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The Magu affair and the politics of anti-corruption practice in Nigeria




By Suleiman A. Suleiman (PhD)

THE facts of the allegations of corruption against the suspended Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mr. Ibrahim Magu are questions for the presidential panel investigating him and the courts to settle. But the appearances of the case aptly demonstrate the politics of anti-corruption law enforcement in Nigeria that is significant to scrutinize in its own right.

In his 2016 book, Moral Economies of Corruption: State Formation and Political Culture in Nigeria, the British historian, Steven Pierce suggests that accusations of corruption in Nigeria are a discursive label applied selectively and primarily to achieve political ends. The evidence of wrongdoing matters in a corruption case, of course, but the political objective achieved by that evidence often matters more, and that objective is not always reform or enforcing the law.

Pierce means three things, each of which appears evident in this case and has implications for anti-corruption practice in Nigeria overall. The first is that accusations of corruption are an effective political device used selectively by those in government and in opposition alike for removing public officials from office in the name of fighting corruption, but crucially, not in the substance of it.

Mr Ibrahim Magu may or may not be guilty of whatever allegations are against him. That is a matter for the panel and the courts to decide. But there are indications that his removal from office is a primary objective in this case.

Magu was arrested on Monday 6th July, and by the end of that week he had already been suspended. A presidential statement to that effect on 11th July, signed by Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Mr. Garba Shehu noted that Magu’s suspension was to allow for “a transparent and unhindered investigation” into the case. There should be no question about this.

However, this rule is applied only selectively in Nigeria, even by this same government. For example, a Senate ad-hoc committee indicted former Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Babachir Lawal for awarding N540 million worth of contracts to his own companies in December 2016. Yet, the former SGF held on to his office for several months until his suspension in April 2017, after much heat from Nigerians.

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Mr. Ishaq Modibbo Kawu, then Director-General of the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) was charged to court by ICPC for alleged misappropriation of N2.5 billion in March 2019. But he was not suspended until February 2020. In fact, Kawu appeared in court several times while still in office. Moreover, when former Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu sent a 7-page letter to the President alleging insubordination and corruption against then Group Managing Director of the NNPC, Maikanti Baru in 2017, the case was not even investigated by the presidency, and the late GMD remained in office until retirement in 2019.

In other words, it is changes in the political situation that has informed the removal of Ibrahim Magu, not necessarily the need to ensure accountability in the EFCC as the government claims. After all, allegations of corruption were first raised against the same Magu by the Department of State Security (DSS) as far back as 2016, but for political convenience at the time, this same government insisted on his nomination.

The second implication derives from the first. Since the political situation determines who gets exposed or punished for corruption in Nigeria, rather than the need to reform society or to uphold the law, the politics of a corruption case can be more pronounced than the legality of it. In this sense, anti-corruption takes the form of a political game, or what Steven Pierce calls “political performance”, played out most prominently on the pages of newspapers, rather than actively in the courts of law.

It is difficult to imagine anything more consequential for the fight against corruption in Nigeria than this case. The case offers the government’s anti-corruption agenda a golden opportunity not only to reform the EFCC, but to transform the entire architecture of anti-corruption in Nigeria.

Yet, there is not much evidence that law enforcement or reform is the intent. The panel investigating the case has been dragging on for months. Perhaps the case is rather complex, given that there are twenty-two separate allegations involved. But all the government needs to initiate prosecution and wider reform is enough evidence to support just one or two charges of corruption. For the head of an anti-corruption agency, participating in one instance of corruption is as bad as involvement in a hundred.

Furthermore, the panel is fast turning into a forum for finger-pointing and blame-throwing for the sake of ritual and entertainment rather than for pre-prosecution purposes. Over the past several weeks, various actors in the case have been feeding the press with accusations and counter-accusations that are carefully designed to manipulate public opinion, rather than to help the panel establish a case.

There is, then, the real danger that this case might go the way of hundreds of previous corruption cases that have been pursued almost entirely on the pages of newspapers and panel reports, but without leading to any convictions or systemic reforms. Given the frequency of corruption scandals in Nigeria, there is the risk that this case may soon be overtaken by another, and may soon fizzle out altogether.

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All of which leads us to the final point. Playing political gamesmanship with corruption cases is precisely why Nigeria’s ranking in global indices like Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index remains consistently low, and why high-level corruption persists, despite some meaningful gains in anti-corruption policy and practice over the past two decades. It is time to remove politics from anti-corruption.

Dr. Suleiman is a Research Fellow in Democratic Governance at the Atiku Centre for Development, and Assistant Professor in Media, Politics and Governance at American University, Yola. 07066451983.

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