by Simon Kolawole
Three years ago, Oronto Douglas, then adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan, lost his brave battle with cancer. He fought to the very last minute. For once, cancer met a stubborn victim who refused to go down without a fight, even when the odds were hopelessly stacked against him. His death on April 9, 2015 – four months to his 49th birthday — is one of the most heartbreaking experiences I have had in my life. I wept like a newborn. We were good friends for nearly 20 years, although we also frequently argued fiercely, mostly on issues of governance and development. Since his exit, I often replay, in my mind, our discussions and debates about democracy and nation-building in Nigeria.
One of such is the anti-graft war. I often argued with him that Jonathan was not doing enough to contain corruption, especially as he was apparently reluctant to get rid of certain elements perceived to be extremely corrupt in his government. Oronto never uttered one bad word about Jonathan to me, which I understood very much. He kept telling me the president was doing his best within the circumstances and peculiarities of governing a politically and economically complex country like Nigeria. His view, which I found very consistent, was that to fight corruption effectively in a country like ours, you need to deploy different approaches beyond “public lynching”.
Indulge me to paraphrase him: “There are institutions that have to be strengthened if you want to fight corruption in a sustainable way. You need the police, EFCC and ICPC to be led by competent and independent people and to function properly. I will call that the institutional approach. You need the prosecution to be robust and the judiciary to be alive to its responsibility. I call that the legal or enforcement approach. You also need public bureaucratic processes to be well established and enforced. That is the administrative approach. Finally, you need a re-orientation of the populace as well, and that is the most difficult aspect of the war.”
We both agreed that it is a combination of these approaches that will lead to a robust anti-graft war, but we failed to agree that Jonathan needed to make a scapegoat of some top government officials as part of the overall strategy. He told me plainly: “Public lynching is one thing President Jonathan does not like. There will be temporary applause but that will not address the problem beyond the media trial. He will allow EFCC and ICPC to do their job without interference.” In truth, it was not as if we disagreed fundamentally, but I kept telling him that for the optics, Jonathan needed to fire some ministers and take some tough actions before he could be perceived as fighting corruption.
Oronto often said something that did not make much sense to me then but which, on hindsight, was important. Jonathan’s preferred approach, he said, was to prevent corruption from the root and reduce the more difficult task of enforcement with all the complications that come with legal battles. He also said the measures being adopted by Jonathan would outlive his government. How true. Although, there are now startling revelations about the corruption under Jonathan’s government, it is ironic that some of the instruments being used by the Buhari administration to expose the rot were actually started by his predecessors. And this brings me to the focus of our discourse today.
First, much of what Oronto said about administrative strategy is yielding fruits. The idea of a treasury single account (TSA) started with Obasanjo in 2004 before it was abandoned. Jonathan dusted it up and partially implemented it. Buhari has fully implemented it. TSA has helped to eradicate a certain type of corruption in ministries, departments and agencies. From time immemorial, MDAs would place funds with banks at a low rate and leverage on the same funds to borrow money from the same banks at a high rate. The bankers and the civil servants were sharing the spoils across the fence. The full implementation hurt the economy and I wanted it reversed at a point, but you really cannot make omelette without breaking an egg. All government revenues can now be monitored real time.
Another administrative approach introduced by Jonathan is the integrated payroll and personnel information system (IPPIS) which uses the biometric system to verify civil servants and eliminate ghost workers from the payroll. Nigeria was losing hundreds of billions of naira to evil servants in the past, but through IPPIS today, ghost workers have relocated to hell. It was recently reported that 80,000 police “officers” were actually ghosts. They have been eliminated by IPPIS. Also, the biometric verification number (BVN) is a major tool in the hands of EFCC in its anti-graft war. Nobody who has a bank account is “safe” anymore. A simple administrative approach is fighting corruption without firing a bullet.
Recently, Mr. Kola Ologbondiyan, the spokesman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), started the #BuhariChallenge on Twitter with a satire: “Anyone on this street that can name one infrastructural development project initiated and completed by @MBuhari since he assumed office will get a 50k prize from me.” Mr. Tolu Ogunlesi, President Buhari’s social media aide, replied: “The PDP Admin left behind HUNDREDS of abandoned projects, that the Buhari Administration has been painstakingly completing, one by one. Only an IRRESPONSIBLE Govt would set aside important ABANDONED projects to instead be chasing the cheap glory of ‘We started our own!’” And that’s how the fight started…
It took only a couple of minutes for Twitter to catch fire, which was not surprising by the way. Nevertheless, the pattern of responses reinforced my distaste for partisan politics. The comments kept coming in – from the mundane to the ridiculous – and if you enjoy humour, you would laugh yourself to the point of no return. I love humour, yes, but I was so disheartened by some of the things that were being said. There is this mindset that refuses to see government as a continuum, that can’t see the state as an institution rather than a person. I understand that people must play politics, but at what stage does Nigeria become our primary constituency?
One common trend in Nigeria is that people go into government with a mindset of dissociating themselves from their predecessors, thereby discontinuing inherited projects in order not to be taunted as not having new ideas. God only knows how many court cases Nigeria is fighting at the international level because one government comes and breaks the contract entered into by another. We are paying millions of dollars in litigation and settlements. At the state level, it is so common for new governors to discard the programmes and policies of predecessors simply to make a point that they have their own ideas. Good policies and projects are sacrificed. Nigeria cannot make progress that way.
We need a new mentality, a new mindset that says “Paul planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase”. Or, to put it in local parlance, “woman see snake, man kill am, case closed”. As long as a snake bite has been averted, the argument over who spotted it and who killed it is purely academic. I will always say that politicians must play politics. I cannot argue over that. But the pattern of comments by ordinary Nigerians appeared to suggest that most of us have been sucked in by the war of attrition between PDP and APC. We cannot use this war to define Nigeria. Jonathan started a project, Buhari completed it – Nigeria and Nigerians are the beneficiaries. That should settle it.
Infrastructural projects, by the way, take time. We conceived a mega power project in Mambilla, Taraba state, over 40 years ago. Governments have come and gone but the project, which can generate up to 3,500 megawatts, had no life. Buhari has shown more seriousness in finally getting it off the ground. If it is completed and we begin to enjoy better power supply, who cares whether it is APC or PDP that did it? Obasanjo conceived Abuja-Kaduna rail, Jonathan did most of the work and Buhari put the finishing touches, and so what? We are moving to self-sufficiency in rice but the journey started under Obasanjo was continued by Yar’Adua and Jonathan, and has been revved up by Buhari. All we need is rice!
I can understand the anger of the PDP that no credit is being given to them, that they are only being portrayed as looters by the APC government. I sympathise with them. But that is at the level of politicking and I would leave the matter to the partisans to fight themselves to the finish. We, the ordinary Nigerians, should see the bigger picture: previous administrations started important projects in infrastructure and agriculture and Buhari did not abandon them. Instead, he is pursuing the completion with determination and passion. As a Nigerian, I am truly, truly excited by this. Everything cannot be politics. Politics cannot be everything. Let’s try to focus on the progress of Nigeria once in a while.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
Park Geun-hye, the former South Korean president, has been sentenced to 24 years in jail with a fine of $17 million. Her offence was “minor” compared to what we witness daily in Nigeria: she colluded with her friend, Choi Soon-sil, to receive funds from conglomerates, such as Samsung and Lotte, to help Choi’s family and fund non-profit foundations owned by her. Meanwhile, Lula da Silva, former president Brazil, is due to start a 12-year jail term for corruption and money laundering while in office from 2003 to 2011. In Nigeria, even former commissioners don’t go to jail, much less lawmakers, ministers or presidents. The jails are meant for pickpockets and bloggers. Travesty.
When news broke that Mr. Ali Janga, the Kogi state commissioner of police, had been removed because of the escape of suspects from detention, something told me this is impossible in Nigeria. I thought the world was about to come to an end. In Nigeria, government officials never get sacked for dereliction of duty — neither do they take responsibility for failure under their watch. You only get fired if you don’t have a godfather. After the announcement, the drama started. Mr. Esa Sunday Ogbu, his replacement, failed to assume duty, allegedly because he was warned not to by Alhaji Yayaha Bello, the state governor. Then Bello visited Abuja. And before you could blink, Janga was re-instated. Nigeria!!!
Remember when government officials wondered why students were protesting over fuel price hike when they were not car owners? It’s getting better. Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi, minister of transportation, says the train fares between Kaduna and Abuja were increased because the majority of those using the service are rich. Hear him: “Some of you have been asking why we increased the fare between Kaduna and Abuja. For each locomotive, we spend N56 million, when we were charging you N600, we were getting N16 million so all you rich men, we were dashing you N40 million per month. Actually, very few poor men use those trains.” Now, I can confidently say I have seen it all. Ridiculous.
“He died that we might live,” we Christians usually say about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Well, what about this? Two months ago, Scott Westgarth, a British boxer, tragically died a few hours after winning a fight. However, the 31-year-old had signed up for organ donation. His mum, Rebecca, has now revealed that his late son’s organs saved SEVEN lives. Millions of people die every year waiting for organ transplants without getting donors, but this can change if we are willing, like Westgarth, to donate our organs when we die. It is something health campaigners should focus us in Nigeria. Imagine the death of ONE man saving SEVEN lives! Invaluable!