When Ehud Olmert, one-time Israeli Prime Minister was convicted and sentenced to six years imprisonment the other day for taking bribes while he was the mayor of Jerusalem, all Nigerians must have found in that case what zero tolerance for corruption truly means. And, for them, the time has come to insist that the phrase, ‘zero tolerance’, now a mere catch-all slogan in the mouths of the same public officers who daily steal Nigeria blind, finds true expression in prevention, detection and repercussions.
Not only was Olmert sentenced to a term of imprisonment, a fine of one million shekels, equivalent of $289,000 was imposed on him. This is a demonstration of Israel’s total disapproval of and strong aversion to corruption and official misconduct, generally. The severity of the punishment and its impartial application is an indication of collective indignation for the offence and government’s unwavering commitment to its laws. To those who live in Nigeria, this is certainly an unusual feat, a tall order difficult to come by in their own part of the world. Which is why there is no disincentive for impunity in public offices other than self-restraint or moral inhibition on the part of the individuals occupying such offices. Sad enough, Nigeria is yet to have leaders with such attributes as was the case in Tanzania under Julius Nyerere, the “Nwalimu”, for example.
That the law speaks different languages to different persons in Nigeria is a serious aberration that reduces it to a respecter of persons. Olmert’s conviction, therefore, offers a lot of lessons, coming at a time when Nigeria, as indeed many African countries, is groaning under the suffocating grip of ravaging corruption which has festered because culprits are hardly apprehended or punished. First is the overwhelming need to entrench the culture of the rule of law and the willingness of all, regardless of status or standing in the society, to submit totally to it for the good of all. The trial and conviction of Olmert in spite of his position in the society and international community were possible because of the resolute commitment of Israel to the rule of law.
The tragedy of Nigeria is that its leaders and members of the political class generally are yet to imbibe the essential attributes of the rule of law. For them, law is no more than a modern tool of fulfilling their political dreams and aspirations. Once the levers of government are in the kitty, the concept of supremacy of law ceases to hold sway. It gives way to an obnoxious philosophy, negative as it were, that makes the occupier of public office perpetually unquestionable and beyond reproach. This pernicious concept inures for all time and purposes with the result that a leader and his cronies invariably get away with atrocities committed while in office. The result on the society is a pandemic of corruption.
The second significance of Olmert’s conviction, which is instructive for political office holders, is the timelessness of punishment for corruption, meaning that though the criminal justice system in place or the government in place at any particular time may be favourable to corruption by providing refuge for culprits, that does not eliminate the prospect of prosecution someday. No matter how long, as it happened in the case of Olmert, the law would ultimately certainly catch up with the guilty. This is the risk every corrupt leader runs considering that a government or leader with zero tolerance for the malaise may spring forth to seek vengeance on behalf of the people for the despoliation of the land.
Nigerian citizens also have a role to play if corruption must be eliminated from the land. A leader can only succeed if his policies and actions reflect the values, ethos and cherished principles of his followers. A leader who is averse to corruption will only succeed if his people share the same conviction with him and are willing to rally round him in words and in actions. He, after all, runs the risk of alienation and the consequences thereof should his principles be completely at variance with the cherished principles of the led.
What is now clear in words and in deed is that Nigerians are more at home with corruption and are willing to condone it. This is evident in the way the society at large, including religious institutions, accommodate corrupt leaders and provide safe havens for them. Almost every laurel in the land is reserved for the corrupt. Even in the face of clear-cut evidence of corruption, kinsmen would build a strong fortress around the corrupt to insulate him from punishment and vilify all those who insist on just desserts.
This is how much the citizenry has helped corruption and abuse of office to soar, forgetting that in the final analysis, it translates to lack, want, decay and underdevelopment for them. A society that openly identifies with corrupt leaders as obtains in Nigeria and celebrates them as its best because of primordial considerations is basically doomed and consigned to the hell of political and economic failure. The tragedy of such a country is that it is a place where only the corrupt thrives and integrity suffers.
To make matters worse, all the institutions of state emplaced to put corruption in check can only capitulate to its roaring and towering influence. Whereas what is desirable are institutions that are bigger and stronger than individuals, what obtains in reality is the existence of a totally compromised, overwhelmed and emasculated institutions, weakened by the corrupt ethos and tendencies of the people they are meant to interrogate and/or serve to the point that they only exist in name. Rather than being respected, they go out of their ways to respect those for whose sake or against whom they were set up in the first place. And on few occasions when they summon courage to live up to their names, they are faced with the wrath or indignation of the society. Nothing illustrates this more than the way courts are besieged by hordes of sympathizers who come around to drum support for or show solidarity with the few ex-governors and political office holders standing trial for corruption and other heinous crimes.
Yet, more than any other country, Nigeria needs the Olmert therapy for there to be a new lease of life and for corruption to be curbed. Only a strong leadership can ensure that, by giving the rule of law a chance and sentencing impunity to oblivion.