Legal scholars and experts hurled verbal missiles around a round table convened to brainstorm on winning the war against corruption at the University of Lagos on Thursday.
The round table, organised by the Department of Jurisprudence and International Law, tagged “Winning the War Against Corruption” was also an opportunity to launch the book ‘Legal Perspectives to Corruption, Money Laundering, and Assets Recovery in Nigeria.’
The occasion began with the keynote speech ‘Rule of Law and Treatment of Politically Exposed Persons in Corruption Cases’ delivered by Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria.
Mr. Falana, who was represented by Wahab Shittu, advocated the creation of special courts to handle corruption cases.
The verbal battle began after controversial scholar, Femi Aribisala, took to the podium to discuss Mr. Falana’s speech.
“There is no fight against corruption in Nigeria. And if there’s no fight against corruption, you can’t even talk about war,” Mr. Aribisala began.
And then he launched into a 10 minute speech that attacked the global definition of corruption by Oby Ezekwesili, a former World Bank vice president who had earlier defined corruption as “the abuse of public space for private gains”, the prescription of special courts by Mr. Falana; and current administration’s effort against corruption.
“Corruption cannot be narrowly defined the way Dr. Ezekwesili defined it, only relating to public institutions. We are corrupt in Nigeria. The plumber, the tailor, the whole society is corrupt,” said Mr. Aribisala.
“And we have not yet taken a decision, we have not yet gotten to a point where we are fed up. I mean, she (Mrs. Ezekwesili) had given an example of Hong Kong where people became fed up and said enough is enough. We have not reached that situation yet, I don’t know why not, but we certainly have not.
“The 2015 election was not an anti-corruption election. We did not have any political party that presented an anti-corruption mandate to us. The party that won the election was just a makeover of the PDP, I mean the PDP people moved from the PDP to the APC. If they were corrupt when they were in PDP, they became clean when they were in APC.
“So there is no mandate against corruption. If President Buhari was determined to fight against corruption, my feeling is that he gave up after losing election three times.
“Because the fourth time, he formed an alliance with people who he despised before. And they were not necessarily people who had a track record of being (sic) anti-corruption. So today, I don’t know who is anti-corruption.”
Mr. Aribisala said the current fight against corruption by the President Muhammadu Buhari government is merely a fight against the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP).
“We have to make up our minds if we really want to deal with the question of corruption. If we want to deal with the question of corruption, Nigerians themselves must insist on it and we have to deal with it at the institutional level,” he said.
“The institutional fight against corruption that has taken place to the extent that it has, took place under PDP. The institutional structures, even the ones that the present government is relying on, are PDP structures. Whether it is EFCC, ICPC, TSA, all these came under PDP.
“In ten months of Buhari’s government, there has been no institutional structure that has been laid against corruption. We have simple had media circuses accusing people of corruption.
“You cannot fight corruption with corruption. And corruption is more than just the stealing of money. If you disobey the rule of law, you have corrupted the system. If you create an avenue where you have a big margin between the official foreign exchange rate and the parallel market rate, there’s gonna be corruption. If you have children of the rich getting into the CBN on nepotistic grounds, the corruption is still with you.
“If you have a budget that is padded left right and centre, and after this was revealed you passed it and say only a small amount changed in it, and we do not know what is in the new budget, you can’t say you are against corruption. There is no transparency in any of these things.”
Mr. Aribisala further stated that the current anti-corruption effort lacks a clear focus.
“Because the last 16 years was not just PDP government,” he said.
“The legacy parties of the APC were also in power. In fact when the PDP was ostensibly dealing with corruption, it addressed people in its own party. We are not having that now.
“And that’s why I can’t trust Falana’s prescription that we are going to establish special courts. I don’t trust this government to establish those courts. They will simply establish courts to decimate the opposition.
“People like Orubebe will be arrested, and they will file cases against him and several months later they will drop the charges against him. And they will have pronounced him guilty in the newspapers on charges that will later on be dropped. That is not a fight against corruption.”
Mr. Aribisala’s speech received a thunderous ovation from the guests, mostly students, a situation which irked Itse Sagay, a professor of Law and the chairman of the occasion.
“We are not here to make students clap,” a visibly angry Mr. Sagay, who serves as the chairman of a Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-courruption.
“We are here on a very serious business. And students, don’t behave like American electorates who are ignorant. Donald Trump. The appreciation of unserious people shows ignorance. How can someone come here and say there’s no war against corruption and there is clapping? ”
Mr. Sagay said the APC had a manifesto that spelt out its strategies to combat corruption, and admonished Mr. Aribisala to stop making statements devoid of facts.
“Obasanjo created ICPC, EFCC, they are doing well we don’t need to create new institutions. You do not win a war by just creating multiplicity of institutions everywhere, that’s irresponsible. We will work with the institutions that we have.
“You don’t dilute the meaning of corruption to a point that it is meaningless. This is a very serious discussion and I want us to be serious about it. If you are anti-government, please go and campaign against government and let your party win in 2019.
“This is not a venue for PDP campaign. Most inappropriate comment. We are here on serious business. Let’s maintain that seriousness,” he said.
With Mr. Aribisala appearing unperturbed by Mr. Sagay’s stern remarks, Mrs. Ezekwesili pleaded for another chance at the podium, ostensibly to further drive the case against Mr. Aribisala’s argument.
“The systemic nature of corruption as a cancer against a system of governance is demonstrated in the fact that the activity of corruption begins to happen at their different levels,” Mrs. Ezekwesili began.
“So for example, I wasn’t surprised that some of you were clapping. The reason you were clapping is that you are a page in your own level of corruption.
“There are many whose exam malpractice is the basis upon which they have come to school. So when you are talking about the need to wage a war against corruption, they are completely disconnected from it. There is a complete dissonance from it.”
Mrs. Ezekwesili urged the students to desist from applauding populist statements.
“You need to be driven by the evidence of the damage and the destruction that corruption is doing to you, at the unit level. If you think you are doing well now, you will do exceedingly better if corruption is effectively tackled in this society,” she said.
“There is no comedy session going on here. We are talking about something that can be destructive. You should be holding the gun to fight against corruption. The gun has to be intellectual, so I need you to intelligently process everything that is said.”