If truly Nigeria wants to learn about how to deal with corruption, the country is not short of examples, at least from other lands. Indeed, there is a surfeit of such examples. That corruption remains a festering sore in Nigeria merely shows the lip-service being paid to the cankerworm by the authorities. And, when the authorities appear set to deal with the issue, the necessary support from other stakeholders, particularly the judiciary – the bar and the bench – is usually not there. In all of the examples from abroad, the judiciary has always played a key role in nailing those involved; irrespective of their status in society.
Just last month, two countries presented yet another opportunity to teach the world that the wages of corruption is imprisonment. The first is South Korea where Lee Jae-yong, the de facto chief of Samsung was found guilty of bribery and related charges on August 25. And the other, the United States of America, where a New York court, on August 26, jailed Mahmoud Thiam, a 50 year-old former minister of mines and geology of the Republic of Guinea seven years for laundering bribes paid to him by executives of China Sonangol International Ltd (China Sonangol) and China International Fund, SA, CIF.
These are high profile convictions that might have been difficult to get in Nigeria. Lee is the billionaire son of Samsung’s ailing chairman, Lee Kun-hee. Lee bagged a five-year jail term in prison, well short of the 12-year sentence prosecutors had sought. We need to restate the status of Samsung to draw the point being made vividly home. The company is the world’s largest smartphone maker and South Korea’s biggest family-run conglomerate. Indeed its businesses are estimated to account for around 15% of South Korea’s entire economy. So, Lee’s trial qualified for a celebrity trial and it was appropriately tagged “trial of the century”.
But, bribe taking is common among South Korean top business tycoons. David Kang, director of the University of Southern California’s Korean Studies Institute, painted a grim picture when he said in an interview before Lee’s conviction that serving jail term “is like a rite of passage,” among the South Korean business elite.
However, as Eneke the bird said, “since men have learned to shoot without missing, he has learned to fly without perching.” Since many South Korean business moguls have learnt not to do clean business, mixing business with politics in the most obscene manner, the country too has learnt not to be tired of sending them to jail. Lee’s father too is an ex-convict, having been sentenced to prison twice, even if he was also pardoned twice.
It is a notorious fact that corruption is widespread in Nigeria. And when we talk of official corruption, it is usually in high places. Unfortunately, our prisons are not congested with the right people who should be cooling their heels there. Rather, many of them are walking the streets freely, flaunting their ill-gotten wealth in the most provocative manner. As a matter of fact, in some cases they are given higher responsibilities as if promotion is the official reward for corruption. They are in government, in the legislature and worse still, the judiciary which has just been ranked second most corrupt institution in Nigeria, after the Nigeria Police Force. The rating, according to the National Bureau of Statistics is the view of majority of Nigerians. We think so.
This, no doubt, must be double jeopardy for Nigeria. When the judiciary is corrupt, and the police so notoriously so, where then lies the hope of the common man? Both institutions are crucial to the successful prosecution of the war against graft.
Our judiciary in particular must rise to the occasion. It should purge itself of the corrupt elements in its fold. There should be no unnecessary rigmarole in the handling of corruption cases. We need reforms that would put the burden of proof on the accused instead of the present situation where it is on the prosecution. A public official in whose custody money that he could not have made all his entire service life was found should have the duty of showing proof that the money is not a proceed of sleaze. Until we do that, we would be dancing in circles in fighting corruption. When we do that, public servants would have less incentive to steal and countries like America would also heave a sigh of relief with few looters seeing that country as safe haven for their loot.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco of the Department of Justice Criminal Division’s statement after Thiam’s conviction is instructive: the “sentence sends a strong message to corrupt individuals like Thiam that if they attempt to use the U.S. financial system to hide their bribe money they will be investigated, held accountable, and punished,” adding that: Indeed, “corruption is a cancer on society that destabilises institutions, inhibits fair and free competition, and imposes significant burdens on ordinary law-abiding people just trying to live their everyday lives”.
We pray and hope that America would live up to this billing because it is one of the countries where African looters find safe to hide their loot. But, whether or not America is able to keep to its words, the Nigerian government has a lot to do to tame corruption, especially in high places because, unless it does so and vigorously too, corruption will kill the country.