By Ezekiel Babalola
Corruption is an issue Nigerians love to discuss with passion because it is believed to be the bane of the country’s under development. It is an issue that many often discuss with sentiment, palpable frustration and anger over the seeming inability of successive governments to eradicate it. On such occasions, the political leadership, government functionaries and public institutions charged with the anti-corruption war are always at the receiving end of the public display of disappointment.
Such was the case recently, when a statement credited to the Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), Chief Ekpo Nta, that stealing is erroneously reported as corruption drew scathing criticism from some members of the public. He had, during the visit of a delegation of the Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria to the Commission, observed that Nigerians needed more understanding of the various dimensions of corruption in order for all to be able to tackle it effectively. He explained, for example, that stealing is erroneously reported as corruption.
His observation apparently hit the wrong chord in the hearts of some people who reacted with severe criticism, suggesting that he was probably not committed to the war against corruption. Some stakeholders, including a section of the media, went to the extent of calling on him to step down, arguing that his statement portrayed him as a tool in the hands of the political authorities whom they accused of not showing the required seriousness to effectively address the menace of corruption.
However, there are some stakeholders who believe that the furious shooting of diatribe by the critics at the ICPC chairman over a harmless and sincere observation that merely pointed attention to the obvious but often ignored misrepresentation, was unnecessary, particularly after the clarification issued by the Commission to shed more light on the statement. The Commission had explained that stealing is corruption if it involves a public officer abusing his office for private gains as provided in sections 16 and 19 of the ICPC Act while stealing or theft as defined by criminal code and penal code falls within the Police powers to investigate and prosecute”
This clarification can hardly be faulted. From the legal and constitutional perspective stealing is recognized in the statute books of every country as a criminal act whether it is committed in or outside the public service. It has prescribed punishment in the relevant criminal and penal codes. Even private business concerns and corporations have rules for dealing with stealing or theft, in their establishments, which may include recovery of the stolen items and dismissal of the culprit with or without prosecution.
There is no denial, by the critics, that a lot of Nigerians actually report plain stealing as corruption such as the theft of crude oil or theft of refined petroleum products through pipeline vandalisation. Which means that they ( the critics ) also subscribe to that notion. Why is this so? Perhaps it is a way of blaming government for everything that goes wrong. Perhaps it is because of the historical antecedent of what is associated with corruption in Nigeria. The face of corruption Nigerians readily point to is the stealing of public funds through embezzlement or the mismanagement or abuse of public heritage. This is referred to as the ‘chopping’ of government money in local parlance.
The purge of the public service during the Murtala Mohammed Military Regime which sanctioned both the military political office holders and civil servants deemed to have corruptly enriched themselves and the arrest and prosecution of political office holders of the second republic by the Buhari/ Idiagbon Regime, for misappropriation of funds and corrupt enrichment, were seen by the people as stealing of government money. So is the current effort by the administration of President Jonathan to prosecute public officers indicted in the pension fund scandal and others. To many Nigerians, the offences of corrupt enrichment, misappropriation of funds and cases of fraud involving money all mean stealing.
Nigerians would readily pardon any form of corruption such as, favouritism, falsification, forgery and acts of official misconduct that does not involve money. They would wave such corrupt practices off with phrases such as “it is not new”, “everybody does it”, “this is their own chance”, “it is their time, wait for your turn” etc. It is against this background that the observation by the ICPC chairman raises a challenge that must be taken seriously.
As he has rightly pointed out, Nigerians need to understand what constitutes corruption, its various forms and how to tackle it collectively. It is only then that the people can appreciate the efforts of anti-corruption agencies and offer their own support where it is needed to rid the country of the menace. It should also be understood that Nigeria is not alone in the anti-corruption war. It is a global campaign that also affects the most developed countries of the world. It is a structured war with internationally recognised templates for prosecuting it and assessing its effectiveness in terms of achievable results and targets over a period of time.
Like all global campaigns in which the United Nations Organization is involved, the war against corruption is properly structured under the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) 2006. Nigeria is a signatory to this convention. Although some countries such as Nigeria had set up their anti-corruption agencies before the convention came into force, it offers a broad framework for countries to design their own campaigns in accordance with their environment and their laws. What constitutes corruption is well defined under this convention.
According to the ICPC Chairman in a recent interview in the Nation newspaper, the anti-corruption war in Nigeria is in tune with the UN Convention and its provisions are captured in the ICPC Act. They include Bribery in public and private offices, under Article 15 and 16 of UNCAC which is also covered by ICPC Act, Section 8, 9 and 10; Abuse of office, under article 19, also covered by section 19 of ICPC Act and section 104 of the criminal code and Illicit enrichment also known as corrupt enrichment which is under Article20 and covered by Section 44.2 of ICPC Act.
Others are Misappropriation in the guise of virement, under Article 17, also covered by Section 22 of ICPC Act; Trading in influence, under Article 18, also covered by Section 22. 1 of ICPC Act and Fraud, under Article 27, also covered by Section 22 of ICPC Act. It can be seen from this set up that the ICPC is properly structured to international standard and it is working accordingly. In fact, in a bid to design a robust frame work that takes care of the peculiar needs of Nigeria’s anti-corruption war, the ICPC Act lists some offences which the UNCAC does not envisage. They include False statement, such as false declaration of assets, Failure to report bribery, Obstruction of justice and Making false report or Petition.
What the ICPC chairman said in that statement, which appeared to have been clearly misinterpreted and misunderstood by his critics is that a lot of Nigerians are yet to understand that corruption comes in various forms and dimensions. It is not about embezzlement of public funds alone and certainly not about general theft in and around the society which is within the jurisdiction of the Police. It is also about those actions we take or witness that compromises the socio-economic well being of the nation, the welfare of our fellow citizens and our own future.
How many Nigerians, for example, have reported bribery in public and private offices or reported suspicion of a case of illicit enrichment in their neighbourhood? The anti-corruption war is a structured war with a clear mandate and roles for both the anti-corruption agencies and the citizenry. It is important for the citizenry to understand this clearly and not hold the agencies to responsibilities outside their mandate.
The ICPC chairman has raised a very important point in the anti-corruption war. The people must understand the war and how to support it. The Commission may need to design a public education initiative in this direction in addition to its existing advocacy programmes.
Ezekiel Babalola sent this piece from Surulere, Lagos