Arabian night of long knives
The news coming out of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, also known as the Holy Land, sounds like sweet music to the ears of those in Nigeria who feel a sense of nostalgia – a wish that President Muhammadu Buhari should live up to his billing and do what the Buhari they knew some three decades ago did for better or for worse.
Living up to his billing, if I read them correctly, is for President Buhari to do the impossible, to re-enact his days as military head of state when he demonstrated zero tolerance for corruption, indolence, ineptitude and sundry other acts deemed to be unpatriotic and, in one swell swoop, herded those who exhibited these traits into detention.
Those were the days of the military when things were done with immediate effect; when, in the zeal to correct the ills of the society, both the good and the bad were lumped together and given the military barrack treatment so, it was reasoned, they could behave well, queue up properly in public places and those of them who were found to have stolen public funds to regurgitate them from their prison cells.
Those draconian measures might have been suitable for the time. But Nigeria has since moved on. What was good for the military goose of those days are now clear anathema for the democrats of these days. But there are lessons to be learnt all the same. Some of those Nigerians who feel nostalgic for those days must indeed clap for the Saudis and take delight in the news coming from the royal kingdom.
The drama playing out this week in Saudi Arabia is nothing, if not of the tabloid sensationalism. The kingdom’s newly formed anti-corruption committee, in a manner almost reminiscent of the Nazi Germany’s night of the long knives, has taken at least 17 of their top ranking princes and other senior officials of government into custody for alleged corrupt practices. Apart from the princes, 38 former and serving ministers including their deputies have also been arrested for the same offence.
The most celebrated of them is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, nephew of the king and Saudi’s most visible billionaire businessman who owns 95 per cent of Kingdom Holding which holds stakes in global companies like Citigroup and Twitter, Apple and News Corp. He has been taken in for alleged money laundering, bribery and extortion.
Reports said three other ministers were sacked and immediately replaced while tens of former ministers were detained. The royal decree, equivalent of our own defunct military decrees, said this anti-corruption committee became necessary because of the propensity of some people for abuse “putting their personal interest above public interest and stealing public funds.” Their committee, like our own EFCC, has been given the mandate to “trace and combat corruption at all levels.”
But this committee, unlike our own EFCC, is not hampered by the like of our own notoriously discriminatory rule of law which is a respecter of the rich and the famous and which gives the poor the short end of the stick. Their own senior advocates and their own judges don’t discriminate between the poor and the rich and justice there is not for sale to the rich. If their case were to be like our own, who is there in the kingdom to touch His Royal Highness Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud, nephew of the King, listed by Forbes way back in 2004 as the fourth richest man in the world.
Who would have arrested the richest man in Saudi Arabia whose biographer, Riz Khan, confirmed that from 2003, the value of his investments rose by $3.8 billion, “that is around $10.4 million per day, nearly $434,000 per hour – or a little more than $120 every second.”
In a forward to his biography, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter called him a successful businessman “a caring philanthropist and strong civil rights supporter who has done so much to relieve poverty and enhance women’s rights, education and health care. He also has been instrumental in the Carter Centre’s efforts to strengthen relationships between the United States and the Arab and Islamic worlds.”
Carter, in conclusion, said: “ Rosalynn and I are grateful for his partnership in our mission of waging peace, fighting disease and building hope around the world,” That is the man who was picked up like a common criminal in the Saudi kingdom, a man Forbes had earlier described as the “ second most influential businessman in the world after Bill Gates.”
I am not inviting you to praise or to condemn the Saudis for their own brand of justice. But there is something to be said for their principles of probity and accountability, fairness and above all, equality before the law. For good or for bad, there must be something to commend in the level of seriousness they display when people run foul of their law.
A story was told of a Nigerian business man, prince of one of the numerous royal families, with extensive connections with his Saudi counterparts. He had travelled to the Holy Land on business trip and had spent about two weeks there lapping up the lavish hospitality of his hosts.
But on the fateful day that he was checking out for return to Nigeria, there was a dramatic twist in his tale. After he had paid his bill in the hotel, the cashier dutifully checked the dollar notes with toothcomb. Lo and behold, one hundred dollar piece, just one, was among the batch some robbers had carted away from Jeddah some three months earlier in the first Nigerian style robbery to take place in the Holy Land.
That was the period before the arrival of Dubai as the business destination centre. Jeddah was then Nigeria’s international shopping centre. Our unfortunate prince was interrogated to determine the extent of his involvement in the said robbery and his plea that he bought the dollar in the black market back home in Nigeria, fell on deaf ears. He was tried and jailed for three months. Royalty did not save him. Long relationship with Saudi princes did not save him. That is how serious they can be with their law.
For now Saudi is in a kind of social turmoil, undergoing rapid economic and industrial change. In the drive for rapid modernisation and gradual opening up to the rest of world, the ruling class has become stricter with corruption. The anti-corruption committee, according to reports, is headed by 32 year old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who has been given “the authority to investigate, arrest, issue travel ban and freeze assets of those it finds to be corrupt.”
The crown prince is determined to structure the hitherto closed kingdom and modernise the economy and above all prevent capital flight. Prince Salman has the ear of his father and he is regarded as a key power player behind the throne. Undoubtedly, Saudi monarchy, like any other monarchy is, by definition, a rule by nepotism. Only the blue-blooded are favoured for appointments and patronage. But there is a strict code of behaviour among the royal family members who constitute the ruling class.
Because you are of the royal blood, you don’t, by that fact and privilege, have the licence to be licentious; to do that which would bring dishonour and disgrace, even egregious odium to the royal family. Penalty for infraction is severe, sometimes lethal.
Coming back home, we can liken some aspects of this rule by semi cronyism to the presidential system of government. Once elected, the president or the governor, except where it is expressly forbidden by the constitution, can in fact pick his brother or sister into his cabinet. The celebrated American President, John F. Kennedy, was a typical example of the president who picked his younger brother, Robert Kennedy as attorney general. When George Bush Senior was president of the USA, his two sons, George who later became president and Jeb were governors of two respective states.
The difference is that in their own case, there is emphasis on service to the people – faithfully to the best of their intellectual ability, without favour or affection, ill will or malice. After all, at the end of the day, only one person is held accountable by the people – the president on whose table the buck stops.
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