Jostling for juice
THE word “juice” has always been alive and well but today it is occupying a prominent place in our political lexicon. It is a word well known to our senators and members of the House of Representatives, because the talk about committees that have plenty juice is in the air. Each senator or representative wants to head or at least belong to a committee that is “juicy”.
The word is also well known within the circle of our “noisemakers” aka ministers. Every minister wanted to be assigned to not just a ministry but a very juicy one. A juicy ministry does not mean one that manufactures or sells orange juice, tomato juice or apple juice of the Fumman or Chivita or any other variety. It means ministries that produce cash juice from the ground floor to the top floor. That is what makes the job interesting and the ministers to “minister well,” apologies to Jerry Gana.
During President Olusegun Obasanjo’s tenure, a committee was set up to classify ministries into grades A, B and C according to their importance, I beg your pardon, according to their juicy-ness. Ministers were then assigned to these ministries by the President according to his wishes. The juicy-ness level of your ministry was also a measure of your good standing in the President’s book of life. It also underlined his disposition to your State of origin or your person or in some cases his perception of your achievability status.
Now let me ask: Did your brother-minister, or mother or father or frater get a juicy ministry? If yes, then you are made. If not, don’t despair. Tell him to be creative and he can still squeeze juice out of junk.
But first let’s go to the Senate and the House of Representatives where trouble is brewing because the members perceive that some committees to which they have been assigned are either non juicy, or just juicy or very juicy. If you are assigned to a non-juicy committee, then that is bad, that means that no juice will flow into your stomach. Your stomach will stay as lean as you brought it from home.
But I dare say no committee is entirely juicy-less because wherever you go for oversight functions the officials know that the volume of their next budget depends on how happy you are. And how happy you are depends on the weight of the package you get as a “thanks-for-coming” gesture. The civil servants aka technocrats are experts in this type of technical business, based on the fact that practice makes perfect.
We should have nothing to say, really, on the other two classes of committees – just juicy and very juicy – because they are self-explanatory. It is only left for us to say that there is a very good reason for increasing the number of committees in both chambers. The idea is that the honourable members may have a chance of belonging, at the worst, to one or more of either the just juicy or very juicy committees. And the more committees you belong to, the more juice you can drink.
Having finished our business at the National Assembly we can now bow and go to the ministers. How does one become a minister in the first place? Well, getting there is a political hop, step and jump. First, you must get your name into President Muhammadu Buhari’s preliminary list or consult the newspapers for a sneak mention of your name as one of the candidates even though no one is talking to you. That is a way of shoring up your visibility. Next, you must reach out to the screening agencies, supporters’ clubs, NGOs and other motley groups who do a little good for a little fee. When your name goes to the Senate you then talk to the Senate President and ask for a bow-and-go status. If that fails you can arrange with your constituency’s senator to ask you at the screening what the weather was in Abuja when you were coming for the screening.
He will then follow up with another question: Did the weather prevent you from attending this screening exercise? When you are cleared you then shift your attention to the members of Buhari’s kitchen cabinet for the allocation of a juicy ministry. In all of these your imam or pastor must be a constant consultant.
And which are the juicy ministries? We will name them in no particular order of juicy-ness. Petroleum: That is where, according to Wole Soyinka, you can lift oil if you lift your skirt. And what of those who have no skirts to lift? They can lift GMG (Ghana Must Go).
And what of those who can’t lift oil? They can supply petroleum products on paper and smile their way to the bank. Federal Capital Territory: Land in Abuja is a veritable diamond mine. If you allocate a piece of land in a choice or juicy part of Abuja to your mother or mistress she is made for ever.
Power, Works and Housing: This ministry is the very embodiment of power and juice. Here you can dance Disco with our money. You can build a bridge and then find water to fix under it. This is a gargantuan job for the Lagos superman, Babatunde Fashola. Let’s see how he turns the fortune of this super ministry around and delivers the benefits to those who believe he is able.
Defence: You can buy a refurbished aircraft for the price of a new one, afterall a war is on and no one will bother about the cost. In the interior ministry, you can give expatriate quotas to companies that bring cleaners and cooks from Asia as expatriate engineers and technologists – for a little fee. There is no point going on and on about which ministries are juicy and which are not. Every ministry is juicy. It is only a matter of which one is juicier than the other.
The juice metaphor is about corruption, a cankerworm that Buhari has promised to deal with. It is quite pervasive in our public service. Corruption exists everywhere but in Nigeria there is a tone of audacity to it. A few years ago, Obasanjo approved a take-off grant of N200 million for the Police Service Commission (PSC) of which I was a member. The Ministry of Finance officials refused to release the money except the commission would grease their palms with N10 million. They knew that the PSC was a government institution. They knew it had something to do with the Police yet they didn’t care. They even told the PSC finance people that they could tell Obasanjo if they wanted. The matter was tabled before the meeting of the PSC board and we decided to call their bluff. How audacious!
Within the Police Service Commission itself we had policemen assigned to assist us. When we did the first promotion of policemen based on the criteria we had established, these policemen working for the commission were angry. Why? They said we did not collect Ghana Must Go before making those promotions. They said “no be so we dey do am.” This was the cash brand of corruption.
There is also what I call the job brand of corruption. The chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on the PSC had spoken to the then chairman of the Commission, Simon Okeke, about the number of job vacancies he wanted allocated to the National Assembly members to fill. The PSC chairman referred him to me since I was the chairman of Establishments Committee. The gentleman gave me the number of vacancies he wanted to be filled by members of the House and Senate Committees of the PSC. I consulted the PSC chairman and we both thought it was an impossible demand to make or meet. We agreed we could allocate, I think, three vacancies to the National Assembly to fill provided their candidates passed the interview and were adjudged appointable by our panel. When I conveyed our decision to the Representative he was raving mad and reminded me of how he helped to approve the budget of the PSC and that he would deal with us during the next budget session.
I told him he could fill the National Assembly Service Commission with all his relations but not the PSC.
We had about 200 applications, most of them young people who had no godfathers or godmothers. I was determined, with my colleagues on the committee, to provide a somewhat level playing field for every applicant. Anybody we employed was interviewed by our panel of 10 including a representative of the Federal Character Commission. We thought we were fair to all concerned but corruption fought back since we did not allow it to win. They wrote a petition against me to President Obasanjo who set up a committee of six permanent secretaries to investigate the allegation. I appeared before the committee. The PSC chairman also did. I was exonerated. Corruption lost; fairness won.
I am sure Buhari knows that corruption has grown over the years in stature and style. Two years or so ago, I had a conversation with a Chinese businessman in Lagos. He told me he had just set up a factory in Ghana and he had to pay a lot of bribe “under the table.” He said he knew that there is corruption in every country and that he was trying to set up a factory in Nigeria. What was his experience like, I asked. He said: “It is different here. You don’t give bribe under the table. They just tell you to keep it on top of the table. And count it”. The audacity of corruption!
It was Thomas Traherne, an Anglican clergyman who was considered one of the metaphysical poets, who wrote: “You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins.” Was he referring to the Nigerian’s extremely aggressive acquisition instinct and conspicuous consumption, which have nearly brought the country to its knees? Is our extreme greed based on the philosophy that we live to eat and not eat to live? But this would contrast sharply with the prevailing knowledge of health and healthy living that you eat moderately and discerningly otherwise you would be courting trouble. Or is this extreme greed based on the Epicurean philosophy that you should eat and eat because tomorrow you may die.
Is this what the jostling for juice is about?