Wednesday, June 18, 2008

EFCC: The endgame?

IN Texaco, a novel by the Martinican writer Patrick Chamoiseau, a city-planner named Christ visits the ghetto which gives the novel its title with the hope to "renovate" it. The narrator wryly comments that the city-planner's administrative intention is to "raze" Texaco. I was constantly reminded of this passage as I read reports of the nomination and confirmation of Mrs. Farida Waziri as the new chairperson of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. The way that the government of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua in cohorts with the National Assembly has been playing politics with the anti-graft agency since late last year would cause for laughter were it not absurdly, frustratingly tragic.

Six months ago, Nuhu Ribadu, the founding chairman of this organisation was ostensibly sent on an administrative course, an action that was roundly condemned by local and international commentators. One of his staff, Ibrahim Lamorde, was subsequently appointed in an acting capacity, and now we are being presented with a substantive chairman. Notice that since the beginning of this year, much of the attention usually trained on EFCC's corruption-combating activities has gone to this manufactured leadership crisis. And one gets the sinking feeling that, in that peculiarly Nigerian way, EFCC is being effectively "renovated". For a country with a sad and long history of coup-making, of refusing to get things right, this development seems very much in character. It is tragic. You have to laugh to keep from crying.

One argument in defense of the transfer of Ribadu back in December 2007 was that no man was (or should be) greater than an institution, that in order to ensure stability and continuity in public institutions, individuals running them should be dispensable or changeable. Moreso, the argument continued, Ribadu was a police officer before he was EFCC's boss, and his primary responsibility ought to be to the Nigeria Police, the institution that seconded him to the agency.

There were some who felt that Ribadu was beginning to personalise the EFCC, that a personality cult was likely to develop out of his iconoclastic approach to crime fighting. A lot was wrong with this argument, as many people have pointed out. Apparently, the argument proceeded on the assumption that the EFCC was a stabilised institution in a self-correcting social structure. But we all know that Nigeria is far from a self-correcting society, that, in fact, the kind of work that EFCC (with all its imperfections) had begun to do was likely to institute such sorely needed self-correcting mechanisms. Here is a disarming paradox: to prevent a face with lineage-marks being perceived as ugly, you actually take a knife to wipe out the marks.

There is no doubt that Nigerians, like the media that shape and are shaped by their opinions, are a politically articulate lot. Hardly has a matter of some political importance broken as news than it becomes a matter of much public debate. And you can be sure that every contributor to that debate will bring to it as much passion as s/he can muster. People will speak from the gut; they may even refer to similar incidents in the past. What is lacking, and what undoes us as a people and continually puts a humane society out of our reach, is a true civic sense. We have a sense of what is right and what is wrong, but we are so passionate in arguing about it that we mistake that for making it real. This may sound harsh, but most public commentators, especially those who write for newspapers, trust official narratives too much. Ok, let me refine that by saying that a good number of those public commentators are "official writers" masquerading as objective commentators.

The great tragedy is that a lack of true civic awareness makes it difficult, impossible even, for readers to see through these masks. Writer and reader become complicit in official narratives; the one more willingly than the other, who will become perhaps even more complicit. Partly because Nigeria is by law a liberal society, with public media espousing liberal ethos, every public commentator feels free to state an opinion, never mind that such opinionating could be so cavalier as to reinforce negative official attitudes toward public institutions, the citizenry, and so on. What I'm getting at here is this: media criticisms of EFCC, like the old media criticisms of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, easily reinforce official storylines.

Another argument in defense of Ribadu's transfer from the commission was the presumed bias of its procedures. It was argued that the EFCC selectively and nepotistically went after perceived 'enemies' of then President Olusegun Obasanjo, who had been bruised and humiliated out of his bid to rewrite the constitution and award himself a third-term as president. It is difficult to quarrel with this argument. The commission either looked the other way or resorted to excuses when individuals who were close to the former president were pointed out as equally worth investigating. But the point is also that, in a society as thoroughly compromised on ethical grounds as ours is, it is difficult to check corruption without a mix of radical and reformist tactics. People wanted only legalism, and legalism of the most conservative kind. To EFCC's critics, the point was not that those being arrested were innocent, but that others who might be equally guilty were not being apprehended. That's like exchanging one half-measure for another. Those determined to change a society should not be content to patch it up. It is not surprising that the EFCC is a loose deuce in a game now reduced to the plain fun of being played.

This brings me to a necessary point. The current National Assembly is dominated by manipulative, anti-democratic individuals, products and beneficiaries of the military autocracy that has shaped our consciousness as a people. Of course it is not every lawmaker who fits into this description-there must be men and women of personal integrity in the parliament. The point is that the institution is held in thrall to the amorality of the cohort of purveyors of special interest. Notice the way that the potentially revealing statement by Senator Nuhu Aliyu that the Senate was full of frauds was definitively silenced on the grounds that it was a claim without a legal basis. The senator committed no more than a tactical blunder, but the fetish of "due-process" proved to be great insurance for the jittery. Notice the charade of Senator Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello's dalliance with the EFCC. Pay attention to the casual but calculated manner in which the very important Freedom of Information bill is being destroyed.

The National Assembly is obsessed with the appearance, not the substance, of rule of law. After a fashion of social observation, this kind of conduct would be described as politics, or 'business as usual'. And so it is, from a cynic's point of view. It is just that Nigeria cannot afford this kind of cynicism. Many Nigerians have undergone untold suffering to enthrone true civic awareness in this society, and millions undergo untold suffering daily because we have failed repeatedly and decidedly at the project of enthroning civic awareness. There is enormous potential to humanise Nigeria, to build a lawful country. But this won't happen as long as the country is saddled with leaders and lawmakers who worship the appearance of legalism over and above its substance. The story of the EFCC presents a rare opportunity to move in this direction. As the great African, Chinua Achebe, once said, Nigerians have a talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

And what became of Texaco, the ghetto in Fort-de-France? It may have been "razed", as its civic-minded inhabitants feared, but its story remains because they were never fooled. They didn't buy the official line. Public-spirited Nigerians require no less vigilance. If the government and the lawmakers succeed in "razing" the EFCC, then we would deserve our leaders, once again, and that would be official.