REMARKS BY SENATOR CHUKWUKA UTAZI, CHAIRMAN SENATE COMMITTEE ON ANTI-CORRUPTION AND FINANCIAL CRIMES AT THE 2016 END OF YEAR LECTURE SERIES OF THE ELITE CLUB INTERNATIONAL ON SATURDAY, 10TH DECEMBER, 2016 AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NIGERIA NSUKKA.
THEME: THE LEGISLATURE AND THE ANTI-CORRUPTION CRUSADE IN NIGERIA
I thank the Elite ClubInternational, as association of erudite and well-informed intellectuals, for the invitation to share my thoughts on the Legislature and the Crusade Against Corruption in Nigeria. The choice of the topic is insightful, almost prophetic, because every December 9 is observed as International anti-corruption day. So yesterday was actually the global anti-corruption day and part of the observance is to create events that would raise public awareness on the issues of corruption, and how it is in our collective interest to aggregate efforts to eliminate it. Interactions like this, therefore, is welcome because, not only are they mutually reinforcing and informative, they also are a veritable template for constituency interface. It is even more welcome when one considers that the audience is made up of egg-heads, who can distill substance from innuendos, and separate the profound from hubris.
I will start this discussion from a not-so cheery point of view. It is well-known that the Legislature, especially, the National Assembly is not exactly a darling of the Nigerian populace. Before I went to the Senate, I have always been bewildered how an institution as hallowed as the National Assembly would allow itself be cast in such uncharitable lights. Since entering the Senate in June 2015, I have since released that seeing the picture from outside is not the same as from within, and you can either see a cup as half-full or half-empty, depending on your perspective. And it has nothing to do with the usual allegations against the National Assembly of being an institution where profligacy and waste walk the halls; where deals are cut; where the interest of the populace isrelegated to the background and subsumed under the higgledy-piggledy of Legislators hankering after national resources. My view has been tempered by the vortex of information available to me and an appreciation ofthe rigour to balance contending interests in a polity as diverse and as complex as Nigeria.
It is the issues around the perception of the Institution of the Legislature in Nigeria and the imperativeness of the fight against corruption that this discussion will be extrapolating.
Corruption is a major governance issue in Nigeria. The adverse effects of corruption in Nigeria’s public life, its toxic effects to the socio-economic and political system of Nigeria,are depressing. For over 40 years, the issue of fighting corruption has remained a major reason for change of governments and major policy thrust of successive governments in Nigeria. We would recall Major Nzeogwu’s January 1966 Coup speech where he stated that their aim in executing the coup was to establish a “strong, united and prosperous Nigeria, free from corruption” and he railed against the politicians who demanded 10%. In the coup that ushered in Major General Muhammadu Buhari as Military Head of State on December 31, 1983, we would all recall that the announcer of the coup, Brigadier Sani Abacha talked about the enmeshed corruption of the Shehu Shagari Government. At his swearing in on May 29, 1999, after the return of Nigeria to civil rule, President Obasanjo in his inaugural address said: “corruption, the greatest bane of our society today, will be tackled head-on at all levels”.
All these point to a consensus that corruption is a huge disincentive to development in Nigeria. This is because corruption depletes national wealth, increases the cost of goods and services, creates imbalance in economic development, undermines the regulatory environment, distorts decision-making processes, weakens work ethics and compromises professionalism, hinders the development of fair market structures, deters competition, discourages people from working together for the public good, distorts economic planning and has adverse budgetary consequences.
President Buhari made the fight against corruption a central pillar of his administration. He has repeatedly said that it is either Nigeria kills corruption, or corruption kills the Country. We are in total agreement with Mr. President on this because corruption runs counter to the values which under-pin every society. It rewards those who do not play by the rules and creates a system of cronyism where resources are shared out by a small band of people, while the majority are trapped in poverty, a system that discourages enterprise and merit, a system that enthrones mediocrity, that compromises the moralfibre of the society, that undermines the time-honored values of integrity and a system that consequently spreads poverty.
However, the fight against corruption must not be built around a person, but around institutions which are more enduring, and immutable. It should be multi-sectoral and multi-layered, and to achieve more success, it should be a broad coalition ofpopular consciousness, powered by the vigilance of the people and fought sustainably through systemic solutions.
The question can then be asked: what has the Legislature done to complement the efforts in curbing corruption in Nigeria. Since the return of democratic system of government in 1999, the National Assembly has passed a plethora of laws to strengthen the fight against corruption. It passed the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Act in record time. It followed up with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission Act, the Money Laundering Act, the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the Public Procurement Act, the Federal Inland Revenue Service Act of 2007 and a host of other Laws aimed at taking the fight to the domain of the corrupt. The National Assembly has also passed the Freedom of Information Act to ease access to information concerning government activities and unwholesome dealings, because public officials usually weaved opaque web around government expenditure.
Currently, both Houses of the National Assembly are considering the Money Laundering (Prevention and Prohibition) Bill and the Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Bill for passage into law to further strengthen the fight against corruption in Nigeria and help in the repatriation of Nigeria’s stolen assets stashed abroad. Other bills undergoing legislative treatment and which passage would strengthen the fight against corruption include the Whistle Blowers Protection Bill, The Witness Protection Programme Bill, Proceeds of Crime Bill, the Governance and Institutional Framework for the Petroleum Industry Bill, the Nigerian Social Security Scheme Bill, etc. All these are designated by the National Assembly as priority bills and when passed would help create a culture of greater freedom to expose corruption and guarantee the rights of citizens in speaking out against corruption.
All these are geared towards providing the necessary legislative support in the fight against corruption. Both Houses of the 8th National Assembly, immediately after inauguration in June 2015, adopted their legislative agenda and the fight against corruption is a prominent item on the agenda. It was the National Assembly, which blew the lid on the N3 trillion fuel subsidy scam. That action saved the country over 500 billion Naira.
The Senate of the 8th National Assembly has upped the ante in its support in the fight against corruption. Through its oversight powers, the Senate has intervened to review the activities, management and administration of ministries, departments and agencies of the Federal Government. Through the Senate’s legislative supervision, there was uncovered monumental leakages in the operationalization of the Treasury Single Account (TSA) regime, and an amelioration of the processes has saved the nation over 20 billion Naira.The Senate has beamed its light on the abuse of waivers for imports, and arrested the huge hemorrhage of revenue from federal coffers. The NEITI Report, for the first time, was read on the floor of the National Assembly, and huge layers of under-assessment, and under-paymentsby companies in the extractive industry to the tune of almost $599.8 Million were uncovered. The diversion of funds meant for humanitarian purposes in the Internally Displaced Persons’ Camps is under the search lights of the Legislature. These are facts. There are myriads of Legislative Resolutions calling for the investigation of certain government agencies who are suspected of engaging in unwholesome activities. For instance, and this is verifiable, the Order paper of the Senate for Tuesday, 6th December, 2016 has such motions as the need to investigate the Bailout funds disbursed to benefitting States in Nigeria; the need to investigate Special Funds that Accrued to the Federation as provided by the Revenue Allocation formular; the need to revisit the issue of corporate tax incentives which is turning into a huge drain on the Nigerian economy.
These are just a tip of what the legislature does every day to plug loopholes of drain, expose corruption, inefficiency and waste, in accordance with Section 88 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic.
To also provide moral support for the fight against corruption, it would be recalled that the National Assembly has sanctioned its principal officers who are accused of corruption. While the culpability of the allegations is for the courts to pronounce, the National Assembly has not hesitated in demonstrating its aversion to corruption. We would recall the Toronto University Certificate saga of then Speaker Salisu Buhari and how his colleagues in the House of Representatives forced him to resign. We would also recall the impeachment of then Senate President Chuba Wilberforce Okadigbo for awarding projects on anticipated approval of budgets. We would also recall that Senate President Adolf Wabara was forced to resign after he was accused of taking some gratification from then Minister of Education, Prof. Fabian Osuji. We can argue about the politics of these incidences, but the point I make with these instances is that the legislature has never shied away from wielding the big stick when the tar brush of corruption is seen around its hallowed halls.
This last October, the Committee of the Senate which I chair, the Senate Committee on Anti-Corruption and Financial Crimes jointly with its counterpart in the House of Representatives and the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption organized a National Conference on the Role of the Legislature in the Fight Against Corruption where salient areas of aggressive legislative intervention were identified to raise the bar on the fight against corruption. The Legislature continually uses its time and authority to reform key areas that will make our laws more effective in tackling the mischiefs and lacunae observed, strengthen the institutions charged with prosecuting the war against corruption, and give fillip to the anti-corruption campaign. Incrementally, in tune with technological advancement, the Legislature is improving its oversight procedures and making its activities, especially the budgetary procedures, open to public participation and feedback.
For a more sustainable fight against corruption, in accordance with the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), a piece of legislation which the National Assembly has substantially domesticated in the various laws against corruption operational in Nigeria, the National Assembly wants the Anti-corruption agencies to place more emphasis on prevention. Such regulatory activities like the introduction of the Treasury Single Account to track the movement of funds, the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) to weed out ghost workers, the Bio-metric Verification Number (BVN), and the measures to properly canalize the procurement procedures, preventing corruption will gain traction. UNCAC recommends 60% of anti-corruption efforts to be directed at measures as the most effective modern control mechanism.
Within the purview of emphasizing on prevention is a return to basic behaviours and values our society were used to before now. This is in recognition of the reality that corruption in Nigeria is so pervasive that, while every government agency must do its bid, the fight must be a collective responsibility of all Nigerian. A lot can be achieved with a change in cultural consciousness. A society where a man/woman, overnight, is surrounded by wealth and no one questions the source and manner in which the wealth was built, but instead heaps accolades and titles on the individual, is a society where pronouncements on the fight against corruption is pointless. There must therefore be wide citizen participation. Local ownership of the process of fighting corruption therefore is key because there are some cultural factors that underpin peoples’ responses to the activities we consider corrupt.
Our cultural institutions, our traditional stools, the religious hierarchy, our community leadership should join in the fight, so that our society does not, by default, normalize dishonesty and bad behavior.
Ladies and Gentlemen, in conclusion, I dare say that the fight against corruption cannot be won on the basis of having strong individuals around whom the wars are built. It can only be sustainably won, if we build strong institutions with capacity to discharge, within the ambit of the law, the daunting exertions of the fight. We must not fight corruption through a corrupt process. That is why the need to obey the law in the fight is important because knee-jerk reactions have bred counter-productive measures.
I thank you for the opportunity to share with you, my thoughts on this subject and may God bless us all.
Senator Chukwuka Utazi
Senate Committee on Anti-Corruption and Financial Crimes