by Sonala Olumhense
Corruption in Nigeria, says Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, is grossly over-exaggerated. This is now his standard response to the question concerned Nigerians ask him whenever he travels. At no point did I ever think that Mr. Jonathan would seek to sustain this colour-coating of the situation in Nigeria, but last week in Namibia he did, telling Nigerians in Windhoek that corruption in Nigeria has been blown out of proportion.
“Corruption is everywhere,” he argued, but is over-celebrated in Nigeria, with the result that Nigerians are “stigmatised”.
He has pushed this denial philosophy for about two years now, and it is time to examine what he really means. According to Mr. Jonathan, it is the exaggeration – not the corruption – that is taking its toll on the image of the country. He said nothing about how corruption is under-developing Nigeria. During his visit to South Africa in May 2013, he actually called critics of corruption the most corrupt. In his arrogant view, the problem is not the corruption: it is those who talk about it.
In April 2013, he made the same claim at the presidential power reform transactions signing ceremony at the Presidential Villa in Abuja, just days after a report of the United States Department of State accused officials and agencies of his government officials of frequently engaging in massive acts of corruption. “People should watch how we have been conducting government business,” he bragged. “We have been bringing down the issues of corruption gradually.” It is the same government that never responds to Freedom of Information requests. A government that is afraid to answer questions on funds recovered from foreign governments.
Mr. Jonathan’s latest campaign to deflect attention from his Augean stables comes as Jan Eliason, the United Nations Number Two man, last week chose Abuja to lament that over $50 billion is being siphoned from Africa every year.
Mr. Jonathan’s Namibia statement also comes, as it emerges that two UN Special Rapporteurs sent a letter to him in November 2013 demanding accountability for a total of $51billion in Nigeria’s power sector in the past 10 years. In the letter, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Ms. Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona; and the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Ms. Raquel Rolnik, demanded answers for alleged mismanagement of $3.5bn annually in the sector, as well as another $16bn meant for improving electricity.
It is difficult to tell if Mr. Jonathan has read that letter yet. Actually, it is difficult to tell if he has read much of the information emerging about the definition or depth of the depravity we call corruption in Nigeria. Put more starkly, it is difficult to tell if Mr. Jonathan truly understands what is meant by corruption; some people think it is corruption only when a policeman is secretly videotaped fleecing a motorist of N20.
As difficult as it may be to conceptualize, the combination of a job that perhaps leaves the incumbent feeling he does not need to read; the ruler’s refusal to probe widespread allegations of corruption and his ‘inability’ to see actual persons taking horrifying sums away in Ghana-Must-Go bags, may lead to a certain comfort that Nigeria’s corruption is minor.
Think about it, then: Siemens would not qualify as corruption. Not Wilbros. Not Halliburton. Nothing emerging in half a dozen startling Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC reports in the past 15 years would qualify as corruption. The missing $20 billion that is at the heart of the Central Bank crisis: exaggeration. The 2013 American government report of “massive, widespread, and pervasive corruption” at all levels of the Nigerian government and the security forces? That would be hearsay.
When the Jonathan administration authorizes an illegal transfer of N155 billion to convicted former oil minister and money-launderer Etete: over-exaggeration. When Jonathan fires the EFCC chairperson who is widely accused of an alarming abuse of office but does not probe her: irrelevant.
The Ministry of Aviation mess in which Oduah allegedly purchased two cars for a lavish N255million: that would not be corruption. When she is let go without being probed, that would be exaggeration. Reports year after year that the Minister of Petroleum Resources has committed corrupt acts, including renting or buying executive jets: exaggeration. Allegations in various publications that the Attorney General and Minister of Justice enriched himself: hearsay.
The growing human rights abuses throughout the country, including arbitrary arrests, misuse of the police, abuse of the press and extra-judicial killings: not corruption. The continuing lavishing of public funds on the extravagant lifestyle of top officials of the presidency and their families, the continuing purchase of executive jets: over-exaggeration. The two trillion naira stolen in the fuel subsidy scheme: that would be over-exaggeration. The N100 billion ravaged from the Police Pension Fund: a rumour.
The preponderance of discredited and corrupt people at the highest levels of his administration: exaggeration. The $67 billion that former World Bank Africa chief, Oby Ezekwesili, accused the administrations of Mr. Jonathan and his predecessor Umar Yar’Adua of squandering in the foreign reserve and Excess Crude Account: exaggeration.
When the Nigerian government pardons convicted looter and money-launderer Alams: irrelevant. When a foreign government invites the President of Nigeria and the country’s chief legal officer to claim for their country a $700,000 Maryland mansion and a Massachusetts investment account worth about $400,000 and they refuse, probably because the assets had belonged to Alamieyeseigha: exaggeration.
When Adoke announces he will lead Nigeria’s claim of the new $458 million Abacha loot recently cornered by the U.S.: that would represent Nigeria at her brightest. When the President says he will never publicly declare his assets: that would show he is combating corruption.
Nonetheless, in September 2012, Mr. Jonathan said at a conference of the Nigerian Institute of Management that he would fight corruption and associated vices until they were “exterminated.” Apparently he was referring only to minor corruption flares.
But in September 2013 as he opened the 54th Nigerian Economic Society conference in Abuja, he did declare he personally knew a lot of corrupt persons, just as he had said he knew Boko Haram personnel in his cabinet. “When you talk about corruption,” he said, “the private sector is involved. The public sector is involved; even the individuals including other societies, [but] I wouldn’t want to mention names so that I will not be attacked.”
In other societies, such an un-presidential capitulation would be considered to be cowardice, not courage, in the face of corruption. In Mr. Jonathan’s Nigeria, it is proof corruption is inconsequential. As a man who was himself indicted for false declaration of assets in 2006, Jonathan’s claims of exaggeration remind the world – no matter what he thinks – he has an unpaid debt: something to hide, but now, the power to hide it.
What those claims do not hide is that Jonathan’s future – personal or political – is already clearly defined. Should he enter the 2015 presidential race, he will have to run on his record. That would include having to explain his corruption theory, including in live debates, persuasively. And should he choose not to run, he must be prepared to explain to History for the rest of his life the same garbled gaffe, with no place to hide.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Sanala Olumhense. Follow this writer on Twitter: @Sonala.Olumhense