On Sunday, British tabloid, Daily Mail, published a rather derisive story about the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi. The paper taunted Amaechi, “friend of the president” with a rhetorical question that asked if he was “fantastically corrupt.” That piece by the conservative press was a well-timed slung shot, calculated to land in Nigeria at the time when President Muhammadu Buhari’s band of disciples were still celebrating his almost unexpected riposte to the British PM, David Cameron; his earlier diplomatic gaffe at the anti-corruption summit in London had shown the level of contempt and condescension Cameron had for Nigeria.
Daily Mail seemed desperate to stanch the indignation that accompanied Cameron’s comment and what better way to do that damage control than to first scoff at Nigerians’ huff and puff at the Cameron’s colonialistic condescension, and then turn the joke on them? And what better way to turn it on Nigeria than pointing out to everyone that Buhari, the celebrated incorruptible leader of a “fantastically corrupt” country, has a huge log in his eyes that needs to be reported?
The report had nothing new to say — for Nigerians, that is — and it cannot be described as a particularly intelligent piece of journalism. It was largely a pastiche of recycled speculations about the role Amaechi paid in the 2015 election of Buhari.
By now, everyone in Nigeria has either heard of or read about how Amaechi was said to have “bankrupted” Rivers State while he was governor so as to finance Buhari’s election and for that reason, the President remains indebted to him, politically and morally. The paper did not present proof of this accusation and it is rather doubtful it had any. We know that money spent on election in this part of the world is neither invoiced nor receipted and anyone asking for empirical evidence in this case is either extremely naïve or simply duplicitous.
However, when the snide remarks and the inciting comments in the article are subtracted, one is left with a rather amusing portraiture of Buhari and the paradox he embodies — an incorruptible messiah of his people gallantly riding to Jerusalem on a donkey paid for by powerful but extremely corrupt friends. Perhaps, the only people who are not bothered by the apparent contradiction are the self-labelled “Buharists” whose zealotry and enthusiastic faith in Buhari are akin to religious worship.
Whatever the point or the politics of the piece by Daily Mail, what cannot be dismissed is its likely potency. Nigerian leaders tend to recoil at bad press when it comes internationally than when handed out by local critics. Nothing nurses the Nigerian leader’s narcissism better than to be given that much coveted back pat from the West. That perhaps explains why Buhari speaks more to the foreign media than he engages local journalists. At some point, whether by local or foreign journalists, he will be asked how he manages to balance his anti-corruption agenda with the company he keeps.
For a while now, his government’s anti-corruption drive has led to some really dazzling revelations of how past government inordinately dipped its hand into the public till to fund the 2015 elections. The Dasukigate involving the immediate past National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, was one of the most sensational stories of corruption ever sold in Nigeria. It has all cooled off now but when it was raging, it generated enough disaffection for the previous administration that practically sealed their death sentence. For months now, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has dedicated itself to picking up and questioning members of the Peoples Democratic Party who were said to have participated in squandering public resources used to fund the party’s presidential campaign. People like Dasuki, Olisa Metuh, Femi Fani-Kayode, Ibrahim Shekerau, Olu Falae, Nenadi Usman, have — in the court of public opinion — already been tried, found guilty and in some cases are already crucified.
These efforts to stem corruption should all have been commendable except they tilt in only one direction — towards the main opposition party members. In the long run, it may just turn out to be another Obasanjo-esque method of fighting corruption: crushing potential dissidence rather than reaching for the more challenging task of evolving scientific methods of quenching abuse of public trust.
How can the EFCC sincerely confront the PDP about campaign funds and not once turn the light on the All Progressives Congress and ask the same question? How could the APC have funded its elections if the party did not coopt public funds? Do they mean to tell us that the huge sums of money the party spent during the elections came from the torokobo donated to them by a few members of the public? Should not the EFCC be genuinely interested in finding out if indeed Amaechi played the role that has been ascribed to him? For a party that promised to fight corruption, promote transparency and be accountable to the public in a way their opponents never were, should the house-cleaning not have started from their own backyard?
The question of campaign spending is such a critical one that should not be left to the vagaries of politics; a sincere leader who wants to reform the polity will at some point have to confront it and its implications on the government. Those who fund campaigns are not doing it out of sheer altruism, they are paying forward and the payday must come. When that time comes, they will not simply roll over and play dead. They will expect that certain policies be tailored to favour them. This coterie of big spenders will get a lot of benefits higher and above the ordinary citizens around whom the entire concept of democracy is supposedly centred.
From federal to state to local government level in Nigeria, electioneering is a big investment and after each election cycle, there is always a huge bill to pay. In the past days since the subsidy/deregulation discussion started, people have tried to comparatively weigh the present times against the 2012 protests when ex-president Goodluck Jonathan removed subsidy and the public became outraged. One of the factors that many of the analysts have failed to advance is that the subsidy bill shot up astronomically and people attributed the huge disparity in the sums racked up in 2011 to Jonathan trying to push this election bill to Nigerians.
No democracy is immune to money malaise and the United States, currently undergoing electioneering, typifies this. Since their party primaries began earlier this year, candidates have spent obnoxious amounts of money to either win or lose. There are estimates that suggest that the amount of money spent so far is nearing $1bn and the main election itself has yet to start. Even though the US economy can afford such vast sums, their citizens are just as disgruntled about billionaires owning their politicians, a factor which partly explains why candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are hugely popular. People are driven by the urge to find a politician who has not already sold out to the moneyed class. In Nigeria where there are no reliable data, we will never know how much the average vote costs but the effects of the spending are obvious when we look around us — there is never enough money left for development purposes.
The matter of where campaign funds come from is one that should be dealt with properly, not as a convenient excuse for hunting down political opponents.
Buhari’s APC needs some introspection on how elections can be funded without ordinary Nigerians paying a debt they did not solicit. There are definitely no easy answers but the question is worth asking nevertheless. How can a system like ours that thrives on corruption produce candidates who will not have to steal and will also not need those who did to pick their campaign tab?