By Sonala Olumhense
Finally, Nigeria last week got around to the touchy subject of taking the filthy wigs off corrupt members of the judiciary and calling criminals and an accessory to the crime.
Naturally, there is an uproar, notably from their professional relatives and sundry members of the corruption cooperative, who jumped up and sideways in alarm.
Certainly, it might have been more tidily done. But the Nigerian judiciary has not been tidy for 50 years. Pimps and prostitutes sometimes reject a client, perhaps for body odour or bad breath, but our corrupt judges have never said no to a dirty naira bill.
Military or civilian, Second Republic or Banana Republic, they have cashed in on their exalted seats, in the process serving as an example to the world that everyone has a price. I do not think they deserve to be extended the benefit of the doubt that, by their collusion, they denied life, opportunity or happiness.
If there is a concession that I make, it is that when they appear in a court, they be permitted a fair trial. But if jailed, they must be sent to the same jails they saved their collaborators from, their filthy wigs thrown in with them to be used as a pillow.
Hopefully, that will persuade others, that there is truth to the saying that nobody is above the law.
Or will it?
My experience is that former Nigerian leaders, and their families and friends, are above the law. I think that leaders of the major political parties are above the law. I think that top judges and Ministers, along with their friends and families, are above the law. And that this dichotomy, between those who must obey the law and those who may choose what side of the law they are on, is at the heart of Nigeria’s distress.
Last week, for instance, the EFCC found a reason to issue a denial that the arrests of the judges were undertaken by the DSS because the Attorney General of the Federation had become frustrated by the sluggish pace of the EFCC in responding to petitions sent to it.
It came on the same day that the agency swore that Patience Jonathan, the wife of ex-President Goodluck Jonathan, would be made prosecuted if its investigations yield evidence of corruption against her.
The assertion was made by Iliyasu Kwarbai, the agency’s Deputy Director of Operations, upon the receipt of a petition against Mrs Jonathan and the ruling party from a group of protesters, led by civil society activists, at the EFCC office in Lagos.
In the petition, the demonstrators pointedly accused the EFCC of being selective in the anti-corruption effort. It demanded the arrest and prosecution of Mrs Jonathan, probe of APC campaign finance, and an end to the existence of sacred cows in the country, including the national leader of the APC, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, and the former governor of Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi.
The Human Rights Defenders and Advocacy Centre, which led the protest, said to the EFCC, “You have found evidence incriminating Patience Jonathan, but we are surprised that [she] is still allowed to be walking freely, and even had the audacity to take the EFCC to court to release same money to her.”
The demonstrators challenged the agency to stop parading the slogan, ‘Nobody is above the law,’ citing Mrs Jonathan and former leaders Ibrahim Babangida, Abdusalam Abubakar, Olusegun Obasanjo and Mr Jonathan that it had failed to go after.
Mr Kwarbai was making an important commitment, but also a historically dangerous one. Every Nigerian leader and every government talks about fighting corruption, but not one has yet produced the courage to do so among the most powerful, where it matters.
I have spoken about the current incarnation of the EFCC. In its original, under pioneer chairman Nuhu Ribadu, the agency committed the same open boast as Mr Kwarbai.
That was in November 2007, and the venue was that same Ikoyi Office of the EFCC. The officer in charge: Umaru Sanda, who was the Head of General Investigation.
Receiving protesters of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders, which had arrived to file an anti-corruption petition against Obasanjo, he assured them the agency was up to the task, and had fireworks coming down concerning the Obasanjo file.
The following month, the Conference of National Political Parties also publicly filed another petition against Obasanjo.
That was nine years ago. Not once since then, in public or in action, has the EFCC breathed one word in honour of those pledges.
That was also the same period that the EFCC first came face-to-face with Mrs Jonathan: announcing money-laundering allegations against her in August and September 2006, one of them for $13.5 million.
The Commission filed charges against her, but those charges abruptly vanished, never again officially referred to. Nobody ever officially told this country what was done with the funds the EFCC seized from Mrs Jonathan in August and September of 2006.
It may also be recalled that Mr Ribadu, who was bundled out of the EFCC by the Umaru Yar’Adua government which was owned by the likes of former Delta State governor James Ibori, has since affirmed that Obasanjo was more corrupt—but more “clever”—than Sani Abacha.
Ribadu was replaced at the EFCC by Mrs Farida Waziri, who was so complicit and corrupt Mr. Jonathan buckled under public pressure, and fired her.
When Mrs Waziri arrived at the commission in 2008, one of the most heralded names on the staff was of one Ibrahim Magu, who had a reputation for professional rigor and discipline. He was one of dozens of top officers handling high-profile cases, including those of Ibori and Bukola Saraki, whom she quickly kicked out of the agency.
Mrs Waziri knew her real mission was to shield corruption, not combat it, and she did. Among others, she complained that the files of the governors facing prosecution were either missing or distorted, forgetting that they were computer files, which had copies in secure offshore databases. And she swore there were no petitions against Obasanjo.
Petitions of bribery and extortion against her were legion. In May 2009, The Public Accountability League (PAL) wrote to President Jonathan alleging that Mrs Waziri was negotiating commissions on EFCC cases, cooking the books, collecting monthly “tolls” from the banks, and buying expensive real estate in Nigeria and abroad. It offered to present proof. Mr Jonathan, no surprise here, ignored them, and ordered no probe.
But now, the Magu Mrs Waziri humiliated has her old job. Part of the challenge before him is to probe her tenure, not out of vengeance, but of professionalism.
Is a corrupt judiciary part of the menace of corruption in Nigeria? Of course, it is. But it is a massive monster, this menace because nobody in authority has ever summoned the will to prove that everyone is the same before the law.
By all means, let us take corrupt judges before incorrupt judges, including ourselves. But we must understand that until we can establish we are using the same playbook for everyone, those who fight corruption and those who are being fought will be indistinguishable at the bar of History.
In last week’s comment, “A Major, General Mistake,” I inadvertently suggested that in April 1983, Major General Muhammadu Buhari launched the “War Against Indiscipline.” I meant to write April 1984. I thank my readers who pointed out the error.