Demystification of Received Orthodoxy: Strategies for a New Political Renewal

Being text of the paper delivered by Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, Chairman, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) at the 3rd Ralph Okpara Memorial Lecture of the National Association of Seadogs at the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs, Lagos on Friday, November 3, 2006.

Ahoy Seadogs!

I take great delight to be an honored guest at this gathering today and thank you immensely for the kind invitation to speak at the memorial of one of the revered Original Seven of this eminently important association, the seadogs.

To speak the truth, if we are to review the trajectory of the seadogs, looking at the group through the social and cultural paths taken by the Original Seven, we must conclude that in half a century of a life time, the Seadogs have surely lived a good life. The evidences are there before our very eyes: Just look at the great contributions of our own dear Wole Soyinka to the social and political health of this nation, and certainly to the world; look at the sterling contributions that the likes of Professor Muyiwa Awe has made in the scientific development of this nation; or indeed the relentless efforts of Aig-Imoukhuede in the cultural field. I salute you all as you all therefore as you bring back the memories of the founding fathers through this lecture series.

Ladies and gentlemen, although I lack a profound knowledge of the late Ralph Opara but in my little research on your evolution as a cultural experience, it seems to me that the Seadogs have really come a great way from that modest beginnings in 1952 when seven thoughtful young men decided, in an act of needful rebellion, and choose to think outside the box by forming this group which was then called the Pyrates Confraternity.

Look back again today, Seadogs, and tell me what you see as the defining principle of your association. Even as an outsider what I see are five key and important principles that link us all together, and which, I must confess, are responsible for my very presence here today. The principles are: democratic access, the demystification of orthodoxy, the value of youth, the humanistic challenge, and the centrality of the imagination.

Let’s face it, these are the key challenges of any worthy life, and when you asked that I speak on a theme that connects our national political purpose to the compelling challenges of an integrity framework, it was clear to me that you have not lost sight of your founding philosophy and that we actually have a common vision, because if you look at it critically, a lot of what drives our own work at the EFCC, as indeed an goal-setting organisation, is ultimately rooted in the ambience of these five principles.

Challenge me if you think I am wrong, Ladies and Gentlemen, I wish to propose that the progress that young people have made in the world over time, from the examples of the Mandelas, through the Nkrumahs, the Senghors to the Ghandis and the Kennedys are all defined around these five principles, and in trying to draw upon them here again today to leverage the theme of my remarks. I crave your kind indulgence to remind us of some basic and honest truth about our national reality.

No matter how we try to glamorize our national situation, Ladies and gentlemen, one fact stares us in the face: Nigeria is at the throes of a major rule of law crisis. Indeed today the country lurches at the threshold of a critical political turning point. With the next general elections coming in less than a year, our great country could move forward to consolidate its fledging democracy, and so usher in a beckoning phase of economic prosperity, but, as you all know and will agree with me, we may as well trigger costly reversals by entrenching a canceling administration that may reverse all the gains of the past years, with the horrifying implication of severe destabilizing consequences.

The major indicators of this crisis are there before our very eyes but to my mind no one stands so rudely in challenge to our capacity to embrace the future of our promise as the blatant corruption that stalks the land today. I have not said this to promote corruption as the only problem facing us. How can we see all the challenges we face as a nation and say that?  My thesis, however, is that after about half a century of independence, the inability to realize the great vision of our founding fathers as a nation is directly related to the annulling effect of corruption.

The act of shameless and unbridled state plunder so prevalent in the country today represents the greatest human tragedy that has shackled our progress as a people and society since independence; if you also ask me I make bold to say it is at the very heart of the rule of law crisis in Nigeria. Therefore if we seek to make tangible progress and resolve to rupture the repetitive cycle of national failure, our first step must be to connect the abysmal failure of governance in the country with the reality of corruption in high and low places.

There is a clear correlation between the reality of corruption as the abusive use of public power, and the monumental failure in governance in Nigeria. In fact corruption stands as the single most damaging force against economic growth, social stability and democracy.  If corruption is the very reason why after about half a century of independence we still cannot proudly hold our post among nations that have built an enriching community life for their citizens, then why are we so complacent? Why is national outrage and revulsion so tamely deployed against this ravaging tumor such that we are so willing to engage in ethno-national and religious violence yet content ourselves to modest or at best cynical responses against the dizzying incidences of corruption?  Where are our educated elites, who ought to be matching against failed infrastructures, failed services? Where are our professional classes who cannot make sense of the connections between political promises and policy delivery but have negotiated to opt for private cynicism rather than active protest?

Frankly, this unacceptably skewed response of tempered revulsion against the many examples of massive corruption and corrupt leaders as against the rancorous and sometimes fatal response against petty felony must stop. It is either the message is not getting home properly or the messengers are distorting the message. Either way, we need an urgent review of the national ethical framework in the interest of our collective survival as a nation and as a people. How can we suffer such shameless amnesia in the very region of the world where, in the past couple decades alone, the failure of governance triggered by corruption, has enacted some of the worst pogroms and fratricidal carnages of the late 20th Century.

How many people here remember the great wealth of a country once Zaire? Today that enormously rich country was shredded to ground zero by one of the worst and most shameless thieving leaders of this continent Mr. Mobutu Sese Seko. At the end of the day what happened to the country? The state failed as an instrument of authority and organisation, paving the path for a horrendous bloodbath. The result is already out: Zaire is no more, its treasury is dry, Mobutu is probably resting in peace, but millions of his poor compatriots have been killed and murdered in a senseless war that was crafted in ethno-national colors rather than a simple case of failure of governance triggered by corruption.

The examples are countless: take Liberia, take Sudan---these are relics of failure of governance, countries that have now become poster boards of the effect of elite greed and corruption that have resulted in the mass misery of their people.  Now let me ask a question, probably a rhetorical one for our current purpose: can anyone here vouch that if Mobutu had miraculously showed up in Congo DR and sought to contest elections in the just concluded process of that country, he would have no votes or probably even win an election?

There are those who will argue that the question is wrongly posed, that we ought to frame the question in terms of moral equivalence. In order words, the question ought to be: should he ever be allowed to revisit violence on his people based on past records? Similar scenario is being enacted here in Nigeria where discredited and failed leaders of the past have started accepting nomination forms to join the presidential trace. Are there things they know about their candidacy that we don’t know?

Many jurisdictions of the world are steadily growing into the realization that indicted leaders are unworthy of electoral fortunes. The challenge, on a global scale today, however, is for citizens to now grow in mass consciousness, from the pains of corruption inflicted by such past leaders and now evolve a covenant that puts to terminal effect the very possibility of such leaders ever seeking power again.  This is, in my opinion, one of the major human rights, and rule of law challenges of our age, the will to extend for corruption what we have done for other high crimes in the criminal justice platform.  If we agree that corruption has devalued politics and policy in Nigeria we cannot then shy away from the full implication of the syllogism that we can retrieve the values of policy and politics only by investing in an active anti-corruption war.

Led me bring the illustrations closer home to lead me into my next point: some eight years ago, our Central Bank had computed that N200 billion was lost in one of the most spectacular gangster operations perpetrated by the banking elites to capture hard earned resources of fellow citizens via what we have now come to dub the failed banks phenomenon. I know a little about this since this is how I came into active anti-corruption work as one of the panelists who investigated that phenomenon. Ladies and gentlemen, please relate that to the case of the N18 Billion that was recovered from a former head of the law enforcement institution in this country or the N50 Billion worth of assets that have been traced to one single governor in this country. The composite picture that emerges is that of gross violation and wanton violence against the collective as well as the individual rights of the average Nigerian.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let us face it and say it as it is, corruption is the fulcrum of the failure of the Nigerian experience to generate the appropriate equity that could help galvanize democratic transformation. Corruption is the real threat to our democracy, political stability and development. The answer is not in cynicism, escapism or timid rejection; we must all rise to confront this monstrosity with all our might, strength and talents. We must orchestrate a new vision of change via the platform of a rule of law that sets out to retrieve our lost rights. This is where the biggest fight will come from. Those who seat in judgment today to truncate the social, the political and indeed the civic rights of the majority of voiceless Nigerians are powerful, entrenched and unsparing. There is no weapon in their hands or their reach that will not be used---blackmail, lies, propaganda, and probably even worse.  

Ladies and gentlemen, I stand here to testify before you that change is possible and that you must not give in to cynicism even when the odds seem so stacked against change agents. Forces of change in Nigeria can gain the momentum and lead the battle to successful closure. They have the moral high ground on their side, and they must convert this to political and social advantage. At the heart of the new anti-corruption campaign is fact that it is the preeminent civil and social rights issue of the current time, and that if we must give it true substance, we must orchestrate a new vision of change via the platform of a rule of law that sets out to retrieve the cocktail of lost rights which have turned our people into beggars and pictures of misery.

Let us not leave this hall with the false notion that nothing positive has happened in the past few years. Those who had no appreciation of just how bad things were can wallow in lurid illusion. To be sure, some baby steps have been taken regarding charting a new path for Nigeria’s greatness. A lot of that actually happened in the past six years, and we at the EFCC believe that we are part of that active value restructuring process currently apace in the country.  Are we fully out of the woods yet? The answer is obviously no but our experience at EFCC assures us that these modest efforts can trigger important changes. Here are sample evidences: In the three years that we have been in existence we have aggressively challenged the national image profile by taking on the powerful 419 king-pins and hauling their one-time untouchable captains into jail. You all are living witnesses to these are these crooks are still in jail today. This has been done by Nigerians like you, very young men and women who silently but relentlessly comb across our country daily, helping to make this land safe and free for us all. Therefore I assure you that change is possible.

After our encounter with the leadership of the 419 trade, we moved our searchlight into the banking halls and cracked down with massive and overwhelming force on the bank barons who were perpetrating the most heinous financial fraud. That battle of wills ultimately helped the consolidation process in the financial sector which is now restoring confidence into our financial and banking system. When we started the campaign we had to endure blackmail, lies and insults. Today that has been done and therefore I tell you that change is possible and that you must not waver.

Now that we have lobbed the ball into the basket political elites there is all cries and screams of “selective justice”, of “Gestapo tactics”, and of all sorts of diversionary propaganda. Unable to deal with the message, the Nigerian political elite is reverting to that discredited tactics of hacking down the messenger.  Frankly I do not think they can win. For one their claims are tenuous, and merely hysterical. For instance those who advance the argument of selective justice have not helped their audience understand how selective justice amounts to an act of injustice. As one famous national commentator put it recently, “you have 10 robbers in a den and you arrest 4 but they fire back at you with the defence that there are other robbers in the field. Why not catch all before you pronounce us as robbers”! Such is puerile nature of their arguments and those of their hired and professional propagandists.

The privileges that come with the ongoing elite raid on the patrimony of our commonwealth, and the material and cultural resources at the disposal of these abusive elite are so enormous that we must expect a massive counter offensive from the political class against the EFCC’s current challenge to confront the corrupt stratum of that class.

Change is in the air ladies and gentlemen, and we must make the move. Thus far the EFCC has recovered about $5 billion in stolen assets, have secured about 100 convictions and all over the courts in the country we have some 400 cases awaiting determination. These are significant baby steps in a very difficult environment, but thanks to the extraordinary political will provided by President Olusegun Obasanjo we can look back today in pride.

All said, it is important never to loose sight of the authoritarian origins of the rule of law crisis, rooted as it were in the traditions and doctrines of Nigeria’s military past, and the frustrations that it triggers resulting to mass alienation of the citizens and the often resort to rule of force by citizens in an attempt to even up with a system that offers no other space to secure justice and fairness.

This is the challenge that 2007 offers us to address, to address this rule of law crisis and its many manifestations. I truly believe that for a democracy that is still at its fledging state, civic action and activism the like that the Seadogs have come to represent must take a front role.  We at the EFCC have lately moved in that important direction too. Last month we launched a huge civil society initiative tagged the Fix Nigeria Initiative. This EFCC’s civil society project was initiated in the realization that we and other anti-corruption agencies cannot effectively fight and eliminate corruption alone.  Civil society and the state must partner in the major fight against corruption. The belief in community and public power is, in our view, the most effective catalytic push needed to initiate a sustainable ethical reform in the country.

Civic organizations like the Seadogs must therefore carve a leading role in this campaign and I look forward to signing an MOU of collaborative action with you soon. I thank you for all your great works and many humanistic interventions of the past, and particularly your stand against the ongoing gross human rights violations in Darfur. Frankly speaking, you are living truth to your own history and that is a thing of great pride.

Civic organizations have a huge role to play in the anti corruption fight. We at the EFCC believe that to move Nigeria ahead dynamically towards its goal of regional leadership, and in its quest of creating a polity of genuine democratic consensus, the fight against crimes of an economic and financial character must elicit an urgent civil society component. Civic groups can work to ensure true accountability and transparency in the process and I challenge you today to declare the 2007 electoral platform a terrain of ethics and a space of value. This is, after all, the core challenge that the 1952 principles that created your organisation represented.  

Ladies and gentlemen, in conclusion I want to repeat again that I stand here today to assure you that change is possible and that you must all stand up to be counted, that you must not retreat, that you must not surrender. This is the context that led to the founding of the Pyrates Confraternity; and which informed the vision of Ralph Opara and the Original Seven.

Ahoy Seadogs! There is great pain in the land; your country needs your help; let us demystify all received but archaic orthodoxies; let us unleash the awesome power of imagination to rebuild this country in the image of justice; let us unchain the vitality of our youth and stamp out corruption in our generation; you must stand up; it is possible, yes it is possible; please do not waver, its time to move--the sea may be rough but for goodness sake, we must move, let us sail.

Thank you all, God Bless you, God Bless our country.

Good Morning.

Mallam Nuhu Ribadu
Chairman, EFCC