Corruption always fights back

Nigerian investigative reporter Azubuike Ishiekwene’s book The Trial of Nuhu Ribadu chronicles the rise and fall of Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, who as chairperson of the economic and financial crimes commission led the battle against corruption in Nigeria. He was accused of doing then-president Olusegun Obasanjo’s dirty work in knocking out opponents and after Obasanjo left office was suddenly redeployed and his work downgraded. In this extract from Ishiekwene’s book, he asks about African and other governments’ willingness to talk the talk without always walking the walk in the fight against corruption.

In discussions on how to fight corruption, many Nigerians like to look east.
Specifically, they love to talk about Lee Kwan Yew’s Singapore. Singapore was granted independence in 1965, five years after Nigeria had gained her own independence from British colonial rule. At independence the circumstances in Singapore and Nigeria were largely similar. They were exhausted from the exploitation, divisions, dependencies and poverty brought on by long years of colonial rule.

But looking back now, it is still a wonder how one country was able to rise above its historical circumstances and turn its problems into opportunities while the other appears transfixed to a point, wringing its hands in untold frustration. In his book, From Third World to First, Yew tells the story of how his country confronted and surmounted one of the main demons on its journey to the first world. That demon is corruption.

Before the 1959 general elections in Singapore, the country had started to show serious signs of decay. Ministers were receiving huge bribes in Singaporean dollars to stand elections. The public service, from immigration to the police, had been compromised. In one particular instance, Yew records that the education minister received $1-million Singaporean “from an American source to fight the communists in the coming elections”.

Yew’s party, the PAP, made corruption an election issue and members took a symbolic stand against it by wearing white uniforms.

But the fight required more than symbols. When the party eventually came to power, it strengthened the laws setting up the principal agency charged with fighting corruption—the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau—granting it wide-ranging powers to investigate and prosecute suspects. More importantly, the new leadership under Yew made a commitment to lead by example and to be held to account by its own rules.

“We made sure from the day we took office in June 1959,” Yew wrote, “that every dollar [of] revenue would be properly accounted for and would reach the beneficiaries at the grass roots as one dollar, without being siphoned off along the way. So from the beginning we gave special attention to the areas where discretionary powers had been exploited for personal gain and sharpened the instruments that could prevent, detect or deter such practices.”

Yew’s success story is one that has been told over and over again in many parts of the world, especially in developing countries. How can this success story be repeated?

In Nigeria, one of the major reasons cited by the military for the first bloody coup in 1966 was that the politicians had become irredeemably corrupt. But as military coup followed military coup, the soldiers soon became the problem: they were widely perceived to be far more corrupt than the civilian regimes they overthrew.

As the Cold War declined in international politics, military regimes and other forms of dictatorships became unpopular. The priorities of the major Western financial institutions also began to change and the call for transparent, accountable governments became strident. Foreign assistance, badly needed to rebuild failing economies, was increasingly tied to good governance. In many countries, especially in Africa, which had fallen drastically behind the rest of the world, rhetoric about fighting corruption had become common currency.

In his inaugural speech in his first term as civilian president in May 1999, Obasanjo promised that “it would no longer be business as usual”. In a speech titled “Our season of hope”, President Thabo Mbeki said at the opening of the South African Parliament in June 1999 that “I would like to take this opportunity once more to reiterate the commitment of our government to honest, transparent and accountable government and our determination to act against anybody who transgresses these norms.”

In Kenya, Mwai Kibaki ran for office promising a clean government, while in Malawi, after the nightmare called Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the political leaders in that country declared that they were determined to give the country a new lease of life.

But talk has never really been the problem. In Malawi, South Africa and Kenya—the last two, along with Nigeria, were generally regarded as the continent’s beacons of hope—the challenge is walking the talk.

Why some nations may succeed and others fail was highlighted by Yew in his book: “It is easy to start off with high moral standards, strong convictions and determination to beat down corruption. But it is difficult to live up to these good intentions unless the leaders are determined enough to deal with all transgressors and without exceptions.” The reason is simple: corruption will always fight back.

Azubuike Ishiekwene is the executive director of publications for Punch and is also a member of the board of the World Editors Forum

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