Every Hand In The Pocket


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October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007



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Every Hand In The Pocket




Eziuche Ubani




culled from THIS DAY, March 24, 2005



When the House of Representatives gave the marching orders to its member, Dr. Haruna Yerima, for alleged unparliamentary remarks about its integrity, little did it know it had shot the National Assembly on the foot. Yerima’s offence were the charges that the National Assembly was wasting tax payer’s money, and time-pretending to be engaged in the business of legislation, when all it did was not better than beer parlour debate.

The second charge put a huge question on the integrity of the parliament. Members received recharge cards not less than seven thousand naira monthly from a GSM operator which he suggested may be reason why the parliament asked no questions about the quality of the company’s services. Yerima knew more. He had information that members of the education committees of the two chambers of the National Assembly demanded bribes to increase the budget of the Education Ministry.

To ensure he does not continue to embarrass the National Assembly, the House of Representatives, in a unanimous resolution, suspended him. Not one member defended him. But something happened. He had shared this information with the executive of the Academic Staff Union of the Universities (ASUU). ASUU in turn shared this information with some people in the media, before Yerima made it available to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). The result is the current scandal, perhaps, the worst to hit Obasanjo’s administration since the National Identity Card scam.

A lot of people are going to interprete this development in several ways and according to several perspectives. For President Olusegun Obasanjo, this is one more evidence of his often-spoken gradual but steady fight against corruption. He must have enjoyed the delicious feeling of triumph over his critics at Transparency International in Germany, who were his host when the scandal broke last week.

Yet there are others who see in this scandal, a confirmation that official corruption exists in the highest offices of government. Transparency International may also claim, from this development, an affirmation, (confirmation) of its conclusions that Nigeria is the third most corrupt country in the world. After all, since the raucous and angry reactions by government against the rating, the Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Tafa Balogun has been sacked. Now, a minister, top ministry officials and legislators are to follow.

Whatever the interpretation, the more plausible conclusion is that this very sad incident reveals the depth of official corruption, which can only be captured by the graphic illustration that in Nigeria, the hand of everybody is in the pocket of another. It is a checkpoint mentality. Pastors on Sunday  ambush their flock, and using false promises of prosperity, make them part with their money, sometimes one that has not been earned. Police ambush criminals and complainants, and extort whatever they can. Ministers twist the arms of contractors and persons seeking approval for one thing or another and collect their share. Legislators in turn ambush ministers and make them pay for whatever – confirmation, oversight of their ministries, penance for perceived insult, and monthly budget.

Why are we shouting? Why are people pretending to be shocked by this revelation?. Where do they think is the source of the unexpected and unmerited comfort that assaults them wherever they turn? If anyone is in shock, it must be rather a show of pretence than a genuine reaction to something revolting. Let he who has not been victim of this monster step forward. A permanent secretary told me last year about the frustrations of his ministry.The reason? Officials of the Finance Ministry and Office of the Accountant-General refused to release the ministry’s funds. This had nothing to do with paucity of funds. As he put it, officials of these offices have erected a checkpoint and their demands was all too clear. If you want your money, you have to part with a percentage.

This is not the only case, while I worked in the National Assembly; I often was made to listen to the agonies of finance officers in the National Assembly, who return empty-handed from the Office of the Accountant-General because they will not part with a percentage of the monies allocated to the National Assembly. It is not only this, there is hardly any government office that does not encounter this problem.

This represents a dangerous mutation of corruption, even in the face of the so-called effort to eradicate it. In the past, government officials took bribes from the private sector and persons outside of government. Now government officials take bribes from officials of other departments of the same government. It must be added as one of the landmark legacies of the Obasanjo administration.
It is hard not to feel sorry for Professor Fabian Osujii, who has been humiliated out of office for falling to the arm-twisting tactics of the legislators. The heart may be very deceitful but the minister does not strike one as a patently materialistic man in the mould of those experts of extortion at the National Assembly. Though all the facts of the case are not in yet, it is clear he did not agree to sex up his budget for his own benefit. He may be a victim now but he appears to have given in due to frustrations. How, in your view, does one resolve the dilemma he had to face? Last year, the National Assembly cut the ministry’s budget proposals and at the end of the day, there was a shortfall of 1.5 billion naira. It turned out that that was the salaries of teachers of unity schools. For the first time in recent memory, teachers of unity schools went on strike. Also the same shortfall in the recurrent budget led to a strike by junior workers of the ministry last year. Peace was only returned through the intervention of the President, who approved additional funds outside of the budget. The way it is told, it was not an oversight by the ministry. The minister and his directors were out of favour because they did not smoothen the budgetary process by playing ball. Faced with the same dilemma, Osuji must have been confronted with a choice between playing tough and being seen as incompetent, and playing ball to secure what he required to get results. Perhaps, he should have told his boss. But it is hard to discount the dilemma of the minister. This is not a defence, but he is a victim of the extortion and racketeering of the National Assembly.

But all these make a statement on the so-called partnership between the National Assembly and the executive. As many events show, it is more of collaboration than cooperation. And that has always been the point of those who have criticized the present relationship between the two arms. The assumption of rancor-free relationship is that there is a common purpose that drives the process of governance. It should have meant that government business will be easier because the two can agree on what to do and how to do it. But this relationship appears to be a conspiracy to undermine the interest of the electorate. When legislators distort the budget by harassing ministers to bribe them, they are not working for the people. When they collect money and close their eyes to corruption, they lose their powers to represent the people. Right now, there is nothing to take away from the cynicism of those who insist that the anti-corruption drive is either a high rhetoric or a fancy of the President which neither his aides nor his party members believe in.

In this matter, legislators deserve harsh criticism. What they have perfected – legislating by check-point – is a monumental corruption of the legislative process. We can freely question the sanctity of the laws they make as well as the resolutions they pass. To think about it, if they can collect money to manipulate the budget, what stops them from taking same from corporate organizations to do their biddings? Again, what happened defies norms of legislative privilege. In the past, legislators got things for their people through the pork-barrel system. Members, for instance, will ask the Minister of Water Resources to sink boreholes in their constituencies for a favourable allocation to his ministry. That is the convention all over the world. But from what we see now, that process has been corrupted. Rather than ask for projects, legislators now ask for cash, recharge cards and other ridiculous demands. One committee of the House of Representatives went to the ridiculous extent of writing to the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) to allocate oil for it to sell for cash.

In some cases, some of the projects in the budget have no economic value. They are introduced by arrangement between the ministries and the legislators to accommodate the pecuniary interests of the lawmakers, whom the constitution, assumed will be honourable men and gave them power to approve expenditures. This is not to say that all legislators are corrupt. Far from that, there are some serious-minded, hardworking and hounourable legislators. The fact is that they are overwhelmed by the activities of some of their members, who have transferred their 419 shops to the chambers of the National Assembly. These are the experts in the business of shaking whoever approaches the National Assembly checkpoint to ‘drop something’. 

This matter calls for deeper reflection. It reminds of the distortion in our government process, which allows any one who occupies any office to exploit it for direct wealth. It is not just at the top. Even those in lower positions use their offices to extort money from those they encounter, and it is so brazen and so open that those who resist it do so at the risk of unmitigated frustration. Osuji and his aides must have a story to tell. The worst is that after Minister Nasir El-Rufai’s failure to prove he was ambushed by Ibrahim Mantu and Jonathan Zwingina, people who find themselves in such circumstances find it hard to come forward.

The question is: will anything change? Nothing, in my view. As you read this, somebody is arm-twisting or blackmailing or extorting something from somebody at the checkpoint, courts, hospitals, ministries, and everywhere. Some of these people are even trusted aides of the President and those on whom he relies on to fight corruption. Our situation remains that everyman’s hand is in another’s pocket. And the show goes on.




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