It is grievously disappointing to learn that one arm of the presidency is suggesting that Nigerian protesters demanding that President Muhammadu Buhari return to work or quit are trying to derail the war against corruption.

Senior presidential special assistant Garba Shehu led the charge last Thursday, describing the #ResumeOrResign protesters as an “illegal assembly” aimed at anti-corruption effort.

“It might be taken for granted that the beneficiaries of the old order are fighting back,” he said in the statement. “We [have] been warned that corruption will fight back…They want to distract us. But what the Presidency wants to assure patriotic citizens is that the government will not bend.”

I am happy that the government has such strong fighting words. Because words, such words, are largely all that we have heard; the government has demonstrated little by way of will and action.

It is heartening that the presidency chose to use as an example a former minister. And yet not once, in the two years in which this “corruption-fighting” government has been in control, has she been invited for questioning, let alone to a court of law. In fact, it took over two years and the filing of an important case by the US government in that country for the Nigerian government to come out into the open—in the past couple of weeks—through the EFCC.

Through the Treasury Single Account, the administration has made its most important contribution to the process, but a scenario in which similarly complicit former officials of all kinds continue to be free to enjoy the loot of their labour is not corruption. Yes, there are a few people who are in court, and we have seen a few convictions, but in a country as rotten as Nigeria, a few convictions and hundreds of stalled, mismanaged or overlooked cases do not amount to a war on corruption.

Yes, the government says it is fighting corruption, but if you set the day aside to paint your house and it is approaching the dinner hour and you are still painting the gate, what kind of painter are you?

We are travelling in circles. In 2006, as his second term ground towards an end, President Olusegun Obasanjo was still painting his gate, launching his Nigeria Image Project to burnish Nigeria’s image abroad.

Nigerians loudly protested the colossal collapse of a government which had promised so much. Trying to launch the scheme abroad, Minister of Information, Frank Nweke, was routinely met with protests and anger, leading him to dismiss Nigerians in the Diaspora as “inconsequential.”

Forced to defend his words, he first lied, and then tried to weasel his way out, saying he had only spoken “in a specific context in response to a question which intent was to undermine the ongoing efforts by the present administration to constructively remake the Nigerian society.”

That distraction was followed in 2009 by the then Information Minister, Dora Akunyili. As Nigerians similarly challenged the Umaru Yar’Adua government to provide good, effective and transparent governance, it announced ‘Rebrand Nigeria,’ another image-laundering initiative.

Naturally, Nigerians, particularly those abroad, objected to re-branding over re-working. Feverish with power, Akunyili turned sharply on them: “Nigerians in the Diaspora are the worst when it comes to bad-mouthing Nigeria,” she sneered. “When you hear Nigerians overseas talk about Nigeria, you will weep for this country.”

But all that Nigerians were asking for was that the government focus on its programmes and promises, including its seven-point agenda, Vision 2020, rule of law, and combating corruption.

In Goodluck Jonathan’s interregnum, no specific image-laundering scheme was launched, although he did hire expensive political consultants in Washington DC and pay a public relations firm there a scandalous $1.2m for what was in effect one newspaper article. In any case, Mr. Jonathan did establish a philosophical justification of stealing; suggesting it was only corruption that was to be feared.

But it is exactly because of that worldview that Buhari found the acceptance to be elected. The problem is the blackmail that has now followed. “Anybody desiring to replace him, whether you are a wrestler, a hairdresser or a musician, you should go through that process,” Mr. Shehu said last week.

That is a mistake, as it always is when a government mistakes the man for the message. It is a sad and mischievous interpretation of the tea leaves for the presidency to suggest that those who say Buhari should retire if he cannot return to his job are pro-corruption.

As in the case of critics of the Obasanjo and Yar’Adua governments (who are now on the Buhari bandwagon), their target is unprincipled and corrupt governance. Even if Buhari’s government may not by Nigerian standards be said to be corrupt, it has at the very least become unprincipled.

I have said in several articles in the past year and a half that the performance which Buhari has offered in office is a sorry example of the stern and serious statesman he said he would be.

It was Mr. Shehu himself, for instance, who reported Buhari, speaking to Nigerians in Iran in November 2015, as saying that some kleptocrats had voluntarily started to return some of the loot.

“We want to have everything back – all that they took by force in 16 years,” Mr. Shehu quoted him as saying. “When we get [the relevant] documents, we will formally charge them to court and then we will tell Nigerians [their identities…]. So the day of reckoning is gradually approaching.”

Similarly, in December 2015 at the 15th Anyiam-Osigwe Foundation lecture in Abuja, Buhari threatened “people who refuse to embrace probity.”

The longer his government has been in power, however, the further away that day of reckoning has proved to be, thereby deliberately or by default consolidating the kleptocracy. For instance, only recently, the EFCC let it slip that the government, following an agreement with the so-called Abdulsalami Peace Committee, was working on the basis of a deal, part of which was that “any loot or suspicious asset traced to the [Goodluck Jonathan] family might be mutually discussed and quietly returned,” with no prosecution involved.

That is not probity, and no day of reckoning.

What else do protesters insist is not probity? Sadly, the President was the very first to violate the ban he announced in April 2016 against federal officials travelling to foreign lands for medical treatment. No blackmail or intimidation should stop Nigerians from speaking out about it.

What has made worse the presidency’s pompous pronouncement about #ResumeOrResign is that it subverts the democratic principle by suggesting Buhari is not the employee of the Nigerian people. To present him as the overlord who does not need to account for his whereabouts or his performance violates the political contract and makes him and the All Progressives Congress the villain at the very future elections they are eyeing. If that has anything to do with corruption, it is the government which stands accused.

Yes, Buhari did the legal—and logical—thing by initiating an Acting Presidency. But it is not a favour, neither does it justify the suggestion Nigerians should bear the indefinite and expensive burden of one unaccountable overlord lying in a foreign hospital bed.

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