NEWSPOLITICS

Buhari’s burden: gangsters and thieves as regime high priests. By Chidi Amuta

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Special to USAfrica [Houston & Lagos] • USAfricaonline.com

Chidi Amuta

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My favorite minister in the Buhari cabinet is easily Mr. Lai Mohammed. I think he is a good man who has to earn a living in the business of selling bad eggs to unsuspecting good people. As things stand, the events of the last few days must be making him a bit uneasy. The travails of his regime colleagues, Ibrahim Magu, formerly of the EFCC, Chris Ngige, Minister of Labour with accountability for the NSITF and Godswill Akpabio of the Niger Delta Ministry must be causing him some loss of sleep. Yet the chronicles of money related murky tales from various government departments continue to dominate the air waves and platforms, not allowing Mr. Mohammed time to figure out what spin to put around this next level of things. 

As for President Buhari, I am ready to swear that he never, in his worst nightmare, ever imagined that his messianic mandate would degenerate into the ongoing chronicles of serial plunder and mass thievery that are evolving in various departments of his government. The big burden for the president and his handlers must now be that of deciding whether it is the cascade of money related bad manners among regime high priests or the actual business of governance that should preoccupy the public. Incidentally, both the media and the public feed on high drama and that is what some of the president’s high officials are currently engaged in.  

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In one week only, the prime pontiff of Mr. Buhari’s flagship anti corruption project has been embroiled in an avalanche of allegations of corruption. After over ten days in innocuous detention, the pitiful looking Mr. Magu has been allowed to go home while his investigation by a presidential panel continues. No one knows exactly the facts of the cascade of rumoured allegations against him. These range from untidy book keeping about recovered billions to suspected conversion of recovered assets and re-looting of looted treasure. It is uncertain where real allegations of proven corruption end and the political shenanigans of Aso Rock pranksters and 2023 advance messengers begin.

Meanwhile what looks like a change of guards is taking shape at the beleaguered EFCC. An acting Chairman has been emplaced. Some dozen directors have reportedly been fired. Files are being combed, drawers emptied and some homes ransacked in search of evidence and clues to the flurry of allegations. Until real charges are filed in court against Mr. Magu and his cohorts, we may not know what went wrong inside the engine room of Buhari’s anti corruption machinery. There had better be sensible charges and hard evidence to justify this high drama. Otherwise the Magu chapter of the unfolding gangster chronicles may end up as a typical Nigerian political shuffle dance. Whichever way it goes, the drama around the EFCC has damaged the president’s anti corruption public relations campaign.

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In the Ministry of Labour, the Nigerian Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) has also been in the news for corruption related issues. Here again, accusations and counter accusations of creative accounting and financial bad manners have featured. Mr. Chris Ngige has had to answer some uncomfortable questions from legislators looking into the books of the NSITF. No one knows who tampered with the budget submissions of parts of the Labour Ministry for 2020. In the interim, the  Chief Executive and some officials of the NSITF have been asked to take a break from the agency. Here again, the outlines remain murky and hazy. What is undeniable is that  a couple of billions of Naira of pubic money have changed location in a series of untidy deals that litter the books of the agency. In a land where consequences are scant even for earth shaking criminal infractions, we may never know what went wrong and who is held accountable.  

By far the most dramatic, spectacular and consequential corruption related drama in our midst is the raging exchange between the Minister of the Niger Delta, Mr. Godswill Akpabio and the former Interim Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Joi Nunieh. The unverified details are as incredulous and frightening as they are unsettling. It is a tale of monumental waste, frightening looting of public funds and brazen abuse of public trust. From the accounts so far, it seems that the basic unit of counting money in the NDDC is in billions of Naira. The categories of expenditure range from the sublime to the ridiculous. There is an alleged N1.2 bn as Covid-19 palliative handouts to staff, N8 bn spent on Covid-19 related projects,  some N15 bn on removal of water hyacinths from waterways . A couple of billions went on trainings and local and overseas travel even during the Covid-19 lockdown! 

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Between Mr. Akpabio and Ms. Nunieh, the back and forth  of accusations is coming from two opposite standpoints, both equally well meaning on the surface. Mr. Akpabio assumed office as minister vowing to stop the NDDC being treated and seen as the ATM of reckless politicians. On her part, Ms. Nunieh as interim Managing Director expressed a commitment to count all the cowries on the shore by ensuring due process and proper accountability in the management of the resources of the agency. Ordinarily, both objectives should coincide and mutually reinforce.

The present hostile face off is coming from a hidden place. Ms. Nunieh has insisted that Mr. Akpabio tried to compel her to violate due process and standard accounting regulations in contract awards and cash extractions. She has made numerous other allegations concerning countless contract award directives emanating from Mr. Akpabio. As yet, Mr. Akpabio has not come forward convincingly to disprove these allegations, relapsing instead to name calling and spurious personal attacks.

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In the process of this untidy exchange, the financial profile of the NDDC has come into light. The expenditure profile of the agency reads like a telephone directory of financial recklessness and serial violations of due process and extant financial regulations. Officials were just issuing contracts to their proxy companies and handing down directives for cash payments for frivolous transactions. 

What has unnerved the public is the sheer quantum of resources that have been allocated to the NDDC in its twenty years of existence. Approximately 4 trillion Naira has come into the coffers of the NDDC over these two decades. Yet, the scandalous neglect that continues to be the lot of the people of the Niger Delta. Pitted against its original mandate and objectives, it is clear that the NDDC has been more of a cheap source of funds for politicians and their cohorts at the expense the ordinary people of the Niger Delta. 

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It is quite disturbing that in the course of the rough exchange between Mr. Akpabio and Ms. Nunieh, so many  acts of outright criminality or attempts thereof have been thrown up. There has been an attempted armed kidnap of Ms. Nunieh by a rogue contingent of the police which was only stopped by the personal intervention of the Governor of Rivers State, Mr. Nyesom Wike. There has been an allegation of attempted rape and sexual harassment by Nunieh against Mr. Akpabio as well as outright looting, serial thievery, forgery, award of contracts without due process, threat to administer an illegal oath etc. On their own, each of these areas of criminality deserve an investigation of its own.

The parade of frivolities and sleaze make contemporary Nigeria begin to look more like Restoration England(1660-1688). Gossip and sleaze was the language of social interaction. Scandals especially among the high and mighty were abundant. Comedy was the standard fare of common culture and the dominant form of literature. Public officials were known for their patent unseriousness. Casual philandering and indiscriminate concupiscence among the elite and their spouses were rife. In the current Nigerian equivalent of this decrepit moral canvass, both Mr. Akpabio and his traducer are both disciples of the new deity in town, the cargo cult of ‘carry go’’!

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In such a clime, it would be foolish to expect conformity to normal codes of orderly and civilized behavior from public officials. You cannot even expect public officers to conform to any strict code of accountability or respectability. Yet we are supposed to be running a modern day 21stcentury republic  and government with rules of accountability and agreed decency re among key operatives of the state. 

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The upsurge in scandals and stories related to corruption in recent times is symptomatic of a systemic moral decay of the Nigerian state. Mr. Buhari did not invent corruption in Nigeria’s public sector. He is rather an inheritor of an ugly aspect of our national culture. The decisive point is however that he is one president who ran for office and came to power identifying the fight against corruption as the cardinal project of his administration. That is perhaps what has elevated the recent chronicles of infamy among his key officials into a public concern. But we need to reach deeper into the systemic culture of our society to help the president in this matter of corruption and its stranglehold on our nation.

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For one thing, the bureaucratic infrastructure of processes and controls that has sustained a culture of corruption seems to be very much in tact. Given the enormity of the acts of corruption and the sheer quantum of resources that are involved, it is indeed a strange system that does not set off an alarm when such large amounts of public funds are being stolen. Clearly,  the mechanism for contract awards and public procurements remains porous. In addition, there seems to be little or no monitoring mechanism to ascertain that projects funded with public funds are actually being implemented as a precondition for payments. There is everything wrong with a public sector accounting mechanism that has to wait for external stimulus from crime investigators to detect irregularities. 

Successive governments have tended to restrict their definitions of corruption to massive cash thefts from the public till mostly by rival political brigands. In this patent misunderstanding of the sociology and psychology of corruption in our society, we tend to restrict the definition of corruption to the widespread pillage of the public treasury. We forget the elements of nepotism, favouritism, massive bribery and extortion that have become ingrained in our public and private spheres. 

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Most importantly, we have a system where key public agencies are headed by politicians as compensation for contributions to the last election. Such politicians go into office with the sole aim of recovering their campaign expenditures and the amassing of war chests for future political exploits. In the process, they intimidate the existing professional bureaucrats and technocrats while subverting existing rules and procedures to achieve private financial ends.

Public agencies headed by an amoral political elite have never fared well in these parts in terms of serving the public good or observing accountability and transparency. We are dealing with a political class that is now content with wearing the badge of amorality. The ascendancy of this elite is made possible by the virtual collapse of all pillars of social morality in our nation. The family is in distress just as religious institutions have become compromised extensions of a transactional ethos. The traditional sense of community has been eroded by the invasion of an urban and sub urban culture of quick wealth powered by the technologies of quick access to information. Th collapse of civics has transformed government into a no man’s land in which public wealth and resources belong to no one in particular. Corruption has become the art of stealing from no one in particular. The existence of agencies like the EFCC and ICPC no longer frightens criminal minded officialdom in a republic where everyone has a price tag.

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There is no need to preach a morality of absolute abstinence from the sins of enlightened self interest in matters of public office and the money and influence that comes with it .   Enlightened self interest has always been the currency of political pre eminence in nearly every society.  People in high paces will always make influential phone calls to advance their interests or to help someone in need. In a society where there is hardly any social security, highly placed officials have tended to use those offices to cushion themselves against the guaranteed adversity of the day after. There lies the difference between enlightened self interest and the brazen looting that has become our normal.  

Accusations bordering on sexual misconduct and deviance as we have witnessed with Akpabio versus Nunieh do not quite shock our national audience. While we should not expect public officers to parade their sexual deviance in public, such things fall into place in this age. We virtually live in an age of genitalia in which nudity is recklessly brandished and intimate anatomical displays have virtually become an art form. In this context, it does not matter much to the man on the street who strokes what buttocks or pinches what exposed breasts. Ordinary people would be more content if ‘big men’ and government officials kept their hands off the public till.

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The developing chronicles of scandals and mismanagement in the NNDC raises very fundamental concerns about the future of the agency and indeed all regional intervention agencies. The NDDC was established to address the urgent and embarrassing neglect of the Niger Delta. President Obasanjo was concerned about the increasing restiveness in the region and the very justifiable loud agitations for development and humanitarian intervention in an area that remains the home base of the nation’s strategic oil and gas industries. In spite of the noble objectives that informed the founding of the NDDC, the successive managements of the agency have squandered its promise. There is no assurance that the ongoing forensic audit of the agency, already seriously compromised, and anticipated cosmetic reforms can salvage the NDDC. 

The road ahead for the NDDC has two options. The first is to shut down the agency, tally its assets and liabilities and divide same among the nine states that the agency was designed to serve in the agreed formula. Thereafter, the 13% derivation revenue formula should be increased to the extent of the budget of the NDDC.  

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The second option is to reform the agency after establishing the culpability of successive managements for the looting of the agency. Thereafter, a more responsible board and management of core professionals should be put in place. To protect the financial life of the agency, the finance, audit and project monitoring departments should be outsourced to major international audit and finance companies on a revolving contract basis.

On the war against corruption,

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•Dr. Amuta, a scholar in literature, sociology, politics and development, is Executive Editor of USAfrica magazine and USAfricaonline.com since 1993. He is based in Lagos.

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