Nigeria: An Anti-Corruption Drive Undermines Human Rights and Democracy

Nigeria: An Anti-Corruption Drive Undermines Human Rights and Democracy

by Henry Collison

Concepts & Thoughts
Abuja–IT IS ALMOST a year since Muhammadu Buhari, who first ruled Nigeria as a military dictator in the 1980s, took office again as the new President in Abuja.This time Buhari achieved power through the ballot box and Nigerians were hopeful for progress from a man with a no-nonsense reputation for getting things done, albeit in the style of soldierly disciplinarian.

Buhari’s platform was based on three solid pledges to the people of what was once Africa’s biggest economy: to rid the country of systemic corruption, “crush” Boko Haram, and save an ailing economy.

Today Western governments, including that of the United Kingdom, continue to back the military man to the tune of £250 million in the form of development aid, having already contributed a whopping £1.8 billion in the last decade to support their former colony.

Buhari’s mantra was a rather bland and broad sweeping anthem of “CHANGE”, leaving the substance of that promise to the conjecture of millions of Nigerians. Nearly twelve months on, solid evidence of progress remains hard to find, despite a calendar of frenetic activity designed to give the impression of achievement. The impact of hundreds of millions of pounds in aid is harder to find.

According to Richard Dowden, Director of the world renowned Royal Africa Society and a former writer for The Economist, Buhari is “a straight talking military man” but has made little time to foster changes in the Nigerian society, while keen to take the credit for small successes against Boko Haram.

Suicide attacks that have left scores of people dead and the abduction of over 300 primary school children were covered up by Buhari’s government. These developments contradict the claims that the marauding Boko Haram merchants of death have taken notice of the change of regime in Abuja.

The Nigerian economy continues to crumble. Fuel shortages in Africa’s largest oil producing economy have left petrol stations empty and led to increasing power outages. There is a sense of creeping change though, which should send shivers down the spines of those dispensing large wads of cash to Abuja.

Evidence is mounting that suggest Nigeria is in danger of undergoing a troublesome transition to an administration that appears to be reckless of natural justice and human rights.

Buhari’s anti-graft agenda is being led by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), a special crime-fighting organization, which the UK has been instrumental in developing and training. The EFCC remains an ineffective organization in the war on corruption. Perhaps the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe summed it up best more than 30 years ago when he warned that “keeping an average Nigerian from being corrupt is like keeping a goat from eating yam.” Dowden also comments that “He made a promise to tackle corruption in a country where the only way to get something done is to bribe somebody”.

Nearly every day a new suspect is arrested by the EFCC with news reports from Nigeria suggesting that there have been at least 70 arrests since the start of the year. With all this activity we have yet to see a single high profile conviction.  One small success was the prosecution of someone who set up an internet love scam, hardly the desired impact of British tax payers’ contribution to Nigeria.

Local critics have already pointed out that most of the EFCC arrests have been political opponents and investigations into past crimes of members of the rival PDP party.

As it appears, in Nigeria anti-corruption is a cliché, used as a tool by successive dictators to justify military ousters and nullify democratic elections since the 1960s.

More recently, one of Buhari’s own countrymen has already warned that the anti-corruption drive risks subverting itself. The respected Bishop of Kaduna, Timothy Yahiya, said that the fight against corruption has been “lopsided, selective and only targeted members of the opposition party”. The threat to a growing albeit fragile democratic society is very real.

As the former president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, remarked recently corruption in Nigeria is a ‘hydra-headed monster’. He urged Buhari to start the fight with himself, the Vice President, the Senate president and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

There is also the more serious danger to the rule of law and human rights. Nigeria’s top lawyers warned last week that Buhari’s anti-corruption drive could threaten fundamental rights and risk undermining the rule of law.

The Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN) accused some agencies of the federal government, including the EFCC, of acting in ways that raised concerns about human rights violations, deploring any “step towards anarchy, which does not and cannot augur well for a democratic society such as Nigeria.” Judges, the learned group warned, should be free to dispense justice “without fear or favor”.

The Abuja High Court recently lambasted the EFCC for acting in a way that was “‎illegal, wrongful, unlawful and constituted a blatant violation of the fundamental rights” and that the actions of both the EFCC and the military were reminiscent of a “military dictatorship ‎that arrests and releases persons at will”.

One could be forgiven for asking the following: Apart from the fact that the EFCC should be completely and genuinely independent—and not subjected to the pressures of a here-today-gone-tomorrow regime—shouldn’t the anti-graft vehicle have a particular focus on specific, non-political targets?

UK MPs have travelled to Nigeria to congratulate the EFCC on its anti-graft drive; yet one wonders if they have asked whether the EFCC pursued an appropriate agenda.

The British government has also in good faith offered to further support the EFCC by sending UK investigators from the National Crime Agency to Abuja. We in the UK have a lot at stake in backing this anti-graft drive that has been already questioned by respected figures in Nigeria.

In a country still ravaged by poverty and unemployment, it is time for the new president to focus on what can really change the lives of Nigerians for the better, as it is time for those providing aid to Nigeria to ensure that their help is used to legitimate ends.

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Henry Collison is a Western investigative journalist currently based in Nigeria.

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