When the historian Walter Rodney from Guyana published his book ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ in 1972, it revolutionized the conversation on Africa’s underdevelopment by availing the world of a new, graphic template on the adversarial relationship between the two continents, with the earlier preying on the latter. The thesis of the work was that the quantum of development of Europe in the course of a 400-year slave trade and associated plunder of the African continent, was inversely proportional to the scope of deprivation, underdevelopment, stagnation and squalor currently prevalent across the length and breadth of Nigeria, as well as the rest of the continent. Put in a short form, Africa was bled to lift Europe. Hence his treatise altered the prevailing arguments on underdevelopment of Africa, by largely offering in a wider context a cause and effect paradigm on the subject.
Seen in the same context, the sterling enterprise of the Special Presidential Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property with Chief Okoi Obono-Obla as Chairman, has lifted into public consciousness the incontrovertible connection between the perennial stagnation, underdevelopment as well as growing squalor among a widening cross-section of the Nigeria citizenry, and the humongous scope of unaccounted-for or looted public property. Conservative estimates have put a value of $20 trillion on the quantum of such public property which have been criminally converted into private ownership across the three tiers of governance in Nigeria, since the country developed a formal public sector and therefore remain eligible for recovery.
This stock of unaccounted-for public property which if not diverted and deployed would have projected the country into the Nigeria of every body’s dream, comprises humongous stocks of funds, illegally acquired public buildings as well as vehicles and machinery, all diverted insidiously to private ownership. Culprits include top politicians, top executives of public and private sector organisations, recalcitrant bank debtors, as well as mobilized non-performing government contractors; just to name a few. Simply put, with the diversion of such property the country is now faced with the unenviable burden of seeking foreign loans to drive its development aspirations, with the attendant unpalatable terms and conditions.
In the context of its statutory mission the Okoi Obono Obla panel constitutes the end point of the government’s anti-corruption campaign since the ultimate remediation for any criminal activity is the restitution for the victim of such outrage which in this case is the Nigerian public.
Established in August 2017 by President Muhammadu Buhari the Panel easily won the hearts of the wider Nigerian society as it offered hope that at last some – if not all of the looters of public property in Nigeria will sooner than later, be made to account for their nefarious activities. Just as well, as developments turn out on a daily basis, it becomes increasingly obvious that the Panel can do with more support from the Nigerian public than is presently available.
At the mention of looting of public property, the casual mind may easily underrate its significance. Yet no other act of public misconduct by any citizen – apart from treason, damages public interest more. In that context can be seen the country’s loss from the cumulative impact of the insidious and invidious indulgence of looting with impunity, public property belonging to various governments at the three tiers of governance and through several decades of the country’s formal public sector. In simple language, the situation denies the wider cross section of Nigerians of critical infrastructure such as roads, bridges and other public facilities. Hence if the country metes out penalties for armed robbers and other criminals – the consequence of whose misdemeanor is limited to individual victims, how much more do the looters – the consequence of whose action has wider implications, deserve appropriate sanctions. That is why the operations of the Panel cannot and should not but intensify with each passing day. That is if the country will survive the ongoing hemorrhage of its critical resources and hence life blood – the looted property.
Scholars have long addressed themselves to the despicable syndrome of massive looting of public property belonging to government and the public in not only Nigeria but in much of the African continent by the very officers in whose custody such resources are entrusted. Among the various theories canvassed is the ‘colonial hangover’. According to this school of thought, the disposition to loot public property had its root in the days of colonial administration when it was considered justified to strip and recover from the predatory colonialists some of their plunder, since such was harvested from the respective colonies. The colonial government was considered alien and anti-people, hence was qualified to be sabotaged even if only by looting its resources.
The prevalence of the syndrome after several decades of the exit of the colonialists – at least from Nigeria, renders it unwarranted and therefore condemnable. Indigenous governments set up and run by indigenes cannot by any stretch of the imagination qualify as alien to the people. Hence looters of public property in such a context remain ordinary thieves, who should have their day before equity.
It is significant that President Muhammadu Buhari has with his re-election to office reiterated the resolve of his administration to sustain the tempo of the anti-corruption war. This condition will expand the scope of the operations of the Obono-Obla Panel as the recovery factor in the government’s campaign to return to Nigerians, the looted property which the sons and daughters of Belial have stolen.
Around the world, and especially in most advanced countries, the looting of public property is viewed seriously, not just by the government but even the citizenry. In some countries where there is zero tolerance to the crime of dispossessing the public of their legitimate property, such culprits are made to face the death penalty.
Likewise, in most traditional African societies, the misappropriation or expropriation of communal or public property is viewed seriously and attracts severe penalties. It should therefore not be dealt with leniency at a grander stage of formal, national government.