On Osinbajo’s Corruption Shock

Nigeria Vice President Yemi Osinbajo

--Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s recent claim that his biggest surprise as the number two man was the scale of grand corruption in the Nigeria public service raises an eyebrow. As someone who cut his political teeth in the regional headquarters of public corruption in Nigeria, Lagos State, that is, why was Osinbajo’s Abuja experience that confounding? He also reportedly stated that not only has his greatest astonishment been the corruption that enabled a public official to take money directly from the national purse and direct it towards their personal purposes, he has seen the rate at which such acts of grand larceny have retarded development. While his observations cannot be dismissed, one wonders if he all through his years as a public servant in Lagos, he worked with saints.

Osinbajo was a cabinet member in the Lagos State Ministry of Justice; he was also Lagos Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice from 1999-2007, under the leadership of Bola Tinubu before becoming a politician. If someone worked in the Tinubu dispensation in Lagos and remains part of its political class, and such a person can still be surprised at corruption elsewhere, we should either be curious what the person saw or check whether they need to be certified visually challenged.

The lack of transparency and accountability that runs the affairs of Lagos is a publicly documented fact and it plays out in their electioneering. We were witnesses to how the ideology of “Baba sope…” and loyalty to the godfather’s mediocre vision played out for Governor Akinwunmi Ambode. Underneath the roiling tensions and the buildup of discontent that robbed the governor of his chance to contest a second term in office is corruption in its various guises. When people complained about Ambode not carrying them along, and that he was not loyal enough, what they were crying over is the unfavourability of the sharing formula of Lagos resources.

How can anyone who has been mired in that muck truthfully claim to be surprised by the “grand corruption” taking place elsewhere?

Nigerian politics is largely about sharing resources among the elite who converge on the soup pot and nowhere is this banality of thievery more obvious than Lagos State. There is money; and the vultures cannot help but converge on the feast and pick the state’s carcass to the bones. That is why Lagos, relatively rich as it is in resources is also, paradoxically, one of the poorest regarding urban infrastructural development. The state generates money, but they can barely get one thing right. The urban planning is zero, and basic functionality of any well-planned city centre is missing. One would be less frustrated at the patrimonial nature of Lagos politics if the administrators had managed to build a modern city in the league of other major cities of the world, but no, what they celebrate instead is an extended ghetto with a few safe spaces for the wealthy and the privileged.

Lagos State is ruled by a myopic vision of sightless leaders who arrogate to themselves the power to choose and discard its administrators, and to dictate how resources would be shared. Their actions are a corruption of the ideals of democracy, but the bigger surprise is that the Osinbajo that was bred in this perverted socio-political context got to Abuja and was somehow surprised to see “grand corruption” taking place. If there is someone whose sense of ethics ought to be acute to the point that it detects the merest whiff of corruption anywhere, it should be Osinbajo who wields the triple identity of being a pastor, lawyer, and a professor of law. Osinbajo might be sincerely right though, and his shock could have come about by his having lived within a dysfunctional system for so long that he was inured to its mechanisms. He only got the level of clarity needed to see the log of wood in his eyes when he became the VP and left some of his APC tribe behind in Lagos.

The other part of Osinbajo’s statement is that corruption is only corruption when it is carried out by non-members of the APC coterie. When the APC politicians rob their state blind, steal enough resources to enslave the inhabitants of the state to the seventh generation; when their local “constituted authorities” abuse power, rig elections, and bring state-sanctioned violence on defenceless individuals, they somehow rationalise their deeds as part of the imperfections that pervade any human-built institutions. Unable to account for their contradictions, they urge us to keep our focus on President Muhammadu Buhari, the “author and finisher” of our political good faith; the human personification of incorruptibility and spotless conduct.

On the same occasion — the 24th Nigerian Economic Summit in Abuja — where Osinbajo made the earlier remarks, he also mentioned that whenever he wants to sack someone for being corrupt, he is solicited by religious leaders, politicians, and business leaders. I find that point interesting for two reasons. One, why is he the one saddled with the responsibility of sacking corrupt public officials when there are agencies tasked with the job? Why not relinquish that burden to agencies and save yourself the hassle of dealing with lobbyists?

Second, speaking of religious leaders soliciting favour for corrupt people, I remember that then Central Bank of Nigeria governor, Lamido Sanusi, also made a similar claim that a popular pastor had gone to the then President Goodluck Jonathan to solicit his intervention on behalf of a rogue banker who had gone on exile when he was about to be arrested for his crimes. From 2014 when Sanusi made that claim, Nigeria ought to have travelled farther. Yes, I do understand people asking such favour of President Jonathan, he was a man widely reputed to be so weak he could grant any concession to anyone. I would not be totally surprised that the President was truly lobbied on behalf of the banker to get the latter off the hook. What I find far more shocking about it is that people are still making the same request in the Buhari government.

Whatever happened to the ethos of incorruptibility they said Buhari’s body language espouses and which has put a fear of God in the heart of looters? The point Buhari’s campaigners have been preaching has been about re-electing Buhari so that we can keep corrupt people at a permanent bay. Yet, here we are with the Vice President admitting that they frequently ask him for favours. I am doubly curious how those solicitors are not incommoded by his pastoral calling; how can they be bold enough to ask him, a pastor-vice president to pervert the course of justice? If they do not regard the anti-corruption image his government projects, they could at least respect the anointing on him. Also, if as Osinbajo hinted, such solicitations happen frequently, it must mean that they keep asking because he yielded the last time they asked.

My summation is that they ask Osinbajo to let the corrupt go because they know that like every other politician, he is likely to compromise. Regardless of his consistent peroration about corruption, he buckles in private. Politicians do that to form a network of power and favour transactions that will pay back someday. When a pastor calls you and asks you to free a rogue banker, you know that during elections, you can go to his church and obtain a symbolic endorsement when you ask him to pray for you. When business leaders ask you to let one member of their thieving tribes go free, it is because you know that when elections come in, they will rub your back. It is all about give and take, and that is why Osinbajo’s constant hand-wringing about corruption is neither productive nor impressive. If anything, it shows that their anti-corruption agenda is plagued by the same issues that impeded progress on previous wars waged against corruption. They all make noise publicly but what goes on in private is not as principled. If Osinbajo must know, no anti-corruption battle can succeed without some measure of victory in the private spheres of the corridors of power.

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