Issue  

Corrupting privileges and national mismanagement narratives – Part 1

President Muhammadu Buhari

The recent spate of strident, incendiary and fractious narratives on the Nigerian Condition offered by several privileged Nigerians are only surprising for their flimsiness, not their thrusts. Why? Privileges, at any age, have been notorious for their toxic, perverting, and corrupting tendencies, where they stand for right granted to and/or usurped by an individual or a select few, bestowing advantages not enjoyed by others. And it all started with over-arching elite formation across the very many ethnic groups, which inhabit the space politically, labelled “Nigeria”.

Modern elite-formation and political partying
Each ethnic group has subgroups, usually clans formed by lineages with common ancestry occupying several villages and towns, often speaking a dialect of a dominant language, with few kingdoms becoming empires after subjugating neighbouring groups. Before European/British colonial domination, it is crucial to note there were no occasions for pan-ethnic group political events where persons or traditional elites saw and presented themselves as representing Nupe, Jukun, Berom, Yoruba, Hausa, Kanuri, Efik, Urhobo, Isoko, Ijaw, Igbo, etc. One lived and died in the village or small town, with very few trans-village events, let alone trans-clan, and political power and control rested with elders’ council, chief, alkali, king, etsu, oba, shehu, emir, sultan, and suchlike political autocrats or oligarchs, with identities firmly tied to and meshed in village, town and clan culture till less than barely eighty years ago. Whatever political alliances existed were strictly between autocrats/oligarchs where mass representation was inconceivable. The founding of new towns via pre-colonial and colonial trading and other activities (e.g., mining activities, administrative headquarters, etc.) and random declaration of provinces, local governments and, later, regions, necessitated new patterns of political mobilisation and representation of those units. It was also a wrenching shake-up of distribution of privileges and criteria for elite-membership, and the political party became the dominant vehicle for both. The political parties attracted and created new elites, sucking in an already adulterated traditional rulership system too, where anyone was made chief, king, etc., by colonial authorities. The most significant output, for our purposes, was the emergence of a class of persons across villages, towns, provinces, local governments, regions and states who spoke above everyone else, on behalf of conjured constituencies and to themselves alone, and subsequently made an art the gliding from party to party, literally, in what I call, “political partying” with resources and their distribution.

Political partying, corrupting privileges and ‘national development’
Political parties, with membership drawn from business community, burgeoning academia, so-called educated elite, and traditional elite, for political Independence and national development after, now declared themselves to be representing “the North”, “the Middle Belt”, “the West”, “the East”, “the COR States”, “Midwest”, “Niger Delta”, “Northern Minorities”, Southern Minorities”, “Biafra”, “the Southwest”, “the South-South”, “the Southeast”, “the Hausa”, “the Arewa”, “Kanem-Borno Empire”, “the Yoruba Nation”, “the Igbo Nation”, “the Urhobo Nation”, etc. Cast in this form, “national development” mutates into “development” of notional ethnic groups, ethnic competition, and never mind being starkly antithetical to that oft-mouthed “unity in diversity” and other themes in the “National” Anthem. The practice and reality is thus the wresting of and wrestling over ever larger quantum of resources ostensibly in name of all these notional entities by mostly self-enriching individuals and cabals: census figures, revenue allocation formula, manipulation of the federal character principle, location of infrastructures and projects, vicious competition over all manner of contracts, emoluments of political office holders, creation of new local governments and states and more.

Political partying, corrupting privileges and management of the public sector
The public sector comprises the following institutions: the Presidency and Ministers and their coterie of Assistants (the Government), the National Assembly, the Civil Service and its Ministries, the Parastatals (Customs, Immigration, NNPC, etc.), the Judiciary, the Armed Forces, Law enforcement agencies (Police, Security agencies, etc.), State Governments, their ministries and parastatals, and local government. Those who occupy top and policy-making decisions in these institutions comprise the elite of the public sector. Combined with business, academia and traditional elites, one has roughly a “national elite”. Managing this public sector triggers the “mother of all fights”, that of populating these institutions which the protagonists insist depends on “representativeness” in numbers – concocted statistics of general population and its alleged distribution among regions and states such that “the North” always has 51 point something per cent and “the South” 48 point something per cent, and Kano State must have more persons than Lagos State, as fertility rates, birth rates, mortality rates, rural-urban migration have been held constant since creation their creation. These imposed population percentages should then be reflected in the recruitment of bureaucrats for each institution as yardstick and evidence of fairness, and further broken down to number of Christians and Moslems respectively, another set of estimated percentages. Accurate physical counting was and is certainly anathema, fraught with nasty, brutal facts – estimates being more negotiable, thus establishing seemingly national culture of absence of precise statistics on anything – birth rates, mortality rates, women, men, children of certain ages, unemployment, etc., and electoral votes in particular which are better “declared”.

There are several impacts of these stratagems on the public sector, the very first being the orientation and worldview of many top bureaucrats, inseparable and indistinguishable from those of cabals dominating the political parties and thus venomously bigoted and sectional – at their most pristine and corrosive forms during military regimes. For the main civil service and certain parastatals, policy options seem to follow suit: sharing of oil blocks; “constituency” projects; cancellation of Lagos Metroline project; abandoned Federal Secretariat in Ikoyi; it does not matter how many millions of American dollars have been unsuccessfully expended on “national ID card” project since the Babangida’s regime; same for the Ajaokuta steel project, the Osogbo, Jos and other steel mills; defunct Iwopin and other paper mills; the favour to friends and others of licences for banks and finance houses, most of which went under after the punishing rise of interest rates followed by bankruptcies and further restructuring of banks; hardly used airports in odd but favoured locations; the several times awarded and re-awarded Lagos-Ibadan Expressway contract; the Shagamu-Benin Expressway; the East-West Expressway in a state of utter disrepair; bloated contracts and yet poorly executive turn-around-maintenance of oil refineries that ended with epileptic performance till date; continuing importation of refined petroleum products sustained by the patronage system, inflicting so much general hardship; the strangely located and abandoned housing schemes occupied by cobwebs, overgrown bushes and rodents strewn across the country; selectively and poorly executed privatisation programmes, including the more recent energy sector scheme which increased supply of darkness; borrowing over half a billion dollars from the Chinese to construct totally uneconomic Kaduna-Abuja rail link, instead of Kano-PH-Lagos that has vast economic benefits, just for a handful of bureaucrats to spend weekend away, derivable fares not able to repay the loan even in a hundred years; expensively redesigned and expanded expressway to and from Abuja Airport and other roads therein when major trunk roads in various parts of the country are impassable; abandonment of the railways in preference for the less efficient and more costly road haulage dominated by trucks owned by a handful of party-financiers; the uneconomic and enforced location of NNPC Group headquarters in Abuja and massive zonal headquarters in Benin City, that already hosts at least one NNPC’s subsidiary, when there are only few drops of crude oil in Edo State; the routine bypassing of the NNPC (NGC) by oil and gas companies to secure certain waivers, including supply of natural gas on credit for indefinite periods of time… The list is endless. At no point, in order not to spoil the partying by politicians-bureaucratic elite “diarchy”, is anyone held accountable for choice of cost-injurious, failed and abandoned projects, the presumed benefit being one of them is sited in your area at all, a colourful addition to the otherwise too natural-looking landscape.

Olusegun Obasanjo

The other equally pernicious and insidious impact is the unintended creation of multiple and parallel organisations within each of the ministries and parastatals, the principle of need-to-know basis camouflaging critical officers receiving different sets of instructions from different godfathers and mentors but all acted out in the name of the institution. For practical purposes therefore several forthright officers would learn, like everyone else, measures and actions being taken in the name of their organisations and even own sections or divisions, from news and social media. This state of affairs prevails in all the security and intelligence agencies, the military, police, judiciary, EFCC, Customs, Immigration, the NNPC Group, etc., and everyone straining to recognise principles behind many decisions and actions, especially anti-corruption policy, prevailing notions of national interest and security, and basis for appointments, promotions and deployments.

Here we find the implanted seeds growing rapidly and rabidly into fruition in the essentials of national mismanagement: de-motivation, disillusionment of, and mounting indifference to plight of general public by many public servants, especially critical elements of the bureaucratic elite; a massively corrupt budgetary process, guided less by pressing must-do projects and actions/policies than by political partying calculations and trade-offs; mounting greed and the push to augment salaries via bewildering variety of corrupt practices (bribes by Ministries, parastatals and government Departments to access their statutory allocations – in spite of, knowing her, encouragement of measures by Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to prevent such; bribes for missing files to reappear; bribes to facilitate processing of any matter, including some percentage retainer fee for collecting pension and other entitlements of retirees – especially the dead ones; bribes to think up, arrange the funding of, and award contract for a project; unofficial surcharges on custom duties, arbitrary and illegal payments by importers for product certificates even for school books that are VAT and import duty-free and have no specifications to be verified and not even on the list of items that require same in the first place; multiple illegal payments imposed on shop owners and small and medium-scale businesses (SMEs) generally, often physically collected by violent groups of young men as agents of local authorities; very lucrative trade in expatriate quotas until replaced by work permits; extortions for “your particulars” at check-points manned by personnel from over five agencies and counting, leaving this strategic segment of society (students, public servants, workers, traders, pensioners, transporters, entrepreneurs of SMEs, etc.,), with gnawing feelings of humiliation, deprivation and unceasing harassment; extortions at police stations, and random “arrests” of able-bodied young men and women for “vagrancy” in their own neighbourhoods; the uncertain movement of “justice” in many segments of the judiciary, especially and naturally, electoral cases where, for example, someone who did not contest gubernatorial election was declared the “winner”; illicit diversion/appropriation of state and local government funds; the multiple and irregular imposition of charges for acquisition and retention of land and General President Obasanjo’s fiat, unprecedented anywhere, of forcing the Land Use Act into the Constitution, and doing same with permanent secretaries deemed now to be “political appointees” and earning over 300 per cent of previous salaries – obviously following the footsteps of General Babangida who re-designated permanent secretaries “director-generals” and thought they should retire with the government that appointed them – thereby single-handedly distorting structure of the civil service and career expectations of upper echelons; some ministries, parastatals and departments leaving electricity bills unsettled for years, rendering it impossible of NEPA, PHCN successor organisations to balance their books; routinised arrears of salaries and other entitlements; worsening illegal proliferation of small arms and armed groups across the country, specially useful during elections and for intimidating sections of communities thereafter, and kidnappings for ransom…and so on. Who would have guessed that the definition of “national security” and the role of “national security adviser” of the sort carried out by the likes of Henry Kissinger, Brzezinski in the USA and others in the UK, European Union and even South Africa was merely the surreptitious distribution of public funds to individuals and companies owned by party faithfuls? Also explains why only Nigerian Presidents and Vice Presidents are signatories to certain bank accounts, merging both approval and implementing roles, a deliberate overthrow of much-needed separation of functions which has led to better administratively managed societies elsewhere! It is exceedingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that our collective drifting in less rewarding directions, despite enormous potentials, is hardly accidental, substantially resulting from negotiating ploys and mechanisms ferociously utilised by this pan-Nigeria political partying addicts and their cohorts in the public sector.

Political partying, corrupting privileges and the private sector
The privatisation of public enterprises, conception, funding and implementation of projects and development objectives and routine functioning of the economy guided by monetary and fiscal regimes, activities of financial institutions, investors and business owners and shareholders ensure constant interaction between and among stakeholders and such is the state of mixed economy everywhere. Obviously, therefore, the dynamics of the economy are umbilically linked to official regulatory framework that is supposed to establish ethical and other standards for all. So, aside from many of the politicians-bureaucratic elites owning businesses and shares in various other businesses that are beneficiaries of contracts and obscene bank deposits, skewed allocation of foreign exchange to dealers; ineffective taxation and tax collection system; not much integrity in audited company accounts/reports but still accepted and utilised for banking and other financial transactions; widespread dumping or entry of substandard goods (machines, vehicles, parts, equipment, etc.); extremely limited use of meters in the energy sector as incentive to investors as consumers reel under the weight of inflated “estimates”, making nonsense of principles of contract of sale since consumers pay for seller’s imagined units of energy; most businesses incurring avoidable heavy expenses providing own power supply, costs that are passed on to consumers; energy shortages rendering an increasing number of small and medium scale enterprises unprofitable, the sector with largest employment-creation potential for a young and teeming population; the charges for legal representation are just mind-blowing to the average user, unreflecting of prevailing low levels of incomes; same for accounting and other financial services; the numbing exploitation of “contract staff” by several banks, working at least 12 hours a day, including weekends, with the companies/individuals who supply them (often retired top bank officials or their companies) inexcusably and unconscionably (criminally?) retaining nearly 50% of each staff’s salary, not a ten or fifteen per cent commission as widely practised elsewhere and despite relevant ILO conventions officially ratified; the food and pharmaceutical industries where importing and manufacturing of very many items, aside from fake products, that are harmful are increasing; most chemists openly run by quacks who also diagnose and prescribe drugs, a point of reference to declining usefulness of some professional bodies to society; very troubling, needless deaths and expensive medical services on offer; openly hawked hard drugs, especially in Elegushi and other beaches and nightclubs, accelerating routine use of hard drugs by and rate of addiction among the youth; alarming degree of human trafficking, with thousands of Nigerian youths perishing in North Africa and Mediterranean Sea daily… We could go on and on, but the simple point is that the shortcomings of the public sector elites not only always leave heavy imprints on the private sector, but also severely impair the quality and tone of life and hence mounting disenchantment with successive governments without any “political enemies” fuelling such.

Political partying, communities, local elites and education
The physical location of tertiary institutions, especially universities, has itself become subject to more blatant parochial and political considerations and, when successfully done, it becomes one of the touted achievements by a faction of the traditional and political elites in their rivalry. Subsequent concessions gained by them would cover the whole gamut of running the affected institution: recruitment, selection and placement of principal officers, contracts, admissions, examinations, promotions, to disciplinary issues of staff and students, the selection/appointment of the vice chancellor, registrar, deans and heads of departments, the push being for “daughters” and “sons” of the soil/locality or ethnic group. All of these obviously serve to condition the environment, comportment, conduct of, and tactics adopted by, personnel within these institutions in achieving their private and parochial objectives.

Another aspect of the politicization of physical location of universities (senatorial district, geo-political zone, state, local government, etc.) – read tertiary institutions – is the hurried establishment of so many, with or without the approval of the National Universities Commission, fed by grossly inadequate funding, little physical and other infrastructure, poor staffing, poorly-built, poorly-equipped laboratories and lecture rooms, inevitably throw personnel therein into situations of so many aggravating factors, of fluid and barely functioning statutory and standing committees through paucity of numbers, lack of experienced hands and machinations of rival caucuses or groups, many practices hardly reflecting regular university culture and system, and local and political circumstances (e.g. amazingly late and inadequate budgets of federal and state governments) and conduct of traditional and political elite have amplified divisive impacts.

Every now and then and aside from establishment and location of tertiary institutions in particular, traditional and political elites gerrymander the education sector in more destructive fashion, from protesting against WAEC results, JAMB scores, cut-off points, admission quotas, number of professors from their areas of origin, to the fewness of vice chancellors from same. In accommodating some of these demands and in the case of vice chancellors, the phrase “senior academic” has been deliberately and liberally interpreted in a few instances to mean “senior lecturers and above” for senior lecturers to become vice chancellors in a few universities. In such universities, the demand for “democratisation” of the university system translates into senior lecturers, and, in a few cases, lecturer grade one being “elected” heads of department and deans, a sad caricature of the system, which, in turn, shows via quality of graduates since you cannot give what you do not have in a mentoring situation which these institutions are based upon.

More recently, the Federal Character Commission has been pushing for the right to sit on recruitment interview panels in federally funded tertiary institutions “to ensure fair distribution of positions among states” (euphemism for ethnic balancing), and, for added measure, it has been alleged, trying to ignore the provisions of statutes establishing these educational institutions as self-regulating corporate bodies and wanting private contracts between them and professors set aside to enable it supervise the random posting of professors to any institution! Well, it is Nigeria…but I really hope not.

• Professor Dafe Otobo is of the Faculty of Business Administration, University of Lagos.
• To be continued



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