Assistant Comptroller General of Customs (ACG) Bashir Abubakar has learnt in the hardest way that two rights can turn into a wrong. Just in 2018, the world toasted him for rejecting a bribe of $412,000 (circa N171 million) from unscrupulous Tramadol drug smugglers, but this year he got disgraced out of the service after leading a raid on the warehouse of a suspected imported rice smuggler in Daura, the president’s hometown in Katsina State.
Breaking at the same time that corruption scandals rocked the investigation of government parastatals in the National Assembly, news of Abubakar’s dismissal (part of a general sacking exercise in the Customs) practically slipped under the radar; and the irony in the Customs man’s story failed to get the deserved media limelight. An honest man fell at the same time scandal was born. And scandal stole his spotlight. After merely nibbling at the dismissal of the crack Customs officer as breaking news, the media subsequently gave Abubakar’s travail the cold shoulder treatment without doing follow-ups. Editors rather followed the bandwagon of attention devoted to reporting the National Assembly committee oversight sittings that stank of suffocating stenches of sleaze, corruption and thievery. The theatre of the absurd staged by members of the president’s cabinet dominated the traditional media and quickly went viral on social media.
A number of MDA heads and ministers appeared at the legislature’s oversight investigations to display sadistic humour. In addition, these dramatis personae appeared determined that if they must fall they would achieve two things: Firstly, they would not fall alone; and secondly, they might go down with their integrity in tatters but with their sense of humour intact. Begin with the Nollywood-style fainting of Professor Kenebradikumo Pondei, Acting Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) under scrutiny. Move to the “off-the-mic, it-is-enough” episode of the Niger-Delta Minister Senator Godswill Akpabio, who had accused federal legislators of securing 60 per cent of the commission’s contracts. Akpabio’s diatribe came days after the legislative enquiry saw him crossing swords with former NDDC MD, Ms. Joy Nunieh, who claimed to have dealt him a dirty slap for sexually harassing her. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Right Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila, joined the fray to challenge Akpabio to open the Pandora Box on NDDC contractors in the National Assembly. In the mix, the Labour Minister Chris Ngige came to trade insults with a “Mushin boy” Lagos legislator instead of concerning himself with the corruption in the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF), a parastatal in his portfolio.
And then the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, Sadiya Umar Farouq, mounted the stage to dillydally over delays in N-Power beneficiaries’ monthly stipends running into billions, only to allege federal legislators had been allocated hundreds of slots, a charge they dismissed as a fabrication. Similarly, the opposition has raised hell over how the ministry could claim to spend N13.5 billion, about N679 million daily, on a school feeding programme with children unable to attend classes due to the pandemic.
One common thread ran through proceedings. All the dramatis personae demonstrated a determination to divert attention from the putrid skeletons that the legislature’s post-mortem should focus upon; they instead hoodwinked the audience with a symphony of comedies. They reduced the subject matter of corruption to the elephant in the room too embarrassing for anyone to talk about.
However, he who brings home ant-infested firewood must welcome the visit of lizards. All these shows of shame have come into the public domain, so talk we must. Who remembers the If-You-Tarka-Me-I-Will-Daboh-You episode when Godwin Daboh accused fellow Benue kinsman and serving minister under General Yakubu Gowon, Mr. Joseph Tarka, of corruption; and the former threatened to unearth the dry bones in his accuser’s box in retaliation? Thus, this generation of politicians are merely borrowing from their predecessors’ “do me I do you” tactics of responding to corruption accusations with counter-accusations.
Beyond the comic relief that the actors presented in these COVID19-ravaged times, people have queried why the president appears to have surrounded himself with questionable characters. That may be true or not. But behind PMB’s outer facade of a military toughie, there lies a heart that reposes childlike trust in people. Maybe old age too has whittled the veteran’s cutting edge. All this, several of his aides exploit.
Let us assume, without necessarily conceding, that all the president’s appointees currently facing corruption investigations are guilty as charged; it will mean that the president must have somehow brought all this trouble upon himself and upon the country. Some scenarios bear out this conclusion. Buhari went ahead and appointed Ibrahim Magu EFCC chairman in 2016 despite DSS reports that indicted the policeman for failing the integrity test; that report pushed the National Assembly to disqualify Magu, whom the president stubbornly retained as the anti-corruption Czar. Similarly, Akpabio faced a N108 billion corruption investigation for his tenure as a governor, leading to wide protests immediately his name surfaced as a ministerial nominee; PMB appointed him nevertheless. Then when he became Minister for the Niger Delta Ministry, people raised questions about his strange contraption of an illegal Interim Management Committee (IMC) that subsumed the NDDC’s statutory board, but Buhari encouraged him in this perfidious path that has resulted in an IMC sleaze of N4.9 billion.
That, in a government noted for its self-righteous anti-corruption mantra, it took a joint committee of the National Assembly to expose these jaw-dropping executive lapses leaves many citizens livid. Imagine the hypocrisy! This sordid image has led to someone caricaturing Nigeria’s three arms of government as legislooters, executhieves and judisharing. In fact, Transparency International’s Corruption Index ranked the country 146th last year, worse than her 126th in 2015 when PMB came to power. Of course, critics like Senator Shehu Sani have said that the president applied deodorants to sanitise the corruption within his inner circle while deploying the sledgehammer against outsiders.
But is Nigeria really bereft of people of integrity capable of rendering due diligence in managing public funds? The regime of Olusegun Obasanjo discovered apolitical technocrats like Nasir El-Rufai, Charles Soludo, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and the rest. Where are the likes of Frank Kokori, Olisa Agbakoba, Pat Utomi, Olu Falae, Donu Kogbara, Agba Jalingo, Ledum Mittee, Annkio Briggs and all those who pushed the struggle for Niger-Delta development? Couldn’t any of them be co-opted to run with their pet visions in an interventionist institution like the NDDC for the infrastructural advancement of the Niger Delta?
When, earlier in his regime, PMB announced a list of appointees that received wide condemnation as a sectional and recycled assemblage, aides quickly cooked up the defence that Buhari had selected people he knew and could trust. Why has he succeeded in putting together an executive, containing a good dose of dishonourable scallywags, incapable of giving value for public money, and who are propelled by the idea that public service provides them an opportunity to loot the commonwealth and feather their nests? Has anything really changed from the corruptive past?
However, with a hanging debt burden hovering around N40 trillion, a good slice pilfered into secret sleaze accounts, the country must break this vicious cycle of humouring thieves with public posts. Thus, President Buhari, like Obasanjo, must eschew this party-patronage and job-for-the-boys mentality. He must begin to look beyond the knights of his round table. Outside Baba’s cycle, there exist Nigerians who are able to rise above filthy lucre, capable of delivering on nation-building visions.