Transition As Looting Window, By Dele Agekameh
Transitions can be tricky matters across the world. But the nature of our system of government and the weakness of public sector ethics ensure that the promise of immoral benefits far outweighs the fear of legal repercussion or the weight of moral obligation.
Again, it is that time when stories of mind-boggling looting sprees dominate the air-waves. Call it the season of looting, if you want, because the transition season is usually the looting season in Nigeria. Back in 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari and Yemi Osinbajo, the vice president, began their tenure by operating from Defence House in Abuja, while Aso Rock, the Presidential Villa, was under ‘renovation’ for their arrival. With a full three months between the announcement of election results and the actual handover date, one would have expected that there was enough time for such preparations. But the vandalism that took place was so massive that things needed to be properly put in place.
In truth, the ‘preparations’ for incoming administrations in government houses at federal and state levels are almost clean sweeps of government property by the outgoing hoard – from cars and furniture to pots, pans and stationaries. The worst part of the systemic transition-time looting is that, almost every administration begins with massive expenditure on looted items, most likely at inflated values, and the practice has largely come to be accepted as the norm in the country. It is, in fact, a corrupt practise that has no place in a government that is accountable in its spending and expenditure, even to the minutest details on its budget. And it seems we are yet to have such a government in Nigeria.
In 2015, in Rivers State, in one of the few cases in which feigned political outrage followed the clean sweep of a government house, Governor Nyesom Wike had embarked on an elaborate tour. In the full glare of cameras, he exposed the looting and vandalism allegedly perpetrated by aides of Rotimi Amaechi, his predecessor. That outrage was borne by political rivalry and nothing else because it has become the norm in Nigeria, rather than a one-off event in Rivers State.
In the series of transitions following the 2019 elections, Governor Emeka Ihedioha of Imo State had also embarked on the same tour of shame, perhaps, to spite his political foe, Rochas Okorocha, now ex-governor of the State. We should recall that his predecessor, now a senator of the Federal Republic, was staunchly opposed to his emergence as governor. In some cases, where past administrations might have left articles intact, some have even alleged that the new governments or their agents, intentionally pillage the property and equipment found, making way for the bogus bills for new materials that must begin the administration, by ‘norm’.
Beyond materials and articles of government, large fund transfers have been known to disappear days or weeks before a transition. In the past, new governments routinely cried about empty treasuries left for them by their predecessors. This was before the stricter financial monitoring measures that have been instituted by the anti-graft agencies and new policies like the Bank Verification Numbers (BVN) for all bank accounts. Still, such things happen and go mostly unpunished.
The practice is so rife that some ex-governors, like Peter Obi of Anambra State, make much light of the ‘large amounts’ of money left in state coffers after their administration. If those funds were used transparently to the identifiable good of their states, no one would begrudge an outgoing government any low balance in the state treasury. Almost as sinister as the looting of the treasury and government property is the politicisation of supposed financial accountability.
However, the transition-time corruption does not end at the looting of government property and funds. Last minute promotions, redistribution and postings at all levels of government are other avenues. They could even be the more dangerous kind, because of the long-term effects of these last minute acts.
In Ogun State, after the last election, Dapo Abiodun, the new governor, complained about his predecessor’s last minute appointments and promotions of hundreds of government staff. Ibikunle Amosun, the immediate past governor in the State, now a senator, is known to have done all within his power to stop Abiodun’s election. If Abiodun now suspects that his predecessor is laying traps and deliberately complicating his government, he cannot be faulted.
Ignorance of the true nature of corruption and a culture of unjustified entitlement also enable the pillaging and misuse of power during the last moments of every administration. Even if the leading figures of an administration are unaware and un-involved, the rottenness is deeply rooted in public service…
Yet, at the root of the transition-time bazaar is a high propensity for the abuse of authority by public officials, a poor moral compass and disregard for the voting public. Ignorance of the true nature of corruption and a culture of unjustified entitlement also enable the pillaging and misuse of power during the last moments of every administration. Even if the leading figures of an administration are unaware and un-involved, the rottenness is deeply rooted in public service, so that the underlings of a popular leader, including the cooks, drivers and higher-up aides are ready for the windfall of a change in power, even before election day comes.
Transitions can be tricky matters across the world. But the nature of our system of government and the weakness of public sector ethics ensure that the promise of immoral benefits far outweighs the fear of legal repercussion or the weight of moral obligation. In 2001, Bob Barr, then a Republican representative from Georgia, submitted a request to the General Accounting Office (GAO) of the United States Congress to investigate allegations of vandalism and theft at the White House during the presidential transition from Democrat Bill Clinton to Republican George W. Bush.
The vandalism and alleged theft in the U.S. case were mostly political statements made by outgoing White House staff members, and the GAO placed the cost at up to $14,000 at the time. This is child’s play in transitions in Nigeria today. The pillaging is no political statement, but calculated acts of theft conceived almost immediately a new administration arrives. The U.S. system, which Nigeria is modelled after, enables this to happen because of the long transitional period. Britain’s parliamentary system is near seamless and outgoing prime ministers, for instance, have a maximum of 48 hours to leave Downing Street in most cases, and under close scrutiny.
As Nigerians, we are already well aware of the high propensity for corrupt practises in our society, but may be oblivious to the actual incidents of corruption that are before our eyes everyday. When a window of corruption opens up in the course of duty or other activities, our sense of morality seems to conveniently go on holiday, allowing almost unconscious acts of corruption to take place. In essence, many of us have become blind to corruption; and this may be why our society is swimming in it.
Nigerians are tired of seeing expenditure for the same item every year, and more exorbitant bills for those same items during government transitions. Public office is not a eat-all-you-can buffet. It is a position of trust, with every item kept in trust for the next holders of the office, on behalf of the public.
From under-the-table payment for government services and other ingenious forms of stealing, people are institutionalising corruption in our society everyday. This sense of entitlement to illegal royalties on public property and utilities is enabled by government officials and members of the public. Now, the custodians of public property have developed a sense of actual ownership of public articles. Thus, when the tenure of an entire government or government functionary comes to an end, the sense of ownership is so strong that they, and/or their staff, leave with the public articles in their control.
There is an urgent need for re-orientation of civil servants and other public servants on the nature and ownership of public property. Our ex-ministers, ex-governors and other functionaries need to know that official cars and the like remain property of the government. They bear the responsibility of educating their staff on the duty to preserve the property while in office and to properly handover in the event of their leaving office.
Every transitional period in government should be spent auditing and accounting for materials and funds within the control of public officers, in preparation for handover, rather than on ways through which they can be pillaged. Extra laws need not be created for this. Only enforcement by relevant authorities needs to be encouraged. The conversion of property is already a crime in our laws.
Nigerians are tired of seeing expenditure for the same item every year, and more exorbitant bills for those same items during government transitions. Public office is not a eat-all-you-can buffet. It is a position of trust, with every item kept in trust for the next holders of the office, on behalf of the public. These new administrations nationwide should be properly guided on this.
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