By Ehi Braimah
MON 28 JUNE, 2021-theGBJournal- If you are holding public office at any level in Nigeria, the expectation is that you must be rich. How rich? Well that would be difficult to tell because no one has access to the officers’ bank accounts.
Don’t go back to your community empty handed and tell them stories; it will not be accepted. You will be described as miserly or stingy. In fact, the gossip that will be on everyone’s lip will be that you have “super glue” on your palms.
Just be prepared to bring back a lorry load of cash and share the money each time you go back home. That is when your family and friends will hail and describe you as a “correct person.” This scenario plays out every day and it has become culturally acceptable.
The pressures of public office are many and it is the reason why some people refuse to serve in government. I know a journalist who was invited by the governor of his state to serve as a media adviser. He turned down the offer. When his uncle and other family members heard the story, he was called unprintable names.
“So, when it now our turn to come and chop government money, you turned down the job,” the uncle, obviously angry, told his nephew. The uncle kept malice with his nephew until he died. Family members have also not forgiven the journalist who turned down the government job because, as far as they are concerned, he violated the turn-by-turn rule and they are poorer for it.
Every government appointment is seen as an opportunity to “lift families out of poverty”. It is true that there is poverty and hunger around us with double digit inflation making life miserable. It is becoming increasingly difficult for families to survive. Every food item in the market is expensive.
So when you’re a big man in government, your people expect you to make “extra money” to take care of them. It has become a standard operating procedure. The day it is reported that you have been offered a high profile appointment in the public service, expect to receive over 5,000 congratulatory messages on your phone in one day!
It is important to note that we have career civil servants who work until retirement age: when they attain the age of 60 years or after spending 35 years in service – whichever comes first. We also have those (mainly political appointees) who are invited to serve in the public service for tenured appointments.
For this category, it has always been a way of dishing out party patronage — mostly determined by the henchmen in the party – to appreciate party members who supported the party to win at the polls. This rule applies to any party in power.
In terms of remuneration, what public officers earn — depending on their rank — is an open secret. But the jury is out there that public officers are “rich people”, and that some of them are actually “very rich”.
Right from provincial councils to state governments and all the way to the federal level, there is evidence of profligacy – wasteful spending has become the order of the day. The idea that “it is our turn to chop” is always at play. It results in desperation to amass wealth at all cost.
There are constant allegations of budget padding and inflated invoices in ministries, departments and agencies. How do you clean up the mess if the entire rank and file of public officers, as it would appear, dip their hands into the public till?
It can be argued that the pressure from family and friends is why we have widespread corruption in the public service but when you break it down, you will find that it is a self-serving argument.
In truth, what occurs is a selfish manipulation of procurement processes for hidden profits –and it is a big industry. The preferred tactic has been to compromise government procurement processes. Originally designed to be transparent, procurement processes have become a huge joke and they are never implemented due to the greedy buccaneers in the service.
After manipulating procurement procedures to suit themselves by exclusion strategies, it has also been alleged that government officials arrange to collect cash — usually in US dollars – ahead of project execution.
The cesspit of corruption grows in leaps and bounds making stealing in government’s name the big industry that it is. They seize all forms of businesses by ensuring government remains the biggest buyer. The allegations against public officers even extend to their partners in crime in some religious organisations where they hide their loot from the taxman.
Activities in the industry include undermining our productive capacity by recycling funds in the form of over bloated import bills. Do the maths yourself. We have 774 local government areas with chairmen and councilors. Look at the 36 states and Abuja and imagine for a moment the number of MDAs in each state and how much is spent every month. Please do not forget we also have state houses of assemblies and the stories around appropriation of funds each year are well known.
At the federal level, the story is not different. The National Assembly, for example, is in urgent need of renovation works, according to Ahmed Lawan, the Senate President. Close to N40 billion is required for this purpose. The bill of quantities may have been exaggerated but this is just is one piece of the puzzle.
The Senate has 109 senators while the House of Representatives has 360 members. Actually, getting a seat in the National Assembly is a major prize and it explains why politicians will do anything to get there. The package of benefits is a treasure.
A senator earns over half a billion naira in four years and it excludes “mouth-watering gifts” that come in the line of duty. The appropriation for constituency projects is also a big deal for our law makers in Abuja.
In fact, members of the National Assembly know how to take care of themselves; the evidence abounds in the national budget each year and no one dares to pinch one kobo from their money except you’re looking for trouble.
The cost of running the National Assembly from the yearly appropriation is humongous. Except we want to continue to live in denial, we do not need the Red and Green Chambers. Nigeria can operate a unicameral legislature on part time basis. Our lawmakers will most certainly frown at this idea for obvious reasons. Which one among them will be bold enough to move for this amendment in the Constitution?
It is not true that Nigeria is poor as it has been reported in the media lately. The problem is that we have entrenched a culture of waste and we now believe it is normal. We have enough to meet our needs but certainly not to meet our greed. Corruption is aided by wasteful spending and lack of accountability.
If we can cut down the cost of governance, we do not need to borrow. Public funds come mainly from taxes but the process of appropriation, as we have discovered over the years, is heavily abused to serve the interest of a few people.
Interestingly, the Treasury Single Account (TSA) is truly a masterstroke as it has helped to streamline government revenue into a single account. I commend the initiative but it does not go far enough.
The billionaires in the public service know themselves. If you want to become a billionaire, it is easy. Become a public officer and position yourself strongly in the existing network of billionaires. Then expect favour when contracts are awarded; the one they call kickback. Even when some of them die, they leave behind billions in their bank accounts and family members including wives or husbands may never know of such hidden treasures.
The system is so water-tight that evidence is hard to come by except what you glean from whispers and body languages. Perish the thought of a kiss-and-tell-all exclusive; that job is well cut out for the financial crimes commission.
Here’s what they do with their billions: marry more wives and shower them with cash and other gifts, acquire a fleet of exotic cars, invest in choice real estates; embark on regular medical tourism, unforgettable vacations and sending their children to Ivy League schools. I’m not too sure they even think of investing some of the billions at home to employ jobless Nigerians and grow our GDP. That would be a risky and foolish idea.
I could be accused of being jealous of the wealth of our public servants. So be it. In fact, the argument can be stretched further: if I were to be in their shoes, I will also “chop and clean mouth”. The popular cliché is that if you cannot beat them, join them.
This is not entirely true. Some Nigerians don’t join them. It will be unfair to say all public servants reach out for the cash register to help themselves when others are not looking. I will say it any day: we have good people in government with conscience but they are in the minority and it doesn’t matter.
I know it is not easy but let them continue to resist every temptation thrown at them to compromise their integrity. We can make Nigeria work for us with the right attitude.
Braimah is the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of Naija Times (https://naijatimes.ng)
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