A president and his war on corruption By Mohammed Haruna

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Of all the possible reasons for the dismal failure of the country’s successive regimes’ wars against corruption, the most obvious seems to be their selectivity.

It would seem that none of these wars has been more selective than General Olusegun Obasanjo’s, following his return to power in 1999 as an elected leader, if only because democracies, unlike the military dictatorship he succeeded, are supposed to be defined by the rule of laws and regulations rather by the arbitrary use of power. Then, of course, there was the image of a crusading statesman he had cultivated during the 20-year hiatus between his two reigns.

It seems pretty obvious from the way President Goodluck Jonathan has pursued his own crusade against corruption that he is not in a hurry to rid himself of his benefactor’s dubious legacy of applying one set of rules for those he likes or doesn’t dislike and another for his enemies, real or apparent.

The big test here is, of course, the on-going trillion Naira oil subsidy racketeering. And the signs are that the president may yet fail it because among the big putative culprits are some of his closest friends and allies.

The president may yet surprise the world by demonstrating the courage needed to wield the big stick against all offenders, friends and foes alike. However, based on past reckoning it would be a big, but pleasant, surprise if he does.

Among the less significant but still notable tests he has failed in his war against corruption so far, three stand out, the first because it is an unprecedented display of nepotism by any Nigerian leader to date, and the other two because they are possibly the worst examples of the flagrant violation of public service rules that has typified the country’s government since 1999.

These other two concern the leaderships of the National Directorate of Employment (NDE) and the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), our equivalent of the American CIA. In both cases the heads should have left service at least a couple of years ago on account both of their ages and years of service as stipulated by the country’s public service regulations – 60 0r 35 whichever comes first.

Early this year, Abubakar Mohammed, the Director-General of the NDE, along with some members of his management, was accused of embezzling 655 million Naira by an Abuja law firm, Victory and Rose Associates.

Responding to the petition the firm had filed before the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mohammed said in a supplement in the Newswatch of February 27, that it was “nothing but blackmail, mischief and clear exhibition of ignorance about how the NDE works.”

If the intention of the petitioners was to get him sacked, they have clearly failed; the man is still sitting pretty on his executive chair almost six months on. Indeed he’s had his term renewed after the petition. This could very well have been because, as he said, the petition was simply blackmail, mischief and ignorance of how his agency functions.

What, however, is certainly not blackmail and mischief is that he should have since left the organisation, petition or no; like me, Mohammed is over 60 years old and like me he graduated from Ahmadu Bello University’s then Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences – it’s since been split in two – in 1975, that is 37 years ago, two years above the mandatory ceiling of 35 years of service.

As with Mohammed so it is with Ambassador Ezekiel Olaniyi Oladeji, the Director-General of the NIA. Oladeji replaced Ambassador E.E. Imolie in October 2009 in the wake of the controversy that surrounded the initial refusal of the Nigerian High Commission in London to renew Nasir el-Rufa’i’s passport at a time the controversial former minister of the Federal Capital Territory was on self-exile.

Going by the guidelines of the controversial Orasonya’s civil service reform three years ago, Oladeji was not even eligible for appointment as DG when he was so appointed. At that time he’d served as a director for 13 years, seven over the eight the Orasonya reform had stipulated as a maximum anyone should serve as director before either moving up as permanent secretary or retiring compulsorily.

As if this flagrant violation of the new rule was not enough, Oladeji has been left on his seat over two years after he had reached the mandatory retirement age of 60 in March 2010.

Mohammed and Oladeji are not the only beneficiaries of government’s longstanding violations of public service rules. Year in year out since 1999, senior military commanders and police chiefs, for example, have been given top jobs in their services long after they should have retired. This selective application of public service rules has had devastating impact on the morale of our soldiers and police.

The difference between the case of Mohammed/Oladeji and past violations of public service rules is that the two provide government with the opportunity to prove it has become serious about its commitment to fight corruption – for, the selective application of one’s own rules of the game is no less corrupt than stealing or fraud.

Which brings us to last week’s appointment of Dame Patience, the country’s First Lady, as a Permanent Secretary in Bayelsa State, her husband’s state.

On the face of it, the state’s governor, Seriake Dickson, has done nothing wrong constitutionally. Section 208 of our Constitution says a governor can hire and fire anyone as the Secretary of his government, as a permanent secretary, as the Head of Service (provided he had reached the rank of perm sec) and as chief executive of any government agency.  And as Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Literature Laureate, has argued in defence of her appointment, “the lady is not constitutionally disqualified from the office.”

She may not. But then the issue is not simply a matter of technicality, the ground of her appointment which, even in itself, is not without flaw; in principle governors may hire or fire anyone as a perm sec, but due to time-honoured practice they have hired only senior civil servants who have proved their mettles over many years. As we all know, Dame Patience opted out of her state’s civil service in 1999 when her husband became the deputy governor of the state.

So the issue here clearly is much more of morality than technically. Clearly she was appointed as perm sec simply because she is the country’s First Lady. Worse, she was appointed not for service but for self-aggrandizement. And she herself, in her inimitable oratory, provided the evidence after she was sworn in last Friday.

The Office of First Ladies, she said, should be inserted in our Constitution, something unheard of anywhere in the world, even in Africa where, as The Economist Christmas double edition of December 18, 2004, said in an article on “Powerful Women in Africa,” – an article that someone should read to the First Lady – “most African women’s best hope of gaining power is to acquire it through a man.”

“We the wives of political office holders,” she said unabashedly after her swearing in, “if our names are not included in the constitution and our husbands retire with benefits, the constitution should also look into the issues of wives of political appointees. We should be included so that we too can retire with benefits. With that we can enjoy our career.”

But, she added in apparent afterthought, since it was highly unlikely that her request would ever be countenanced, she saw nothing wrong with renewing her career as a civil servant. “Why now won’t I pursue my career that I am sure of?” she asked, obviously rhetorically.

The correct answer, contrary to her position, is simple; she ended her own civil service career 13 years ago and it is immoral to go back to it at all – never mind doing so at the top – precisely because she is the country’s First Lady. As an old saw goes, those who go to equity should do so with clean hands.

The blatant nepotism of appointing a First Lady into public office for no reason other than the mere accident that the man she married became a president or governor or whatever, cannot be more iniquitous.

It is not too late for the president to ask his wife to resign from the appointment, just like it is not too late for him to fire Mohammed and Oladeji from heading their different agencies.

If he does that it will be one sure sign that he is beginning to get serious with his commitment to fight corruption.


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