5 April 2005

Nigeria: This is Where Wabara Stands


Lagos — Events in the past few weeks have demonstrated unmistakably that the seed of President Olusegun Obasanjo's anti-corruption war has been sown on a barren soil. Between the president and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), we now know that the staple diet of the National Assembly is corruption.

It is not exactly as if Nigerians were unaware of the culinary preference of their representatives. It is just that if Obasanjo and Ribadu, the anti-corruption czar are to be believed, then it is Senate President Adolphus Wabara who is the chief taster of the corruption broth. In that case, Nigerians are no longer in any doubt that despite the senate President's collection of high-minded speeches and lectures, we now know exactly where Wabara stands.

The point however is that if the National Assembly is as corrupt as the president and the EFCC made out, then the administration's fight against corruption has made no impact whatsoever on such a critical arm of government as the legislature. So, from the parliamentary point of view, the president is on his own in the holy crusade against corruption.

Apart from the president who is the head, the executive arm does not appear to have fared better either. Achebe has said that when a father sends a child to steal, the child does not go about the robbery stealthily but walks up to the house boldly and breaks down the door noisily. We don't know who may have sent the sacked education minister, Prof. Fabian Osuji, on the bribe-for budget mission but the loudness with which he went about the business looks suspiciously as if he was running an errand for his "father."

From the reports, Prof. Osuji doesn't look like a loner in the bribe-for-budget matter. Even the president and Ribadu have hinted at this possibility. In fact, if legal activist, Femi Falana, is to be believed, then only three ministers, in a cabinet of 29 senior ministers, were without blemish.

As matters now stand, it would appear that the few ministers who escaped the budget scam were sure to be caught in the Ikoyi housing scandal. The minister, Mrs Mobolaji Osomo was so generous with the public assets that she ensured that the gravy train went round notable officers in all the three arms of government, including judges of the Supreme Court, with abundant leftovers for outsiders who are well-connected to those in government.

Osomo's explanations for this brazen abuse of public office is an exaggerated insult to the intelligence of Nigerians. She said the allocations had been made before the government's decision to sell the houses through competitive bidding. Just hear her waffling: "There were no secret sales by the ministry or the committee. The issue now is that Mr. President wants all Nigerians to bid for the houses." It is impossible to believe that Mrs. Osomo can't see the contradiction in her explanation. If houses to be sold were not publicly bidded for, how can the sale not be secret? Because it was known to high public officials?

At the start of the monetisation policy, it was trumpeted loudly, and every Nigerian outside government was made to believe, that the occupiers of a government house would exercise the first right of purchase. It is only when he is unable to consummate the purchase that the house would be put on public offer. As it turned out, the occupiers of the Ikoyi houses only got to know that their homes had been sold only when the president cancelled the sales.

Even if the right to first offer to occupiers had been cancelled, does the minister need the decision of the government-in-council to know that the only way to sell such choice public assets running into billions of naira is through competitive public bidding? It is only because due process and transparency are still alien to Minister Osomo that she could proceed to appropriate the houses in a manner reeking of what is supposed to be a discredited past.

If there is one phrase by which the Obasanjo administration is known, that phrase would be: "It is no longer business as usual." With ministers like Osomo and public office beneficiaries of the Ikoyi houses, Obasanjo may leave office with the slogan that business has become worse than usual. Again, the point to all this is that there are still many prominent officers in the executive, legislature and the judiciary who are yet to understand what the anti-corruption war is about, let alone be part of it.

One would have thought that a president who swore to uphold anti-corruption through due process and transparency would hold up his family as a standard for others. It would seem that the wife's family is making it difficult for the president to set this personal example. The First Lady, Mrs. Stella Obasanjo, was reported to have received eight certificates in respect of the property allocated to members of her family. One of them is personal assistant to the First Lady. "I also feel personally embarrassed", the president said of this obvious nepotism, "that almost all members of my wife's family are on that list."

Mrs. Osomo's reply to this presidential embarrassment is itself, I presume, an embarrassment to the Abebes, the maiden family of the First Lady. As the minister glibly put it, "No one can detect the identity of the First Lady's men and women as she no longer bears her name." I am certain that it is only Mrs. Osomo who cannot detect the identity of the First Lady's men and women who bear the same maiden surname as herself, such as Yemisi Abebe, Henry Abebe, John Abebe and Franca Abebe beneficiaries of what the president has described as "surreptitious" allocation.

Every Nigerian, except Mrs Osomo, knows that the man who has the copyright, so to speak, to that name is Christopher Abebe, the first African chief executive of the trading behemoth, UAC Nigeria. Every other Abebe known to Nigerians is Christopher's child. Even in the man's native Esan, there is no other known Abebe who is not a relation to Christopher, simply because Abebe is a peculiarly uncommon name. It isn't a Yoruba name like Mobolaji or Bamidele that recurs in a school's register again and again. In the cabinet, it must be only the sacked housing minister who doesn't know that the First Lady belongs to the famous but rare Abebe family. But in expressing his embarrassment at the allocations to members of his wife's family, the president knows that Mrs Osomo knows Stella's maiden identity quite well.

Whether Osomo knows the Abebes well nor not isn't really the issue. What the bribe-for-budget scandal and the Ikoyi housing racket have demonstrated is that, in practical terms, the president is beginning to sound like a lone chorister in the song against corruption. So far, he appears unable to convert members of his homestead to join him in the crusade for a clean society that runs smoothly on due process and transparency.

The inescapable question is, why is the president sounding like Soyinka's lone trumpeter at dawn? The answers are fairly obvious. For reasons that are well known, the president has been unable to convince a majority of Nigerians that he is fully committed to the corruption fight. His words and (in) actions suffer from an inherent dissonance. The sight of Ghana-Must-Go bags when the president wants a principal officer of the national Assembly to be removed from office is not the sort of weapon to fight corruption. So also is the obvious lack of investigative and prosecutorial effort, especially where beloved friends of the administration are concerned. COJA ended almost two years ago. Where is the audited accounts of the African Games which the president told them to render in two weeks after the close of the games? All of these translate to what Nigerians see as selective justice.

Closely aligned to the first problem is the perception of hypocrisy in Obasanjo's handling of the corruption war effort. In this connection, it is said that the president's action on the housing racket is not a demonstration of genuine indignation. It is difficult to believe that as head of the family, the president could be completely unaware of how the precious family silver in Ikoyi was sold. That is even more so when the sale was done in utter contempt for due process. What seems to make more sense is that the president was aware of the transaction and that his reaction was only one of the unintended consequences of his tiff with the National Assembly over the bribe-for-budget scandal.

According to this version of events, certain persons had unearthed the dishonourable sale in which the family of the First Lady was a lavish beneficiary and passed the report to the Assembly as part of the ammunition to embarrass the president in his war on corruption. It is to pre-empt the embarrassment that the president moved to query the minister and to cancel the allocations. What the theorists of unintended consequences are saying is that the president would not have acted at all if not for fear of an embarrassing exposure of the wife's family. To that extent, they see the president's anti-corruption efforts as those of a man who has ulterior motives for every of his action, and would perhaps not drink tea without a stratagem.

This perception derives sustenance from a third problem. It seems as part of his lack of genuine commitment that makes the president seem incapable of seeing the battle to conquer corruption for what it really is -- a social revolution. Because corruption has become endemic in Nigerians, it would require a new man to put a stop to it. And creating a new man in the old order or a new order in the old man or both is what a social revolution is essentially about.

In 1999, we would have thought that if Obasanjo were serious, he would seek to create the new man through massive social mobilisation and sensitisation of the vast majority of Nigerians. On the other hand, he could have sought to change the old order through radical institutional reforms. He did none of these.

On the first count, the National Orientation Agency which should have spearheaded the re-invention of the Nigerian dream has been largely moribund since Obasanjo came to power. On the second count, the institutional reforms symbolised by the anti-corruption agencies clearly lack the firing power and range to demolish this house of corruption so that we might build another in its place.

To sum up, Obasanjo would appear to be the only man in history who thinks he can bring about a social revolution without a mass movement. This is why he was unable to appreciate the critical mass appeal embodied in the gesture of freely making public his assets declaration form at the time he was being openly challenged by the Plateau Assembly on allegations that he was amassing wealth from unknown sources. Instead, his aides resorted to self-damaging legalities that the constitution did not stipulate public disclosures.

But that is precisely the point. A voluntary public disclosure by the president would have resonated through the public and created the mass appeal needed to confront corruption. Hiding behind a legal fig leaf created the opposite effect of eroding public confidence in the president's sincerity and commitment to the battle.

The result of all this is that the old man and the old order are still firmly in place, despite the president's protestation to the contrary. Not many people believe that the era of business as usual has ended. In a manner of speaking, this is a war being fought with neither troops nor commanders.

Does that mean that the war is bound to fail? Not exactly. As with every social revolution, the law of unintended consequences might take over this particular war on corruption and imbue it with a force of its own that is quite out of control of those at the helm of public affairs. That is what the Ikoyi housing scandal signifies. With first, Husseini Akwanga, then Fabian Osuji and now Osomo, it is gradually becoming an established fact that a minister can actually lose his or her job for corrupt practices. From here it is but a step to prosecution and conviction. Who says unintended consequences cannot bring about this deterrent weapon?

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