Each time there is a slide in Nigeria's standing on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, CPI, in the last five years, government dismisses it as an act of mischief. That is understandable. President Muhammadu Buhari rode to power in 2015 on his anti-corruption horse after successfully branding former President Goodluck Jonathan the poster boy of graft and any counter-narrative calls to question the Buhari brand.
Unfortunately, try as hard as the government could, the anti-corruption myth has fallen apart. Buhari inherited a country that ranked 136 out of the 180 on the Transparency International's CPI in 2014 and 2015. It held steady in 2016 but in 2019, at 146, Nigeria remains the 36th most corrupt country in the world and the fourth in West Africa. It was worse in 2017 when the country ranked 151, the 29th most corrupt country in the world.
The contradiction cannot be more ironic. A self-acclaimed anti-corruption czar superintending a country where perceived levels of public sector corruption is on a free fall. The continual slide on the anti-corruption table is even more embarrassing for a president whose brother African leaders at the 30th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa in 2018 tasked with championing a continent-wide anti-corruption war.
So, pretending to be pulling out all the anti-graft stops and at the same time being harangued with negative reports based on facts, will always be too much for a vainglorious, self-adulating government to bear.
It was not surprising, therefore, when Garba Shehu, senior special assistant on media and publicity to the president, came out swinging at Transparency International, accusing the German-based non-governmental organisation of having ulterior agenda when the 2019 CPI report was released. Insisting that "the report is a perception index", which is true, Shehu dismissed it as not being in tune with reality. "The fact on the ground contradicts the report. This administration has done enormously well.
We have achieved quite a lot," he boasted. In the wake of last week's dramatic fall from grace to grass of the now suspended acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, Ibrahim Magu, Buhari again thumped his fabled anti-graft chest. Those who see the investigation as a signal that the fight against corruption is failing have unfortunately missed the boat, Shehu said. "There is no better indication that the fight is real and active than the will to investigate allegations in an open and transparent manner against those who have been charged to be custodians of this very system."
That is true but it is a single story and as Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, would say, such a story will always have pitfalls. The danger in Buhari's single anti-corruption story is that the proof he wants Nigerians to celebrate is five years late in coming. Without prejudging Magu - he still remains innocent until proved otherwise - there is no allegation against him today that is new.
Long before his appointment as EFCC acting chairman (he acted five years, unconstitutionally, another proof of presidential impunity, which in itself is an act of corruption), one of his predecessors, Mrs. Farida Waziri, had raised the red flag over his penchant to illegally warehouse EFCC's confidential documents, particularly those indicting prominent politicians whose investigations he led as the head of the economic governance unit.
After Magu's appointment in November 2015, the Senate rejected his nomination in December 2016 based on a damning report by the Department of State Services, DSS. The president, however, decided to sidestep the allegations by re-nominating Magu, claiming in a letter that his own investigations revealed that he was not guilty.
Uncharacteristically, the DSS defied the president and reaffirmed its position that Magu would constitute a liability to the administration's anti-corruption campaign because he lacked integrity to lead the country's anti-graft agency. How prescient! Senate acquiesced and again rejected the nomination. But cheered on by the so-called anti-corruption pundits, who argued that he was above the law, Buhari kept Magu in office until the bubble finally burst last week.
There is little in the extant allegations against Magu that the DSS didn't allege in 2017. But emboldened by the backing of the president, Magu, like the proverbial child whose father sent on a stealing expedition who kicks doors open with impunity, simply upped his delinquent ante. Therefore, Magu's fall reinforces, rather than diminishes, the perception out there that even under Buhari, Nigeria remains "fantastically corrupt", apologies to former British Prime Minister, David Cameroon.
Whatever comes out of the Magugate won't change that perception because even if the administration decides to play the ostrich by burying its head in the illusionary quicksand of self-deceit, the reality is that in the five years that Buhari has been the president, the anti-corruption needle, despite all the noise, has not moved much, if at all.
That was the point Dr. Christopher Kolade, Nigeria's former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, and one of the country's few moral icons, made when he said: "The only person that doesn't know we are fighting corruption is corruption itself." Observably, corruption is not any weaker today than it was before Buhari's coming. If a government claims to be fighting corruption and yet corruption is thriving, then there is a fundamental disconnect.
What the Buhari government claims to be the reality of its anti-corruption fight is actually an illusion. And that is where perception comes in. The government may protest for all anyone cares, but that does not change the reality because perception is not only everything, it is also reality. And because perception is reality, it remains true and unyielding.
For instance, the reality is that the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, is a cesspit of corruption. Did it start with the Buhari government? No! But nothing has changed. If anything, it appears to have worsened since Godswill Akpabio, former governor of Akwa Ibom State, was appointed Niger Delta Minister, and hijacked the interventionist agency that was hitherto under the presidency.
It is also true that before Akpabio defected to the APC in 2019, he was under EFCC radar. His defection put paid to that. The reality is that the sacked acting Managing Director of the Interim Management Committee, IMC, of the NDDC, Ms. Joi Nunieh, is publicly accusing Akpabio and the IMC of corruption and they have not come out with a coherent defence. Right now, the reality is that a Senate ad hoc panel is investigating alleged mismanagement of N40 billion by the IMC.
When Magu's ordeal started, Femi Odekunle, a professor and member of the Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption, PACAC, publicly accused the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, of corruption. "The alleged originating Malami memo, up to the current 'arrest' seems an outcome of power-play by power blocs in the corridors of power in which Malami appears to be an arrow-head or major agent of a power bloc that is not really interested in, or in support of, Buhari's anti-corruption fight," Odekunle wrote on behalf of PACAC.
Insisting that Malami has never "manifested any genuine commitment to the anti-corruption fight", Odekunle made reference to the surreptitious meeting between him and the suspected pension thief, Abdulrasheed Maina, which led to Maina's criminal reinjection into the Civil Service before whistleblowers raised alarm.
Governorship election will hold in Edo State on September 19. The reality is that the APC candidate, Pastor Osagie Ize-Iyamu, is standing trial with four others over an alleged N700 million fraud. It is bad enough that APC, the anti-corruption party, could not find any other person in the whole of Edo to fly its flag in the election.
These are the realities that fuel the corruption perception. Even if Magu is jailed today for his many iniquities, it does not diminish the reality that under Buhari's watch, corruption is alive, well and kicking.