#VoteWisely 3: Corruption 2.0

One fine evening during the summer of 2007, my very good friend and neighbour walked over to my flat from his for our usual boys’ gist. He had a visitor from Nigeria staying with him and he couldn’t wait to share some stories as it turned out.

The visitor was a young chap in his mid 30s and came to London for some shopping and to do some ‘work’. My friend told me how this guy always had a minimum of £5000 in cash with him whenever they went out shopping. Now if you live in London, you know this is a very strange thing indeed and could leave you facing some uncomfortable questions from a police officer in the unlikely event that you got stopped and searched.

 So I enquired as to the exact nature of this guy’s ‘work’ and it turns out that was what my friend came to gist with me about. The guy was basically a modern day bag man for Nigerian politicians. His job, which he seemed to be running like a proper consultancy business, was to help politicians hide their money in all sorts of places in Europe.

At the time I had just finished working on some accounts for a client at my firm that involved some offshore special purpose vehicles in Luxembourg so I was rather taken aback when he told me this guy helped Nigerian politicians to hide their money in places like Luxembourg, Isle of Man, British Virgin Islands and all sorts of dodgy jurisdictions all over the world.

Furthermore, he ran his ‘consultancy’ business mainly for commissioners in different states of Nigeria and probably a handful of governors. What I found interesting was that according to this guy, it was no longer straightforward or easy for a commissioner or even governor to just steal the equivalent of £1m simply by dipping his hands into the treasury. He said for a commissioner to amass that kind of money, he’d have to steal incrementally in small amounts over time of say £5000 – £10,000 at a time. One way they apparently get round this is through contract splitting (sound familiar?) i.e. awarding 5 contracts where only one was needed so as to pad each one with relatively ‘modest’ amounts for themselves….enough to ensure no one raises an eyebrow. The corruption game thus becomes one of quantity and not necessarily quality. According to my friend, the guy actually kept a book where he wrote down how much he was given to squirrel away by each politician.

 Now this was in 2007 and there’s evidence to show that perhaps things have gotten worse since then. But what was a paradigm shift for me at the time was the way I viewed the typical Nigerian politician when it came to corruption and the looting of public funds. It is possible that the spectre of the EFCC contributed to this but I had always felt that if a Nigerian governor wanted to steal money, he’d simply write himself a cheque and ask the state to honour it.

From what my friend narrated to me, some of the offshore schemes were so elaborate and even complicated that after a while I gave up trying to understand how they ‘worked’. Suffice to say, politicians at the time had begun to perfect the art of covering up their tracks after looting the commonwealth.

This is one of the few areas where Nigerian politicians have been known to ‘excel’ so it’s safe to say that 4 years on, they have gotten even better at it.

 Every Nigerian agrees we need to fight corruption. It is killing our country. The mix of corruption and incompetence is almost too much to bear and is the cause of so much despair and angst in the land. Sometimes you want to close your eyes and just wish that corruption would disappear from the face of the country. But then you open your eyes and you see even the vilest politician mouthing some platitudes about fighting corruption in the country and you wonder how such people are able to keep a straight face while speaking.

 

So it makes sense that the 2 leading opposition candidates for President in the April elections are men who come to the table with anti-corruption credentials. We can excuse the incumbent president from this discussion as even his most ardent supporters will agree that fighting corruption is not his most urgent priority if re-elected.

 But have we really paid attention to the tools needed to fight corruption in Nigeria today given the growing sophistication of our politicians? Lest we forget, we are now in a democracy ergo, no matter how blindingly obvious it is that a politician has stolen money, you would still need to drag him through the courts and prove his guilt beyond any reasonable doubt to be able to secure a conviction.

Take the Bode George case as an example; he was charged to court for all sorts of crimes but in the end he was only able to be convicted of contract splitting which carried only a 2 year prison sentence at the time. It is important to note that if contract splitting was the only offence he had committed then the case would probably never have reached the courts as it would have been a waste of the EFCC’s time. But that’s what they were able to get in the end.

And of course he returned triumphantly from prison to the consternation of Nigerians all over the country that were forced to endure the show on national television.

What message does this send to the contract splitters in government all over the country? (Surely we do not think contract splitting has stopped in Nigeria because Bode George went to prison for it?). Given the relatively light sentence he got away with, it’s safe to conclude that no one has been deterred from contract splitting by the travails of Brother George. Instead they would only have become more careful and ensure they avoid the same mistakes he made.

Far from being the Atona Oodua, Bode George is in fact the Atona Awon Olodu for he has shown the way to go if you do not wish to get caught.

 Using another example; during the recent Lagos state gubernatorial debate, Gov Fashola read out a website where you could find the details of Lagos state government contracts and Nigerians hotfooted there immediately. Using one contract for flower planting as an example, Lagos state spent around N1.1bn to plant flowers in about 3 locations in the state.

Now there’s almost no Nigerian who would look at that and not be infuriated and suspicious. It does look like a lot of money to simply plant flowers. And even if we assume that that was the real cost, it then begs the question; is that the best thing LASG could do with N1.1bn given the various things crying out for funds in the state?

But let us assume that there was some corruption going on and a case was brought against the good governor of Lagos state. The purpose of any such prosecution would be to a) secure a conviction accompanied by a jail term to serve as a deterrent to others and b) to recover any state monies from him in the event of a conviction.

 But if the case went to court and the governor was able to show that LASG called for tenders for the flower planting contract and 2 different contractors’ submitted bids of N1.2bn and N1.1bn and so the state went for the cheaper contract of N1.1bn? This might then throw up the question of how competitive the contract process was. If it was found that the process was uncompetitive, then the worst that would happen is for LASG to be ordered to reform its process and ensure that the process of tendering for contracts was made more transparent and competitive. You would never be able to send anybody to jail based on that scenario no matter how indignant or infuriated you may have been at the whole thing.

 The examples are endless. There are very few politicians who would be charged with corruption in Nigeria today who would not mount a spirited defence of themselves. To charge is the one thing, to convict and recover is the tough bit.

From 2003 to 2007 during the most effective days of the EFCC, it prosecuted over 1000 cases but only managed to secure a conviction for about 300 odd cases, a 30% strike rate.

This is the point; if politicians were simply dipping their hands into the treasury and taking money out, it would be pretty easy to convict them and send them to jail. But that’s not what they are doing. They are stealing and making a great deal of effort to cover their tracks.

 We need new tools to fight corruption. And even if General Buhari or Nuhu Ribadu were elected in April, the war against corruption will be long and hard and requiring a lot of patience but most of all it will need to be smart. We will not be able to simply lock up a politician or violate the constitution just to get someone convicted. The fight against corruption will also need a lot of energy and passion because as we know, corruption wont just sit there while we repeatedly knock it over the head…it too knows how to fight back. But we must never stop until we at least ensure that there is once more a link between crime and punishment in our society.

 To make matters worse, we cannot afford to spend all our energy and time fighting corruption for we do not necessarily have to eradicate it totally but we need to contain it. There is the small matter of our economy which desperately needs to be fired up.

If we eliminate corruption and do not tackle the lack of economic opportunities in our society for the vast majority of our citizens, we would be creating a much bigger monster to deal with.

 

Manmohan Singh became Indian Prime Minister in 2004 on the back of a sterling reputation as a clean and incorruptible politician gained while he was Finance Minister from 1991 to 1996. But being incorruptible in the midst of a deeply corrupt system is not what Dr Singh is all about. By taking apart the byzantine and elaborate licence raj that held India in the grip of economic and bureaucratic stagnation for 40 years, he was able to inject new life into the economy and unleash the forces that have turned India into one of the fastest growing economies in the world today.

 Meanwhile corruption continues in India. A recent Wikileaks cable describes how MPs of Dr Singh’s Congress Party in India were given large bribes to secure a controversial nuclear vote in 2008 . There’s also the case of the former telecoms minister, Andimuthu Raja who is currently under arrest for short-changing the Indian treasury to the tune of about $40bn after he sold off some 2G licences for way below their market value. He is now being investigated for awarding the licences to his favoured companies. The recent commonwealth games in Delhi were also rife with allegations of officials corruptly enriching themselves with millions of dollars.

 Fighting corruption is not enough; neither is coming to the table with a sterling reputation enough to wake up the economy. We need new ideas and fresh thinking. The Indian licence raj was deeply entrenched and cultural at the time Dr Singh took it on. Yet he recognised the need for it to go for the greater good.

 I am voting Nuhu Ribadu because if anyone understands how to fight corruption in Nigeria today, he most certainly does. It is tough fighting corruption at all. It is even tougher fighting it in a democratic system. The crooks are smart and the law is an ass. But there is no option but to use the system as it is to begin the fight back.

 And for the first time ever, we can elect a ticket with a Vice President who is economically literate as well as a proven executor.

Nuhu Ribadu and Fola Adeola on their own might have deficiencies in different areas but the sum of the parts of the ticket can be made into something greater than the whole.

 For 50 years Nigeria has been shackled to the raj of corruption and ineptitude. On April 9th, 2011, let the fightback begin.

 

FF

www.ribadu2011.com

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