By Abimbola Adelakun
Once again, the world was confronted with a massive leak of supposedly confidential information of how the rich, the corrupt, and the shady people hoard their nuts. The Panama Papers affair is the unprecedented leak of a whopping 11.5 million files from the database of the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca. Led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists – a team of over 100 news outlets – the documents are an expose of how people hide their wealth in tax havens, far from the surveillance systems of their countries. The people caught in this scandal are not necessarily all treasury thieves and looters; some are businessmen merely fulfilling the capitalist cliché of cheating the system by avoiding taxes.
So far, leaders of various countries, from South Africa to Saudi, Russia to Democratic Republic of Congo – their friends and families have been linked to this massive scandal. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister of Iceland, Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, became the first casualty of the Panama Papers palaver when he had to resign after thousands of protesters hit the street to register their disappointment in him saying his lack of ethics was a betrayal of collective confidence.
Gunnlaugsson was accused of not properly disclosing his ties to the offshore company he was linked to although he claimed he was not compelled to report it as it was a holding company for his wife’s assets. Instead, he insisted his wife had a huge family inheritance and the said company’s bonds derived absolutely no benefits from their political position. His being in government, he said, had in fact depleted their financial resources. The press statement from the now former PM reads like the kind of self-justification a Nigerian politician would write.
Coincidentally, that was exactly the line of defence put forward by the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, who was found in this inglorious company of tax evaders. He too says the assets linked to him belong to his wife’s rich family. His wife, probably facing pressure from her family who do not want to be dragged into their murk, counters that the assets are entirely hers. The curious part of their denials and counter-denials is not that Saraki has no clue what his wife owns but that the extended family she belongs to stored their wealth with her.
Saraki, currently facing trial for alleged false asset declaration at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, adds this Panama Papers palaver to his resume. By the time he wraps up his political career, his fingers would have been imprinted in every corruption pie baked in the Nigerian political sphere. From Societe Generale Bank back to the Panama Papers, his career gets constantly animated by alleged flagrant disregard for ethics. He seems to have mastered the art of stoicism, a skill every scandal-prone politician quickly learns so as to be able to ride out the storm they whip up with their relentlessly itchy fingers. On Panama Papers, Saraki will perhaps act deaf and dumb until the issue recedes from the public arena.
As for the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, one can only hope they will not sleepwalk through this.
Nigerians, predictably worn from the fatigue of endless scandals and revelations, will invest their energies in more urgent things, like getting fuel for their cars and their generators. Anyone who imagines Nigerians will spill out in the streets like the Icelanders needs a potent antidote to hope-dope. Really, what is surprising about our leaders involved in scandals? That Saraki and the jailbird, James Ibori, a former Delta State governor, are found in the same company can only surprise a Martian. Ibori keeps turning up in every corruption investigation like a kobo coin, nearly beating out FIFA’s reach in corrupt circles. The immediate past Senate President, David Mark, was also unsurprisingly linked to the Panama Papers’ leak. That makes one wonder why names of certain former military rulers of Mark’s ilk did not turn up. Where do they hide their loot? Again, how come the two successive Senate presidents end up with the same law firm?
Unless exceedingly spectacular, I am sceptical any more corruption scandal can move the Nigerian public. In the past year, we have been inundated with tales of corruption; some of the amounts involved highly outrageous, even exceeding the amount of the nation’s external reserves. As such, the shock value of such revelations has plummeted. President Muhammadu Buhari’s propagandists have hyped corruption tales to whip up a lynch mob. The mob, frenzied into orgasmic delight at the sheer thought of constitutional violence that the President – the avenging angel of corruption – can wreak on the ruling class, even called for -and acquiesced to- a suspension of the rule of law to satiate their cannibalistic taste of blood. Nowadays however, people seem fatigued by the endless yarn of corruption. Lately, the conductor of the propaganda orchestra, Lai Muhammed, lamented that people no longer get turned on by their revelations. Hopefully, he has learnt the wisdom in the Yoruba saying, that the same act that brings you honour, when overdone, can land you into disrepute.
There are however other lessons one can take away from this Panama Papers affair, whether Saraki loses his job or not. One is that corruption is a global citizen, not particularly a resident of any nation. There is no country in the world where people will not cheat the system if they get a chance. There are times when Nigerians have despairingly wondered if the corruption that has destabilised our country is not a curse, or part of our evolutionary trait. What the Panama Papers scam has shown is that Nigeria is not special. What separates our corruption from other parts of the world is the sophisticated means they deploy to tackle it. While Nigeria’s anti-corruption agencies may just overlook this scandal, some of the western countries involved are more likely to make laws to tighten the knots in their systems that these rich people have exploited.
Corruption – and this is a lesson for Buhari and his fellow travellers – cannot be tackled by merely arresting people and subjecting them to media trials, feeding their confessional statement to a voyeuristic public. Instead, we need to create sophisticated means of surveillance by targeting the system that enables these acts to thrive. Those who will fight corruption in the 21st century should adopt the philosophy of Eneke the bird who said, as told by the inimitable storyteller, Chinua Achebe, in his classic novel, Things Fall Apart, since men have learnt to shoot without missing, it has also learnt to fly without perching. Corrupt people are not static in their methods, fighting them should constantly evolve too. Corruption can never be fully extinguished and that is why sensible governments re-organise their systems, not merely agonise.
These massive leaks that spill the filthy guts of the rich and powerful, unfortunately however, do not guarantee the prospect of any major change in the structure of the establishment – global and local. In fact, I have grown rather cynical about this form of self-righteous vigilanteism that manifests as massive leaks. Yes, a number of rich and powerful people will go through the rituals of public shaming in the wake of these revelations. Unless, of course, one can shrug it off like the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who is claiming that this is part of “Putinphobia” agenda on the part of the western world, or one is anti-democratic like China that is restricting its citizens’ access to this news. People like Saraki and their family members roped into this will be branded by a section of Nigerians while another section of our people actually covets their fortune. At the end of the day, what will really change? In some instances, there will be investigations and resignations in the really developed countries; local politics of some countries might benefit from the scandal but likeWikileaks and the Edward Snowden’s leaks, how much dent will these revelations make in the global structures that determine our lives? For the Panama Papers, will those affected not merely become more sensible – adopting more sophisticated processes to better protect paper trails?