President Bola Ahmed Tinubu has reinvented the ancient war against corruption, sending a strong signal to individuals charged with the responsibility of statecraft that it is no longer business as usual. But at any time, there is an enormous job to do and a high price to pay to change the subterfuge perception of Nigeria’s anti-corruption war.
The price includes the risk of being labelled a dictator. Already, the complicated image of the machinery of the state – the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) – he deploys does cast a showdown on the credibility of the fight.
Still, against all odds, however, Tinubu has taken a few wins with commendations coming from the fold of his critics. For an offence previously dismissed as a no issue, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Betta Edu, has been suspended, with the President warning that there is no sacred cow in the renewed war.
Edu, one of the youngest in the cabinet, had requested, in a leaked memo she wrote the Office of Accountant General of the Federation that N585.2 million be paid through a private account. The money is meant for disbursement to vulnerable Nigerians under the ministry’s Social Investment Scheme. Sleazes like this were previously overlooked, at least by the government. For instance, the Nigerian government under ex-President Muhammadu Buhari disbursed about N10 billion through 165 private accounts in 2022 without anybody raising an eyebrow.
But a few days into the controversy now termed #EduGate, the President suspended the minister and ordered a comprehensive probe of the ministry’s supervised National Social Investment Programmes Agency (NSIPA)’s past receipts while also freezing the activities of the agency. The suspension of NSIPA, which administers N-Power, Conditional Cash Transfer Programme, Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme and Home Grown School Feeding Programme, is crucial for interrogating the controversial cash disbursements of the previous administration, which were condemned for falling short of transparency.
In many instances, the opposition accused the ruling All Progressive Party (APC) – the party Tinubu jointly founded and which produced him at the last election – of using the cash transfer scheme as a decoy for vote buying. Edu, a former APC National Women Leader Tinubu relied on to mobilise the female voters for him last year, is currently being quizzed by the EFCC over her role in the mismanagement of the social programme fund. Others currently facing investigation are Ms Halima Shehu, the National Coordinator of NSIPA as well as Edu’s predecessor and staunch APC supporter, Sadiya Umar-Farouq.
EFCC and complex web of corruption
The EFCC was created in 2003 as the lead agency in Nigeria’s anti-graft war. But a few years later, a literary icon, Okey Ndibe wrote that the agency with its head and the country’s anti-corruption poster boy, Nuhu Ribadu, “appears too tethered to the Aso Rock, constantly looking to the President for directives on whom to probe and prosecute and whom to let free”. Many other critics accused ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo of creating the body primarily to prosecute his third-term agenda. In the face of the failed power-grabbing campaign, Obasanjo’s critics at the National Assembly mocked EFCC for its failure to investigate an allegation of N50 million to their colleagues to vote in favour of a plan.
Ribadu, the man with troves of secrets about the Nigerian elite, and other subsequent leaders of the EFCC had been accused of being too close to the political elite to discharge their jobs without fear or favour. The politicians themselves traded blame on the operationalisation and personalisation of the anti-corruption agencies. Even the creator of the Commission, Obasanjo, joined the fray when he questioned the credentials of Ribadu’s successor, Farida Waziri, for the job. Among other insinuations, the ex-president said Waziri was headhunted by James Ibori, a Nigerian politician, who was serving a jail term of 13 years in the United Kingdom at that time for fraud.
As expected the ex-EFCC boss fired back at the retired general-turned politician and warned the former president against pushing her to open up on the dossier of secrets she had about him even as she objected that “the ability to be used to witch hunt political enemies in the rabid pursuit of a third term agenda has never been part of the qualifications for appointment as chairman of the anti-graft agency”.
Tinubu inherits a complicated war
The trio of Obansajo, Waziri and Ibori, in the context of the EFCC leadership question and recruitment process, underpins the complex web of corruption in Nigeria. Ibori served as a governor on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), a political party Obasanjo presided over as a de facto leader for close to 16 years until he fell out with his political son, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, ahead of the 2015 general elections and tore his membership card in a theatrical renunciation of the party.
At the U.K. ruling, Ibori forfeited a house in Hampstead valued at £2.2 million, a £311,000 property in Shaftesbury, a £3.2m mansion in Sandton, South Africa, a fleet of armoured Range Rovers valued at £600,000, a £120,000 Bentley Continental GT as well as a Maybach 62 Mercedes-Benz he bought for €407,000 cash and shipped to his mansion in South Africa. The politician, who was said to have continued his role as the godfather of Delta state politics, acquired the assets and many others under the two-time presidency of Obasanjo and EFCC but only for the state cover to be removed when he fell out with Jonathan, leading to his arrest in London.
Waziri, on the other hand, was confronted with an allegation that she stood as a surety for a former governor and Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), George Akume, when arrested by the EFCC for corruption allegation, less than six months before she was appointed as EFCC chairman. Waziri dismissed the allegation only for a media report to accuse her of lying and revealed details of the document she signed to get Akume’s passport from the EFCC. The report also claimed that the former appointee procured her confirmation after bribing the Senate.
The statement conveying the suspension of the social intervention programmes and the individuals saddled with their management was issued by the office occupied by the same Akume, a telling reflection of the scope and complexity of Nigeria’s official corruption, which Tinubu wants to end. Edu’s suspension has been hailed by Peter Obi, the President’s strongest critic and candidate of the Labour Party at last year’s poll.
However, the risk of alienating his political associates is only one of the layers of the huge price Tinubu will pay to fight corruption beyond the usual lip service. The President, who wears the toga of a democrat, may also need to accept the tag of a dictator, which the kinsmen of Godwin Emefiele, the embattled former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and others facing corruption trial have already alleged.