President Muhammadu Buhari has an important lesson to learn from the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen.
Last week in Abuja, the nation’s lead judge affirmed his desire to prosecute and convict corrupt judges. He stated that the only way to deal with the “bad eggs in the justice sector” is to ensure that corrupt judges are not merely disgraced, but also effectively prosecuted and convicted.
He was speaking at the opening of the 2017 All Nigeria Judges’ conference, at which President Buhari was present. The CJN demanded the total independence of the judiciary from any form of external pressure from other arms of government.
He had even stronger words for the arm led by President Buhari, saying it lacks respect for the rule of law, and stressing it must learn to obey court judgments and orders.
“Closely linked to the independence of the Judiciary is the need for governments and institutions to obey court orders and judgments,” he declared.
President Buhari, learning he would be speaking to the nation’s judges, had demands of his own: he wanted action by the judiciary on pending “high-profile” cases and to clear the large backlog of cases. He did not say anything about the consistent refusal of his government to abide by the rule of law and obey court orders.
And he certainly did not demand the prosecution and conviction of members of the executive, akin to judges in the judiciary, who are corrupt.
As if to underline the depth of the depravity besetting that arm of the government, an instructive crisis erupted the following day when the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) attempted to arrest Ekpenyong Ita, a former Director-General of the State Security Services (SSS), and Ayo Oke, the former Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) who was fired on October 30. The agency was pre-empted by officials of the SSS and the NIA.
Buhari’s firing of Mr. Oke, along with Babachir Lawal, the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, was undertaken months after he received the report in which both men were indicted, and six months after they were suspended from office.
He did not insist that they be prosecuted, and by late last week, had not said anything about the interagency fighting at the soul of his administration.
Responding to public pressure following the firing of Lawal and Oke in October, presidential spokesman Garba Shehu explained that the relevant agencies would continue with their investigations. “When and where they have reasonable grounds to charge former or serving officers to court under our laws, they do not require the permission of the President to do so.”
That claim sounded doubly devious at the time, as if the investigation led by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, which led to the firing of the two officials, was insufficient to lead to their prosecution.
Nonetheless, the Buhari government now faces a situation in which an effort by one of its agencies to make an arrest is physically rebuffed by another agency. How can a committed leader pretend not to notice?
On Wednesday, that sequence of events caused an uproar in the Senate, where at least one Senator raised the alarm that Mr. Buhari has lost control of his government.
But by that time, the president was elsewhere inaugurating a committee to audit assets recovered by government agencies in his war on corruption.
According to him, such an audit became necessary because “fundamental gaps still exist in ensuring that the recovered assets are accounted for, and managed in an accurate, transparent and logical manner.”
That sounded like a confirmation that not all the funds being recovered are being paid into the TSA in full, on time, and beyond any doubt.
In other words, in its two and a half years, the Buhari government has coped with a deficit of integrity even in the inner circles of his anti-corruption work.
That does not surprise close watchers of the administration. Nor will Buhari’s decision to set up another panel, his go-to response to deflect pressure, instead of action to punish the guilty.
This is why, while the president wants action on so-called high-profile cases, the truth is that there is a gross insufficiency of such cases. Not enough of Nigeria’s high-profile corrupt-including those from whom funds have been recovered-are being brought before the law.
In other words, the cure has become worse than the disease, which is perhaps why each development is now more damning that the previous one. The United Nations, for instance, has now categorically indicted the Buhari government, a report of UNDP and the National Human Rights Commission accusing the federal and state governments of lacking the political will to address the humanitarian challenges in Nigeria’s northeast ravaged by Boko Haram insurgency.
That report, “North East Nigeria: Human Rights Assessment Report (2015 – 2017)”, confirms the common knowledge that the Buhari government has not served the displaced populations of the northeast well. It is to be noted that Mr. Lawal lost his job on account of the diversion of funds meant for the IDPs. But Buhari cannot bring himself to say the former SGF should be prosecuted.
Similarly, last June Nigeria was exposed when it was discovered that a gift of 200 tonnes of dates donated to the same IDPs by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a Ramadan gift was diverted by officials into Nigerian market stalls. But as is the template, the Buhari government said it would investigate; as always, it never prosecuted anyone.
It is also to be remembered that in May 2016, following the second consecutive scandal in which the Global Fund confirmed that its funds sent to Nigeria had been looted, the government set up three separate investigations. But just like the response of the Goodluck Jonathan government to the first report, the Buhari government response never disgraced, let alone prosecuted, anyone.
What makes last week perhaps the most interesting so far is that it became an intersection of the judiciary with the executive’s preference for techniques of propaganda, delays, interminable investigations, and parallel panels.
Only last month, AGF Abubakar Malami told a delegation of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project the government would soon obey the July 2017 court order to publish a full record of loot it has recovered so far. Rather than publishing that report, another panel was this week set up allegedly for an audit.
Sadly, this rigmarole is thriving despite, and alongside Nigeria’s many problems. Instead of actively growing Nigeria’s economy through creating opportunities and deploying the nation’s vast imagination, poor leadership is holding the country back and stoking the dangerous fires of cynicism. The Nigerian misery index is deepening because not only have we allowed those who stole Nigeria’s money to keep it, we are using even more resources to keep such people protected when it is easier to recover these resources and ensure their re-investment and circulation.
It is sad to think that the Buhari government never had a real plan to execute its electoral promises, and sadder still to realize it lacks the heart to be Nigeria’s savior through service by principle and character, not words.