By SKC Ogbonnia
Before assuming the presidency in May 2015, Muhammadu Buhari rightly proclaimed that “corruption will kill Nigeria, unless Nigeria kills corruption.” Unfortunately, however, after barely one year in office, a diverse segment of the population began to openly pray for the freedom of corruption in-so-far there is food on the table. By December 2016, the Nigerian Legislature answered by formally introducing a bill to amend the Constitution to grant its members immunity or, more plainly, the unrestrained freedom from prosecution against corrupt practices. As if the circus lacks in folly, the Senate followed by mysteriously rejecting the president's nominee to head the war on corruption. But this whole dilemma has roots deeper than the ordinary eye can meet.
Not long ago, the transition to a democratic government in 1999 after years of military rule seemed like the ultimate game-changer. There was a semblance of freedom in most areas of national life. It then seemed the citizens had finally become free from the shackles of dictatorship that had strangled the country for ages. But don’t hold your breath. A more complex problem soon emerged: The way the political elites conceived the freedom turned out to be upside-down. The crux of the matter is that the very practice of Nigeria's democracy also allowed the leaders the freedom to do as they chose. In the process, they chose to revert back to the military style of dictatorship, leading to gross mismanagement of resources and human right abuses.
This culture of impunity under a democratic setting resulted in massive corruption. Different attempts by successive governments to combat the societal ill were openly frustrated at the courts where some unique tenets of freedom and rule of law were employed to produce unsavoury outcomes. Despite the fact that Nigeria was consistently ranked near the top of global corruption index, no major politician served a jail term in the African soil from 2008-2015, apart from the lone case of Olabode George. Not surprisingly, freedom of corruption became the order of the day. With the price of crude oil then already beginning to take a nose dive, it was only a matter of time before the national economy would crumble.
That was the exact situation in 2015 when the masses beckoned back Muhammad Buhari for salvation. For many, Buhari was a ramrod-straight ex-general whose austere image as well as anti-corruption track record were best suited to oust a weak and pliable incumbent president in Goodluck Jonathan.
Since assuming the office, however, Buhari's war against corruption has been a vain pursuit. Any attempt by the president to introduce far-reaching anti-corruption measures is readily resisted, with the opposition always clinging to one form of freedom or the other. A current example is the issue of special courts being canvassed by the president to expedite corrupt cases. Of course, the delay in the courts has nothing to do with lack of human resources especially in a country where thousands of jobless lawyers roam the streets. The special courts, instead, are to de-oxidize the existing culture where judges and politicians combine to sustain freedom for corrupt leaders through frivolous adjournments, plea bargains, and state pardons. Regrettably, the critics of the special courts, most of who constitute the first line of defense for the corrupt oligarchy, quickly pounded on the president, digging out all sorts of legal jargon to ridicule the initiative. They would helm the argument by invoking the independence of the judicial branch and, of course, vitality to the broader democratic freedom. But while this warped notion of freedom may seem to favour those in the position of power, it is definitely failing Nigeria as a whole.
Freedom, no matter the essence, must not be antagonistic to the well-being of the citizenry. Besides, Nigeria must not base its rule of law solely on borrowed legal theories. Just as leadership is contingent upon the environment, the rule of law ought to take into considerations the prevailing conditions in the particular society or country. Nigeria is at a critical war with corruption and should explore extra-ordinary measures. Even the United States of America, a country that prides itself as the true bastion of freedom, had to adopt the USA Patriot Act—a pervasive government control mechanism that allows intrusive checks at the airports. Though initially condemned as an infringement on civil liberties, the Act has been embraced for effective homeland security in response to the tragic incident of 9/11.
Lampooning only the opposition for the clog in the wheel of Buhari’s change agenda is an injustice to human conscience. The president has to share part of the blame. He effortlessly ruptured the balloon of public goodwill initially inflated by a cocktail of desire for change and the myth of a legendary track record. Apart from the slow pace of his government, Buhari forgot there is always a delicate balance between freedom and authority. His early missteps, particularly the mode of political appointments, the refusal to obey court orders, and lack of transparency, simply evoked a frightening nostalgia of the dictatorial tendencies that doomed his military regime. Such excesses, or rather abuse of freedom, coupled with the harsh economic condition on the ground, were all the corrupt oligarchy needed to gain the public support to subdue the president.
Today, the bulging optics is that the strongman elected to strengthen the system has been cowed into a weakling in office. That is how the opposition has been able to hoodwink many to now believe that freedom for corrupt politicians is a desirable compromise to stimulate the economy. That is how and why the president now appears to embrace the very culture of impunity that he was elected to decimate. Instances abound. But definitely mind-boggling are the manner he dropped charges for a clear case of forgery against the principal officers of the Senate, and the apparent freedom for corrupt politicians in return for part of their loot. What else is more? With the Executive branch already enjoying a corrupt freedom in the name of immunity, not many were shocked when the Nigerian Legislature formally introduced a bill to amend the Constitution to also grant its members the freedom from prosecution against corrupt practices.
These developments are utterly mystifying and only go to encourage criminal ingenuity rather than deterrence. Yet, don’t count on a mass revolt. Given Nigeria’s recent past, any scheme masked with freedom is perceived with a sacred aura. But the masses must resist the gambit this time. Hope anchored through a corrupt premise, regardless of the inherent freedom, is a poisoned chalice.
The aim here is by no means to circumvent the role of freedom in democracy. Viewed in its totality, freedom is not only essential for democracy, it is also vitally important for any human or organizational development. But however indispensable it might seem, the cardinal truth is that in democracy as we know it, neither the freedom nor the liberty is rooted in an abstract sense where the leaders or the followers are free to do as they please.
Often ignored in the contemporary discussions of Nigerian democracy is the ageless adage: every coin has two sides. There are positive and negative kinds of freedom. On the one hand, positive freedom refers to where people are free to engage in endeavours towards the common good. It goes with moderation, responsibility, and accountability. Importantly, positive freedom is open to all—not just the sole province of the leaders themselves. On the other hand, negative freedom typifies the prevailing Nigerian situation where leaders freely engage in acts inimical to the common good. Such negative freedom allows Nigerian leaders to hide behind all sorts of rule of law to loot the public treasury without qualms.
Change does not come easy, especially in an environment where most processes are fraught with rules of law tightly woven with negative freedoms. Yet, there is hope. President Buhari can still reset by cautiously navigating through the prevailing rules of law while strengthening the system to wipe out the negative freedoms undermining the leadership processes. But any reset requires a change in style. What Nigerians sought and voted for in 2015 and hope to see today is a resolute, just, and transparent leader capable of demonstrating serious consequences for corrupt practices regardless of whose ox is gored.
*Ogbonnia, a leadership scholar, wrote from Houston, Texas, USA