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Evidently above the Law!

21 Feb 2013

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The Verdict according to Olusegun Adeniyi. Email, olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com  

Dr. Goke Adegoroye, a retired federal permanent secretary and pioneer Director General of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms, published a long article in The Guardian newspaper on January 10 this year. Among other things in that article, he wrote: “perhaps no other issue in the history of the Nigerian civil service has challenged the authority of the office of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation (HCSF) and raised questions on the integrity of the bureaucracy top office as the pension saga. How do we explain a situation where a Deputy Director serving as Chairman of a Pension Task Force, set up by the HCSF, would refuse to respond to directives of the sitting HCSF, talk less of the supervising permanent secretary…”

Dr. Adegoroye was referring tothe Chairman of the Pension Reform Task Team, Mr. Abdulrasheed Maina, regarded as perhaps the richest, and without any doubt, one of the most powerful civil servants in Nigeria today.Maina, from what one hears, has no regard for the Head of Service, he treats his supervising permanent secretary with disdain and since he is said to be "well connected at the Villa", it is also no surprise he would display so much disrespect for the Senate. I listened to Senate President David Mark recounting how Maina would send him contemptuous letters addressed to the Senate signed by some junior officials under him. Yet we are talking about just a deputy director in a federal ministry!

Anybody who understands Abuja knows that it is a city replete with several lowly civil servants who are stupendously wealthy with vast assets across the world but who are smart enough not to give themselves away easily. Many of them wear the same suits or babariga everyday and they are very humble such that they do not attract any attention to themselves and their loot (like the self-effacing pastor, a Deputy Director with INEC who died in the unfortunate Bellview plane crash and was found to have over N2 billion in his bank accounts!). But Maina seems cut from a different cloth: he exemplifies the impunity that is vast taking over our land, apparently believing nobody could touch him.

Incidentally, until then Head of Service, Mr Steve Oronsaye gave Maina the special assignment in June 2010 (Oronsaye’s successor, Prof Dapo Afolabi, would rather curiously, add the police pension responsibility), Maina was an assistant director reporting to a deputy director who himself had a director in the Customs, Immigration and Prisons Pension Office (CIPPO). But today he is so powerful that he has become the godfather even to some permanent secretaries whose appointments he was believed to have facilitated.

Unfortunately, his cup now appears full with the recent Senate resolution that President Jonathan should dismiss him (Maina) from the public service and disengage him from all official duties. The senators have also directed anti-graft agencies to immediately investigate and eventually prosecute him for alleged mismanagement and embezzlement of pension funds.

According to the senators, it is unacceptable that a Deputy Director in the federal public service would display the kind of obscene opulence associated with Maina while also enjoying executive privileges. It is a notorious fact that the man cruises around Abuja in a long convoy which includes two bullet-proof Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs); he is escorted by no fewer than 25 combined security details; he rents crowds to demonstrate on his behalf and places syndicated paid advertorials without the consent of his superior officers in the service. Aside spending heavily on media relations, he also retains the services of many lawyers, including among them Senior Advocates of Nigeria, all at the expense of pensioners most of whom are now left high and dry. But as I stated earlier, Maina’s cup now appears full.

It may be necessary here to recap the story of Maina’s altercation with the Senate that may ultimately signal the end of his civil service career. Following several petitions against him, the Senate had constituted an ad-hoc committee to investigate alleged pension scam running into several billions of Naira and Mania was invited to appear. But after the initial appearance, he called a press conference to allege that he did not get fair hearing. He also alleged publicly that members of the committee demanded bribe from him, even parroting the self-serving refrain popularised by some “Nigerian reformers”: If you fight corruption, corruption will fight you back!

With the integrity of the Senate at stake, Mark directed the committee to re-invite Maina in the presence of the media so that he could repeat his allegation and possibly provide evidence. On six different occasions, Maina was invited and he refused to honour any of the invitations. At a point, Mark even mandated the Deputy Senate Leader, Senator Abdul Ningi, to meet with Maina and appeal to him to appear before the committee in the interest of the Senate as an institution. Maina promised Ningi he would appear but he refused to turn up. Then the Senate President directed his Chief of Staff, Senator Anthony Manzo, to reach Maina with the assurance that two principal officers would be on the panel of the ad-hoc committee to ensure fair hearing. Maina snubbed them. It was when efforts to get Maina to honour the Senate invitation reached a dead end and there were whispering campaigns among the lawmakers that Mark himself was treating the deputy director with kid gloves for some inexplicable reasons that the Senate President had no choice but to go public with his ultimatum to the presidency.

Whichever way one looks at it, the Maina tragedy is symptomatic of the decay of values in our public service where anybody with access to ill-gotten wealth now commands powers and influence beyond his/her cadre. While there are many civil servants who are doing their work with serious commitment to national development and with integrity, it is also an open secret that many officials in such “juicy” positions that deal with some form of monetary transactions (pension, gratuities, salaries and wages etc.) are laws unto themselves. But what is tragic in the Maina case is the seeming complicity of the presidency in the sordid matter. For almost four months now, the drama has been playing out in the public domain yet nobody considered it imperative to intervene on the side of common sense and reason until the Senate now practically had to threaten the President to choose between them and the errant civil servant.

The Maina affair goes beyond the allegation of fiddling with pension fund which, I must hasten to say, has not been proven. The tragedy of his case is the institutional corruption that confers so much power on a civil servant to act as if he were above the law and to display so much arrogance even against constituted authority. Whatever we may say about our lawmakers, and Nigerians know they are themselves no paragons of virtues, the way Maina has treated the Senate as an institution should not be condoned by any self-respecting society. But could he have acted the way he did without some form of complicity at the highest executive level? Because while the drama lasted, Maina left nobody in doubt that he had easy access to Aso Rock and that the police authorities directed to arrest him were actually on his side, if not in his pockets!

In his posting at the weekend titled “No Ordinary Servant”, respected former federal permanent secretary, Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, helped to put the whole issue in perspective and I want to quote two paragraphs from his brilliant intervention: “the involvement of the President in directly ordering the Head of the Civil Service to discipline an Assistant Director should mark a new low in this pathetic charade. First, President Jonathan could not, or should not have failed to know of the saga which for months had dragged his administration in the gutter. In virtually all public comments made by the legislators about Maina, they had pointed out that the civil servant who will not answer their summons travels out on Mr. President’s entourage, receives him at airports and has unhindered access to the Presidential Villa. They have all alluded to the existence of some powerful forces in the presidency which are involved in protecting Maina. The height of this indignity is being compelled, as President, to do something about a lone civil servant by an angry Senate, and then acting as if the matter was just being brought to his attention.

“The gentleman in question, only one out of hundreds of Assistant Directors under the direct responsibility of the Head of the Civil Service has also rubbished the integrity and authority of the highest office in the public service. The public directives of the President to the Head of Service to discipline the officer is an avoidable rebuke, although in fairness to the Head of Service, he may have been hamstrung in his efforts by the same forces which had made Maina untouchable…There are others who should feel uncomfortable over this saga. The Nigeria Police, whose pension funds are reported to be part of the billions missing, says it cannot find a man who used to go everywhere with a retinue of policemen. Interpol is now being asked to ensure that he does not flee the country. There are also people who may have given him comfort and assurances that the cover of the presidency will be impenetrable and permanent. They will, if they can feel any shame, rue their attempts to defy the legislature, the laws of the land, public opinion, the federal civil service, and every standard of decency and accountability….”

I do not know what more to add to what Dr. Baba-Ahmed has said except to reiterate that this government is fast losing its moral authority and doing so much damage to the system with the way it treats issues of probity and accountability in the public arena.

The Memory of Yesterday…

In a recent interview which has generated considerable interest among Nigerian commentators, especially on the internet, Senator Babafemi Ojudu x-rayed the place of corruption in the Nigerian public space and the complicity of the society. Using his own experience in the last 21 months, Ojudu spoke about public expectations and the monetary demands made of political office holders in Nigeria. To buttress his point, he shared varied experiences of his interface with his constituents most of which centred on primitive demands for cash without questioning where such monies would come from. It is a brilliant disquisition from the journalist-turned politician which places in context the pressure political office holders are subjected to in our country and it is an issue I also once engaged when I was in government. Incidentally, my intervention was provoked by a piece done by the current spokesman to the president, Dr Reuben Abati who was then the Chairman of the Editorial Board of The Guardian newspapers.

In his then weekly column in The Guardian on Sunday of October 19, 2008, Abati had used the embedded lessons in one of the standard readings at the Aspen Institute Leadership seminar (Leo Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”) to drive home a point about the Nigerian condition and the place of greed in our public arena. My piece titled “Shooting an Elephant: Public Service in Nigeria” was a rejoinder of sort and Abati published it on his page a week later on October 26, 2008. Since the debate is on about some of the factors that fuel corruption in Nigeria, I am reproducing a slightly abridged version of that intervention which I did almost five years ago when I was spokesman to the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua:

…I am not surprised that Tolstoy’s thesis fascinates Reuben because as a practicing journalist, I had also interrogated the place of greed in our national life, using the same thesis. But now, from the vantage position of someone who can see both sides of the divide, I think there are some lessons being ignored. For those who did not read Reuben last week on the “primitive acquisitiveness of the Nigerian Leadership elite” and who may not be familiar with Tolstoy’s writing which informed the essay, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” is the story of a poor but seemingly contented farmer who eavesdropped on a conversation between his wife and her sister married to a city merchant. From here, let’s take a little bit from the book:

Pakhom, the master of the house, was lying on the top of his stove and he listened to the women’s chatter. “It is perfectly true,” thought he. “Busy as we are from childhood tilling mother earth, we peasants have no time to let any nonsense settle in our heads. Our only trouble is that we haven’t land enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!” The women finished their tea, chatted a while about dress, and then cleared away the tea-things and lay down to sleep. But the Devil had been sitting behind the stove, and had heard all that was said. He was pleased that the peasant’s wife had led her husband into boasting, and that he had said that if he had plenty of land he would not fear the Devil himself. “All right,” thought the Devil. “We will have a tussle. I’ll give you land enough; and by means of that land I will get you into my power.”

The Devil granted Pakhom’s wish. He got a chance to acquire as much land as he wanted by marking out its perimeters on foot but the catch was that he had to be back to where he started before sunset. He however got greedy such that by the time he felt he had acquired enough land, there was no time for him to return and he was already exhausted. He couldn’t make it back to where he started. He eventually slumped and died and was buried like any other mortal on a piece of land not exceeding six feet!

What Reuben sought to illustrate with Pakhom’s story is the greed in public office and the evident rot in our society which he ties to that greed. While I agree with Reuben to the extent that we can see a direct correlation between the opulence of a few elite and the poverty of our people I fail to agree with his summation that many of the otherwise good people who join government only to come out with serious moral deficit simply do so on account of personal greed.

Incidentally, there are two literary works, also very popular with the Aspen Leadership series, which I consider important to interrogate this issue. The first is “No Longer at Ease” by Chinua Achebe which tells the story of a brilliant young Nigerian who was given a scholarship by his community to study Law in the UK during the colonial days. He went, bagged his degree in English rather than in Law and came back home to secure a top job in the civil service. He, however met a decadent society in which corruption was seen as a way of life and decided he was not going to be part of the rot.

For a while, he resisted the pressure but a combination of unpleasant circumstances forced his hands. First, he had problems paying back the loans he took from his community and there were implacable foes. Then he had problems with a woman he wanted to marry who happened to carry a societal stigma. To compound the situation, his mother was dying and he needed money for her medicals. On the weight of all these personal conflicts, Obi Okonkwo succumbed by subverting the lofty ideals he had espoused.

The issue here is the kind of pressure public office holders are subjected to because it is almost as if the society expects a government official to go and steal given the kinds of demands that are made of them. Before I share my own experience, I will use another literature which is also a compelling reading at the Aspen Institute Leadership series. It is George Orwell’s classic, “Shooting an Elephant”, generally regarded as reflections on his time while serving his country in Burma. In the tale, Orwell recounted an incident where a young colonial police officer was summoned to a provincial village to kill a “rogue elephant” which had injured one of the local people. However, upon his arrival, the elephant, far from being wild and on a rampage, was now calm. But the British officer had a gun and a huge crowd had gathered expecting him to kill the elephant:

I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd –seemingly the lead actor of the piece; but I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life trying to impress the “natives,” so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. I had got to shoot the elephant.

From the narrative, the officer had a moral dilemma in that he did not want to kill the elephant. But because the mob wanted him to, he eventually shot the elephant to please them. The point of the story is that we are all sometimes forced into actions which we know to be wrong, to meet the expectations of our friends, our family members, our community, political peers and several other ‘crowds’ that we daily engage in our live. I have been in government for about 17 months now and I cannot recall a day when I have not received about five text messages from persons seeking financial help. The messages are often similar and usually end with details of the bank account I am expected to pay certain sums of money into. I have since discovered it is the same with virtually every public official. These solicitations come from family members, long-term school mates whose names and faces you may not even remember; distant relations and some no relations at all; church members; people from the village, neighbours and casual acquaintances of the spouse. All they request is that you do ‘something’ to help them.

The stories are usually the same: they need money to pay the school fees of their children; to settle hospital bills of dying relations, to feed after days of hunger. They paint pathetic pictures of themselves and their circumstances that one would seem wicked not to want to help. They would remind you of tales from the past and may even refer you to Biblical passages that it could even be because of them that you were placed in the position of trust. They don’t ask you to steal but then you ask, where is the money with which you are expected to help supposed to come from? Unfortunately, this is the kind of pressure public officials are exposed to in our society.

Here, I must make a clarification because there are many politicians who seek public office as a form of investment on which they expect to receive a bountiful return. I am not talking about such characters who loot public treasury without any pang of conscience. My disquisition is on those who go into public office with the intent of making positive contributions yet come out with their integrity battered. I believe that in some of such cases the society must share part of the blame. What Orwell’s elephant story teaches is that there is a form of complicity from the society in some of the primitive accumulative tendencies we have seen over the years. That explains why some of our big time crooks still draw huge crowds from their people comprising mostly those who benefited from their perfidy.

All said, the lesson from the foregoing is that the ultimate responsibility for one’s actions and integrity rests with the individual. In Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”, while the young British officer may have found himself in a difficult situation, he clearly had a choice between following his own inclinations or that of the crowd of natives. My view is that if we all remember, like Tolstoy tells us, that “whichever way a man goes, he is destined for no more than six feet of land or worse, the crematorium”, we will think twice next time we have that elephant within our shooting range. That is the message for everyone.

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