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Corruption: What Buhari Told Thatcher 33 Years Ago

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33years ago today, the then military Head of State and Nigeria’s current President, Muhammdu Buhari, faced with similar issues he met now, when he took over the reigns of government, wrote to the then British Prime Minister, Baroness Margret Thatcher a letter which will eventually define and be the hallmark of his administration.

In the letter dated 6th January, 1984, President Buhari chronicled the issues that led him and his comrades to intervene in the leadership structure of the country then, which had been plagued by corruption and maladministration even as he said “We are in desperate economic situation”.

While expressing his government’s unbroken resolve to salvage the nation from the economic mess she had found herself, President Buhari said  “with seriousness and determination; and with the support and understanding of friendly countries,” the new crop of leaders were up to the task of putting the country back to the path of moral rectitude.

While taking the Prime Minister through what necessitated the change in government, the letter revealed that: “so soon after the handing over, in both the Administrative and Legislative organs of Government, a myriad of public functionaries embarked on a systematic circumvention ofost of the checks and balances entrenched in the Constitution. Pervasive corruption combined with moral and financial indiscipline to ensure that millions away in banks inside and outside the country by many unpatriotic citizens actively aided and abetted by certain unscrupulous foreign associates.

“What was left was quickly dissipated on loaded contracts and over-invoicing of imports designed to allow generous kick-backs to government and political party functionaries. Approved and correct procedures were systematically undermined and the normal functioning of government machinery deliberately perverted for personal gains. Individuals were becoming increasingly apprehensive of their personal security and the future seemed to hold little hope for improvement in the status quo.”

“The majority of public functionaries, at all levels, freely engaged themselves in irregularities with impunity since those at the top and supervisory grades were themselves known to be involved in corrupt practices and impropriety. Bribes and gratifications were contemptuously demanded and given.  Visitors to our country were regularly confronted by the nauseating and ugly sight of uniformed Customs officials and Policemen taking gratifications without qualms and so brazenly doing so.”

The resultant effect of incompetence in the management of national resource, President Buhari said “led the nation to accumulate huge internal and external debts and to run into serious balance of payments difficulties. Government was fast losing its ability to pay for the goods and services contracted or needed. The national economy tottered dangerously on the brink of collapse.  Numerous industrial undertakings are this very moment on the verge of total collapse and many had been forced to close down for lack of raw materials. Thousands of workers have lost their jobs and the sceptre of large-scale retrenchment has already appeared.

“The resultant scarcity of essential commodities was predictably accompanied by spiralling inflation. Frauds and embezzlement of public funds were committed with reckless abandon. Hired assassins and marauders were openly beginning to practice their trade in broad daylight. Perpetrators of corrupt practices resorted to arson to cover their trail,  resulting in callous  destruction of several expensive public buildings and even loss of lives. Incidents of armed robbery multiplied and the state of general lawlessness heralding a chaotic state of affairs, possibly culminating in a bloody uprising and revolution was most imminent.”

Describing what he met on ground as “stinking corruption sensitivity and misplaced sense of duty and responsibility” of the sacked administration, the letter said “people groaned under the twin yoke of pervasive corruption, skyrocketing prices and general insecurity of lives and property”.

While expressing disappointment at the perceived powerlessness of the then administration to “carry the fight to the doorsteps of known highly placed frauds, cheats, embezzlers of government funds, big-time smugglers, illegal currency traffickers,  law breakers and political thugs sometimes disguise as policemen”, the letter showed that the leadership “preferred to indulge in criminal waste, ostentation and grosteque display of ill-gotten wealth and ignoring sound, technical advice preferred by professional public servants and many well-meaning individuals to arrest the increasingly  worsening economic situation and to deal firmly with corrupt officials and their friends.”

Admitting that the national economy had been brought to its knees owing to gross mismanagement including world recession and the fail in crude oil price, President Buhari asserted that “our resources, given judicious management, could have better satisfied our needs. We see a need to check the pervasive corruption and the heightened indiscipline and insecurity associated with it. The primary objective for our intervention is therefore to save the tottering nation from imminent collapse; a patriotic rescue operation.”

He ended the letter saying “We are in desperate economic situation but at the same time are prepared to face up to our problems with seriousness and determination; and with the support and understanding of friendly countries like yours, and in God’s name, hope to succeed in resolving some of them now and most in the near future”.

It is, however, not clear whether Prime Minister Thatcher replied the letter but available records show that years after, precisely in January 7, 1989, she visited then military President, Gen. Ibrahim BadamasiBabangida (IBB), who she described as ‘’a forceful, intelligent man trying to put Nigeria’s economy on to a sound footing.’’

She revealed that UK had assisted Nigeria in its relationship with the IMF and this gesture was appreciated by IBB who concurred to her suggestions on cutting budget deficits, curbing inflation and allowing foreign investors into the country.

Later, during a lunch stopover at the airport, Prime Minister Thatcher expressed gratitude that he “was just pressing ahead with, but actually toughening, the economic reform programme on which Nigeria had embarked.”

“With our support, Nigeria now had the approval of the IMF and its main western creditors and had secured a rescheduling of debt to its public sector creditors.

“it is never an easy task to govern a country like NIgeria… let alone to do so under conditions of economic austerity,” she said.

—Philips, a public commentator, wrote in from Maitama, Abuja

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