When the Owu chief foisted the EFCC on the nation, many hailed him as a moral arbiter, a secular priest with the anointing oil to wither the itchy finger of the mighty.
The pious hailed, and they could find a place in scripture to buoy him. After all, in the Old Testament, the prophet Zechariah invoked Jehovah’s curse on the house of the thief.
Someone asked us for restraint. He is dead now, but he must squirm in triumph in the grave. Rotimi Williams had challenged it in court and noted that we cannot fight corruption as revenge. And, in any case, where was its place in the constitution?
We have seen the fight on corruption become an onslaught either for one man, against one man, against a political party, a sword of menace, a populist piece of meat in the tiger’s cage. It has often turned into an intrigue in Abuja, whether it was to browbeat a fellow party chieftain or to make a Magu turn from a slobbering flatterer with an idolater’s badge of the president to a wimp besieged.
Professor Itse Sagay (SAN) warned not long ago that the attorney general is trying to upend the war on corruption into his personal moral fiefdom.
So, there. We have had a few scapegoats. A governor here, an IG there, a few business perverts. But for most part, the war on corruption is like a farce mocking corruption on an elaborate stage. It claims victories that we cannot even call pyrrhic, since there are not real victories but mockeries of the overcomer. Just like the Roman leader Caligula, who wanted to distract his people and get home approval in his reign of profligacy and sexual orgies. He decided to invade Britain as a prize since even the great Augustus could not. On the verge of battle, he retreated and conned his people by marching into Rome with his own soldiers decked as prisoners of war and his people hailed him as a war hero.
The EFCC made the Nigerian thief into the Igbo proverb popularised in Achebe’s Things fall Apart. They learn to fly with our money without perching. The EFCC keeps shooting and missing. The war has even morphed into a game of an unspoken alloy and ally between the judiciary and the federal government, so a case can become an eternal song like the case that never ends from generation to generation in Charles Dickens’ novel, The Bleak House.
What is wrong? We have tried to make the fight of corruption into a sort of martial presence. It is an overhang from the military era. For the most part, it runs against the gain of a federal constitution. Hence this essayist supports the step by the man who bears the payload of Lagos in his small frame, The BOS of Lagos, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu for setting up an anti-corruption agency backed by law.
“We believe that this law will not only ensure accountability of public funds, responsibility of public office but also promote dialogue among public officers to keep the trust of the people…” noted Gov. Sanwo-Olu.
Some have railed at the law as a dig on Abuja and a shield of Lagos bigwigs. If we must run a federal system, let us do it. Corruption fight is not oil, and it does not belong on the exclusive list. Why should the centre think it has moral authority over the states? What makes them holier? After all, we have seen in the intrigues and infighting over the EFCC that the hands of the priest are not better than the hypocritical character Teribogo in Soyinka’s new novel, Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth. Or Brother Jero. They lay claim to equity, but where are their clean hands?
The fight on corruption was taken as harmless at first, but gradually, like the Rhinoceros in Eugene Ionesco’s play, everyone becomes a rhino and loses their own personality.
We need to hark back to Rotimi’s William’s wisdom when he first challenged it. Some who say it is primed to save a man only look at the moment. Democracy is not a system for a day, it is for centuries, a system of laws and not of men. To federalise the fight is to give it back to the people.
The fight against corruption is also part of the larger current of a populist trend today. In the legislative sphere, the lawmakers are angling for not only freedom to make laws but also money to be free. In a democracy, your major source of strength is your finance base. If we want to federalise anti-corruption war, we should also support free legislatures, so the executives do not hold their purse strings.
The judicial arm also deserves same, and the JUSUN strike hits at the heart of this. When a court does not need a chief executive and the assembly can account for its own money, nobody has a power to steal with impunity.
But when we subject the war to the peccadillos of one man in the centre or an agency, we don’t have anti-corruption. We have dictatorship. We are not running a totalitarian state. We are running a republic.
The Owu chief was very clever when he started it. He looked for a big fish, and it had to be a police chief. He appointed a junior police officer to squelch his former oga. It was a dramatic episode in Nigerian history. It had the ingredients of great theatre: suspense, overthrow of mores, surprise of outcome.
It is an irony that the police have been used to prosecute the war. The same police have become the punching bag of federalist fighters today. The same police are on the exclusive list. A clamour for state police has drowned the land. In this day of the breakdown of law and order, we are saying that we need each state to own their security. It was resisted for a long time. We are growing close to a national consensus on state police now.
The same should apply to the anti-corruption war. We build an institution to save a system, not to coddle a few. Even if they save a few for the present, we cannot elevate one person’s hatred for a generation’s loss. The white made a few laws to protect the white man and white woman from the black man. One of them is the divorce law. It is the whites who benefit from them more today. Once a law is just, it will save the people. When the US said all men were created equal, they meant white men. Today, George Floyd’s family appropriated that declaration for all humans.
Lagos has always been the lab rat of Nigeria’s democracy, just like New York and California in the United States. The revenue system, the local government order, the search to make electric power broken into parts, etc, all began here in Lagos. Lagos is putting its fingers in the fire again, and this time to burnish our moral fibre.
If the problem with Nigeria is about leadership, as Achebe noted, it is about leadership of values. We cannot do that when we enthrone values with Czars instead of democrats.
– Omatseye is a respected columnist with The Nation