The arrest, conviction and jailing of ruling party chieftain Olabode George for corruption is good news for a country that is a by-word for poor governance. It signals the higher court's increasing independence from the "big men" who wield political and economic power. It may also restore some credibility to Nigeria's tarnished Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the chief anti-corruption agency, at a time when it is widely criticized for backing away from prosecution of the country's corrupt oligarchy.
No other major political figure has been convicted of corruption and jailed during the current presidential administration of Umaru Yar'adua, who made the rule of law a center piece of his administration's rhetoric. Yar'adua's critics note that others as notorious as George have not been charged and are concerned that prosecution for corruption remains half-hearted and politically motivated. Nevertheless, the sight of a powerful political figure being led away to jail without the usual option of paying a fine is bound to have a salutary, even if only temporary, impact on Nigeria's corrupt political culture.
Olabode George is representative of the "big men" who have dominated Nigerian governance, whether under military or civilian rule, since independence. A retired admiral, he was a close political ally of General Olusegun Obasanjo, military dictator of Nigeria from 1976-79 and civilian president from 1999-2007. Under the Obasanjo civilian presidency, George was the chairman of the ruling People's Democratic Party. Obasanjo also appointed him to chair the board of directors of the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA), a notorious venue for corruption. According to the courts, George and his NPA colleagues proceeded to exploit it for personal gain from 2001-2003.
In 2005, the EFCC, established by Obasanjo as the center-piece of his anti-corruption campaign, initiated an investigation of George's tenure at the Ports Authority. However, executive chairman Nuhu Ribadu's perceived independence from the president's political agenda led to his firing in 2008, causing consternation among international donors, such as the United States. The case, nevertheless, was continued by Ribadu's successor, Farida Waziri. Last month, George was convicted by Judge Olubunmi Oyewole of the Lagos High Court and sentenced to 30 months in prison without the option of paying a fine in lieu of jail time. Subsequently, Judge Oyewole also denied George's application for bail while he appeals. Accordingly, George is now incarcerated in Lagos's notorious Kirikiri prison.
Under Obasanjo, such a powerful political ally of the president would have had little fear of conviction, and virtually no fear that he would face jail time. Hence, George's imprisonment appears to be a step forward toward the rule of law in Nigeria.
The caveat, as some Nigerians note, may be that President Yar'adua and former President Obasanjo are drifting apart, which has led to speculation that George's imprisonment may also be part of a political skirmish between the current and former chiefs of state or their respective entourages. They note that former governors James Ibori and Peter Odili, who have escaped prosecution, are current political allies of Yar'adua. To dispel these rumors and to move the country toward a greater respect for the rule of law, George's jailing must be followed by further credible prosecutions and convictions to win public confidence in President Yar'adua's commitment to anti-corruption.