THE creation of a functional and balance human system is largely dependent on in-built mechanisms and processes that serve as necessary architectural framework for self regulations. These instilled checks and balances avert exploitations, despotism and totalitarianism while aligning all branches and units with the projections of corporate benefits to all stakeholders as well as the promoters and strengthening institutions value foundation.
This was the spirit behind the paper titled ; “Constitutional Foundations of Political Corruption in Nigeria and a Reform Strategy” presented by a foremost political scientist, Professor Rotimi Suberu of Bennington College, USA, at the June 12 seminar of the Ibadan School For Government and Public Policy (ISGPP). This piece majorly summarizes the key substance of that paper and the inputs of a high-end cream of scholars present.
Professor Suberu whose intellectual contributions, especially to federalism research and scholarship, have attracted global attention and recognition is a renowned expert in Nigerian politics and government. This former University of Ibadan don chose his topic well. The seminar argued that though corruption is not a new word in the Nigeria’s socio-economic and political lexicon, it has mostly been viewed with fiscal lens. It interrogated the issue of political corruption and established that this brand of corruption manifests through the manipulation and exploitation of political institutions, deliberate weakening and violation of their value foundation, in a nation where the essence of everything, including the meaning of eternity; where we would all be at the end of time is politicized. It affirmed that political corruption has violated public trust and the social contract that underpin our democratic existence as a nation
Nigeria’s distasteful entanglement with corruption has been variously documented and almost legendary. The public domain is awash with reports, research, literatures and findings that connected the country with this malaise. Nigeria has been labeled and derided as one the most corrupt nations in the world. There are indexes that have registered Nigeria as an unsuitable clime for investment because of institutional corruption and decadence. The World Bank in a recent report said that “the percentage of firms likely to encounter corruption by public officials in Nigeria is more than double the average for sub-Saharan Africa” and in the Transparency International (TI) index for 2017, Nigeria was ranked 148 out of 180 countries.
Corruption has festered in the country because of the over dependence on crude oil and this has continued to stifle the fiscal creativity in the leadership, weakening the fiscal social contract and distorting political leadership by making them rent-seeking, predatory elites, almost allergic to reforms and lacking the self motivated incentives to “build strong institutions that might interfere with their ability to allocate rents.” Beyond this, successive governments have not displayed the political will, commitment, boldness or resoluteness, which are all key in fighting corruption. Corruption is legitimized by popular expectations and norms supporting the appropriation of resources and opportunities in the public sector, for the benefit, not only of individual public office holders but also of members of their sectional or political support groups. Corruption thus becomes a social equilibrium, a collective action problem in which both agents (political office holders) and principals (the citizenry) are implicated.
All these find perfect breeding ground in the weak formal political institutions and constitutional frameworks including ‘presidentialism’, federalism/decentralization, low-quality democracies, and electoral systems as well the design of oversight institutions among others.
Conversely, and taking inspiration from a strand of a multiplex and deeply nuanced institutionalists’ perspective which dominated discourse at the ISGPP seminar, the act can be balanced out by the creation of viable institutions that can drive the necessary social, political and economic changes. Such institutions would provide the necessary framework to complement political economy, political leadership, and political culture. These strategic institutions draw their strength from the constitution and they are instrumental in shaping political and economic development. It is instructive to note that these institutions can be subverted for political capital depending on how they are designed. Formal political institutions can reduce or extend the scope for political leadership abuse, reinforce negative or positive political culture norms, and exacerbate or mitigate problematic economic incentives.
There are some schools of thoughts that say positive socio-political outcomes like prosperity and democratization are driven not so much by initial structural conditions, such as demography or culture, but by inclusive institutions and rules that effectively constrain and broadly distribute or divide power. The widespread third wave of democratization in Africa since the 1990s has witnessed the growing formalization and institutionalization of power including but not limited to courts, parliaments, elections, and constitutional reforms, as distinct from informal personal and patrimonial politics. The recent electoral reforms in Nigeria including the enhancement of the financial and operational autonomy of the electoral administration transformed and improved the quality of Nigerian elections in 2011 and 2015.
It is established that public participation in designing, deliberating and ratifying a constitution can help advance processes of democratization and nation-building. The 1999 constitution which is the rule book for our democracy is often derided as an imposed document. The constitution as amended is still fraught with loopholes and grey areas. These include excessive discretionary powers for chief executives of different tiers of government. There is also evident weak political insulation for anti-corruption and oversight agencies. Also, the constitution provides weak transparency frameworks as well as a fundamentally flawed, patronage-promoting, fiscal federalism
According to sections 4 and 148 of the constitution, the President has broad “discretionary” powers to veto legislation, including constitutional amendments already approved by a supermajority of national and state legislatures. The stark reality, going by the conclusions of the seminar, is that these broad powers are prone to corruption and have been used, on occasions, to delay or frustrate anti-corruption reforms, for example, the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and 4th Constitution Alteration Bill. According to Suberu, the sweeping powers of the president extend into political, economic and even social sectors. “He may assign responsibility for any business of the government of the federation.” He is empowered to appoint members of federal executive commissions under the 3rd Schedule of the Constitution, including key oversight agencies like the Code of Conduct Bureau, Police Service Commission, Federal Character Commission, and Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission. He enjoys immunity from criminal prosecution while in office. Many of these powers are replicated or amplified at the sub-national level, where, according to Richard Joseph, governors function like “provincial chiefs in a decentralized patrimonial order”. The most detrimental executive powers from the perspective of anticorruption reform involve the appointment and control of key oversight agencies. In the words of elder statesman and foremost constitutional Law expert, Ben Nwabueze “The fact that an incumbent president is, as a practical matter, free from the sanctions of the fight against corruption and abuse of office is the reason why it has made and can make hardly any appreciable and lasting impact on the incidence of corruption in the country”
The President’s executive authority over the prime anti-corruption agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) includes the power to remove a member of the commission ‘at any time’. This is more or less replicated in the chief executive’s relations with other oversight agencies, including the Fiscal Responsibility Commission and newly constituted National Council on Public Procurement. The consequences of these unilateral powers, the seminar avers, include presidential impunity, intimidation and victimization of crusaders. It also affects the credibility, neutrality, and integrity of anti-corruption investigations and prosecutions. The result of this is the absence of professionalism and institutional underdevelopment. In July 2017, EGMONT Group, by consensus, suspended the EFCC’s National Financial Investigation Unit (NFIU) for its lack of professionalism and independence.
Most other agencies are stifled by these executive manacles inhibiting their professionalism, transparency and independence. The result is that almost all the agencies including but not limited to the Code of Conduct Bureau, NEITI and Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Allocation Commission (RMFAC), have become toothless bulldogs that cannot even bark talk less of biting.
The epic scale of political corruption underscores a fragile sense of Nigerian nationhood and political community that has been exacerbated, rather than mitigated, by the process of constitution-making. Someone once said, “Nigerian constitution-making has been top-down, sectarian, manipulative, elitist, arrogant, non-participatory, non-inclusive, and non-transparent.” The fragile sense of Nigerian national identity and political community has deeper roots in the arbitrary, coercive, exploitative, and manipulative manner in which the British constructed Nigeria. But Nigerian elites have failed to use post-colonial political transitions/constitution-making processes to construct a robust, inclusive, integrative and compact national constitutional.
Though the seminar acknowledged the value of the bit of authoritarianism inherent in presidentialism with weak check and balances usually associated with the celebrated Singapore Lee Kuan Yew outlier case, it argued in favour of a solution framework that curbs the discretionary powers of political executives. This, it says, is more realistic to curb presidential powers than to promote parliamentarianism and semi-presidentialism (de facto hyper-presidential). These would include the review of the executive’s constitutional powers and privileges, including immunity and veto prerogatives. There must be a check on the executive’s powers to allocate economic rents and patronage by prohibiting security votes, eliminating redundant, duplicative agencies, and reforming petroleum governance among others. At the sub national level, autonomous democratic local governance must be promoted. The weakness of this line of analysis is that it focused more heavily on the executive arm without its justaposition with the excesses of the legislature and the judiciary.
Furthermore, the seminar argued that the most important thing in tackling political corruption would be the insulation of oversight agencies against executive control. It therefore favoured the creation of a National Oversight Council (comprising nominees of non-partisan national civic associations such as journalists, students, academics, and women, with the president as a member) to assume responsibility for appointing, supervising, and determining the funding of oversight agencies.
The seminar made wide-ranging recommendations. The headship of anti-corruption agencies should be an independent civil society luminary with a non renewable term. A constitutional amendment or legislation to grant public access to officials’ assets declarations should be put in place. This will build upon the initial enthusiasm generated by government’s whistle blower policy; alleviate some of the burden on the bureau charged with verifying disclosures; and give the public a direct stake in fighting corruption.
The oversight responsibility for the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act should be transferred to a depoliticized and autonomous office of Attorney-General, which should be separated from the political office of Minister of Justice.
There is also an urgent and strategic need to restructure the system of unconditional federal revenue distribution into a conditional grants scheme in order to make Sub National Governments (SNG) accountable, transparent, responsible, and efficient in their use of devolved revenues. A good way to begin a conditional grants scheme is to institutionalize, through legislation and constitutional amendment, some of the conditions for federal bailouts in the currently unimplemented federal government fiscal sustainability plan for states: timely publication of reports of audited finances and budget implementation performance, compliance with international public sector accounting standards, improvement of independently generated revenues, implementation of centralized single treasury account, limitations on personnel expenditure as a share of total budgeted revenue, privatization or concession of inefficient state-owned enterprises, implementation of Fiscal Responsibility Act, and the development and maintenance of a credit rating.
There is also the need to introduce genuine participatory constitutionalism as opposed to imposed constitutionalism which will use the constitution-making process to repair the fragile sense of ethnicity-transcending national community underpinning the massive private/sectional plunder of public resources.
There is near-universal consensus of seminar participants that the existing corrupt governance system is unsustainable as our federation is dysfunctional and not delivering on public goods to the generality of the people. However, Nigeria’s recent success in improving electoral integrity suggests that it can undertake further constitutional change to reduce corruption, advance good governance, and enhance national stability.
Dr. Olaopa is
Executive Vice Chairman,
Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP);
Email: [email protected]
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