The Verdict By Olusegun Adeniyi. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org
First, I sincerely apologise to my non-Yoruba readers who might feel bothered by the title for today’s piece, especially considering that I could simply have used the word “impunity” which conveys more or less the same meaning. However, what I have found out about the Yoruba language (I guess it is the same with all our local languages) is that certain phrases have far deeper meanings than their literal interpretations. Therefore, when Yoruba people say someone is displaying a behaviour akin to “tani o mu mi”, the kind of impunity being so described carries with it a certain sense of hubris for the perpetrator(s) and danger for the larger society.
Ever since the story of the purchase of two armoured cars worth about N255 million by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) broke on saharareporters.com, I have followed the controversy in the media with keen interest. Yet for me, the tragedy is not even in the transaction, as scandalous as it is, but in the official reactions. At a time most people were still prepared to give the Minister of Aviation, Ms. Stella Oduah, the benefit of the doubt, her media assistant, Mr. Joe Obi, went public, arguing that the purchase of the vehicles was a response to the threats made on the minister’s life.
According to Obi, “a lot of entrenched interests felt that they had been dislocated from the sector. The minister began to receive series of threats to her life, but because of the general lack of security in the land, she did not want to raise an alarm but kept it quiet and then decided to protect herself. So those vehicles were purchased in response to the personal threats to her life because of the giant steps she has taken to reposition the sector.” On why two vehicles were needed, Obi said: “normally, you don’t buy one utility vehicle but you buy two at a time because you must have a back-up for public officials. The level of exposure which came with her job warranted the purchase of the vehicles.”
I really do not know what to make of that statement nor that of the coordinating spokesman for aviation agencies, Mr Yakubu Datti, who accused the opposition of trying to bring down a “rising star” of this administration. However, since the responsibility for accountability can never be delegated, the NCAA Director-General, Capt. Fola Akinkuotu, may be the real culprit here, going by the provisions of section 20 of the Public Procurement Act. Unfortunately, it would appear that neither the DG nor his minister ever heard of what is commonly referred to as the “front-page” test in confronting ethical dilemmas. For their benefit, the “test” requires officials to ask themselves this salient question before taking crucial decisions: “how would I feel if the course of action I am considering were reported on the front page of a widely read newspaper or on an online blog?”
What such introspection does is that it serves as a caution against irresponsible behaviour in the public arena. But in our country today, most officials tend to believe their actions are beyond public scrutiny so long as they are in the good books of the appointive authorities. That perhaps explains why a few days after Oduah’s cars-for-protection story broke, Akinkuotu called a press conference to announce that the Federal Government was concerned not about the misuse of public funds but rather about how the information got leaked to the public. A defiant Akinkuotu, who evidently cannot understand that he has by his action abused public trust, declared with magisterial authority that the NCAA was “in the process of trying to find the source of this leakage and I am very concerned about it. I am not saying that they broke into our office, but they obtained the information illegally. It is criminal...”
I must state at this point that despite what has happened, we should not diminish the achievements of Oduah in the aviation sector. And whatever the misgivings about her recent statement following the Associated Airlines plane crash, I believe it was more a case of mis-speak than a display of insensitivity. But I find it difficult to rationalise the purchase by the NCAA of such expensive toys for her official pleasure. I am also worried about the process (or lack of one) that led to the acquisition of these cars; the implications of having an agency over which the minister has oversight buy them; and the little details of whether indeed the vehicles cost as much as the stupendous amount of public money being claimed by the NCAA authorities. Coscharis should also be worried about why almost every public procurement scandal involving vehicles is about the company---from COJA to First Lady Summit and now aviation!
However, the most critical issue in this unfortunate saga is its implication for the credibility of this administration. For instance, in the face of the ASUU strike that has grounded public universities for four months now, how would the federal government convince the lecturers that some of the demands they are making are unrealistic (given the nation’s limited resources and competing demands) when a quarter of a billion Naira was spent to buy two cars for just one minister? How do you justify such profligacy at a time several Nigerian university graduates are unemployed and majority of our people wallow in abject poverty? And then the most pertinent question: what exactly is the meaning of public service when so much resources could be cynically committed to the maintenance of just one official whose personal interest (even if in the guise of security) is deemed to be more important than that of the people on whose behalf she is in office?
Let us be clear about something: this sort of scandal is not limited to the Ministry of Aviation or for that matter, the federal government. It can be located at virtually all levels of government in our country. In fact, majority of the governors spend huge sums of money (sometimes running into billions of Naira) buying state-of-the art automobiles, chartering airplanes and feeding all manner of indulgences and personal vanities at public expenses. So what has actually caused problem for Oduah is not the act itself (as reprehensible as it is) but rather the contempt with which her officials responded to the issue. Yet public office holders who believe in their own invincibility are poor students of history. Malcom Gladwell, famous journalist and author, (remember “The Tipping Point”), made that point rather poignantly in his most recent book, “David and Goliath”. Power, according to Gladwell, has an important limitation. “It has to be seen as legitimate, or else its use has the opposite of its intended effect”, which may then come with dire consequences.
All said, I do not believe that the systemic abuse that is evident in this matter will be resolved with the sack of Oduah by President Goodluck Jonathan who yesterday instituted a probe. That won’t happen anyway and the well-connected minister who is currently in Israel ahead of the president must know that. Besides, on the balance of available evidence, I am of the opinion that it is the NCAA that should actually be held accountable for this sordid drama. But even at that, what has come out quite clearly from the entire transaction is that in the conduct of government business today in our country, we have gone beyond impunity to “tani o mu mi”--a strange place where both the codes of morality and the boundary between right and wrong have simply disappeared. That is what should worry all of us.