The Anti-Corruption War Hasn’t Started, By ‘Tope Fasua

…the struggle to roll back corruption must be strategic, pervasive, sustained, and driven by clear examples from the top. The power of repetition must be employed because we are talking of mass therapy and reprogramming here. Any government that does not get ready to do this, or tries to protect its own friends, is on the road to nowhere.

We have seen how tough it will be to even push back, much less eradicate corruption in Nigeria. A government that came in with the sole agenda of doing so has bumbled its way through and some will argue that corruption is stronger in many ways than it was before. It may not be done casually these days but most of our budget still disappears into the pockets of a few. Indeed what we now have is corruption plus impunity in many regards. A glance at the newspapers reveal how civil servants resume daily and divide every taxpayers’ funds that is in their custody. Our civil service has become more and more where nothing escapes the top operatives. Every contract is obtained through a top executive to whom the contract has been allocated. Look at the revelations from the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), and the rest? The problem of ghost workers still continues and we know who benefits from that huge windfall. A top General once informed me that there could be as many as 50,000 ghost soldiers in Nigeria. Just last month, the police announced there were actually 50,000 ghost policemen. There are many dead policemen, soldiers and civil servants, whose salaries and pensions are still being collected monthly by powerful people. I was speaking to someone who knows a lot about the pension industry a few days back, and he told me of how directors share people’s pensions. Imagine a single director taking N800 million from people’s hard-earned pensions in just three months. The devil himself must be a Nigerian! Currently we hear that dozens of ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) are being investigated for all sorts of collusion – contract inflation, asset stripping and what have you. Nigeria has lost it. Desperation has met rudderless-ness in our land

The tap roots of corruption was never addressed by Buhari, the man in whom the world had hoped; the fixation was with some branches and flowers of corruption. The gardeners employed for the job would even smell the flowers to be sure it belonged to the right gang/specie before any action was taken. One senator made an apt analogy about insecticides and deodorants the other day. The standard excuse, invented by no less than Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, the first EFCC chairman, is that “when you fight corruption, corruption fights back”. It is the most dangerous and fraudulent of excuses ever invented, used and abused by people who are simply not ready to get on with the job. Who said it was going to be easy? But the worst thing to do is give the psychological advantage to the adversary. Once that excuse is whipped out of the magical arsenal of the corruption fighter, everybody goes to sleep. Everyone gives up. The public is lulled into despair, even if and when the anti-corruption fighter is loading his babanriga and abeti-aja cap with dollars! So long as they aren’t caught our outed, it is corruption fighting back. Standard excuse for non-achievement or under-achievement, or letting favoured thieves get away with murder. Anyone who intends to criticise the process for efficiency, is deemed part of the corruptors fighting back. The first lesson here, perhaps, is that those who are purportedly fighting corruption in Nigeria, are themselves often the most corrupt.

Corruption in Nigeria has now developed wings and morphed because of this labyrinth of deception. Years and decades of free rein has conferred legitimacy in many places. Taxpayers’ money is so easy and sweet to take and spend. Those closest to it merely help themselves. There is a silent conspiracy between some strategic and/or senior civil servants and top politicians. I was in the office of a director in the service a few years back when one staff came and presented a document for approval. The director, a smart Yoruba guy, looked at the document and smiled. Then he looked at the staff and broke into a song by Sunny Ade “se ‘kan ko mi o, ko tun se ‘kan ko rare, ka jo maa je loo”. With that song, he signed off on the document having instructed the staff to go and arrange that type of transaction for him as well. The song says we should continue and ‘eat’ Nigeria to death. This director friend of mine only spent U.S. dollars. He is a free man today, though retired. Between top civil servants (directors-general- DGs; executive secretaries – ES’; legislators; etc), this same conspiracy against the public is solid. Indeed it’s like a race to determine who grabs the most and who liquidates Nigeria first. In those circles, people don’t really believe in the existence of Nigeria, even though they often mouth some fake patriotism. Some were not always like that, but they have seen enough to lose hope and join the gang. They say if you can’t beat them you join them. The Mafia that is the corruption cabal in Nigeria is uber-powerful. Don’t ever think you can change them from inside. We need serious disruptors to make a dent. For it is that gang that the Adamu Fika report referred to when it stated that 18,000 top civil servants and politicians took N1.13 trillion out of the then budget of N4 trillion (over 25 per cent of the national budget as at 2010/2011). Things have only got worse, even under the Buhari government. If they took 25 per cent of the budget before, today they take over 60 per cent when you consider the fact that corruption eats most of the budget. That is why I am aloof with this recent accusation by the president that the National Assembly padded the budget with 6,400 new projects worth N587 billion. The National Assembly itself knows that very little in the federal budget is meant for the people. All line items are OWNED by powerful individuals.

Defining Corruption Nigeriana

Let us first define corruption in a Nigerian way, to begin to get an idea of what is going on and how to solve the problem – if that is still a possibility.

The traditional, old-school corruption is where civil servants, politicians and private sector players demand for kickbacks before approving or facilitating contracts, or before performing their normal duties. But now, it is important to add other strains, some of which are new:

Where civil servants, politicians and private sector workers create the companies that get the contracts.

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Where all contracts are first allocated to big men and middle managers from within before being advertised and so are rigged from the beginning. If you don’t know who is really in control of this process, forget it.

Where contracts are cloned, with payments made years ago (on which kickbacks were collected), and resurrected as new projects and passed through the system for approval, sometimes with the knowledge of the initial contractor, but most times with fake accounts having been opened in the name of initial contractor, where civil servants are the signatories.
Procurement frauds of all sorts, whereby goods are delivered, documented in the morning and removed in the evening after documentation has been made. Tracks are covered by procurement officers that the goods (e.g. laptops) have been distributed around the country.

Contract inflation of all sorts. I have seen where contracts were doubled and the contractor innocently got one half of the payment, while the other leg went elsewhere. It used to be that they would create different Tax Identity Numbers for a single company and use the fake TINs, but now, many companies will find themselves paying double withholding taxes and VAT to government over each transaction, simply because the contract was doubled (all companies should always look out for this at FIRS). I hear ministries and parastatals now route payments through third parties, which then send the correct payment to the ultimate beneficiaries after deducting their own additions. To make matters worse, the government operatives will then besiege the contractor to collect some more from the legitimate amount!

…it is important to consider some of the traditional and cultural brick-walls that such a war might face. The same man Ahmad used a Hausa proverb which says: “malammai sun ce halal ne cin dukiyar gwamnati tunda bat a kowa ba ce” [Islamic clerics say it is legitimate under Islamic law to appropriate government resources since such resources belong to no one]”. That is one.

A growing tendency whereby expensive asset like SUVs are bought for top civil servants, parked at home for a couple of years, and used only to attend weddings over the weekend, but always taken away as ‘entitlement’ whenever their tenures expire. Some take the cars directly to their village houses. What work are they doing to deserve N60 million SUVs? Sometimes they take more than one or two of these vehicles.

Deliberate obfuscation of asset registers. There is virtually no records of government properties in Nigeria. People have been known to simply claim or sit on some of them. Also some agencies have acquired tons of asset that are not needed. Government agencies operate in silos and hardly share services. This provides a platform for asset acquisitions for the purpose of inflating the value and cashing out tech-enabled corruption of all types and sizes, where technology is twisted by human interference in order to make big money. No one can be trusted. One would have thought technology – such as GIFMIS/TSA/IPPIS/e-PAYMENT will catch out these criminals but they always devise new ways of escape. And so the Central Bank of Nigeria recently reported that cybercrime has leaped.

These and many more strategies are being deployed as corruption gets ‘innovated’ in Nigeria.

I had to give this issue deeper thought when I read, the other day, a report in the PUNCH newspapers where the speaker of the Kwara State House of Assembly, Dr. Ali Ahmad, a close ally of the Senate president, Bukola Saraki, and APC top gun, said President Muhammadu Buhari had bungled the anti-corruption war. He averred that corruption cannot be fought via reliance on the judiciary alone as this present government aims to do.

The statement from the Saraki protege got me thinking. I know he reflects his boss’ ideas, and he even went on to say the solution is to ‘strengthen lawmakers’, which I think is self-serving and will lead to nowhere. Have lawmakers not shown that they are masters of corruption themselves? There has to be a better way. Ahmad did say also that there was a need to get the buy-in of Nigerians, which in his words is zero for now. That is valid; but how, he didn’t say.

Before I explore just how any government can make a dent on this issue which has now taken on several lives of its own, it is important to consider some of the traditional and cultural brick-walls that such a war might face. The same man Ahmad used a Hausa proverb which says: “malammai sun ce halal ne cin dukiyar gwamnati tunda bat a kowa ba ce” [Islamic clerics say it is legitimate under Islamic law to appropriate government resources since such resources belong to no one]”. That is one.

On the streets in pidgin English, we say “na where man dey work na im man dey chop”? Or the popular axiom that “gofment property no be anybody property”? In Yoruba land they say “ao kin se’se ijoba laagun”, translated as “no one must do government work to the level of breaking sweat”. In other words, government work is what you do with half-heartedness and levity. And of course you can help yourself to the enjoyment when the opportunity presents itself.

With these thoughts ingrained in our culture – north, east, west and south – we have a big problem and there is a need to roll back these ideas, no matter how ingrained they are in our local cultures. It will take a Herculean effort by all means but the effort must be started immediately. If we have spoken about the Islamic cleric above, the christian clerics – of which we have thousands in Nigeria – have not made matters better as many preach get-rich-by-every-means doctrines that emphasise selfishness and the bingeing on materiality. Many have been known to collect proceeds of corruption and theft without a care, and many have rationalised these actions by claiming “if you don’t take what belongs to God, the people who serve the Devil will take everything”. In general we haven’t run our society in a reasonable manner at all.

Make corruption expensive and unattractive. This will be done by ensuring the stiff punishment of corrupt people. Some have suggested the Chinese approach of execution. That will certainly work, although I am against execution of any type. I prefer a life of hard work in prison for corrupt people.

What Can a Sincere Government Do?

I believe the first thing is to be ready to live by example. We could have got it right under Buhari had he not started to prevaricate and protect some privileges for himself. If the people see that the government is ready to be honest, they will comply and follow behind. People started to shape themselves in this country in the first coming of Buhari and under Murtala Muhammad. If a government however shows that it is all about enjoyment and oppression, the people will dig in and do their own thing. People started to be more careful once it was clear that Buhari could win the 2015 elections, but all that disappeared under a few months of his being sworn in.

We should also first and foremost BELIEVE IN NIGERIA. See, in my humble opinion there is absolutely nothing wrong with our nation but ourselves. Yes we may have disagreements. Yes we have done ourselves a great many injustices. But continuing with injustices is not a way of solving the problem. Every corrupt act is at its base, an expression of unbelief in the nation. Every corrupt act is violence done to the heart of the nation; it is a continuation of the many injustices we wreak on ourselves.

Use technology but risk-manage by having several layers of control that don’t see themselves. This is how to out the many tech-enabled and complex corruption we have today. This is what the private sector usually does at least to protect shareholders. Government must be run like private sector companies, especially in terms of accountability.

Follow the money. Every large disbursement must be followed for value-for-money compliance. Just follow the money and look out for contract-splitting, cloning, and resurrections. Technology is still our only hope, in spite of its being twisted by smart Alecs. A top civil servant who came from the private sector told me of how a large contract was resurrected in a place he worked in, with the figure slightly varied. Because he is of well above-average intelligence, he remembered the name of the contractor and entered the name into the GIFMIS system, thereby discovering that it was a clone and that the huge amount was to be paid and shared by these desperate Nigerians who are hell-bent on killing the country. But how many of such would have escaped and are escaping daily? I believe an emergency should be declared on some levels of transactions and they should be put through the wringer, without necessarily slowing them down. Multiple checks can be conducted on an inter-ministerial fashion between agencies that don’t see themselves.

Document all the new forms of frauds – no longer corruption – being perpetrated in the civil service in order to keep learning faster than these criminals. Make your knowledge public so that the world learns and so that Nigerians are on the lookout for these things. There will always be a tendency for collusion, even if you have an elite corp checking these things, so dynamism is required. Your strategies must change from time to time in unpredictable fashion. Again this is what they do to protect shareholders in the private sector. The ordinary people must be treated as shareholders of government and so be well protected.

Remove nepotism. When I was a banker, we discovered a fraud relating to federal government revenue cheques (e-payment and TSA – Treasury Single Account – has curbed this to some extent now). We reported to one of the parastatals where a junior accountant was involved in pilfering millions in VAT and withholding taxes due to the federal government. It was a shock to me that despite the director’s effort, the junior accountant was let off without even a query because they said a former chief judge of the federation intervened on his behalf. We must deal visibly and firmly with fraudsters in the civil service and send the right message. The process of getting this done must be shortened. I believe this is possible. For now we have a cultish way of operating the service, which does not help. It all depends on who you know.

Make corruption expensive and unattractive. This will be done by ensuring the stiff punishment of corrupt people. Some have suggested the Chinese approach of execution. That will certainly work, although I am against execution of any type. I prefer a life of hard work in prison for corrupt people. The government of the day is presently boasting of convicting two former governors (whom I reckon will appeal their cases and be out in no time), but those cases took 11 years. How many criminals have died in that time, suffering no repercussion for their acts. How many corrupt governors do we have that we can only convict two of them after that long? And this throws up the issue of INHERITANCE TAX. Another good way of making corruption unattractive is by taxing all inheritances in Nigeria. It is difficult but FIRS and the state IRS’s should know that they are there to do the difficult stuff. In a seriously corrupt country, a government makes sure that corrupt people don’t simply transfer their ill-gotten wealth to their children at death. Inheritance taxes bridges the income gap, and ensures we don’t keep unleashing unto society irresponsible moneybags whose claim to wealth is their parents’ fraudulent acts. This is what we do in Nigeria today and it is pathetic. While working on this article I came across a heartfelt paper written to President Obasanjo in 2006 by one Patrick Odionikhere. Of course, nothing was done and we still live in sin till tomorrow. I was even in the same space as the minister of finance, Kemi Adeosun, and Mr. Fowler, FIRS chairman, where she asked rhetorically and jokingly that Nigerians resist all taxes and they cannot introduce inheritance taxes without a protest. I just felt she wasn’t serious minded and was telling us she is afraid of powerful people who put her there. For how long shall we continue this way though?

Those actively gutting this country on a daily basis must have some undiagnosed mental problem going on. Perhaps the real tragedy is that most of the money makes it out of the country – usually into properties that foreign governments soon seize – or into inactive real estate within the country. The financial lifeblood of the country then goes on life support, ebbs and gushes away.

We must institute a new system of shared services. In the U.S.A – as capitalist as that country is and in spite of what some of our economists say about the evils of centralisation – they have just one agency (GSA – Government Services Agency) which procures for all MDAs. Whatever asset an agency needs is obtained from this agency and returned when no longer needed, or when nearing its shelf life (for auction). This agency also ensures that only American goods are purchased by government. It’s a shame how our MDAs binge on foreign goods. We are killing this country with our choices which do not reflect any humility, introspection or even common sense. A country that produces nothing should not revel in luxury at public expense.

Government must get its acts together and actually govern. No amount of preaching can work if public services aren’t working. A serious government will lay the rules, and go about fixing public schools and public hospitals, plus public transport and electricity – everything the people need. As this is being done, anyone who decides not to use them and opts to steal instead just to prove he/she is smarter than the country, is shown the other side of the law.

I believe with these and more ideas that may come from the public, we can begin to get the necessary buy-in of the public that is very essential to make a dent on corruption. You see, corruption in Nigeria has become written into the code of normal life. Our young musicians daily sing songs that emphasise about money, women, alcohol and drugs. These are the rhetoric we raise our children on and so we have almost lost the coming generation to the scourge of corruption, immorality and crime.

What the government needs to spend time doing is to get into the brains and minds of our people in constructive ways, not only by mouthing vain preachments. Indeed we need a massive ground-force of young people whose brief will be to take the message to the corners of the country. The message is that there is dignity in labour, and that we would be elevating our own humanity by stopping the idea of judging ourselves on the basis of how much money we have acquired. We are no longer hunter-gatherers or earlymen. Even people in the most capitalist countries of the world are not in a mad quest for acquisitions the way we are in Nigeria. Government must be able to establish the fact that there is nothing wrong if our people live modest lives where the basics are covered. That is how the modern world has evolved. Yes, billionaires will exist – a few of them – but a situation where everyone is trying to be one because their juju man told them that is their destiny, not because they want to add any value, is not the way to grow a sustainable society. Part of what we are seeing is then the clash of traditional beliefs and superstition (and almost every Nigerian is a slave to these phenomena), with modern economic principles. Abroad, it is established in the main that you reap what you sow, you earn the value of your work. But here, millions go around looking for opportunities to be billionaires with no work, or by scamming or playing smart.

Of course, this is already a long article – against my wish – but the problem of corruption which has now defined Nigeria, is not a brief subject to discuss or an easy one to solve. I have focused on the public sector here, though it is a human problem in Nigeria and some of the most corrupt people are private sector guys who put the smart ideas into the heads of our civil servants. A friend of mine told me that when he became manager at the branch of a bank in Lagos a decade ago, almost every transaction brought to him by customers or intending customers had a fraud element in it. It is true. When I started my banking career in 1992, a few ‘friends’ jokingly or seriously advised me to look for an opportunity to defraud the bank and run. I also got accosted by people on my way to the CBN clearing house in Tinubu, Lagos, who wanted me to swap cheques. No, we cannot blame the public sector alone. Fraud has unfortunately become our culture in this country and it is beyond sad. Too many people wake up daily and their business is fraud.

So, the struggle to roll back corruption must be strategic, pervasive, sustained, and driven by clear examples from the top. The power of repetition must be employed because we are talking of mass therapy and reprogramming here. Any government that does not get ready to do this, or tries to protect its own friends, is on the road to nowhere.

Meanwhile, our society as a whole is actually on its last legs. No society can survive for long where the commonwealth is not deployed for the development of its human capital in every way, and its people’s humanity is not elevated beyond the level of early men – primitive hunter-gatherers. Even those ones knew the limits. Nigerians are not corrupt; many of us are actively working on destroying the country, and many are just totally demented in this very quest. Yes, we cannot call what we are doing to this nation mere ‘corruption’ anymore. Those actively gutting this country on a daily basis must have some undiagnosed mental problem going on. Perhaps the real tragedy is that most of the money makes it out of the country – usually into properties that foreign governments soon seize – or into inactive real estate within the country. The financial lifeblood of the country then goes on life support, ebbs and gushes away.

‘Tope Fasua, an Economist, author, blogger and entrepreneur, can be reached through topsyfash@yahoo.com.

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