The Long Road from Rome

By Akin Osuntokun

“Corruption in the Senate of Rome was a prevalent issue throughout the history of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. Senators would often accept bribes from wealthy individuals, foreign ambassadors, or even other senators to influence their decision-making. Senators would use their influence to secure positions of power or prestigious appointments for their family members, regardless of qualifications or merit”. 

“Moreover, the Senate was also known for its lavish lifestyles and extravagant spending. Senators often embezzled public funds for personal gain, enriching themselves at the expense of the Roman people”. The widespread bribery, nepotism, political manipulation, and financial misconduct undermined the integrity and effectiveness of the Senate as a governing body. These corrupt practices played a role in the decline and eventual fall of the Roman Empire”.

The behavioural pattern sketched above was typical of the Senate of Rome over two thousand years ago. Yet were I not to reveal this information, it can be mistakenly assumed that it is all about the primitive behaviour of the 10th Senate of Nigeria. In the wake of the 2023 general elections, we have witnessed the iconic personification of corruption by the three organs of government, especially the Judiciary and the National Assembly. I have always argued that it is impossible to have a corrupt executive without a corrupt Parliament and a corrupt Judiciary and vice-versa. It is a systemic crisis in which they are all implicated. 

Thanks to the principle of Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances. Notionally and in the anticipation of any of them going rogue, the three organs are separate and intended to serve as checks against any tendentious deviant behaviour of one another. A dysfunctional society ensues where all of them have gone rogue and a vicious cycle of degenerate behaviour rules the nest. A corrupt Executive cannot call a corrupt Judiciary to order. Neither can a corrupt Judiciary call a corrupt Parliament to order. 

This is the interpretation of the persistently high ranking of Nigeria on the ladder of worldwide corruption by the Transparency International, TI. The peculiar dimension of corruption in Nigeria today is that it is not the revenue generated by Nigeria that is being plundered, it is the money borrowed internally and from the international community. 

The Nigerian debt abyss is summed up in the excerpts that follows. “The ICIR shows that as of June 30 2023, Nigeria owes the World Bank $14.5 billion, according to data from the Debt Management Office. Nigeria’s debt to China increased from $3.93bn as of June 30, 2022, to $4.73bn as of June 30, 2023, showing an increase of $800m in one year. Nigeria’s total public debt reached N87. 91 trillion by the end of the third quarter of 2023”. 

This then begs the question, what is the opinion of the lending agencies and countries to Nigeria, (World Bank, IMF, China) on the routine evidence of the way and manner Nigerian public officials spend the money we borrow from them? 

Does it not amount to double jeopardy to the low income earners who fare far worse under the ‘IMF’ regime and bear no responsibility for bringing Nigeria to this sorry pass? Worst of all is the regular advertisement of the self-enriching criminal abuse of the loans in the public glare.

Since the pipers dictate the tune, why have these pipers (loaners) fail to exercise their right of first refusal and insist that their money should (for instance) not be used to buy exorbitant state of the art SUVS for the pleasure of four hundred and sixty Nigerians? How does the claim by the IMF that it “works with governments to ensure responsible spending” square up with this kind of spending? Do they not know that the reasons their prescriptions do not work is attributable to the nugatory effect of rampant public sector corruption and impunity. If they know then what are they doing about it?

How does building a fifteen million dollars Vice Presidential Lodge rise to the bar of IMF “responsible spending”. Where is the responsible spending in funding the opulence and conspicuous consumption of a few in a situation in which Nigeria is rated the poverty capital of the World?. After the damage has been done, they will then turn around to blame the country for what was foreseeable right from the beginning. 

It is a behaviour that hacks back to colonialism. The colonial powers would couple together a disparate group of nationalities to form a country, in the full knowledge that the potential to fail far exceeds the probability of success. After the ‘country’ has duly fulfilled the potential to fall, they will then assume the posture of condescending detachment as if they were not the authors of the failure in the first place. As Anthony Kirk Green remorsefully noted “the tragedy of 1967 is that many of its seeds were not, as is often claimed, sown in October or even July 1966, but in the 1950s or, as some see it, in 1914 or maybe in 1900 itself.”

In its 2022 tracking report, the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, ICPC, published its investigations into how the Constituency projects budget item of the Nigerian national assembly are utilised. It reads like a compendium of the escapades of a 419 syndicate. Owing to space constraints, I can only scratch the top of the iceberg. 

‘Records have it that at least N2 trillion has been spent on constituency projects from 2003 to date, even as Sunday Vanguard gathered that N95 billion and N100 billion had been allocated to the projects every year and shared among the 109 senators and 360 members of the House of Representatives’

“In addition to the N100 billion appropriated annually for constituency projects, the National Assembly embedded additional projects into mandate budgets of MDAs. This is done to increase the project portfolios of concerned legislators and their influence on MDAs. The value of the insertion was in billions. Meanwhile, many of the awarded constituency projects across Nigeria have not started, been abandoned or named but are not in existence”.

In all of this contemporary perversion, the most unique individual is the Senate President, Godswill Akpabio. One of the most negatively predictable public official in Nigeria, his public career has been a study in the utility of public corruption for upward mobility in the ladder of political leadership in Nigeria.

A few years back, of all the potential choices former President Muhammadu Buhari could make as Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, it was Akpabio he headhunted for the position-with predictable consequences. ‘Barely a month after his appointment, Akpabio clashed with the acting managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission, Joy Nunieh. Ms Nunieh, who was subsequently relieved of her position, accused Akpabio of graft and sexual harassment. Five months after he exited office in 2015, Nigeria’s anti-graft agency, the EFCC, arrested Akpabio over an alleged theft of N108bn ($227m) belonging to Akwa Ibom State’. 

Given the conspicuous stench that was bound to emanate from his election to the office of Senate President, I offered the unsolicited counsel that it was non-strategic of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu to sponsor Akpabio for the position. It turned out I was shooting blind concerning the ulterior motive behind his adoption as Senate President. 

I have been subsequently schooled that  “the charges from seven years ago could now become a tool in the hands of the executive branch. Some political analysts, including Olanrewaju Suraju, chairman of the Civil Society Network Against Corruption, suggest that the executive could use these graft charges to push through policies, effectively compromising the legislative process”. 

In the account of institutional perversion in Nigeria, the story of how Akpabio turned and twisted his way to the Senate is in a class all by itself. In what must go down in history as a lowliest turn of the Supreme Court, he suborned the highest Court in the land to sanction the proposition that it was all well and good to run for the Presidency and Senate at one and the same time. That having lost the pursuit of the former, you are simultaneously entitled to go after the other.

In diabolical humour, former Governor of Imo state Rochas Okorocha who equally contested for the Presidency, wondered aloud “I was there in the field with you running for President, I never knew how you were able to meander, leaving some of us. Next time you must teach me how to do that.”. The combination of Akpabio and the Nigerian Senate has proven to be a marriage made in heaven. No deed is too profane nor outrageous for the Senate to contemplate. In anticipation of the debt Nigeria is about to incur, their first order of duty was to self-allocate seventy billion naira on the purchase of choice SUVs to “support their working conditions”. 

Senator Abdul Ningi is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a reform minded public official. His outing was one of those instances in which thieves could find no honour among themselves. Regardless of the motive, the more of such resultant whistle blow, the better for the Nigerian public. He alleged “For the first time in Nigerian history, today we are operating two different budgets. One budget was approved by the National Assembly and signed by President Bola Tinubu, and the one was implemented by the presidency. The one approved by us is N25tn while the one operated by the Federal Government is N28tn.”

There are a few loose ends here. First is that Senator Abdul Ningi cannot just wake up one morning and cook this up, no matter the motives. If he did, then he is a good candidate for Aro mental hospital in Abeokuta. Neither does this corruption prone Senate deserve to be given the benefit of doubt. Where the honesty and probity of these lawmakers are concerned, you bet on them at your utmost peril. Certainly, not when, Senator Jarigbe Agom Jarigbe (at the same session) gave us a heads up. “if we want to go into those issues, all of us are culpable. Some senators here, so-called senior senators, got N500 million each. I am a ranking senator, I didn’t get?”

If terror keeps escalating in Nigeria, it is simply following the logic that corruption and terrorism coexist in a mutually reinforcing relationship. Speaking directly to the Nigerian dilemma, Sarah Chayes argues ‘Governments that ostensibly fight terror, may actually generate more dire security crises than they curb as a result of corrupt governance practices’.

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