The Buharian Trade-Off Thesis Of Anti-Corruption Campaigns In Nigeria


Abel B.S. Gaiya


The scourge of corruption in Nigeria is widely acknowledged. Yet, many fail to understand that its nature makes some strategies to curb it more viable and effective than others. It is first important to first chart out the structure of the Nigerian ‘corruption space’ in order to understand the suitability of different anti-corruption strategies. Dr Ahmad Gunmi described this structure quite aptly:

This is how Nigeria is: delicate…Politics in Nigeria should be such that we do not stir the water…if you drastically approach it (corruption), you will kill the nation…What you need is tactful, careful, well-coordinated, planned remedy that will not disturb the ethnic, religious and political balance of the country that could lead to instability…if the talakawas (masses) want you to bring money back from the so called corrupt people, you will have problems because more than 40 per cent of Nigerian benefited from this corrupt system. You will have religious problems; you will have regional problems.”

The prevalence of corruption in the country is public knowledge. Even without knowing that Nigeria has a dismal ranking based on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, daily encounters with government bureaucrats and reading of news articles indicate the extent of this social vice in the country. Therefore, Dr Gunmi is right in saying that a large proportion of Nigerians have benefited from corruption; but I intend to briefly provide a model by which “you will have problems” if you pursue an indiscriminate and intensive anti-corruption crusade in this setting.

First, the prevalence of indulgence in corruption among politicians and bureaucrats means that anti-corruption crusades would inevitably target a wide range of politicians and bureaucrats. Additionally, the act of corruption generally does not involve one person, but may include coordination and sharing of rents amongst multiple persons (as the arms deal scandal exemplifies). Thus, we have a combination of prevalence of indulgence and wide networks of indulgence. For the more statistically-minded,  if one were to visualize the ‘corruption space’ in Nigeria as singular data points representing corruption indulgence, the representation would have a very large number of data points (prevalence) and multiple clusters of such data points (networks).

With this model in mind, assume that an individual leader gets democratically elected with the intention of launching an aggressive indiscriminate anti-corruption campaign with a simple strategy of detection and prosecution. The prevalence assumption of corruption means that if the leader’s party is not composed of fairly new political actors (i.e. if they are not outsiders), but have substantial ‘old face elements’ (especially within the upper echelons of the party), then the leader’s party members would be identified as corrupt if an indiscriminate anti-corruption campaign is being run. However, the leader needs the support of the party’s members in order for his/her policies to pass in the legislature, and in order to maintain party stability adequate for his/her stable leadership. The resulting compromise (which is a reality check over the idealism of indiscriminate an anti-corruption stance) is a one-sided actualized anti-corruption campaign. At this point, the masses, not understanding the underlying true political structure facilitating this outcome, misidentify the reason for the one-sidedness as disingenuousness, opposition witch-hunting, and reflective of a fundamental bias in the leader’s political ideology and moral framework. On the other hand, if the leader were a dictator, he/she would face not as much political constraints, and the eventuality would be a more symmetric/universal anti-corruption drive – which is what we saw with Buhari 1.0 in the 1980s, although the universality was drenched in a complexity of possible regionalist bias, as Obi Nwakanma argues.

When the crusade launches, one thing we would predictably observe is disguised political retaliation against the leader, for instance in the form of political frustration of his/her policy initiatives, particularly in areas where the leader’s power over policy passage is low (requiring significant mediation by other political actors in a non-autocratic system). Thus, especially in the legislature, the leader’s proposals may repeatedly be rejected overtly (e.g. by hyper-criticism of proposals above the average level experienced by past leaders) or covertly. An example of this is the blockage of Ibrahim Magu’s appointment to head the EFCC, with the predominant reason being that Magu’s integrity is compromised due to suspicious links to Mohammed Umar, a retired air commodore being investigated by the DSS. Nothwitstanding the fact that some – though not all as to vindicate Magu completely – of the allegations against him have been debunked, the main point is that if Magu was not an aggressive anti-corruption agent, the DSS report may not have mattered (and perhaps would have had more favourable content, if one goes with the conspiracy theory that the report was influenced by a ‘cabal’, with evidence being the lack of control of the President over the DSS indicated by the clear disparity between what the President desires – Magu’s nomination – and what the DSS head did – release of an incriminating report against Magu –), and Magu would likely have been accepted – thus the current rejection may represent hypercriticism (i.e. above the average if the system was still in corruption-tranquillity).

Nonetheless, we cannot really say with certainty that the rejection of Magu is the result of behind-the-scenes tussles until Buhari presents another nominee of like or greater integrity and so that we may observe the senate’s attitude towards him/her – if the nominee has similar ‘skeletons’ but is accepted, then we know that there were indeed ulterior motives behind Magu’s rejection. If the nominee of greater integrity (no skeletons detected) is rejected, then we know the senate is looking for one who fits into the fouled system. If instead such a nominee is accepted, then the senate may be vindicated of Machiavellian intent. Yet, it should be recalled that in numerous reports published between 2007 and 2010, SaharaReporters had disclosed that allegedly corrupt politicians such as the infamous James Ibori, the then Governor Bukola Saraki (who now heads the senate), and Andy Uba were responsible for convincing Umaru Yar’adua to appoint Farida Waziri as head of the EFCC. Additionally, it is interesting that Ibrahim Magu was head of the Economic Governance Unit of the EFCC, and this unit led the EFCC investigations into allegedly corrupt governors including then Governor Bukola Saraki. It is surprising that this detail has escaped media eye so far. It is also of interest that the EFCC, headed by Magu as the acting chairman, is pursuing the prosecution of the senate president before the Code of Conduct Tribunal. So while there is insufficient evidence to judge the senate’s true motives, the available evidence disfavours its ingenuity.

It is noteworthy, as David Ekweremadu explains in a paper, that the two leaders who had pursued what could be regarded as an aggressive campaign against corruption in Nigeria in the past did not last in power. General Murtala Mohammed was brutally assassinated after only 6 months in power, while General Mohammadu Buhari which regarded itself as an offshoot of the Mohammed regime managed 18 months – although the removal of Buhari is more complex given the economic decline of the time and Buhari’s failure to reverse the trend. Hence, while a high profile anti-corruption crusade will always generate positive popular sentiment in Nigeria, it does provoke anger, frustration and eventual backlash among the political class with vested interest in the status quo.

It is interesting; however, that an unintended positive outcome from an anti-corruption crusade is that the body which feels is being attacked may buckle up to demonstrate its credibility by itself becoming more proactive. This, I observe, is the case with the Nigerian legislature. After the public barrage against Saraki’s NASS (as exemplified by Mohammed Adamu’s article and SERAP’s call for Buhari to end impunity in the senate) and the ‘corruption fights back’ narrative directed at the lawmakers, we observe the senate taking more proactive actions such as Saraki ordering a probe of plans by a senate committee to extort N144 million from local governments, the senate’s uncovering of a N10 trillion fraud in the petroleum industry, House of Representatives speaker Yakubu Dogara yielding to doubts about the legislature’s credibility by releasing his 6-month payslip, and the discovery by a senate committee of an alleged N30 trillion forex fraud amongst importers and banks.  

 In times of broad economic boom, the cost (electoral and public sentiment) of policy inertia due to political frustration may be less magnified, as there is a weaker public-perceived link between the leader’s policies and national prosperity. In contrast, during periods of bust, the public awaits the leader’s policies to alleviate their suffering, and hence policy failures carry greater electoral and public sentiment costs.

Furthermore, even with a one-sided anti-corruption campaign against members of the opposition party, the assumption of wide and dense networks implies that if these networks are not party-constrained (i.e. if there is inter-party members formation of corruption networks), members of the leader’s own party may deliberately contribute towards frustrating the leader’s efforts overtly or covertly (probably covertly in order to maintain some party stability in the face of a still strong opposition party). This inter-party link is greater in settings where there is little ideological difference between two parties that enable ease of carpet crossing (which we saw en masse in the past few years).

The model is now complete, and it may be summarized by proposing that under the dual condition of corruption prevalence and networking, there is a trade-off between the generality/indiscriminateness (and aggressiveness) of anti-corruption campaigns and policy effectiveness, more so under conditions of lack lustre economic growth, democracy and separation of powers. I shall preliminarily call this the Buharian trade-off thesis.

In a dictatorship, the leader has greater ease to pursue an indiscriminate anti-corruption campaign with little political constraint. In a democracy, the leader must be very strategic and, quite frankly, Machiavellian. He/she is tasked with juggling the purging of a systemic social vice while simultaneously maintaining adequate political goodwill to be an effective national manager. If this is done without tact, strained relations emerge between the presidency and other public offices. However, in Buhari’s case, it is difficult to disentangle the proportion of the observed antagonisms between the presidency and the legislature that is attributable to Buhari’s poor political skills – which Nasir El-Rufai (governor of Kaduna state) implied in his leaked memo under the ‘political situation’ section, Dr Okwesilieze Nwodo (former governor of Enugu state) and which other political commentators such as Adamu Mohammed and Simbo Olorunfemi have pointed out – and the proportion attributable to disguised reactions against anti-corruption actions taken by the executive. Perhaps the clearest piece of evidence for Buhari’s tactical inadequacy is in the observation that despite spending twelve years seeking office and thus having the management of Nigeria as a primary focus of his, he took too long to provide the nomination list for his cabinet, and he did not seem to, at least initially, have any clear, alternative strategies, to fulfil his electoral promises.     

The Buharian trade-off thesis may explain why Buhari is perceived to pursue an anti-corruption drive that is party-asymmetric, despite being relatively universalistic or indiscriminate in the 1980s. It (political sensitivity, that is) may also explain why there may be a pattern of news about detected corrupt persons forfeiting assets to the EFCC, but are not named, as opposed to the demands of Nigerians in response to Buhari’s previous claim that he would publish names. Yet, this may simply just be due to reasons of legality and investigative efficacy. However, we do observe Buhari recently demanding that the EFCC – and other agencies such as the Ministry of Finance, CBN, DSS and ICPC – provides a detailed submission on the amount of monies recovered so far during its anti-graft war since the present administration began operations. This latter point is likely just a means to present to the Nigerian polity the tangibility of his results in a time when his political capital is in decline and his credibility in question.

In a democracy, with prevalence of indulgence of corruption and strong patronage networks being the case, the leader must focus on three issues simultaneously: attacking political and bureaucratic corruption (with a bias towards the latter, given the fewer political constraints), tactfully controlling the storm (through political mediation and Machiavellian tactics), and instituting ambitious structural reforms in the bureaucratic sector and political sector.

The first is important because, other than sending deterrence signals to corrupt individuals, without political continuity of an anti-corruption stance, impressive institutional and regulatory reforms would be undermined after the political administration of the reformer. The problem, however, is that Buhari’s focus has been on the first almost entirely. Even beyond this, due to his poor political skills, Buhari is not minimizing the political clout from the first action by failing to adequately calm the storm with tact (for instance, his failure to reprimand Babachir Lawal and his chief of staff, as well as the curious exclusion of Buratai and Dambazzau from the fullness of the arms deal scandal make him look compromised, and is a political liability – similar to Yakubu Gowon who promised to eradicate corruption from Nigeria within six years, but cracked his credibility when he was indecisive in resigning his communications minister in the face of corruption allegations). On the third focus, despite the few commendable, albeit incomplete, structural reforms such as the implementation of the Treasury Single Account (TSA) (which was actually initiated under the Jonathan administration) and the seemingly productive whistle-blower policy, the administration has failed to pursue the third line of attack with ambitious scale and intensity – which Obi Nwakanma argues is the most important.  

Former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, got the idea (at least to some degree). Whereas before the fourth republic, corruption was generally regarded as a moral issue (Buhari’s War against Indiscipline and obsession with purging individuals relative to purging the system’s processes demonstrate this superficial perception and understanding of corruption), Obasanjo engaged corruption as a structural phenomenon in need of structural solutions – although he does seem to have reverted to the moralist-orientation recently, as Jideofor Adibe observes. This is what informed his administration’s decision to undertake broad reforms of public institutions, the civil service, and the judiciary – although these efforts were not enough, as instituted bodies became co-opted – e.g. the EFCC and its instrumentality in targeting political rivals by the ruling party, and the current potentiality of National Judicial Council compromise. Obasanjo’s anti-corruption efforts are widely seen as a failure in eliminating corruption in Nigeria (even by himself), but it should be noted that while in the year 1999 Nigeria scored a 1.6 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), by 2007, the country’s rating improved to 2.2. by 2007 – a 37.5% improvement. In contrast, as Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa explains, the plan to recruit just 10,000 policemen under Buhari’s rule has been mired in controversy; nothing has been done to improve agencies like EFCC and ICPC; and judicial reform has not been undertaken, but instead Buhari relied on sensational raids of residences of sitting judges as an ‘anti-corruption’ measure (a typical example of him attacking people, not structure).

However, we may be witnessing incipient signs of a change of focus. Just recently, Buhari, after careful vetting by the Attorney General, Ministry of Justice, and the Presidency’s legal team, approved the Standard Operating Procedure reform of the Code of Conduct Bureau – an ‘anti-corruption agency’ which has been ridden with over-bureaucratization and has merely been perceived by public servants as a routine ministry with no teeth. This gives the CCB sweeping powers and autonomy and makes it report not to any senior government official or department – including the President – except to the court. If this action is the beginning of a wave of structural reforms, then we know that Buhari is evolving, after seeing the futility of Buhari 1.0 especially in a time of widespread economic challenge. Buhari 2.0 should be a structural reformer – which would even minimize political clouts and be an attraction for investment – if Buhari wants to have a lasting legacy and reverse the decline in his electoral capital.

At the same time, structural reforms may, paradoxically, not be enough, as the continuity of anti-corruption drives beyond the pursuance of an ambitious initiating leader would be undermined due to the non-perpetuity of their formal leadership. Indeed, as William Muhumuza deduces from Uganda, having an impressive legal and institutional framework in place to control corrupt tendencies may not be enough if political factors are ignored; in the absence of exemplary political leadership and support to institutions that enforce compliance, fighting corruption will remain elusive. In addition to reforms which anti-corruption agencies more independent (both operationally and in terms of leadership selection), there may be two possible ways to mitigate this difficulty.

Political infiltration (that is, injecting new and ‘untainted’ voices into the political arena who would serve as counterbalance forces against the excesses of the establishment and maintain pressure on the political class), dilution (that is, the dilution of the powers and influence of the establishment by, for instance, appointing new voices to public offices for them to set better standards of operation), and mass propulsion (that is, having the continuous long term support of the masses) ease the leader’s Buharian trade-off, and should allow for greater stability and post-administrative continuity of the political will and drive which sustain anti-corruption campaigns and institutional integrity. Of course, the reformer would have to be prepared to strategically navigate the rough waters of political turbulence that would arise from reactions by the old political class against their increasingly circumscribed relative influence and receding centrality. Aside from class considerations, there are frictions of ethnicity, regionalism, party affiliation, political loyalties and patrimonialism and clientelism which need to be considered.

The reformer must also harness the triadic synergy of robust and broad economic progress (economic transformation), civic transformation, and political transformation – which would fuel mass propulsion. Economic transformation, aside from its beneficial effect on the quality of institutions, should provide the fuel for mass propulsion and the ensuing civic transformation, and it should thus be valuable in compressing the reactions of the old political class by creating popular discontent over such reactions and, thereby, conditioning this class to be mellower in its antagonisms. Like Chidi Odinkalu argues, an anti-corruption drive must be systemic in building a shared sense of co-ownership of the country – the absence of which Jideofor Adibe argues is one of the core causes of the problem – and assurance that they belong. This is especially essential where the vice is systemic and cuts across many areas of social life.

The leader can maximize coverage by integrating disparate groups into national development plans in consultative and/or operational capacities – for instance working closely with the NLC, NACCIMA and other industrial relations parties when planning and executing industrial plans within an ambitious national development plan; working closely with NANS (National Association of Nigerian Students), ASUU, ASUP, NUT other relevant groups in dealing with transformation of the Nigerian education sector; working closely with prominent youth groups in easing employment accessibility and entrepreneurial initiatives; copying the Hong Kong model of having an oversight body for the anti-corruption agencies made up of civil society groups who submit periodic reports to the legislature, etc.

The key is to be broadly inclusive in an integrated manner, and not merely rely on superficial consultations, and to have this all embedded within an ambitious national development plan which the majority of Nigerians can connect with. With such a socio-economic buttress, the reformist leader would have more formidable electoral and political capital in the face of aggressive tides of political backlash against anti-corruption actions and reforms. This is the best way to gain mass propulsion and exploit the triadic synergy between economic transformation, civic transformation and political development. Contrast this with Buhari, and his administration’s Economic Recovery and Growth Plan which does not even have an acknowledgement section for consulted parties, and does not present the roles that various non-governmental groups would play in Nigeria’s transformation. Indeed, Buhari actually needs a better and more influential chief strategist by his side to help design a systemic national development plan and help inform him on how each of his actions play into systemic development of the nation – in other words, to marry a well-designed systemic development policy with better politics.