A furious storm that is likely to submerge the credibility of the Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) regime’s claim of fighting corruption is unfolding before Nigerians. In an audacious move, the hawks in the regime closed in on the acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Ibrahim Magu, on Monday, subjecting him to arrest and interrogation over alleged corrupt enrichment. He has been reportedly suspended and detained.
The coup against Magu reflects the high-wired politics, the struggle for influence in government and the legendary detachment of a President who has relinquished his mandate to a tiny cabal. This is empowering rogue policy entrepreneurship. The root of this fiasco? A weak President. Since his nomination by Buhari 2015, Magu has been sitting delicately in office. Although he should be the pivot of the anti-graft crusade, he has had an unending battle with his detractors, who would rather have him removed. He was dramatically arrested by plainclothes security agents on his way to work. Instantly, he was bundled before a presidential panel that was inaugurated just last week to answer questions of corrupt enrichment for about six hours. Procedurally, this is not normal.
Among other charges, Magu was accused of hobnobbing with corrupt elements in society, living above his means and failure to render proper accounts on recovered loot and assets. These allegations are not different from some of the ones listed against him earlier during his botched confirmation hearings at the Senate.
This degrading treatment confirms that something has gone fatally wrong with Buhari’s serial avowals to fight corruption, often described as Nigeria’s bane. That is depressing. Nigerians, who voted Buhari in, had expected that he would stand up toe-to-toe against corruption. Instead, his aloofness has baffled many. This has allowed the President’s henchmen to hijack the anti-corruption war. The arrowhead of the anti-Magu crusade appears to be the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, who has openly declared his interest to take over the war from the EFCC. This casts doubts on the anti-graft war.
Buhari won office on two grounds only, beyond which few expected much else: security and anti-corruption. On both fronts, he is failing woefully, unable to take charge and running a confused and disorderly government. Magu’s travails exemplify his ineptitude and aloofness when his appointees dance naked in public.
Magu’s travails began almost from the day in November 2015 when he moved from his post as the agency’s director of operations into the Executive Chairman’s perch in an acting capacity. His vigorous pursuit of corruption suspects among the high and mighty, including former governors and ranking federal lawmakers, won him both admirers and powerful enemies. Abrasive, he quickly became the anti-corruption face of a regime that had been trusted with power on the strength of its promise to crush graft.
But not all the crusader’s enemies were from without as events were soon to prove. First, Buhari failed for many months to present his nomination to the Senate for confirmation as required by the EFCC law. Speculations that some regime insiders were leery of the cop were confirmed in 2016 when the Presidency finally sent his name to the upper legislative chamber for screening. It was easy for senators, some of whom were under the EFCC indictment, to reject his nomination based on a report from the State Security Service accusing him of misdeeds. Ordinarily, this should have been the end of the matter, but the intrigues, the internal confusion of Buhari’s inept leadership came into play. Curiously, the Presidency reportedly sent two reports, one favourable to Magu and a second damning one. Failing to put his house in order, Buhari went abroad for medical care and in his absence, acting President Yemi Osinbajo re-presented Magu for confirmation in March 2017; again, senators rejected him, backed once more by a virulent SSS report, following it up with threats not to screen any presidential nominees until he was sacked.
Despite his retention in an acting capacity, Buhari has not requested confirmation from the more sympathetic Ninth Senate since his re-election in 2019. Obstruction has dogged Magu’s path all through with open hostility from the SSS and the AGF. An attempt in November 2017 by the EFCC operatives to question for the second time Ita Ekpeyong, the immediate past SSS DG, was thwarted by well-armed SSS agents. Another shootout was barely averted when the EFCC operatives went to arrest Ayo Oke, who was sacked as DG of the National Intelligence Agency after a sum of $43 million in cash was found in the NIA custody. Their interdiction was part of the ongoing investigation into arms purchase funds. Buhari remained unperturbed.
But more trouble has come from the AGF’s office, which has repeatedly sought to take over the EFCC’s prosecutorial powers. Malami believes that the constitution grants him powers to sign off on any prosecution and put Magu under intense pressure, taking over several case files along the way. Their disagreements have spilled into the open on occasions, including when the AGF via a gazette in October 2019 scrapped all asset recovery and tracing committees of the agencies. Yet, our President stood aloof.
Now, Magu’s enemies have gone for broke: a leaked memo was the prelude to the assault on Magu, with the intention to hound, humiliate and disgrace him out of office. The least Buhari should ensure is that Malami’s “weighty” allegations of corruption and abuse of office against Magu should follow due process. No one should be allowed to resort to jungle justice. Investigation of a country’s anti-corruption czar is not done by daylight drama staged for maximum media exposure. The normal thing is for the President to first suspend him to make way for unfettered investigation as the law deems everyone innocent until found guilty by a competent court. But Buhari put the cart before the horse.
In Nigeria, politics and private interest pollute everything. The anti-corruption war is collapsing because of Buhari’s glaring unsuitability for the task and the hijacking of the system by hustlers seizing on the vacuum. The shenanigans further bring Nigeria into ridicule, erode public confidence and disrobe Buhari as at best, a toothless bulldog and at worst, a dissembler falsely posing as an anti-corruption crusader.
But public buy-in is crucial for the anti-graft war to succeed. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said, “When anti-corruption agencies work in isolation, without broader public support, they become vulnerable to unpredictable political will. If they are to take on the powerful interests in their societies, they cannot do it alone.” No wonder that the country’s rating on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2019 improved only marginally to 146 out of 180 countries despite Buhari “fighting corruption.” The war has fallen flat on its face.
Richard Neustadt, in his 1960 book, “Presidential Power,” described it as “the power to persuade.” Buhari should either give up power if he is not up to it or take charge by properly coordinating his aides. Weak presidents are not safe for democracy. A Bloomberg article argues that presidents who cannot manipulate the system to realise their visions of what the country needs try instead to work around the system, even if that means bending or breaking the rules. That is exactly what Buhari has been doing. He was not elected to surrender governance to unelected subordinates and look the other way when they are running the country aground and bringing it to ridicule.
He can still salvage the waning war on corruption. He should order Magu’s release immediately, initiate investigations into all allegations against both Magu and his traducers and allow the law to take its course.