making the argument that in 30 years, it was impossible to prosecute any individual in Nigeria. It was only during Nuhu Ribadu's time as Chairman of the EFCC that they were able to crack that problem and had success.
There is a problem with our judicial system, where powerful lawyers are able to delay cases for a very long time. But I will make a point that the new law which prosecution is based on (I have forgotten the exact name) [Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA)] should make it more difficult to continue to prolong cases indefinitely.
I will draw your attention to the fact that now, at least some former governors are in jail for their corrupt acts. Previously, no former governor had been successfully prosecuted, so, there is an improvement. We wish to see more improvement.
The anti-corruption agencies, the EFCC and more recently the ICPC, have adopted a number strategies for prosecuting high-profile corruption cases like plea-bargaining, non-conviction-based asset forfeiture and non-custodial sentences, such as saying someone cannot hold public office for at least 10 years, etc. How effective do you think these strategies and tactics are in reducing corruption in Nigeria over the long-term?
I have spoken to some lawyers about plea bargaining, it makes sense in some certain circumstances where it is clear that somebody has committed a crime and there is a probability that the prosecution may not be successful because of technical reasons. If that person accepts a plea bargain in some circumstances, it is fine.
The other problems we are facing is corruption within the prosecutorial agencies themselves; because there is a possibility that a case that can be successfully prosecuted may be compromised deliberately by the prosecutors themselves. I have seen many of them in court where they threw out cases because as they in their own language say there is lack of diligent prosecution by the EFCC. There is no proof to support it (corruption within anti-corruption agencies), but this lack of diligent prosecution may be an indicator of a deliberate corruption in the EFCC itself. That is certainly something to explore.
Could it also be the incompetence of the lawyers vis-a-vis the lawyers of the defendants?
That is definitely one of the factors. There's incompetency. I made a point earlier that there is a lot of these corrupt people recruiting very good lawyers to defend them, and therefore tend to be more successful in avoiding successful prosecutions. That may be a factor, but corruption is the other factor.
Could it also be poor prosecution strategy by the EFCC?
They focus so much on low-level cases where they tend to be more successful. But in some countries, France in the 1990s for example, part of strategies prosecutors adopted was to say okay, let us see that our net catches the big fishes even if the small fishes escape. So they set a range of criteria for the cases to take in prosecuting high-profile corruption: If a case involves up to a certain amount, for example, they will take it. If it involves high-profile people, like governors, ministers, top businessmen, etc, they will take it. In the end, they would end up with three or four or five prosecutions in a year, but they will be substantive ones that communicate to the society that they mean business in fighting corruption.
Could such strategies work in Nigeria, or what's your opinion about such strategies in general?
It is something that will work; I agree. I have always made an argument that corruption is high because people believe that they cannot be successfully prosecuted. So, changing the mentality shows nobody is above the law. It is always a very good way; making people sit up. My argument has always been that it is not that Africans are more corrupt than Europeans, but the Europeans believe that if they are corrupt, they would be caught. And Africans know that if they are corrupt, they are not going to be caught. Therefore, they can continue with their corrupt practices with reckless abandon. So I do think that is a good strategy and I strongly recommend it.
What about the recruitment of leaders of anti-corruption agencies within Buhari's government in particular?
For instance, ICPC for many years had no confirmed head until last year. And even now, we do not know whether Ibrahim Magu, the acting Chairman of EFCC, has been confirmed. How does this affect the anti-corruption agenda of this government? And on recruitment process in general, should the process be more open? Should it be in the hands of the Senate? Should Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and anti-corruption experts be allowed to participate in the recruitment process?
I do believe that the recruitment of the leadership of anti-corruption agencies should be as open and as transparent as possible and the records of the person proposed must be brought to the public for them to see and make the determination whether that person has the calibre to exercise the leadership.
In terms of this late appointments for heads of agencies, the lack of clarity with the EFCC chairman, that is a general problem of Buhari's administration. He has been very slow in making appointments. He has not seen the need to pursue adequate appointments the agencies deserve. And that has affected the quality of governance under his watch. There is clearly a problem there.
On a scale of 100 per cent, how would you rate the anti-corruption agenda of the government in the past five years?
I will give it 55 per cent because I feel that there is an improvement, but I don't think that improvement is sufficiently high to justify a commendation. So I am not giving a commendation. I am simply acknowledging that the situation now is better than it was under the Jonathan administration, but it is not where it is supposed to be.
Suleiman is an anti-corruption expert and he conducted the interview for the Daily Trust