President Buhari said already that he wishes to be remembered for fighting corruption. There is no better way to come closer to this goal than to see to it that justice is done by bringing those concerned to book.
The arms deal scandal involving the former National Security Adviser has brought the question of corruption and mismanagement of public funds to the public domain again. The story of how billions of naira which should have been used for public good and for the important task of security was rather doled out indiscriminately to friends of the mighty has sent shock waves across Nigeria and beyond.
While some writers have expressly condemned the wanton abuse of office by those entrusted with public offices, some reactions have centred on how such huge amounts got approved in the first place and how it came within the competence and responsibility of the NSA to distribute national resources to whomsoever he wished while leaving the Boko Haram insurgents to have a field day.
With regard to approval, the former Minister of Finance has already reacted that the funds was released on the approval of the former President, while the NSA has given a litany of names of those who received portions of the said funds including the then Vice-President, media moguls and top members of the political class. More names will still enter the infamous list.
But what has just become open in the case of the former NSA is also true in many other areas of public life in Nigeria. Nigerians are fully aware of the unbridled financial recklessness that characterises public officers who live on public funds as if on a jackpot. It will be shocking to Nigerians if an audit is conducted on any of the three arms of government, whether at the federal, state or local government level. The same is also true of the ministries or departments or parastatals of government.
Over the years Nigerians have gotten used to a culture of being intimidated by public office holders who squander public wealth on themselves, their families and friends with no one to call them to order. To enter public office at any level is to have unlimited access to money for the benefit of relatives and friends.
Recently it was pointed out that the legitimate income of the Nigerian senator or law-maker during a fiscal year, as a non-executive arm of government, was in excess of billions of naira. Significantly, the same reports indicate that against a monthly benchmark of N18,000 as minimum wage bench mark, it would take hundreds of years to earn the above. Of course it is a dim way of saying it is impossible. But corruption is endemic precisely because the borderline between official and personal money is non-existent in Nigeria, hence accountability and responsibility is very low, and public officers have flagrantly helped themselves to the largesse.
But the question that is also interesting is why there is still little or no public outrage at this level of unbridled sleaze. Why would Nigerians sit and watch their common heritage being mindlessly squandered by heartless and irresponsible public officials? Why are Nigerians, in fact, incapable of rising in unison to oppose this level of wanton carnage? Why would Nigerians prefer to die in silence than demand for accountability and justice from those to whom public offices have been entrusted?
Depending on how one looks at it, there may be at least three reasons for this complacency and inaction on the part of the public. The first is the source of the money being squandered. The second is the ethnic and religious sentiments that accompany allegations of corruption. The third is a failure of the media and the task of sensitisation.
The major flank of the Nigerian media is controlled by the government and members of the political elite. Who then is going to bell the cat? In the present case of the NSA, at least two major media houses have been indicted. Rather than stem the tide of corruption through a campaign of naming and shaming, some of viable media outfits in Nigeria become an extension of political parties with clear partisan persuasions.
The fact that crude oil has remained the main source of Nigeria’s wealth, as against coming from direct tax deductions from people’s labour, may be the reason why they care not much about how much is generated and how it is spent. Of course Nigeria has generated billions of dollars from crude oil but much of it has been fritted away by successive governments for personal gain, with the effect that even the basic infrastructure that can drive the well-being of the common man is lacking. It’s literally a spending-spree and a bazaar of some sort. I doubt if this would be the case if the Nigerian government depended on just taxes to carry out the responsibilities of government.
Because the Nigerian wealth is from oil, the myth of national cake was born. Political office has come therefore to be understood in relation to this myth of a national cake and every group, be it religious or ethnic, desires to have its own people closer to the cake. The question is not that of good governance or accountability, but one of ethnic and religious pacification. The religion and ethnic origin of public office holder is more important than what he does with public funds. Calling people to order and holding them accountable under this ethnic polarisation is difficult.
The major flank of the Nigerian media is controlled by the government and members of the political elite. Who then is going to bell the cat? In the present case of the NSA, at least two major media houses have been indicted. Rather than stem the tide of corruption through a campaign of naming and shaming, some of viable media outfits in Nigeria become an extension of political parties with clear partisan persuasions. Under this circumstance, it is difficult to see how they cannot be compromised.
This might be why the Nigerian media has been unsuccessful in bringing about the kind of social re-birth which the media can boast of in some other societies. In turn, the failure of the media in the sensitisation of the citizens, could well be the reason why the Nigerian society is particularly unable to feel the pain of corruption or able to stand up against it.
These points are far from exhaustive, but at least they point in the direction of why Nigerians are able to live with the level of corruption that make the news daily and do nothing about it. But it is a pity. President Buhari said already that he wishes to be remembered for fighting corruption. There is no better way to come closer to this goal than to see to it that justice is done by bringing those concerned to book.
Ikechukwu Odigbo is a public-affairs analyst and doctoral researcher in Philosophy at the University of Essex, UK.