Magu, corruption and wicked problems

Corruption is the Original Sin. The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin described it as part of “the crooked timber of humanity”. It belongs to the class of “wicked problems”. A wicked problem, according to policy scientists, is a social problem that appears in the manner of an insoluble puzzle; in which the best solutions tend to produce, at best, perverse outcomes. It is the opposite of hard but ordinary problems that are amenable to straightforward, linear solutions.

Nigeria’s anti-corruption war is a quintessentially wicked problem. Corruption is deeply ingrained in our collective psyche. No sector is spared. In such circumstances, institutions designed with the best intentions of fighting the ogre may end up becoming part of the problem.

We were not surprised that Ibrahim Magu was recently arrested and suspended from his post as Acting EFCC Chairman. Thisis ostensibly to clear the way for an independent investigation into allegations levelled against him by the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami. These charges centre, inter alia, on discrepancies between recovered assets and those actually lodged in the accounts of the CBN; selling looted assets to alleged cronies and sundry abuses. The panel, headed by Justice Ayo Salami, retired President of the Court of Appeal, is empowered to investigate all aspects of the activities and operations of the EFCC and to make recommendations for action.

Without prejudice to the ongoing investigation, the picture that we get is that of the hunter becoming the hunted. It leaves a sour taste in our mouth.

Until he fell on his own sword last week, Ibrahim Magu was the nation’s feared anti-corruption Czar. He did achieve some success in recovering more than N500 billion of looted assets from corrupt public figures while achieving a number of convictions. But he was also unfortunately accused of impunity, blackmail and intimidation through the agency of his over-enthusiastic thugs, popularly known as the “Magu boys”.

It has been suggested that ever since his godfather late Chief of Staff to the President, Abba Kyari, passed away in April, Magu had very much become a political orphan. Since in politics you inherit your enemies, Magu being a protégé of Mallam Abba Kyari, had also inherited whatever enemies he might have left behind. This is said to explain the no love lost relationship between Magu and Attorney-General and Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami.

The whole saga has been described by some members of the chattering classes as a “power play” by Abuja politicos.

One thing is clear: Any EFCC Chairman that does his job well will always make enemies. It goes with the territory. And the thing with corruption, as we all know, is that if you fight it hard enough, it always finds a way of fighting back. And it often fights back with the deadly ferocity of a wounded leopard.

Ibrahim Magu may or may not be guilty of any or all of the 20 charges brought against him. Justice must be allowed to run its full course.

The great British conservative politician Sir Enoch Powell famously noted that all political careers ultimately end with failure. It is the type of tragedy that underpins the Office of Chairman of the EFCC. As currently constituted, every executive of that organisation is programmed to fail.  It is not by accident that none of his predecessors ended up without one problem or the other. When you probe at a deeper level, you will begin to see that it is the entire institutional architecture and gestalt of the anti-corruption system that is fundamentally defective.

For one thing, the law setting up the agency requires that it shall be headed by a policeman, serving or retired. That, in itself, is a big problem. The law was adjusted not too long ago to make the EFCC answerable to the Attorney-General of the Federation. I also find that to be a problem. I think the agency ought to be directly answerable to the President and no one else. And it seems rather odd to me that the Attorney-General and Honourable Minister of Justice should take such undue interest in the nitty-gritty of how recovered assets are auctioned.  The Attorney-General’s Freudian slip about “Abacha assets” instead of “recovered loot” raised a lot of howls among concerned stakeholders. The role of that Ministry should also be under probe.

I am curious that the Presidential Anti-Corruption Advisory Council seems to have no role in this evolving drama. Its members include distinguished people of integrity such as Professors Itse Sagay and Femi Odekunle. Are we to presume that they are mere barking dogs that cannot bite?

The politicization of the anti-corruption, is in my view, remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the entire anti-corruptionwar. During last year’s electioneering campaigns, former APC Chairman Adams Oshiomhole was quoted as urging politicians from rival political parties to de-camp to the ruling party, so that all their sins could be forgiven them. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo set that bad precedent when he used to taunt his adversaries by warning that he would send Nuhu Ribadu, the then EFCC Chairman, after them. When you reduce the entire anti-corruption effort to a system anchored on moral blackmail, the integrity and credibility of the whole process is brought into question.

In our day and age, global best practices in anti-corruption administration require certain minimum fundamentals. The Paris-based intergovernmental organization, the OECD, has laid out some of those principles.

First, anti-corruption regimes need to put heavy emphasis on policy analytics, monitoring and coordination. It is essential to understand the nature and sources of corruption and key trends in the evolution corrupt behaviour.

Secondly, key actors need to understand that prevention is always better than cure. Systems must be put in place to focus on prevention. Expenditure controls, audit systems and M and E frameworks must work to ensure that corruption is nipped in the bud before it becomes full-blown.

Thirdly, independence of the anti-corruption agency must be guaranteed in law. Such autonomy requires that the agency is immune from undue political influence. Its credibility and objectivity must be protected.

Finally, training, capacity building, adequate resources, professionalism and rigorous ability to prosecute must be continually enhanced. There is evidence that ant-corruption agencies success best when policies are based on contextually grounded systemic analyses of corruption; when attention is paid to level, location and magnitude of corruption at the strategy level; when the drivers and enablers of corruption are fully addressed; and when legal, societal and moral norms are fully aligned within a framework that enables operators to fully fight the ogre of corruption.

On a personal note, I met Ibrahim Magu as far back as 2013 in Maiduguri, when he was a regional representative for the EFCC in the North-East. I had been invited to speak at the retreat organised for the cabinet of the then Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima. It was a memorable time, amidst all the fears and perils of Boko Haram when it was at its peak. Ibrahim Magu had a natural bonhomie about him. I could not help but like him.

His appointment as Acting Chairman in 2015 was mired in controversy. Twice, the Senate refused to confirm him, citing security reports that declared that he would be a “danger” to the anti-corruption war. The Presidency was recalcitrant in keeping him nonetheless. Whilst in office, he was constantly assailed by the moral incompetency of acting without the imprimatur of parliament.

But I shall not join the mobs in calling for his crucifixion. Magu acted as best he could under an institutional environment that is rife with rent-seeking, hypocrisy and nepotism. His successor is unlikely to fare any better. Unless, that is, drastic measures are taken to reform the entire anti-corruption architecture as we have always known it.



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