National Assembly is a den of corruption
Olusegun Obasanjo, November 24, 2016
The 1999 Constitution that we are operating today, though partially amended, provides for the establishment of some institutions to set the ground rules and promote accountability. These include the Offices of the Accountant-General of the Federation and the Auditor-General of the Federation. We also have the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission, the Public Complaints Commission, the Code of Conduct Bureau, the Bureau for Public Procurement, the Office of the Ombudsman and several others. With all of these being put in place to ensure checks and balances within the system, little could be achieved. What is starkly and shamefully lacking is compliance.
Let me comment on recent issues concerning corruption and accountability. Three weeks before the first three judges were arrested for corruption, I was talking to a fairly senior retired public officer who put things this way, “The Judiciary is gone, the National Assembly is gone, the military is sunk and the civil service was gone before them; God save Nigeria”. I said a loud Amen. Three weeks later, the process of saving the Judiciary began. And if what I have gathered is anything to go by, there may be not less than two score of judicial officers that may have questions to answer. That will be salutary for the Judiciary and for the Nation.
While one would not feel unconcerned for the method used, one should also ask if there was an alternative. The National Judicial Council, NJC, would not do anything as it was all in-breeding. As now contained in our Constitution, the President of Nigeria cannot influence or make any appointment to the Judiciary at the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court level. He can only transmit the decision of the NJC to the Senate even where Senate confirmation is required. The Constitution which was heavily influenced by the Judiciary ensured that. And yet a drastic disease requires a drastic treatment. When justice is only for sale and can only be purchased by the highest bidder, impunity and anarchy would be the order of the day and no one would be safe.
A drastic action was needed to save the situation, albeit one would have preferred an alternative that would serve the same purpose, if there was one. In the absence of that alternative, we must all thank God for giving the President the wisdom, courage and audacity for giving the security agencies the leeway to act. And where a mistake was made in the action taken, correction must take place with an apology, if necessary. There is virtually no corrupt Judge without being aided by a member of the bar. The Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, has the responsibility to clean up its own house and help with the cleaning of the Judiciary. It is heartening though that some members of the NBA have recently called for judicial reform. Such reform must be deep, comprehensive and entail constitutional amendments as appointment and disciplines of Judges are concerned. May God continue to imbue the Executive with the necessary wisdom and courage to clean the dirty stable of the Judiciary and the Bar for the progress and the image of our Nation. It must also be said that the good eggs within the Judiciary must be proud of themselves and we must not only be proud of them but also protect them and their integrity.
If the Judiciary is being cleaned, what of the National Assembly which stinks much worse than the Judiciary? Budget padding must not go unpunished. It is a reality, which is a regular and systemic practice. Nobody should pull wool over the eyes of Nigerians.
Like the Judiciary, the National Assembly cannot clean itself. Look at how re-current budget of the National Assembly with the so-called constituency projects has ballooned since the inception of this democratic dispensation. What were their budgets in the 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015? The revelation was both alarming and scandalous. Once, when I was President, I asked outside auditors, both normal and forensic, to audit the account of the National Assembly, they frustrated it on the basis of separation of power. They claimed they had oversight responsibility for their corruption and misdemeanour and nothing can be done. It is like asking a thief to watch over himself. There must be full disclosure of all relevant fiscal information in a timely and systematic manner at all levels.
Budget transparency is a precondition for public participation in budget processes. The combination of budget transparency and public participation in budget processes has the potential to combat corruption, foster public accountability of government agencies and contribute to judicious use of public funds. The National Assembly budget process is not only carried out in opaque and corruptive manner but also in grossly unconstitutional manner. Hence, our lawmakers are lawbreakers. They are the accused, the prosecutor, the defenders and the judge in their own case. Most of them conduct themselves and believe that they are not answerable to anybody. They are blatant in their misbehaviour, cavalier in their misconduct and arrogant in the misuse of parliamentary immunity as a shield against reprisals for their irresponsible acts of malfeasance and/or outright banditry.
We should not continue to live with the impunity and corruption of the National Assembly. Yes, I believe that something can and should be done. The President should ride on the crest of the popularity of what is happening in the Judiciary to set up a highly technical team of incorruptible investigators to look into the so-called constituency projects of the past and the present and bring culprits to book. The President has overall responsibility and accountability for any fund appropriated under his watch. There would be many of such projects and the National Assembly would try to frustrate such necessary investigation. But the project sites are known and magnitude of funds voted for them are known. The investigation will reveal the true situation.
Nigerians will be shocked with what such enquiries would unearth. Measures to be taken should include stopping spurious constituency projects with immediate effect. And if our lawmakers-turned-lawbreakers manage to smuggle any so-called constituency projects into the budget, money should not be released for such scandalous projects. They would, as they tried with me, threaten impeachment. But a clean Judiciary and a cheated Nation should stand with the President. There should be no going back.
By our Constitution, the Revenue Mobilisation, Fiscal and Allocation Commission should be responsible for fixing the remunerations of the Executive and the Legislative arms of the government. Any salary, allowance or perquisite not recommended by the Commission should not be budgeted for; but crooks and crocked that most of the members of the National Assembly are, they will try to find other ways which must be blocked. In the past, they even instructed the Clerk of the National Assembly not to reveal to the Executive details of their remuneration. May God give the President the wisdom, courage and audacity to be able to do with the National Assembly what is being done with the Judiciary. Mr. President must be assured that he will earn the accolade and support of most Nigerians and indeed most friends of Nigeria within and outside Nigeria.
Another means by which the National Assembly embarks on corruption spree is their so-called oversight responsibility. They instigate and collude with Ministries, Departments, Parastatals and Agencies to add to their budget outside what was submitted by the President with the purpose of sharing the addition or they threaten such units to reduce what was submitted by the President unless there is a promise of kickback. They can also set up a spurious committee to investigate a project while they call on the contractor to pay them or the executive officer in charge of the project to cough up money, otherwise they would write a bad report.
The National Assembly stinks and stinks to high heavens. It needs to be purged. With appropriate measures, the budget of the National Assembly can be brought down to less than 50% of what it is today. God will help Nigeria, but we must begin by helping ourselves.
How I wish that the military has not descended into what it has descended to in the last seven or eight years! It is sickening! When the military is corrupt, it affects its fighting ability in many ways. Poor, used and inappropriate equipment and materials are purchased by the military for the military at the expense of the lives of fighting troops in the warfront. In some cases, nothing at all is purchased. How callous, for a General, an Air Marshall or a Naval Admiral to be so cruel and unpatriotic as to buy such inappropriate weapons, equipment, ammunition and materials for men facing the rigour and ruthlessness of an enemy force like the Boko Haram!
It is more damnable for nothing to be bought and yet the money disappeared into their private personal pockets. I can only say to these officers that I am not proud of them, rather I am ashamed of them. Whether they are alive or dead, their family members should also be ashamed of them. And what is more, the blood of those men who died because of their nefarious and sordid acts and actions would be on their hands. I know what it could be to be poorly equipped or starved of essential weapons, ammunition, equipment and materials to fight a war. Surely, God will deal with such offenders and capital sinners, but, in addition, those who have responsibility for dealing with them here on this side of the veil should not fight shy otherwise they become accomplices.
Finally on the military, the procurement system has to be streamlined and taken back to what it used to be. The military is not a buyer of its own weapons, equipment, ammunition and materials. It is only a recommender and a tester of the weapons and equipment that could perform the role and function assigned to it. The procurement is normally by a Committee which includes defence, finance, legislature, foreign affairs and the military only as observer or adviser to ensure quality and standard. With ridiculous statements and claims that insult the intelligence of Nigerians by immediate past leaders in government and their collaborators and accomplices either outside government or still within the corridor of power, all reports must be made public for Nigerians to know the truth and be able to make up their minds about the past and the future. With some shocking revelations and magnitude of stolen money so far reported, it will be absurd and insensitive to extreme for anybody in charge to claim innocence or show no remorse, especially when the Central Bank was prepared and staffed to bankroll the Presidential campaign of 2015. Such action and reaction is height of insults to this Nation and its citizens. That cannot be the right way to go.
It is heart-warming and certainly encouraging that the President has taken the bull by the horn by taking the first right step. He has ordered thorough investigation. But the next step is the immediate and appropriate actions on the reports no matter who is involved, and this requires greater wisdom, courage and cold decision. May God grant the President all the attributes he will need to clean the augean stable of the military. If not done as it should, it will undermine the fight against corruption and the President will not escape the charge of weakness or leniency towards his former constituency, the military.
Apart from the recovery which is most important, selective and symbolic prosecution should be made to serve as permanent deterrence. Otherwise, it will be a game of denial or litigations in future by shameless culprits. As the old saying goes, “Charity begins at home”. The President’s action against offenders in the military should strengthen his hands against offenders in other constituencies, i.e. judicial, political, executive, police, para-military, educational institutions, diplomatic, civil service and parastatals.
The anti-corruption war in the past has landed some Governors in jail while some still have their cases pending in courts. Justice delayed is justice denied. To my surprise, I found out that most State Governments prefer not to always take advantage of funds made available as counterpart fund by Federal Government or what they have access to on the basis of rendering previous accounts. The simple reason is that they do not want to account to the Federal Government for such funds because it will open them up to outside party scrutiny because they don’t want to be transparent and be held accountable. This situation has led to money being available but not being utilised by States in such areas as basic education, UBEC, where the Federal Government provides counterpart funding. UBEC is one example, there are others. Incumbent Governors should be reminded that there will be accountability and judgement after the government house. EFCC and ICPC must buckle up.
If corruption is continued to be fought courageously and relentlessly, there will be substantial recovery from within and from without coupled with plugging the holes of wastes in Ministries, Departments, Educational Institutions and parastatals and we will need less borrowing if we would need borrowing at all, to get us out of recession than we might have thought. Of course, we must be ready to bite the bullet of spending less on luxuries and the unneeded and what we can do without and earning more on production, services and trading. I believe that going for a huge loan under any guise is inadvisable and it will amount to going the line of soft option, which will come to haunt us in future.
We immediately need loans to stabilise our foreign reserve and embark on some infrastructure development but surely not $30 billion over a period of less than three years. That was about the magnitude of cumulative debt of Nigeria which we worked and wiped out ten years ago. Before that debt relief, we were spending almost $3 billion to service our debt annually and the quantum of the debt was not going down. Rather, if we defaulted, we paid penalty which was added on.
The projects listed for borrowing are all necessary in the medium- and long-run for our economy but we have to prioritise. Railway is a necessary service but it is not profit-making anywhere in the world today. We need steady and continuous but manageable funding on the railway project. Mambilla hydro is the same; necessary but it cannot pay itself, especially with the global energy sector of shale revolution, hydrogen fuel and increasingly cheap renewable energy such as solar. OPEC itself has projected that the price of oil will be hovering in the region of $50 per barrel for the next fifteen years or so.
The argument of concessional mixed with commercial does not hold water. When the concessional and the non-concessional borrowings are put together, interests alone will be in the region of 3% to 4%. The bunching of debt service will be a problem to confront other administrations in future. Soft option alone is not the answer, a mixture of soft and hard options is the way to go. Telling us that those projects will pay themselves cannot be the whole truth. We were told there was rainy day when we lavished our reserve and excess crude on frivolities. When we now have the rains beating us, there is no umbrella over our heads.
Again, now we are being told the projects will pay themselves when we know damn well they will not. If we borrow some thirty billion dollars in less than three years, we would have mortgaged the future of Nigeria for well over thirty years to come. There may also be the problem of absorptive capacity which will surely lead to waste. A careful scrutiny of the projects with priotisation and avoidance of waste and taking into account avoiding bunching of debt service in future especially when no one can accurately forecast the global and national economy, will indicate less than thirty per cent of the foreign loan being requested as prudent.
We must not be unmindful of internal borrowing either. It impacts somewhat differently on the economy but it must not be allowed to crowd out the ability of the private sector to borrow to grow the real economy which is to lead us out of the recession.
We must be hard and harsh on those who stay outside, whether they are Nigerians or expatriates, and piece inside our economic house through smuggling, dumping and cheating on duty payment and lying on custom classification. We must make our neighbours realise that encouragement of acts to undermine our economy by allowing their countries to be used a smuggling route and dumping grounds for entries of unwanted commodities into Nigeria will be treated as an act of hostility. We must be ready to close our borders with such neighbours to protect our economy. We must also empower customs to close the shops and factories of cheaters and immigration to deport hostile expatriates within our midst. The act of underpinning and destroying our economy should be regarded as an act of hostility and treated as such.
If we do not fix the economy to relieve the pain and anguish of many Nigerians, the gain in fighting insurgency and corruption will pale into insignificance.
No administration can nor should be comfortable with excruciating pain of debilitating and crushing economy. Businesses are closing, jobs are being lost and people are suffering. I know that President Buhari has always expressed concern for the plight of the common people but that concern must be translated to workable and result-oriented socio-economic policy and programme that will turn the economy round at the shortest time possible. We cannot continue to do the same thing and expect things to change. That will be a miracle which normally doesn’t happen in normal national economies. We have people inside and outside who can be brought together to help device the right economic policy and programme to get us out of the pit before we fall over the precipice into a dark cave. Economy requires a great element of trust to get it out of the doldrums let alone out of negativity. That trust and confidence has to be created.
Coming back to the issue of corruption, there is always need for institution reform to go along with recovery to make gains from fight against corruption last. Such reforms may have to be strengthened by legislation like the military procurement I mentioned earlier. But where the guard is the thief like we have seen in recent times, it makes things difficult, if not impossible.
All in all, everybody must be held accountable. There should be no sacred cow or witch-hunting or untenable excuses to let the camel through the needle eye. Those who must be made accountable must be made accountable with stick and carrot. However, I remain optimistic even though the grounds for optimism keep shrinking. Or, how do you explain having to go into any debate at all whether or not a judge found corrupt should be properly and lawfully dealt with or not? Worse still, how do you explain the situation where people are shamelessly protesting in favour of a person being arraigned in court for corruption offences? Whether those protesters are put to it or they put themselves to it, it is the greatest disservice to the Nation. It is shamefully disgraceful for both the culprit and the protesters. And it is an indication of how much our values have been debased. We cannot be a strong, great and respected nation in the world without political stability and cohesion, strong economy, robust and enduring values.
The Media should be more discerning, sensitive and responsible in reporting and commenting on corruption issues. We should realise that the entrenched interests, internally and externally, in corruption, will not go away. We need to discover and find permanent solution, otherwise some will bend, others will lie low while some others will be dormant; but all of them will spring up later and move on with vengeance as if nothing had happened. That has been our experience in the past. We must put an end to that. Part of sustenance of fight against corruption will be moral rearmament and resurgence of core values of integrity, honesty, fairness, justice, hard work and sense of shame, not impunity and indignity.
We must think and act out of the box to put the monster of corruption and impunity behind us permanently. For some unclear reasons, the government at the centre has not been able (I hope not lack of willingness) to present to the Nation the true position of our economy and our finances. For instance, how much did we receive from major revenue earning and collecting points – petroleum and gas, FIRS, maritime, aviation, VAT, etc. And how much should we have received. If there was any discrepancy, why, how and how much? How was the receipt distributed and how was the Federal allocation spent? Such a clear picture will let Nigerians and their friends know where we are.
It will help people to understand exactly the position of government with true economic and financial situation, and what more pains and sacrifices we have to take and make to get us out of recession. Nigerians must know the truth to work our way out of recession. Easy options will not get us there. Blanket cover or cover-up is no accountability. I was shocked to know that the ECOWAS’ money collected out of 0.5 per cent import surcharge for ECOWAS was spent by Nigeria in the last five years or so. How was that for responsibility and accountability and particularly leadership within ECOWAS?
The blanket adverse comments or castigation of all democratic administrations from 1999 by the present administration is uncharitable, fussy and uninstructive. Politics apart, I strongly believe that there is a distinction between the three previous administrations that it would be unfair to lump them all together. I understand President Buhari’s frustration on the state of the economy inherited by him. It was the same reason and situation that brought about cry for change, otherwise there would be no need for change if it was all nice and rosy.
Now that we have had change because the actors and the situation needed to be changed, let us move forward to have progress through a comprehensive economic policy and programme that is intellectually, strategically and philosophically based. I am sure that such a comprehensive policy and programme will not support borrowing US$30 billion in less than three years. It will give us the short-, medium- and long-term picture.
Adhocry is not the answer but cold, hard headed planning that evinces confidence and trust is the answer. Economy neither obeys orders nor does it work according to wishes. It must be worked upon with all factors considered and most stakeholders involved. The investors, domestic and foreign, are no fools and they know what is going on with the management of the economy including the foreign exchange and they are not amused. The Central Bank must be restored to its independence and integrity. We must be careful and watchful of the danger of shortermism. Short-term may be the enemy of medium- and long-term. We must also make allowance for the lessons that most of us in democratic dispensation have learned and which the present administration seems to be just learning. It is easier to win an election than to right the wrongs of a badly fouled situation. When you are outside, what you see and know are nothing compared with the reality.
And yet once you are on seat, you have to clear the mess and put the nation on the path of rectitude, development and progress leaving no group or section out of your plan, programme and policy and efforts. The longer it takes, the more intractable the problem may become.
There is one aspect of accountability in governance in Nigeria that I consider paramount and which is often overlooked. That is accountability for our unity, cohesion, peace and security. All other issues can be fairly well attended to, addressed and dealt with if our unity, cohesion, peace and security are unassailable. It is normally the responsibility of government to mobilise the citizenry for all hands on deck to ensure good governance and accountability. All men and women of goodwill in Nigeria must be part of the exercise.
The fundamentals to achieving such a situation are justice, fairness, equity, popular participation and equal opportunity. In the last seven to eight years, we have slipped back on these fundamentals. The result is that our country is today more factionised than we were ten years ago. For the purpose of nation-building, it is not a satisfactory situation to be in especially when we need all hands on deck to work and walk our way out of recession. For those at the helm of governance, accountability, for unity, cohesion, peace and security as basis for development, growth and progress is not any less important than accountability for management of resources. It must be seen as the symbol of any political administration and what the welfare and well-being of the people hang on. Accountability in governance is the litmus test of any administration. It is the accountability of institutions which is the hallmark of democracy that promotes both political and economic good governance. Open government must be seen and made to work as partnership in which all have a stake and an interest.
Consistent with the law and policy, government must take appropriate action to disclose information rapidly and timely in form that members of the public can easily access and utilise. With the latest in digital technology, information about government operations and decisions should be readily available online. The public should be solicited for feedback to identify information of greatest and most vital use to the public. When I was President of Nigeria, I adopted regular public discussion on radio and television with questions and answers as one means of achieving this objective. The value of openness in government engagement with citizen to improve services, manage public resources, promote innovation and create safer and more secure communities must be upheld.
There must be ‘disciplined nationalism’ to manage resources, internal or foreign, for maximisation of growth and for the benefit of all. A torrent of money in the hands of weak, corrupt and incompetent government is a disastrous waste for a nation. Nigeria has experienced that in the not-too-distant past.
Apart from the reforms necessary in all arms of government, for the immediate and the future, we must embark on very close x-ray of all people seeking elective offices at any level and all political, judicial and legislative appointees.
The x-raying must be open and transparent and the burden of proof must be that of the person seeking elective office and/or any of the public appointments mentioned.
In the past, we have not done enough background checks and enquiries about the past of people seeking elective offices or being appointed to public offices. The same is the case of people being awarded national honours and awards to the extent that national honour and award have been cheapened and debased. I know an officer who was removed from the Army for embezzling N300,000 of troops’ salary and was given national honour under the last administration.
I dare say also that a situation where a person supposed to be screened by the National Assembly for public appointment is told to give a bow without any screening because he or she had been a member of that Assembly amounts to dereliction of duty on the part of the national body. If people know that their total past will be x-rayed and the burden of proof will be theirs, they will be guarded, careful and more circumspect. Public office is public trust of integrity, honesty, incorruptibility and total good conduct and good behaviour. Therefore, anybody with a question mark should be considered ineligible for elective office or for appointment into public office.
Before I conclude, let me commend all the foot soldiers in the war against corruption – the different panels of enquiries, the ICPC but particularly the EFCC which is now showing that it is a bull dog that can bite. It has, of course, continued to get rid of bad eggs within its rank. We must appeal to the Judiciary not to frustrate the efforts of these soldiers through flimsy technicality and interminable adjournments. Corruption is corruption and it cannot be explained as the proceeds of sale of rice and gari by a judge nor can millions of dollars be explained as medical fee or gifts without identified sources by a public officer or spouse of such a public officer.
The foot soldiers in anti-corruption war must be encouraged to soldier on through commendation and appreciation of their efforts. In the final analysis, we must ensure that by law, review of our Constitution, convention, advocacy and awareness-raising, we stamp out brazenness, impunity and utter irresponsibility in governance and ensure accountability in any arm, ministry, department, parastatal or unit of government.
Let me conclude on a note of optimism with caution. Nigeria has shown great resilience and capacity to bounce back from the edge of the precipice in the past and our people, boldly and courageously, went out to seek greener pasture with remarkable success. Events in the world are showing that the opportunities are diminishing. If we do not get it right in good governance and accountability, the fuze of anger of the citizenry particularly the youth may be getting shorter.
Correction must be made while there is still time. If that correction is timely made, Nigeria has the quantity and quality of resources particularly human resources to make it a great nation to be counted among the comity of nations within two generations as the undisputed leader of Africa and the black race in all ramifications.
May God continue to give us what we need in governance at every level and accountability for now and in future.
This is an abridged version of the lecture delivered by former President Olusegun Obasanjo at the Akintola Williams Annual Lecture on Wednesday, 23 November, 2016