Tackling corruption with strong institutions

Nations and organisations survive and become great on the back of institutions and clearly articulated rules governing human conduct under the rule of law. They do not thrive on the back of strong men and women who seek to lord it over others in the discharge of what they consider to be their legitimate duties. This aphorism bears great resonance in the current campaign to reduce corruption in the economic, political and social life of Nigeria. The idea of institutionalisation assures that government can be run on a virtual auto pilot where the desires or direction of a single individual, no matter his high position, cannot alter the trajectory of governance. Indeed, anyone including the President, who seeks to deviate from the established norms will find himself on the wrong side of the law.

Let us check the trajectory of the refusal to build institutions whilst strong men twisted other players’ arms in the polity. General Sani Abacha purportedly fought corruption and even established the Failed Bank Tribunals. President Olusegun Obasanjo also fought corruption and championed the enactment of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and Independent Corrupt and other related Practices Commission Acts (ICPC), but never allowed the system to run its course following the due process of law. Every new government claims to fight corruption and after it leaves, Nigeria is left with trillions of naira embezzled and mismanaged. We fight corruption in a haphazard, uncoordinated and staccato fashion. Thus, the struggle against corruption is not evidence-led.

It is the contention of this discourse that a proactive stance against corruption makes more sense than the extant reactive stance, which is more or less a post mortem, medicine after death trajectory.

First, the most recent controversy is the arrest and search of the homes of appellate court judges, including those of the Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the land. As we cry about the quality of justice dispensed by the courts and corruption in the judiciary, executing arrests and search warrants will not solve the problem. A few judges will be caught, tried and punished, but the majority will get away with their crime. Can we for a second pause and ask ourselves about the processes and procedures that throw up this quality of judges. Thus, how are judicial officers appointed? Since we are content with leaving the appointment of judges to politicians who manage the process in a closet without popular participation, then we will continue to get poor quality personnel on the Bench. To the extent that the entire process is politicised and merit, competence and character do not come out tops in the criteria, we will continue on the same path as it is now.

This discourse contends that the appointment process of judges should include provisions which will publicise the list of persons who have applied to become part of the elevated position of judgeship. Just like in the banns of a Catholic marriage, it would be open to all Nigerians to come forward to the authorities with any information or evidence that tends to suggest that the applicant is not fit and proper to be made a judge of a superior court of record in Nigeria. Such evidence will not only be limited to his knowledge of the law, but will include his morals and character and his attitude towards other human beings.

In this process, and with a professional and independent appointing authority, morally bankrupt and decadent persons will stand no chance of making it to the Bench. When this is combined with the oversight of the National Judicial Council (NJC), it will be easy to curtail corruption in the Bench.

The second piece of legislation which requires amendment is the Audit Act. We have a situation where auditing of public accounts by the Auditor-General and the follow up process in the Public Accounts Committee of the legislature have become  an exercise in futility, just mere fulfilling the rounds, blowing hot air and nothing coming out of it. Yes, the law is flawed as it gives the Auditor-General an assignment without the necessary supportive powers and resources to accomplish the task. The Auditor-General has no powers to order a surcharge when a public servant incurs loss to the treasury; his queries are treated with contempt without a legally binding timeline for those queried to respond. Again, the powers to proactively stop financial losses to the treasury are lacking and sanctions are not generally available against those who breach established financial norms. So, in this situation, what is the incentive for a public servant to take the Auditor-General and his work seriously?

It seems Nigerians are content with a post-mortem review of how funds were stolen, and mismanaged rather than stopping the mismanagement. So, what lessons do we take away from the two scenarios? Nipping challenges in the bud is better than a fire-fight and bolting the doors after the horses have left the stable. The executive and legislature should have the presence of mind to collaborate and amend the necessary parts of the constitution and other laws, while enacting new ones to correct defects in the existing law. Ad hoc solutions will only scratch the surface.

  • Onyekpere is a public affairs analyst.