IMF’s thumbs down to our anti-corruption policy

Ayo Olukotun

“Perception of corruption remains high…leading to low tax compliance and buy-in of reforms”

– International Monetary Fund Mission to Nigeria Report, November 2021.

Nigeria, long projected as an African giant playing on the world stage, is caught in a devastating moral and socio-economic bind. There is a downsizing of social purpose and the will to improve the human condition, not only among political leaders but in civil society as well. The intellectual vocation, in particular its mandate to inform policy-making, is in recession. Illustratively, last week, this columnist attended the University of Ibadan Convocation Ceremony where Africa’s foremost Humanities scholar, Prof. Toyin Falola, was conferred with an earned Doctor of Letters degree. The very next day, Falola substantiated his merit by presenting his latest book, “Understanding Modern Nigeria (Cambridge University Press, 2021) to the public, the first in a trilogy of voluminous books also to be published by Cambridge. Yet, hovering around the celebration was an article by Emeritus Professor, Akinjide Osuntokun, lambasting the administrators of the National Merit Award, who have consistently bypassed such a luminous scholar as Falola. This is surely a story for another day, a scandal of sorts; please bear in mind that the NMA is supervised, not by military oligarchs or prebendal politicians, but by very senior academics. This unpleasant anecdote is brought in to show that the treacherous crossroads in which Nigeria finds itself implicate leaders and followers alike, invoking the Biblical rebuke that “all have sinned”.

This brings us to the International Monetary Fund’s lament, quoted in the opening paragraph about the increasing perception of corruption in Nigeria and the deleterious consequences for economic growth. To be sure, this is not the first time the IMF has publicly criticised our anti-corruption platform. Last year, to take an instance, the Managing Director of IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, regretted that Nigeria exhibited “a culture of unaccountability and obscene profiteering at the expense of hundreds of millions of Nigerians.” You may wish to ask the question: why has the IMF come to loom so large in our policymaking and economic choices? It is simple. Unlike in previous dispensations when a measure of nationalist consciousness as well as better economic management kept the organisation at arm’s length, Nigeria has plunged headlong into a season characterised by a borrowing spree and the accompanying micromanagement by outsiders of our economy.

Recall for instance that last year the IMF approved, at Nigeria’s behest, a loan described by the organisation as “massive” of $3.4 billion as emergency assistance, presumably related to the management of COVID-19. It is difficult to keep track of Nigeria’s current borrowing status automatically approved by the ruling party-dominated National Assembly. Nonetheless, even the IMF was compelled to issue a warning recently concerning Nigeria’s growing and high-risk indebtedness and its consequences. You do not need a prophet to tell you that the proposed hike in petroleum prices, a familiar IMF policy mantra, may not be unrelated to our growing economic subservience.

On the issue of corruption raised by the Fund, its view tallies with those of Nigerian intellectuals, including non-l organisations, which have long regretted the retardation in the anti-corruption policy. Doubtless, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), will be given kudos by history for kick-starting an anti-corruption programme. Beyond that, unfortunately, there would be little to congratulate him for, partly because there has been no improvement in Transparency International’s ranking of Nigeria in successive Corruption Perception Indices during his tenure. That apart, various observers have alluded to dilations, contradictions, half-heartedness and a lack of purpose in the execution of that agenda. A few examples will make the point.

Last year, Justice Ayo Salami (retd.) headed a probe panel that submitted its report to the presidency in an open ceremony. On that occasion, waxing eloquent, Buhari promised to employ the recommendations to institute a new culture of accountability in public service. I may have forgotten but I do not remember that anything further was heard about those recommendations including the one suggesting the prosecution of the former acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Ibrahim Magu. This is either a characteristic omission or familiar amnesia in the fight against corruption. What has become of the several cases of corruption and allegations of large scale embezzlement of public funds in such institutions as the Niger Delta Development Commission, the Nigeria Customs Service, the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund and sundry other cases which went into oblivion after titillating the public for a while? Would you want to know what became of some heads of parastatals suspended from their posts for alleged corruption, not followed up by prosecution or sanctions, making them free to enjoy their loot in retirement? Do you want to talk about those cases which became casualties of political trade-offs as the alleged culprits played fast ones by joining the ruling party in return for turning a blind eye to their trespasses?

So, at the end of the day, we have a lot of hooplas, roadshows, colourful publicity around anti-corruption, but the rewards are few and far between. Leaving aside the controversies trailing the former Chairman of the Pension Reform Task Team, Abdulrasheed Maina, there are so many instances, some of them dramatic, implicating high state officials including some serving ministers, which apparently have been glossed over.

In a recent article published in the American Journal of Chinese Studies, Prof. Jon Quah, drew a contrast between the anti-corruption policy and the status of Singapore, one of the least corrupt countries in the world (ranked 3rd least corrupt by Transparency International in 2020), and China ranked in the same year as 78th by Transparency. The outstanding success of Singapore, it was claimed, rests on certain factors and attitudes which China is admonished to learn from. These are: Singapore and its ruling party exercise the political will to fight corruption and to keep the country morally sanitised. Secondly, Singapore does not confuse the symptoms of corruption with its fundamental causes and drivers. Thirdly, Singapore does not play politics with anti-corruption unlike China, whose leaders make anti-corruption a subject of political horse-trading. Fourthly, Singapore’s anti-corruption agency is given the independence to investigate corruption cases irrespective of who is involved or which political party the culprit belongs to. Finally, Singapore has set a high premium backed by resources on its anti-corruption agency and personnel, reaping the dividends of the linkage between welfare and effectiveness.

This informative article suggests that there is nothing accidental about a structured and holistic campaign against public sector corruption. Singapore and the People’s Action Party are reaping the robust anti-corruption tradition and moral purpose begun by Lee Kuan Yew, who takes the credit for being the nation’s founding father, and transformative hero, a tradition carried on by his successors. This is a much different context from a situation Wole Soyinka once described as historical throw-ups in which rulers emerge by accident or sheer persistence without a roadmap of national reinvention.

The takeaways from Singapore’s eminent scorecard apply to Nigeria which, before the page closes, can still turn around its dismal anti-corruption record. For this to happen, it must take away the lessons of genuine change, take them to heart while carrying the people along, for instance, by lessening the current human misery index.

Contact: [email protected]

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