George Kerley: My grouse with Simon Kolawole (Rejoinder)

by George Kerley

I read, with keen interest, the opinion of Simon Kolawole published on September 14, 2014, tilted “My Grouse with President Jonathan”. I found it very interesting, cheery and at the same time depressing. Those of us who read Kolawole regularly know that he does not join the mob in canvassing his opinions. He is usually even-handed and non-partisan. While this is a virtue in an environment polluted by politically biased columnists who have turned President Goodluck Jonathan into their favourite punching bag, I beg to defer with Kolawole on some of the issues he raised.

After accepting that the President has recorded remarkable achievements in aviation, agriculture, education, road infrastructure and even the power sector reform, Kolawole relapsed into the popular line that former President Olusegun Obasanjo fought corruption but President Jonathan is found wanting in this area. However, the truth be told, the same reason no President after Obasanjo has been acknowledged as fighting corruption is the same reason we have not been able to tackle corruption efficiently. Until a President engages in scape-goating and public execution, he is not seen as fighting corruption. I would not expect Kolawole, an expert in governance and development, to toe this line of argument.

Democracy is about institutions. That is what makes it strong and enduring. America’s democracy is over 300 years old. Most of the things we celebrate about America today came about because institutions were built and allowed to function in the course of their history. The “strongman democracy” that Kolawole seems to favour is the same reason democracy is in fits and starts in many countries across Africa. But it is only democracies where state institutions are strong that can endure and flourish. To remove a minister for corruption is the least of the problems. Now, if removing ministers could solve the problem, why did Obasanjo have to be sacking ministers on a yearly basis?

There are various ways of fighting corruption. One is to resort to public spectacle. Remove ministers and shame them publicly. Put them in handcuffs for the cameras. Get the anti-graft agencies to blackmail lawmakers to impeach the governors. You can even get six lawmakers in a 24-member House of Assembly to remove the governor illegally in the name of fighting corruption. This public execution strategy will get you a resounding popular applause and you will win awards around the world. But, let’s be honest about this, Kolawole, it cannot last. It cannot work in a democracy where people have a right to seek redress. This approach to anti-corruption can only be sustained by a dictator who cares little about the laws of the land.

By the way, President Jonathan has also demonstrated that he can fire ministers. He has done it again and again. Kolawole did not acknowledge this fact while heaping praises on Obasanjo for firing ministers at the slightest provocation. President Jonathan has demonstrated clearly that he too can fire ministers, even if not at the slightest provocation. However, it is not his style to engage in playing to the gallery. He believes things should be done orderly. When he declared his assets, he was being put under pressure to make it public. But he refused. The law does not stipulate that. He did not break any law. It is a public document that can be accessed through due process.

You can fight corruption by playing to the gallery. That is just one way. I’ll show you a better way, Mr. Kolawole. You can decide to fight corruption sustainably by adopting administrative, policy, legal and moral suasion strategies. Administratively, some measures have been adopted by President Jonathan that have saved the country tonnes of money previously being pilfered. There are two ready examples here. The fertilizer subsidy cost Nigeria in excess of N800 billion over a period of 30 years. Only about 10% of that actually got to the farmers. The President came and put a stop to the fraud. Farmers are getting their fertilizers today and their productivity is unprecedented in Nigeria’s history. Billions of naira have been saved in fraudulent fertilizer transactions. It may interest Kolawole that no previous government has tackled this fraud like this administration. That is a way of fighting corruption. It will endure beyond the Jonathan administration.

Another administrative measure to combat corruption is on the payroll. There were thousands of ghost workers who were on the payroll of the Federal Government when President Jonathan came to power. For years, this issue had not been addressed. We all knew that some senior civil servants were milking the treasury mercilessly. Billions of naira were being stolen yearly. However, since President Jonathan’s administration introduced the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), over 50,000 ghost workers have so far been identified. Indeed, over N139 billion has been saved. Now, you ask: is that not a neat and sustainable way of fighting corruption? This will endure, you can take a bet on that.

To fight corruption in a less glamorous but enduring way, the President has also adopted policy strategies. When the President sought to end the waste and fraud in the fuel subsidy regime, it was opposed by the same interests that are now saying the President is not fighting corruption. Because of this unfortunate opposition, we are still wasting hundreds of billions of naira on fuel subsidy that could have been better utilised in other areas of the economy. All studies and analyses have shown that the best way to tackle the subsidy fraud in the petroleum sector is to take away the subsidy itself. The money is too much and this creates perverse incentives for the beneficiaries to continue to corrupt the system.

My grouse with Kolawole is that he refused to acknowledge the various steps the President has taken to combat corruption. He also failed to accept that the President is constrained by the rule of law. President Jonathan has no power over what governors do with their state resources.

For Kolawole, a journalist of no little standing, I would have loved him to talk about the Freedom of Information bill which was gathering dust on the shelf before President Jonathan came to power. If we are talking about transparency and anti-graft war, FoI Act is one of the most potent instruments to employ. If Jonathan was not interested in fighting corruption, he would certainly have avoided signing the bill into law. Obasanjo did not touch it in his eight years in office. Yet, all countries that we call developed today have this law in their statutes. The citizens use it to hold government accountable. FoI is a legal strategy that President Jonathan has adopted. It does not carry the glamour of handcuffing politicians in public, you can say that, but it is an institutionalised instrument that will outlive the Jonathan administration.

Space will not permit me to list all the measures the President has adopted to combat corruption. His own style is markedly democratic and a departure from the autocratic way some Nigerians want. These measures will surely outlive his administration. We should stop equating anti-graft with EFCC. We think it is when you are publicly executed that the government can be said to be fighting corruption. But it is more than that. Except something catastrophic happens, those ghost workers can no longer return to the payroll. The farmers will continue to get their subsidised seeds and fertilisers. Nigerians will continue to have the FoI to hold government accountable and transparent. These are the institutions that will last.

My grouse with Kolawole is that he refused to acknowledge the various steps the President has taken to combat corruption. He also failed to accept that the President is constrained by the rule of law. President Jonathan has no power over what governors do with their state resources. Even if he removes a minister, he has no power over the justice process. The judges are there. The smart lawyers are there. President Jonathan cannot go and sit in judgment over any accused person. So many cases in court are being frustrated by clever lawyers and those who know how to play the system. You cannot hold the President responsible for that, let’s be fair. We make it look like the duty of fighting corruption starts and ends on the President’s desk. Let’s be careful what we pray for.

I know Kolawole is a fan of Major-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, having followed his column over the years. But he should be assured that even if Buhari becomes President, he cannot combat corruption the way he did as a military head of state. As a military head of state, he had executive, legislative and judicial powers. But in a democracy, he will discover that there is a National Assembly that he has to contend with. He will discover that he cannot fire a commissioner for corruption in any state. He cannot do anything to lawyers and judges who collude to frustrate cases. It looks easy on paper to combat corruption. But the reality is that there is a lot of work to be done if corruption is to be crushed. President Jonathan is on the right path. Time will vindicate him.

On the issue of Boko Haram, which Kolawole also listed among his “grudges”, I think it is very glaring that the issue is very complicated. We want quick results, no doubt. It is a very present trouble that needs a quick solution. But President Jonathan met a lot of rot in the system. The military had been systematically decimated. The air force, which is the key military arm in war fare in modern times, had been systematically incapacitated for decades because of fears of coups. Our intelligence gathering had not stepped to the challenges in a democracy.

All these are enough impediments to confronting the monstrosity of terrorism. But the President also has to grapple with the politicisation of the war against terror. The military has been accused many times by President Jonathan’s political opponents of committing genocide by those who would not as much as say a negative word against Boko Haram. The war against terror, as if it is not a major task already, has been compounded by the impression being created by power-hungry politicians who are making things worse by the day. Every step the President takes is being frustrated. If not that President Jonathan is a courageous man, he would have been overwhelmed by this attitude.

In all the mess, we have recorded progress. Many people think the simple solution is to unleash the military and destroy all the villages in the territories being tormented by Boko Haram. Military action alone will not solve the problem. That is why, even though he has authorised military action, President Jonathan has embarked on a major initiative to address the salient issues of lack of access to education, poor infrastructure, environmental devastation and several other negative preambles to the flourishing of insurgency in the North-East. He has launched the Presidential Initiative for the North East (PINE) to address these issues, and has scaled up investment in agriculture, infrastructure, education and health to achieve a long-term winning strategy.

I would like to conclude by emphasising that President Jonathan has delivered the goods. Let his opponents judge him on the basis of facts and figures and not sentiments. He certainly has not solved all Nigeria’s problems (not even a magician can do that in four years) but Nigeria is clearly better than it was in 2011. Check all the facts and figures: infrastructural development, power sector reform, education, agriculture, water resources, economic management, etc. Let us compare the data before 2011 and in 2014. An honest opinion would be that he has done well.

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Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

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