The first corruption prosecution of President Muhammadu Buhari’s reign has succeeded. The former Director-General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration Safety Agency (NIMASA), Raymond Omatseye, has been sentenced to five years in prison for his orchestration of N1.5bn contract scam. Omatseye got what he deserved; every guilty man and woman should be punished according. Well, not quite. The process that led to the conviction precedes this administration. Then this success is actually a major failure of anticorruption when considering the political economy and ethnic dynamics of Nigeria, a massive sham. The prosecution / conviction of Omatseye suggests a pattern of ‘ethnic ease’ adopted by several Governments of Nigeria (GON); the smaller the ethnicity of a corrupt official the easier it is to convict him or her and vice versa.
If we use the food-chain metaphor (chopping and stomach indicated), power and corruption have a ‘high end’ where most of Nigeria’s resources are concentrated and accessed, and also a ‘low end’ where most of crumbs of the state and the rare big bit are available. There is no doubt that largest ethnic groups have dominant control over the high end of the food chain of Nigeria’s resources. How come politicians and officials from Nigeria’s ethnic minorities are always the first and easiest to prosecute and convict? Does it make sense? Yes, Nigeria has an ethnocentric polity and political economy. Ethnic numbers win votes, power and impunity too.
Remember, corruption is not seen as a serious crime by too many Nigerians who hold many logics to support the corruption of their tribesmen and party men. Convicting a major corrupt politician / official from the largest ethnic groups has the potential of wrecking much political instability in the nation. This may not be easily apparent but most sophisticated Nigerian politicians are always cautious about an “Archduke Ferdinand Moment” and how it sparked the World War I. Nigeria has had its “Ironsi Moment” and “Abiola Moment” and that saw the country reach the brink of its disintegration but recovered; some may argue that these ‘moments’ were not corruption convictions. However, try prosecuting and convicting Sege Obasanjo, Jagaban Tinubu, Olu Falae, Badmus Babangida, Abubakar Abdul-Salaami or Atiku Abubakar and see how stable Nigeria would remain. You will then realise with much hindsight there are “Owners of Nigeria”.
In essence, one of the numerous major reasons why anticorruption perennially fails in Nigeria, no matter who is in power is that the biggest thieves of government funds at the ‘high end’ of the food chain cannot be successfully prosecuted / convicted because it can potentially rip the country apart. Such politicians are simply “Too Big To Convict”, convict them and break the country. Therefore, to keep Nigeria together as one “happy family” it is incomparably much “safer” in the national interest to prosecute officials from ethnic minorities but keep the corruption at the ‘high end’ even “safer”. One would have thought Buhari would change all that but it is anticorruption as usual, in a manner that preserves the nation. From a pragmatic perspective, it is probably the best thing for Nigeria’s “unity”.
The time is ripe for Nigerians to see what will happen to the stability of the country when top politicians from majority ethnic groups are prosecuted and convicted for their crimes like Omatseye was. We are not talking about weak or irrelevant tokens, that will fool but a few. The great hunter is only revered for the number of lions, elephants and pythons he kills with his bow and arrow not the snails, rats and vultures.
If every man, woman and child of the ethnicities Istekiri, Urhobo, Numan, Ogoni, Igala, Ukwani, Esan and Ogoja are thrown into jail, by what percentage of the total of the phenomenons of (a) grand corruption, (b) bureaucratic corruption and (c) petty corruption, drop in Nigeria? Based on both public sector and private sector access to economic resources by ethnicity, the conviction of these whole peoples will not reduce corruption in any of the three categories by even up to 1%. Yet, there are a handful of living persons from ethnic majorities responsible for the theft of about a third of the current GDP of Nigeria. The major thieves are so gifted with impunity only because they are “Too Big To Convict”. Nigeria should be thankful for it own unity.
Some will retort that Olabode George (South West) and Bamaiyi (North) were convicted the same way Omatseye was convicted. When Olabode George completed his sentence he was favoured to be a PDP Chieftain again. Bamaiyi from jail was winning and executing federal contracts. Convicted politicians from ethnic minorities do not have such rehabilitation privileges.
For Buhari, who is famously keen on the return of Nigeria’s stolen monies, the act of prosecuting and convicting ethnic minority officials [there are minorities in the North too] for corruption as a thoroughgoing approach is a colossal loser. For those who say it is too early to evaluate Buhari, the pattern has emerged early enough.