Thanks to that vibrant diasporic online medium, Sahara Reporters, which ferreted out the amazing deal; civil society activists and the media, the purchase of two bulletproof cars for the use of the aviation minister, Stella Oduah, at the soar away cost of N255m, instead of its true cost of N60 million or thereabout, remains front page news.
If Captain Fola Akinkuotu, the Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, has his way, all of those workers who leaked information about the outrageous and insensitive purchase would have been fired by now and sent to jail. By extension, all newspapers and television channels that mainstreamed the story would have been proscribed and their editors tried for treason. Alas! Cases of the criminalised hounding the innocent and the noble do not happen only in novels and theatres; they abound right here in Nigeria.
Isn’t it food for thought that it took several days for anyone in government to notice the scandal or say anything about it? As this column is being sent to the works the authoritative responses from the executive branch are the querying of Oduah by President Goodluck Jonathan and the setting up of an internal three-man committee to “probe” the minister. Oduah’s reference to a bidding process contained in her defence made public on Wednesday is unconvincing for as philosophers say, you can infer a process from the outcome. In other words the outrageously inflated cost of the cars renders nonsensical whatever the so-called due process was observed by NCAA. Would it not have been decent for the minster to resign while investigations are being conducted into the outrageous scam? Is there not the possibility that, considering the shifting and absurd justifications offered by the NCCA for the purchase, vital documents can be tampered with while the minister remains at her desk? How genuine are investigations conducted in such circumstances?
True, trial by the media is often a travesty of justice; nonetheless, a government determined to wipe clean a national slate choked with daylight robberies by state officials would have acted with dispatch if only to limit the political damage to itself and to contradict the impression that the sort of impunity that Oduahgate represents is a national policy.
Of course, very few people would have raised eyebrows, if the money so callously expended on two luxury cars were private funds. The only point of interest in that case would be if the funds were legitimately acquired by the citizen in question. But these are public funds and the questions and queries keep coming. Were the funds appropriated by our lawmakers in the 2013 budget? Was the purchase bid for as required by law? How did such huge amount become mysteriously and easily available at a time when our hospitals are grounded by strike and our public universities shut down for the fourth month because government says there is no money to pay legitimate allowances? Even the Ministry of Aviation is said to be broke. If so, who took the decision that this was just the right time to showcase, in a manner of speech, that there are two Constitutions in Nigeria; one for the masses; the other for elected officials?
True, this is not an isolated case of ostentation and possible theft in the name of personal security or convenience by our public officials. As Joel Nwokeoma reminded us in a write-up on Wednesday in The PUNCH, Nigeria has one of the largest presidential fleets in the world. Nonetheless, each case counts either in confirming or truncating a culture of impunity. The way and manner Oduahgate is resolved will have implications for national morality and for the traumatised psyche of Nigerians who see their country’s wealth going down the bottomless pit of the insatiable appetites of a few officials in the name of democracy. If Oduah bows out honourably in order not to pre-empt ongoing investigations into the scandal that has rocked the nation this past week, she will be creating a trendsetting norm, a game-changer that can advance the anti-corruption agenda beyond its current stupor. Such a step might redound to the image of an administration that many have written off as blissfully indifferent to, if not complicit in, large scale abuse of office and scandal that beggars belief. If she decides to ride the storm with the tacit support of the powers that be, it will doom the prospects of Nigeria ever getting out of its current miasma.
As Walter Carrington, a former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, pointed out in a recent lecture at the University of Ilorin, corruption and insecurity are fast robbing Nigeria of its true potential as an economic tiger and player on the world stage. This is probably why reports that Nigeria has been elevated to a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council did not elicit the cheer and celebration that should have normally accompanied the diplomatic foray. If for no other reason than that the world is not likely to take us seriously because of those disorders and dysfunctions that rob us of soft power and moral wherewithal.
If we employ Oduahgate to inquire into the state of horizontal accountability, by which I mean the efficiency of those institutions of government mandated to act as checks and balances to official extravagance, a chill descends upon every discerning Nigerian. In other words, are there no internal processes for checking a minister or director general bent on running her ministry or agency down by reckless spending? Are processes such as audit mechanisms and transparency requirements for making purchases totally non-existent? Must we forever depend on the accidental discovery of abuse by eagle eyed journalists and the scoops of reporters to sanitise Nigeria?
President Jonathan once promised to build institutions, as part of his transformation agenda but Oduahgate, which is a metaphor for astonishing impunity, does not show that our institutions are functioning properly or are being revitalised in any sense of the word.
The anti-corruption agenda will remain an amusing Nollywood fixture so long as it is up to the Femi Falanas of this world to cry foul after the pigeons have escaped; rather than as should be the case, watchdog institutions of government preventing daring acts of moral perfidy on a regular and routine basis. This is what any transformation agenda worth that name should be about.
Talking of rolling back the tide of corruption, Nigeria is still very much mired in the woods. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has become comatose; once revered, it has been fully reinserted into the spoils-sharing arrangements for which Nigerian government is notorious. The state and local governments do not even talk about corruption and how to fight it. There, the governors, godfathers and local government chairmen are in their element, having a field day. The search light is hardly ever beamed on the Pandora’s Box of subnational (state) governments; there is convenient national amnesia about official banditry at those levels.
Time is running out for this generation to cleanse the Aegean Stable and turn things around. Let us make Oduahgate the definitive turning point for the task of reinventing Nigeria; if government will not take the lead, civil society should.