Behind Buhari’s standoff with the Senate over Nigeria’s anti-corruption czar

Combating corruption is a key priority for Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is locked in a standoff with the country’s Senate after it twice refused to confirm his choice for the country’s corruption buster. The Senate’s rejection of Ibrahim Magu, the acting chairman of the Nigerian Economic and Financial Commission, for a permanent appointment came after he failed screening amid allegations he is himself corrupt and high-handed. But his supporters claim the allegations are trumped up because he’s the greatest threat to the country’s corrupt elites. Politics and Society Editor Thabo Leshilo spoke to Professor Gbenga Oduntan about the impasse.

What is the latest on the impasse regarding the appointment of Nigeria’s corruption buster?

The deadlock continues and there’s little chance that it will end soon. The Senate has drastically limited the scope for negotiation by declaring that Ibrahim Magu, the acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Agency (EFCC), cannot be further presented to it for confirmation.

On the other hand, President Buhari and his administration insist he is the right man for the job. It has dug in its heels, portraying the Senate as uncooperative in the fight against corruption. It has now turned to legalism, rather than bargaining.

The government’s legal position is quite strong. New legal advice by the heavy guns of the Nigerian bar, including the legendary Femi Falana, backs the executive’s position.

Firstly, the 1999 Nigerian constitution has vested the president with the power to appoint any person “to hold or to act” in public office. Also, the legal view is that appointments to the Economic and Financial Crimes Agency are not specifically listed among those required to be referred for Senate confirmation.

Secondly, the refusal to confirm Magu doesn’t annul his earlier appointment to the acting capacity. Both the constitution and the EFCC Act don’t stipulate how long one can remain in an acting position.

In this instance, Buhari is behaving like a typical strong leader in presidential democracies. Executive presidents, while maintaining the necessary constitutional dance with parliaments, don’t allow their key domestic agenda to become easily frustrated by uncooperative parliaments.

A corollary argument is that Buhari can indeed present Magu to the Nigerian Senate for confirmation for a third time, contrary to the Senate’s dictat. There’s ample precedence of this in Nigeria.

For example, former President Olusegun Obasanjo proposed Onyema Ogochukwu to head the Niger Delta Development Commission four times. He also presented Professor Babalola Aborishade three times for a ministerial position. Both candidates were eventually confirmed.

The country’s anti-corruption movement largely supports the view that the opposition to Magu is motivated by fears of his uncompromising stance against Nigeria’s corrupt upper classes.

They point to the fact that 15 of 109 senators are under investigation for serious corruption charges. Thus, their rejection of Magu flouts a cardinal principle of Nigeria’s Code of Conduct for Public Officers. The code states that:

a public officer shall not put himself in a position where his personal interest conflicts with his duties and responsibilities.

The 15 senators, including the Senate President Bukola Saraki, ought to have recused themselves from the deliberations that led to the rejection of Magu’s appointment. Some of the senators facing corruption charges are former governors of resource rich states and have a lot to lose in forfeiture following a successful Magu confirmation.

What are the underlying issues in the delay?

It’s important not to underestimate the relevance of the background of the current president of the Senate, Bukola Saraki who has a long trail of high profile corruption charges behind him.

A woman holds a placard during a rally to show support for Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja. Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde

He has seen off three previous EFCC chairmen who have led inconvenient investigations against him. Former chairman of the commission, Mallam Nuru Ribadu investigated him in the early 2000s over the infamous reckless Boardroom manipulations that crippled the once eminent Societe Generale Bank of Nigeria (SGBN). The bank collapsed with 1 billion Naira (US$ 318 million) disappearing into private pockets traced to him. Ribadu ended up in exile.

Ibrahim Lamorde, the immediate past chairman of the EFCC, reputedly met his waterloo when he investigated Saraki’s wife over another massive money laundering allegation.

Magu’s current woes can possibly be traced to his insistence on investigating allegations that 3.5 Billion Naira from the Paris-London Refund scandal has been traced to Ribadu’s bank account.

Why does Buhari insist on Magu even though he’s been rejected twice by the Senate?

The more Magu’s detractors oppose him, the more Buhari appears to be certain he is the right man for the job. Magu’s uncompromising, spartan and hard-nosed attitude to his job mirrors a younger Buhari’s style when he led Nigeria in the mid-1980s.

In many ways Buhari is suspicious of political bargainers. Compromise of any sort is anathema when it touches on his one area of competence – anti-corruption.

This is the one area in which Buhari has a chance of leaving a legacy for himself. The present impasse with the Senate doesn’t seem to worry him in the least as long as Magu is delivering the goods. His approach is working.

Magu has thrown himself unreservedly into his work at the commission. Unprecedented results are coming in, especially with his whistleblowing campaign which has led to discoveries of millions of hard currency stashes in Aladin’s caves across the country, even in forests and grave yards.

What is the most sensible way to resolve the problem in the best interests of Nigeria and Buhari’s presidency?

The president should stick to his guns. There’s no better time to be uncompromising on corruption issues. I believe that the fear that Magu will be corrupt is baseless given his history. Now that the entire Senate and press are watching him and there’s an unfavourable security report on him, it’s unlikely he would want to prove his detractors right.

This may indeed be Buhari’s masterstroke, the use of an unorthodox law of power – put a man with a point to prove, on the job and watch him excel.

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