Reinvigorating the Fight Against corruption: A Roadmap for the Tinubu Administration
Nigeria is plagued with a plethora of problems, many of which are governance related. Core among these is debilitating, insidious, and intractable corruption. While public statements committing to addressing the scourge are good, and desirable and have become common, leaders who make them often do not necessarily mean them or intend to carry them through. But newly elected Nigerian president, Bola Ahmed Tinubu did not even make significant verbal commitments to signify what his anti-corruption agenda might look like during the campaign period. His “Renewed Hope 2023 – Action Plan for a Better Nigeria’ prioritised national security, the economy, agriculture, power generation, oil and gas, transportation, and education in setting out his reform agenda.
However, Tinubu has provided glimpses of his potential anti-corruption stance at events during the election campaign and after. During an interface with the Arewa Joint Committee in Kaduna on 17 October 2022, he acknowledged that the socio-economic challenges the country faces are deeply rooted in corruption. He promised to fight it by focusing more on preventive measures and by putting in place a system for effective wealth redistribution, to greatly reduce the temptation to commit corruption. Whilst on 4th May 2023, during the commissioning of a magistrate complex in Port Harcourt, Tinubu stated that he will fight corruption – referring specifically to judicial corruption - by providing the right incentives that will make corruption unattractive and support greater wealth redistribution. While these are good steps, the nature and character of corruption in Nigeria, driven by politically exposed persons (PEPs), requires a much more drastic and robust approach.
While admitting that corruption is an integral governance challenge; it is nevertheless critical to recognise that it is one of the main drivers of other national macro problems. It can be used to undermine democracy, perpetrate electoral fraud, stoke ethnic tensions, sponsor violent activities, and further politicians' own geopolitical and economic objectives at the expense of others. It, therefore, requires special and decisive attention and treatment if those other challenges can be reasonably and effectively addressed.
Nigeria already has a robust anti-corruption legal framework, strong procurement legislation, and a National Anti-Corruption Strategy (NACS). But this is not enough. Tinubu should seek to empower these structures and plans by expressing his support to relevant agencies and declaring their total independence in carrying out their duties. There is a need to prioritise the security of tenure for the heads of anti-corruption agencies by amending the Acts that established anti-corruption agencies. This will help to provide security of tenure and anti-corruption heads, to not be easily removed on political grounds. By so doing, there will be a continuation of the investigation, prevention and prosecution of ongoing cases. This will ensure that anti-graft agencies remain apolitical and less likely to be subjected to the control of the government in power. As it stands there is a prevailing precedent that heads of anti-graft agencies are removed, once there is a change of government.
The public denouncement of the theft of public resources can not only empower these agencies but also enable them to pursue any official, regardless of their high rank or position. As it is now, illicit wealth is brazenly displayed and ostentatious living at public expense is the norm. Media campaigns urging citizens to be honest, corruption free and transparent in their actions will come to nothing if there are no visible examples and commitment from the political leaders. The brazen display of unexplained wealth by PEPs who hitherto never had a visible means of livelihood other than holding political office requires greater scrutiny. Here the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) has been largely dormant and ineffectual, with suggestions that PEPs have effectively muzzled its ability to offer scrutiny. To revive it, the new administration should encourage all top officials including the President and his vice to publicly declare their assets to show commitment to openness, transparency and accountability. A big gap in current anti-corruption efforts is the lack of a proactive approach. If individuals are to face sanctions this is often after the office holder has left the office and by which time, most of the assets have either been dissipated, laundered or transformed, making tracing difficult.
The new administration must also ensure that the procurement of goods and services strictly adheres to the provisions of the Public Procurement Act. Studies indicate that a significant bulk of the thefts of public resources are channelled through procurement processes. Pre-determined outcomes of the processes that are carefully arranged in favour of companies associated with government officials and their cronies are common. Others simply fail to provide the services as requested and siphon off funds to support the personal enrichment of the individuals involved. The outcome is substandard services or infrastructure for Nigerians. The new government must look to fix the procurement regime and insist on strict compliance with due process if this is to be remedied.
The new government also needs to pay closer attention to the expenditure of security votes. It is inconceivable that most federal agencies of government now have provision for this type of expenditure which regularly run into billions of Naira. For example, the federal government spent over N375 billion from public coffers in the name of security votes in 2021, an amount not budgeted for by the constitution or any other laws in the country. There is presently no law that prevents the auditing and accountability of security votes meaning this expenditure is rarely scrutinized and hidden behind justifications that it is spent on “sensitive security” items. The new government must limit the use of security expenditure to only agencies that have a purview over security. The National Security Council should reign in the actions of states, which are the biggest culprits of reckless spending of security votes.
At the sub-national level, it is instructive that five states have enacted and set up anti-corruption units or commissions. While this is consistent with the NACS, there are a lot of alignments that need to be made. Confidence building needs to be built between the federal and state agencies considering the accusation that some of these units were established to frustrate the corruption fight at the federal level by mandating that cases be immediately transferred to state agencies, which are largely controlled by governors.
Finally, whilst incentives are good to dissuade public officials from corruption, they must be complemented by appropriate punishments for those who transgress. Prosecution is key in this regard. Furthermore, the new government must not follow the practice, which has become commonplace, to grant state pardons to senior PEPs serving jail terms. This practice discourages the anti-corruption agencies and also gives citizens the impression that corruption pays. Those who engage in rapacious corruption cannot be pardoned while petty criminals are made to serve their full terms.
Nigeria does not need any Transparency International or Mo Ibrahim index to tell it that corruption is a major governance challenge. It exists and is a major hindrance to development. But past efforts to tackle the scourge have only achieved minimal results. The time for words and commitments has passed, this administration can only be judged on what it does, concretely, to stem the tide of corruption.
In conclusion, the fight against corruption in Nigeria requires a paradigm shift and bolder actions to effectively address its deep-rooted and multifaceted nature. Merely acknowledging corruption as a governance challenge is insufficient; it is essential to recognize its broader impact on democracy, electoral integrity, social cohesion, and economic growth. President Tinubu's glimpses of an anti-corruption stance are commendable, but a more drastic and robust approach is necessary to combat corruption driven by politically exposed persons. Strengthening the legal framework and empowering anti-corruption agencies are vital steps, along with ensuring their independence and security of tenure for agency heads. Public denouncements, asset declarations, and media scrutiny must expose illicit wealth, while a proactive approach should be adopted to trace and sanction corruption while officials are in office. Reforming procurement processes, limiting security expenditure to relevant agencies, fostering cooperation between federal and state agencies, and ending the practice of granting pardons to corrupt officials are imperative. The fight against corruption requires tangible actions rather than symbolic gestures, and President Tinubu must demonstrate unwavering commitment and concrete results to overcome this challenge.
Abiodun Olakunle is a Program Officer at the Centre for Democracy and Development.