Our Party, the People’s Redemption (PRP), has always been consistent on its commitment to the principle that public office holders must be publicly held accountable to the people that they are elected or appointed to serve. This is why the Party is on record as having lent its support to all probes of public office holders by past administrations in this country. But while most past probes have been more or less open and transparent, the ongoing so-called anti-corruption investigations of the Buhari administration can hardly be said to be transparent and open. Stories abound of secret deals being made for some of the accused to return certain sums of money in exchange for being left free. The amounts of money collected from such people in such deals remains secret and unaccounted for. The investigations themselves are being carried out by agencies who either lack the credibility to do so or who are themselves tainted by the sordid brush of corruption. Then, there is the fact that the investigations are being selectively conducted with many companions and fellow travellers of the regime who are alleged to have corruptly enriched themselves from the public teal being treated as sacred cows spared of the searchlight.
The PRP’s support for public probes, past and present, is based on two sacrosanct canons. First, that these probes should be transparent and open to public scrutiny and participation. And, secondly, that in the process of these probes there should be no “sacred cows”. Unfortunately, this does not obviously appear to be the case in the on-going so-called anti-corruption campaign of President Muhammadu Buhari.
In the following article, written for The Analyst, the PRP’s quarterly organ, in July 1986, the late Dr. Yusufu Bala Usman – leading PRP stalwart, ideologue and member of the Collective that was responsible for publishing that magazine – expounded on the Party’s position on probes and public accountability in Nigeria. Reactions are welcome. Bon appetit.
WHO IS AFRAID OF PROBES?
Yusuf Bala Usman
Over the last ten years, a widespread, and increasingly vocal campaign has been waged in this country against the use by governments of commissions and tribunals of inquiry to investigate and find out the truth about major issues of public concern.
These commissions and tribunal of inquiry, popularly known as ‘probe pannels’, were first used, most devastatingly, under Murtala, in 1975 – 1976, to expose in public, and in detail, how those who ruled Nigeria, under the previous regime, actually plundered the country. this process of exposure, which in many cases was broadcast widely over radio and television, and reported in detail in the newspapers, opened the eyes of millions of Nigerian peasant farmers, petty traders, workers, students, professionals and intellectuals to the economic and political realities of how their country was actually being ruled.
For the generation of Nigerians born in the 1950s, and in the early 1960s, this process was a major turning point in their political education. When, to it, was added the traumatic shock of Murtala’s brutal assassination, a few days after he denounced and dismissed nine former military governors, found to be corrupt, and he had promised to investigate their overseas assets and those of their business partners; this process has come to have lasting consequences in Nigeria.
The super-permanent secretaries were ‘super’ only in duping the nation. Those “founding” military governors, commissioners, permanent secretaries, elders, and other ‘leaders of thought’ of the twelve new states set up in 1967; who for eight years, were being sold to Nigerians as a new breed of progressive, ethnic, state and regional champions, bringing ‘development’ by awarding contracts for roads, schools, and hospitals, were exposed as greedy little crooks, who systematically used each and every one of their ‘development projects’ to confuse and divide the people, throw dust into their eyes, in order to properly line up their pockets and those of their foreign and local business partners and patrons. The probe exposed, with concrete details, that, for example, most of them were only concerned about national educational imbalance, in so far as it improves the balance in their bank accounts.
The Nigerian ruling class, from all over the country, reacted to this unprecedented, wholesale exposure, with a deep seated hostility to all forms of public probes and public investigations. This hostility was, however, concealed by a thin veneer of adulation for Murtala’s image, because of his immense national popularity, underneath which they conducted a campaign of calumny and distortion over his methods and substantive legacy. When Chief Obafemi Awolowo, as Chancellor of A.B.U., said, in a major speech at the university’s convocation in 1977, that the probes serve no useful purpose in Nigeria; and that there should be no more, with only the police and law courts to be used, he spoke for all of them, civilian and military. Some of the looted property confiscated under Murtala was surreptiously returned to the looters; and some of the most rapacious among them, like the late Alhaji Audu Bako and Mr. Samuel Ogbemudia, were systematically promoted as champions of ‘development’.
It is against this background that we should look at the arguments used to support the view that probe panels serve no useful purpose in Nigeria, and in fact are only disruptive, diversionary, or both. Among the most widespread of this are the following five arguments. These are, firstly: that corruption, abuse of office, and other such crimes are part of our racial/cultural heritage as black Africans and that any probing of this is a complete waste of time; the passage of time, prayers, luck, may reduce the level of these, but they are part of the conditions of our existence. Two variants of these arguments is that tackling these has to await the establishment of an Islamic State, the Christian Kingdom of God, or the coming of the Mahdi; or what is basically a similar position that this has to await the Socialist Revolution, because it is a waste of time to probe corruption under capitalism, as it is endemic and any demand for probes is an opportunistic diversion of the energy of revolutionaries, and fosters reformist illusions.
The second argument against probe is that they are a waste of time, because, in almost all cases, the guilty are easily known, and drastic, summary punishment is what is required and a waste of time with public investigations which can take a long time and may result in nothing.
Thirdly, it is argued that probe panels wash our dirty linen in public, and create a national lack of self-confidence and a bad image abroad; unlike with many other countries who deal with such matters summarily or secretly, or both.
Fourthly, it is argued that probe panels divert attention from the substance of problems under investigation, and open room for personal vendetta, calumny and character assassination, especially with the type of media we have in this country.
Fifthly, it is argued that probe panels denigrate the role of the regular organs of law enforcement and justice, particularly the police and law courts, and bring in extraneous political, emotional and sensational elements, which undermine the rule of law and justice in this country.
Let us briefly take each of these five arguments one by one, and see how valid they are. The argument that because you cannot change a whole system, which generates corruption, so it is a waste of time to probe corruption is baseless. It is baseless because overthrowing one system and replacing it with another is not a cataclysmic upheaval that occurs suddenly and changes everything at once. The overthrow of any system, whether ecological, botanical, economic, social, or political involves specific, localised changes in its substantial elements, which build up to, and create internal and external conditions for its overthrow and replacement by another.
The building of a broad-based, determined, and organised commitment to public accountability among the oppressed class, and the middle strata, is an essential condition for progress towards national unity, democracy, national independence and socialism in this country. The struggle for public probes of corruption and abuse of office, and over their outcome, provides one of the most important means of building this commitment. Anybody who takes the position that this is a waste of time is objectively working for the preservation of the status quo, no matter what militant and revolutionary phrases and slogans he may use.
As for the argument that the guilty are known and should be summarily punished; this is just invalid, both on the ground that it is not true in almost all cases, and that even where it is not true, public investigation is crucial for public accountability and justice. Summary punishment, even for the guilty, generates fear, injustice and tyranny of various types. It is the road to dictatorship and the death squads.
To argue that we should not wash our linen in public, is to argue that we should facilitate the process of dirtying our linen, in private, by allowing those who do this to escape from public exposure and condemnation. It does not build national self-confidence, but national hypocrisy.
Fourthly, it is an illusion to believe that it is possible to avoid the personal element, whenever issues of corruption, abuse of office and self-aggrandizement are raised. This is because those involved in the subversion of the collective public interest do so for individual, personal greed. For since public resources are personally misappropriated, the exposure and punishment of these have to involve personalities; since it was not spirits that did the misappropriation, but persons!
Finally, the argument that we should leave this to the police and courts is as bankrupt as it is laughable. This is because if the police and courts were doing their duties, they would have promoted enough self-0confidence among the people to make challenges and exposure of individual acts of corruption and abuse of office to be so regular that they never build up into scandalous and sensational problems of great public concern. In this country, taking allegations to the police, or going to the law courts, has almost become synonymous with cover-up and sweeping them under the carpet.
Probe panels, like other forms of investigations, have been and are still being, used in this country to cover-up, divert attention, and subvert justice and public accountability. But our experience in Nigeria has demonstrated that, even if the government or the panel, subverts justice and public accountability, public, open, publicised investigations which allow all persons willing to testify to do so, outside the prosecution/defence syndrome, together with the documentation, and publication of the findings and recommendation, and actions, make far greater contribution to the political education and organization of the oppressed classes and middle strata than any other forms of investigation. The writing of the minority reports, the establishment of popular counter-probe panels, and other such activities, at this time, have to be integrated as part of the struggle over the process and outcome of the government probe panels, and not just made outside this, merely as a posture of militancy.
Those afraid of, and campaigning against probe panels and public exposure of corruption, abuse of office and other such crimes, are, basically the rich and powerful of this country and their foreign masters. Their wealth and power cannot stand any close and regular public scrutiny and they cannot operate under any system of genuine public accountability to the people of this country. They fear the education, the mobilisation and organisation this can provide among the oppressed class and the increasingly wretched and disillusioned middle strata of Nigerian society. They know that this education and mobilisation threatens the basis of their power. They should not be allowed to use their cynicism, romanticism, and feeling of frustration among the oppressed classes, and the middle strata, to block this potent means of social and political progress.