While revalidating his membership of the All Progressives Congress (APC) on January 30, 2021, President Muhammadu Buhari accused Nigerian elites of harassing government and pleaded with them to be fair in their assessment of his performance by taking cognisance of the state of the country’s finances. No doubt the President must be having at the back of his mind recent attempts by some civil society organisations alleging Nigeria’s poor performance in the fight against corruption. Citing the recently released Transparency International (TI) 2020 report of Corruption Perception Index (CPI), which claimed that Nigeria scored 25 out of 100 points in the 2020 CPI, some Nigerians have intensified campaigns alleging that Nigeria is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking 149 out of 183.
No doubt such a damning report should be disturbing to every Nigerian, including the President. For a government that prioritises the fight against corruption to have been condemn in the way the CPI report did, it is not only indicting but troubling. Given that it is a report of “perception by Nigerian businesses and country experts on the level of corruption in the public sector”, it is important to engage the issue beyond the media campaign going on, which may only be gaining prominence because of the widespread sentiments of Nigerians that every government initiative promote corrupt practices and every public official is corrupt. With or without the 2020 CPI report, this is the belief of most Nigerians. Therefore, the 2020 CPI report only help to advance the gullibility of most Nigerians with a report of survey of ‘perception by Nigerian businesses and country experts.’
Who are these Nigerian businesses and experts? Certainly, the CPI 2020 report would have clarified that. Part of this create the difficulty in establishing the objectivity of their conclusions. Not only in the case of Nigeria, but also with reference to all other countries, the criticism of the CPI report is that it doesn’t take into account the important issue of efforts to fight corruption through prosecution of cases. This is the point, which was identified since 2009 by Staffan Andersson and Paul M. Heywood of Växjö, Sweden and Nottingham, UK Universities respectively, in Vol. 57, 746-767 of the UK based Journal of Political Studies. They noted that CPI only measures perceptions and not reported cases, prosecutions or proven incidences of corruption. In particular, they drew attention that ‘the CPI is a composite index which draws upon a series of surveys mainly aimed at Western business leaders and expert assessment to provide a picture of perceived corruption. Often there are no respondents drawn from the country in question, and the questions posed in many of the surveys relate specifically to business transactions.’ The main focus of investigation therefore is on bribe takers and not the givers suggesting that bribes are paid to officials on demand and not proactively to secure contracts.
This raises the point about whether initiative of government in the fight against corruption is taken into account. For instance, if bribes are collected by government officials, irrespective of whether it was as a result of demand by public officials or proactively done to secure contracts, to what extent are they being arrested? Are there prosecutions? How many arrests and prosecutions were there in 2020 for instance? What is the impact of arrests and prosecutions on the campaign against corruption in the country? Were there cases that should have been arrested but were not? Were there cases of poor prosecution?
These should have ordinarily been the issues that should serve as the focus of public debates with recommendations of what needs to be done in order to strengthen the fight against corruption in the country. Instead, all that we have in the 2020 CPI report are alleged lack of transparency in Covid-19 pandemic responses, nepotism in public service appointment, lack of adequate anti-corruption legal frameworks and interference by politicians in the operation of law enforcement agencies, prevalence of bribery and extortion in the Nigerian police and security sector corruption.
Without evidence to validate these allegations, any conclusion will be highly subjective. For instance, if there is lack of transparency in the management of Covid-19 responses, what are the specific issues? If it is about funding, how much funding have been allocated? How much of the funds is unaccounted for? Who is to account for the unaccounted funds? If it is about procurement, especially now that we are at a stage when the issue of vaccine procurement is a major challenge, how is government handling it? Beyond vaccine, in other cases of procurement under the management of Covid-19 pandemic, how have the handling of government procurement processes impacted on the management of the spread of the pandemic? Are there cases of embezzlement, misappropriation or fraud? What is the magnitude of public resources involved in these cases?
The point about nepotism in public service appointment, popular as it may be, is subjective and may require a more holistic assessment of appointments made in order to validate any allegation of nepotism. To that extent therefore conclusions based on perception can only be subjective. The claim about lack of adequate anti-corruption legal frameworks is out rightly false in today’s Nigeria. It will appear that this is most likely reproduced from old reports of CPI before all the anti-corruption laws that led to emergence of EFCC, ICPC, etc. since 2001. It is this kind of conclusions that validate criticisms that the respondents used for the CPI surveys are foreigners whose mindset is hardly located in the country.
The issue of legal framework in the case of Nigeria should be about reviewing our existing laws so as to strengthen the capacity of the country’s anti-corruption agencies to fight corruption. Related to this, is the need to streamline these agencies to make them more efficient. There is also the challenge of reorganisation such that our anti-corruption agencies are insulated from the negative influences of our law enforcement agencies. But to claim lack of adequate legal frameworks will be far off the reality of where we are in Nigeria. It is most likely, if one reviews all the CPI reports on Nigeria since 1995, when the first CPI report was released, these were the same factors identified.
Largely because the CPI report is not about evidential cases of the fight against corruption, sadly, the only issue in the Nigerian media is largely opinion. As a nation, we need to go beyond opinions of individuals. Why should any serious assessment of the fight against corruption in Nigeria not be informed by the reality that there are more 16 high profile cases of corruption trial on-going? All the 16 cases are started within the last 5 years under the current administration. Why should it be difficult for any serious local organisation to provide assessment of progress being made in prosecuting all these cases in 2020? There were of course corruption cases under the previous administrations under PDP. Therefore, conclusions about Nigeria’s performance in the fight against corruption should take bearing in terms of at least how the fight against corruption under the current administration compares with what obtains under the preceding ones.
How can any report of Nigeria’s fight against corruption in 2020, for instance, completely ignore some of the landmark corruption cases in 2020 such as the order for forensic audit of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC)? If the CPI report is in anyway correct that Nigeria dropped three point in 2020 to 149 from 146 in world ranking, how come Nigeria gained 15 points on the World Bank ranking of ease of Doing Business, emerging to 131st from 146th? The issue, which is a source of frustration to both the government and every patriotic Nigeria should be the question of what needs to be done to accelerate the process of securing judgement in corruption trials. This is a matter that would require some reform of our criminal justice system. Without securing judgement leading to conviction of corrupt public officials, the fight against corruption will be weak in the country. This is not a focus of the CPI. The challenge bordering on the management of our criminal justice system would appear to be responsible for the embarrassing situation whereby although judgements were secured in some corruption cases in Nigeria, which include the cases of Sen. Orji Uzor Kalu and Chief Olisah Metuh, they were reversed by Courts of Appeal and retrial ordered.
These instances of reversal of judgements may confirm cases of interferences by politicians. However, fair assessment of such interferences would have exonerated the government because while in the case Sen. Kalu, he is a member of APC, Chief Metuh is a member of the PDP. To further confirm that Nigerian anti-corruption agencies are not being partisan in the country’s anti-corruption war, just on Tuesday, January 26, 2021, Federal High Court, Abuja ordered the final forfeiture of over $600,000 belonging to former Governor of Zamfara State, Alh. Abdulaziz Yari. Alh. Yari is a member of APC who is being prosecuted by the ICPC. APC being the governing party, if the case of political interference in which the party and the federal government are to be guilty, the case of Alh. Yari would have confirmed it.
The nexus between corruption, underdevelopment and high incidence of poverty in countries with low capacity to fight corruption cannot be disputed. Whereby corruption is high, capacity of government to execute projects of economic development will be weak. As a nation, Nigeria has had its fair share of evidence in this regard. There were mind-blowing cases of corruption between 1999 and 2015. We could recall instances of $6.8 Billion fuel subsidy scam, over N6 Billion Naira Nigeria Immigration Service Scam, $20 Billion NNPC fund scam, N120 Billion Malibu oil block fraud, N20 Billion Pension fund fraud and N10 Billion Diezani aircraft fraud. These were clear cases that diverted huge financial resources, which would have been utilised to execute major developments. All these cases would have definitely confirmed low rating of Nigeria in the fight against corruption between 1999 and 2015. Any conclusion about poor performance should therefore be substantiated with empirical records of instances of corruption between 2015 and now. Nigerian civil society groups who are partners of TI should be able to go beyond perception and expose in clear terms how much has been stolen in 2020 and by who?
No doubt, Nigerians have every reason in ensuring that the fight against corruption is succeeding such that public resources are protected. If records of execution of government development projects is anything to go by, poor performance in the fight against corruption cannot be substantiated. Noting that in the same 2020, the government was able to set aside N50 Billion through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for Household and SME support facility and by July 2020, N49.195 Billion was disbursed to over 92,000 beneficiaries, it difficult not to cite political motives in the CPI reports. Other welfare programmes under the government’s Social Investment Programme have similarly continued. Besides the fact that notwithstanding the contraction of economy caused by the pandemic, the government was also able to inaugurate the commencement of Lagos – Ibadan railway transport, there were many other capital-intensive projects that continued unhindered throughout the year. Could it be that there are reported cases by contractors handling these projects about incidences of bribery given to public officials, which would have inflated the value of these projects? By how much were they inflated? And who are the public officials responsible for the inflation?
In every respect, it is very difficult to reconcile the CPI 2020 report with most of the report about the performance of Nigerian government 2020. Take the case of the Bloomberg report of June 23, 2020, which reported that Nigerian government rules out request for relief in its debt service payment at a time when virtually most African countries were negotiating relief. Nigeria’s Finance Minister, Zainab Ahmed was reported to have told Bloomberg that ‘Nigeria is not planning to ask for debt repayment deferment for our commercial loans or for our bilateral loans from our bilateral creditors’. A number of these would have been impossible under a corrupt government. Rather, all we will be having would have been excuses why no development has taken place in 2020, especially given the contraction of the economy under Covid-19 reality.
While it is important to stress that no government can be perfect and no government can successfully eliminate corruption, the CPI 2020 report on Nigeria present a very bad approach to engage the Nigerian government in the fight against corruption. It is a poor attempt to politicise the fight against corruption largely because it completely ignores all the empirical cases that should have provide objective indicators for the performance of Nigerian government. Beyond politics is also the funding reality, which has made Nigerian civil society groups to be very aggressive in legitimising the CPI 2020 report in Nigeria.
This support the point made by Andersson and Heywood in the Journal of Political Studies cited above to the effect that ‘There is no shortage of anti-corruption organisations and agencies … but TI enjoys an unrivalled pre-eminence among them, a factor which undoubtedly assists in securing revenue to continue its activities. Some cynics may be tempted to suggest that if TI were to be too successful in prosecuting the ﬁght against corruption then its very raison d’être would disappear; hence it is in the organisation’s interest to ensure that corruption continues to enjoy high visibility. While there is no evidence that those who run TI are anything less than wholly genuine in their commitment to ﬁghting corruption, and for the most honourable of reasons, it remains the case, … that promoting transparency and ‘good governance’ can have unintended negative consequences. TI’s Corruption Perceptions Index has had an enormously inﬂuential impact in terms of promoting awareness of corruption, stimulating research into the reasons for its emergence and identifying mechanisms to combat it. Nonetheless, we should not forget that in politics the power of perceptions ought not to be allowed to serve as a proxy for reality.’
There cannot be any better conclusion. The challenge to Nigerian civil society groups and patriots is really to rise above cheap smear campaigns based on perceptions and sentiments. Corruption is not a theoretical issue. It is a very practical challenge. It is beyond the perception of anyone. Where perception is to be our guide, we should be able to confirm it with evidence of reality. If TI can conveniently rely on perception, any serious Nigerian organisation should be able to corroborate perception with empirical cases of corruption. If one is to interpret the Nigeria CPI 2020 report, the conclusion is that the current government of APC under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari has lost the fight against corruption. For us to be able to fight against corruption, based on the ‘perception by Nigerian businesses and country experts’, there has to be a change of government. This is the underlying narrative in the CPI report. It is basically more of a political campaign, if your like for 2023. Nigerians, including local leaders of civil society groups and their international partners are free to make their political choices and decisions. But they should be transparent about it. It mustn’t be a case of shadowboxing Nigerian citizens and forcing them to kowtow political choices fraudulently contrived because Nigerian citizens are committed to the fight against corruption!
Lukman, the director general of Progressive Governors Forum, writes from Abuja