Events in the past few weeks have left no one in doubt that the Buhari administration has set the stage for the prosecution of its promised war against corruption.
First, in an apparent move to plug loopholes facilitating leakages and mismanagement of public funds, the President recently directed all ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) of the Federal Government to maintain Treasury Single Account (TSA) in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for all public revenue.
The move, which the Presidency stated, was to ensure probity, transparency and accountability in the management of public funds has been widely applauded.
Closely following that directive was the announcement by the President that the trial of people involved in the stealing of public funds will begin soon, in a matter of weeks. And then also came the constitution of an Anti-Corruption Advisory Committee to help plan strategies for a new offensive in the anti-graft war.
Nigerians are elated by this development. It shows that Buhari is committed beyond the rhetoric of his world declaration, during his trip to the United States of America, that he was determined to “Kill Corruption Before Corruption Kills Nigeria”.
However, many are wondering if government had properly thought out how to make this new initiative work and how to surmount the major challenges that had stifled the war in the past, so that the new offensive will not run out of steam soon.
These and other relevant issues are part of what the wise men of the anti-graft advisory committee are supposed to help government fashion out.
But as they embark on that assignment, it is important to remind them and all other stakeholders that the war or campaign against corruption is not new, it is not just beginning.
It has been raging for some time, some challenges had been identified, some lessons should have been learnt from those experiences and all these must inform current plans for the new offensive.
The intervention of the two main anti-corruption agencies in the country, the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission(ICPC) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) – over ten years ago offered great hope.
But today Nigerians are still talking about corruption as if the evil it represents had just been discovered. What happened? How have the anti-graft agencies fared? Have they failed the nation?
Many Nigerians who have been monitoring the anti-graft war would concede that the anti-graft agencies can hardly be blamed. The truth is that they were operating in a very difficult environment that was more or less anti-thetical to the cause of the war.
A key element of the inclement environment was the lack of commitment by the political authorities. This was evident in the failure or negligence to provide adequate funding for the operations of the anti-graft agencies.
It is well known that paucity of funds had been a major constraint to the agencies especially in the past few years. Another important factor is the slowness of the judicial process of prosecution.
This has been attributed to congestion of cases in the courts and the abuse of judicial processes through frivolous injunctions in a seeming conspiracy between the bar and the bench.
As a result, a lot of cases being prosecuted by the agencies had been dragging for years and this has eroded public confidence in prosecution as a weapon of deterrence.
The most debilitating blow to the anti-corruption fight was the insincerity of the political authorities or rather, their alleged complicity in corrupt activities.
For example, the ideal thing to do on the various celebrated cases of alleged corruption involving very senior government officials some years ago would have been for the administration to hand over those cases to the anti-graft agencies. That was not done. Even the National Assembly which stepped in was rebuffed.
In the same vein, most of the recent stunning revelations of corrupt practices involving billions of dollars point in the direction of acts of impunity by top public officials and their associates.
This phenomenon could be described as state sponsored or state approved corruption. What could the agencies have done in such circumstances? The anti-graft war in Nigeria will succeed when government begins to demonstrate sincerity of purpose and commitment, leading by example and fostering enabling conditions for anti-graft agencies to assert their independence and operate without hindrance.
President Buhari’s recent actions have just shown a marked difference from the ignoble past. Now everybody knows that government would not take lightly any act of corruption or impunity, no matter who is involved.
Having demonstrated the political will to root out corruption, the President should now proceed to address the other major constraints of the anti-graft agencies.
He needs to give them the neccessary capital and human resource empowerment to build capacity in terms of personnel strength, training, outsourcing of renowned experts in relevant fields on sensitive and technical cases under investigation and prosecution as well as logistics for various operations and activities covered by their respective mandates.
Talking of empowerment, the President did say he was thinking of merging the ICPC and the EFCC into one big body and empowering the new organisation with sufficient financial muscle to face the challenges of the war.
However, the idea needs careful examination, it could be counter-productive at this point in time.
Merging the two agencies now will definitely create a period of inertia during the transition process as the administrative frame work and operational logistics of the successor organisation are being worked out.
This will be a set back to the tempo of activities the president has already raised of which Nigerians are expecting quick results.
A merger may not be the best option in the quest to step up the anti-graft war at this time. In any case, the two agencies have separate mandates and apart from the aforementioned constraints they have, which are not of their own making, there is nothing to indicate that they, as presently constituted, cannot fight corruption successfully if properly kitted.
It would be recalled that a prominent member of the new Presidential Advisory Committee on Corruption once opposed the merger proposal for the same reasons in an interview some years ago, when it was being debated.
President Buhari has begun the new offensive against corruption very well. It might be more operationally effective for him to retain the two agencies, empower them, effect necessary reforms in the judiciary and other relevant areas to create the right atmosphere and then watch them pursue the war with renewed vigour; rather than create a new structure which will take time to find its feet.
Akinseye writes from Lagos