Armsgate: The scandal that ravages Nigeria’s critical institutions

Nigeria's former National Security Advisor Mohammed Sambo Dasuki listens to a question after his address at Chatham House in London, January 22, 2015. REUTERS/Andrew Winning
Anyone with even a fleeting interest in institutional development should be alarmed by the enormous damage that the so-called armsgate or, if you like, Dasukigate has done to the integrity of state and civil institutions in Nigeria. Like most Nigerians, I am appalled at the impunity of those involved in the $2.1 billion arms purchase scandal. But beyond that, I am outraged by the scandal’s sweeping political and institutional damage. This is a political corruption that has eroded the social fabric of this country, and delegitimised most of Nigeria’s core institutions. Name it – political parties, the presidency, the central bank, the judiciary, the military, traditional institutions, religious groups, the media, NGOs and the private sector – virtually every institution of government or civil society in Nigeria has been tarnished and brought into disrepute by the armsgate scandal.
Sociologists talk about the need for “pillars of integrity” in society, people who can create and maintain national integrity, and act as effective counter-powers to restrict political corruption. But, in Nigeria, most of the potential sources of anti-corruption pressure are themselves sources of corruption. Clearly, the scale and spread of the armsgate scandal have exposed the soft underbelly of our core institutions. Take the damage to Nigeria’s political and electoral institutions. We now know – don’t we? – that former President Goodluck Jonathan’s re-election bid was massively funded from the $2.1 billion meant for buying arms to fight the Boko Haram terrorists. This was an insurgency that, by the time Jonathan sought re-election last year, had taken more than 13,000 innocent Nigerian lives. Yet, he had no moral inhibitions, let alone constitutional restraint, to resist the temptation to divert the money into fighting his doomed re-election!
In December 2014, at a fund-raising event, the People’s Democratic Party raised N21 billion for Jonathan’s re-election campaign. That huge amount and the manner in which it was raised certainly breached provisions of the electoral act that limit the maximum election expenses for a presidential candidate to N1 billion, and the maximum amount that any individual or entity can donate to a candidate’s campaign fund to N1 million. But leaving aside the ‘small’ matter of the electoral law, which Nigerian politicians and political parties hold in utter contempt, the obvious question is this: why, with such a huge fighting fund, did Jonathan divert money meant for fighting Boko Haram to save Nigerian lives – the first duty of any government – into his campaign?
Let’s be clear, armsgate is the kind of scandal that, had Jonathan been re-elected, would, in most liberal democracies, have led to his impeachment. On the scale of political corruption scandals, it is in the category of Watergate, which led to the impeachment Richard Nixon in the US. But even now that, thank God, Jonathan lost the election, he should still be held accountable for the scandal. I was thus shocked when the chairman of the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC), Ibrahim Magu, said recently that EFCC had not invited former President Jonathan for questioning because “no document has been traced to him giving any approval for the disbursement of the money for any purpose other than arms purchase”! That must be one of the lamest excuses for inaction in history.
The truth is, as I wrote recently, Jonathan is being shielded because in Nigeria, a former president is treated as an ‘institution’, to ‘protect’ the integrity of that office! Some people have also speculated that there was a political pact, following Jonathan’s decision to concede defeat in last year’s presidential election, that he would not be personally held accountable for his actions in office. Indeed, a prominent cleric, Matthew Kukah, once said that Nigeria should be grateful to Jonathan for conceding defeat in the election “even if he stole all the money in the world”. He went on to say that “ex-heads of state will protect Jonathan from persecution”! There are certainly few countries in the world where conceding a defeat in an election is a get-out-of-jail-free-card for presiding over massive corruption and abuse of power. In any case, the armsgate scandal hasn’t only damaged the integrity of Nigeria’s political and electoral institutions, it has also tarnished that of the so-called office of former presidents. And the only way to restore the integrity of that office is for Jonathan to explain what he knew about the scandal and take responsibility for his role in it!
Which brings me to another institutional casualty of armsgate: the Central Bank of Nigeria. We are told that the former National Security Advisor, Sambo Dasuki, moved the $2.1 billion arms purchase money from the CBN into several private bank accounts. Who authorised the transfers? Sadly, fingers seem to be pointing at Jonathan. In his recent media chat, President Buhari said that “the former president (Jonathan) just wrote to the CBN and say ‘give N40 billion to so, so so’”. A former CBN governor, Charles Soludo, also recently accused Jonathan of running the CBN like Idi Amin. Hear him: “Imagine a scenario where a president can order the CBN to create an intervention fund for national stability and CBN literally ‘prints’ say, N3 trillion, and doles it out cash to the presidency to prosecute an election campaign …” Soludo added that the CBN was “the ATM of the presidency under Jonathan”.
Tell me, if these allegations are true (and this is also why Jonathan must defend himself), can anyone think of any worst damage to a critical state institution? The central bank is a key economic policy-making institution that also exists to support the market. So, its integrity is very critical, which is why some governments grant their central bank complete operational independence to protect its reputation and ensure market confidence. But in Nigeria the central bank is often treated as an extension of the personal bank account of the presidency. The former military dictator, Sani Abacha massively abused the CBN in that way; it’s a shame that Jonathan, a civilian president, allegedly did too!
What about the military? Well, that critical institution is also seriously damaged by armsgate. Indeed, long before the scandal broke out, the view in diplomatic and international media circles was that Nigeria was losing the war against Boko Haram because of massive corruption in the military. The military is a revered institution anywhere in the world, but corruption will destroy its professionalism and credibility. The Nigerian military was politicised during last year’s general election and armsgate has also undermined its integrity. Clearly, only the wide-ranging probe recently instituted by Buhari, a retired general, can begin to restore, and only slowly, the reputation of that critical institution.
The judiciary is another institution tarnished by the armsgate scandal, although there is no evidence it benefitted from Dasuki’s sharing of the $2.1 billion largesse. Yet, the truth is that the armsgate scandal was possible largely because the judiciary is not a powerful countervailing force against corruption in Nigeria. As one study puts it, “judges who cannot be corrupted inspire and compel corruption-free conduct in society as a whole”. But most judges in Nigeria can be corrupted, and so they are not counter-powers against corruption.
Some people have criticised President Buhari for disobeying court orders granting bails to some of those charged in connection with the armsgate scandal. I believe the criticisms are justified. The rule of law must not be another casualty of armsgate. But, truth be told, the judges are also to blame for this. Most of them lack any understanding of the public interest element of corruption and the need to treat it as a crime against society. John Stuart Mill introduced the “harm principle” into jurisprudence and argued that harm to others is the only justification for limiting individual freedoms. The harm principle is central to delivering public policy. So, when judges grant frivolous bails to those charged with serious corruption offences and allow reprehensible wrongdoers to escape justice, they have ignored the harm principle and public interest, thereby bringing the judiciary into moral disrepute.
Finally, let me turn briefly to the socio-cultural institutions, under which belong the traditional institutions, religious groups, the media and NGOs, including the private sector. None of these groups covers itself with glory in the armsgate scandal. Take the traditional rulers and religious leaders. They are those Marcus Felson, the sociologist, called “intimate handlers” or “guardians”, who can help reduce corruption in society because of their influence over prominent people. But EFCC recently implicated the Traditional Council of Nigeria (TCN) in the armsgate and allegations are swirling around religious leaders about the money they collected from former President Jonathan. One must wonder whether these critical institutions and presumed “pillars of integrity” haven’t allowed the lure of money and access to the corridors of power to tarnish their reputation. The same goes for NGOs and the private sector. Most of the 241 organisations listed by the Office of the National Security Adviser in a recent press statement as receiving money from Dasuki are companies and NGOs.
And what about the media? Well, let me simply quote the words of a giant of the profession, Dan Agbese, in a recent article in the Guardian newspaper, titled “Morals and slush funds”. He said, “It would be a bad mistake for Nigerian journalists to gloss over the depth of the moral and ethical dilemma the press faces in the wake of Dasukigate,” adding, “It would take much more than water and soap to wash off the muck.” Need I add anything more to that? Well, let me just add this: the media should be an independent and vigilant counter-power against corruption, through investigative journalism, and not a source of corruption itself!
Armsgate or Dasukigate, call it what you like, the scandal has seriously harmed Nigeria’s critical institutions. For me, Buhari must recover most, if not all, of the $2.1 billion, EFCC must prosecute those involved in the scandal, and Jonathan must account for his role in it. But, above all, we must learn the lessons from the scandal and put structures in place to prevent anything like it happening again. That’s what any serious democracy would do after such a ravaging political corruption scandal.
Olu Fasan
DCSL 90X780