From some unusual quarters came yesterday a biting criticism of the Federal Government’s anti-corruption war.
Senate President Bukola Saraki said the focus of the war should be on prevention rather than punishment.
House Speaker Yakubu Dogara said only strong institutions could ensure a successful anti-graft war.
The National Assembly has been criticised for not doing enough, legally, to fight corruption. Many bills remain unpassed.
Saraki said anti-corruption agents and agencies must be truly independent, stressing that the country was still far from meeting the basic standards of fighting corruption.
But Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC) chairman Prof Itse Sagay (SAN) accused the National Assembly of undermining the anti-corruption war.
Saraki and Dogara spoke at the public presentation of a book: Antidotes for corruption – The Nigerian story, written by Senator Dino Melaye, in Abuja. Former First Lady Patience Jonathan was a special guest at the ceremony which was also attended by former Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) Anyim Pius Anyim; Minister of the Federal Capital Territory Bello Mohammed; Minister of Labour Senator Chris Ngige, among others.
One-time Speaker of the House of Representatives Ghali Umar Na’Abba was chairman.
Saraki said: ”I am convinced that we must return to that very basic medical axiom that prevention is better than cure.
“Perhaps, the reason our fight against corruption has met with rather limited success is that we appeared to have favoured punishment over deterrence. The problem with that approach however, is that the justice system in any democracy is primarily inclined to protect the fundamental rights of citizens. Therefore, it continues to presume every accused as innocent until proven guilty.
“Most often, it is difficult to establish guilt beyond all reasonable doubts as required by our laws. It requires months, if not years of painstaking investigations. It requires highly experienced and technically-sound investigation and forensic officers. It requires anti-corruption agents and agencies that are truly independent and manifestly insulated from political interference and manipulation.
“We must admit that we are still far from meeting these standards. Most often, therefore, because our anti-corruption agencies are under pressure to justify their existence and show that they are working, they often tend to prefer the show over the substance.
“However, while the show might provide momentary excitement or even public applause, it does not substitute for painstaking investigation that can guarantee convictions.
“I reiterate, therefore, that we must review our approaches in favour of building systems that make it a lot more difficult to carry out corrupt acts or to find a safe haven for corruption proceeds within our borders. In doing this, we must continue to strengthen accountability, significantly limit discretion in public spending, and promote greater openness.”
Saraki admitted that the Buhari administration had brought corruption to the front burner.
”The people are demanding more openness, more accountability and more convictions. Those of us in government are also responding, joining the conversation and accepting that the basis of our legitimacy as government is our manifest accountability to the people.
“We acknowledge that if we want Nigerians to trust their government again, then government at all levels must demonstrate that we are not in office for the pursuit of private gains, but to make our people happier by helping them to meet their legitimate aspirations and achieve a higher quality of life.
“What all these mean is that despite all that we have experienced over the years, Nigeria and Nigerians have not accepted corruption as normal; that we recognise it as a problem; that we are determined to make a break with our past and live by different rules.”
The Senate President added that the National Assembly “changed from a one-line item to a 34-page document that shows details of how we plan to utilise the public funds that we appropriate to ourselves. This is a very significant step forward and we are very proud of it”.
He also promised that the National Assembly would pass the anti-corruption bills before it.
Saraki listed the Whistleblower Protection Bill, “which I am confident will be passed not later than July 2017”; The Proceeds of Crime Bill; The Special Anti-Corruption Court, “which would be done through constitutional amendment” and The Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Bill.
He expressed regret that every time the country talked about corruption, “we tend to focus almost exclusively on high profile political corruption. While these tend to be of high impact and high drama, I suspect that they are not even as debilitating as what is often referred to as systemic corruption. Corruption by middle-level and junior level government officials, who pinch the system and demand gratifications to do their ordinarily routine duties.
“From experience, this form of corruption ultimately turns out to be as grievous as the high level corruption that readily comes to mind,” Saraki said.
Dogara said: “As a country, we ran into a situation where corruption was becoming the norm, there was this moral cult that we had created that celebrated corruption.
“The motivation was always there for corruption, but now what is important is not just fighting the old corrupt system. Really, if we must make progress, our focus should be to replace the old order that was corrupt with a new order that makes corruption near impossible to take place.
“Corruption, for those who are farmers, is like a tree that grows vigorously. If you end up pruning the trees and not attacking the roots, there is no way you will deal with that thing.
“So, when those who celebrate the successes of the fight against corruption in terms of the high profile investigation, high profile prosecution and even detention, they are missing the point because that is dealing with the symptoms of corruption.
“That is punishing corruption. But how are we developing remedies that we can apply to ensure that the tree dies?”
The speaker gave a likely scenario of future consequences with a recent experience, saying: “Recently, in the labour community, we went for May Day and some of us were nearly held hostage.
“You can’t blame the workers. While they were agitating for their rights, agitating for minimum wage, some of us are talking about living wage.”