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Sunday, 15 September 2013

Sonala Olumhense: A Question of Character

Last week, nine Nigeria Ministers were fired, victims of the power struggle within and around the governing Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).Regrettably, the Ministers were not relieved of their posts in order to strengthen the cabinet.  Were that the case, several more Ministers ought to have been shown the door.
It was particularly shocking to see the Minister of National Planning, Shamsudeen Usman, humiliated.  In an article in March 2012, I urged him not to wait to be fired because his government had lied about the transformation agenda that the Minister told Nigerians in October 2011 to expect.
Mr. Usman had said that the agenda would address our country's notorious ethical vacuum.
"In all societies, if you don't have control systems that catch and punish those who steal funds, they will continue to steal," he told the press.  "These are part of the structural issues that would be addressed by the Transformation Agenda…We have to emphasize the rule of law, judicial system and the policing system.  When you know that there is a 99 percent chance you would be caught when you steal and 100 percent chance that you would go to jail, you won't steal."
But that was untrue.  The so-called transformation agenda completely evaded hand-to-hand engagement with this critical subject.  It emerged as a superficial concept meant to deceive the gullible and the weak.
The proof is that in the "transformation" era, and contrary to the postulations of the former Minister, the rule of law is a laughable concept.  A casual glance around confirms that if you steal enough, there is a 100 percent chance you will be awarded a National Honour, not jail, as Dipreye Alamieyeseigha has proved.  The transformation agenda emerges as the original 419: it sounds good, but when you look at it, it is not just full of holes, it is a hole.
That is why I hoped that Usman, a proud and experienced product of the Ahmadu Bello University and the London School of Economics and Political Science, would recognize that he had betrayed his promised, and acknowledge it.
He did not, and did not step aside.  The charade has continued, with key officials of the government mouthing platitudes and disinformation about a baseless and fraudulent scheme.  By remaining in the government, Usman helped consolidate the conspiracy, even if he did not help conceive of it.  Last week, he paid the price for this double life, and I hope he spends his time calculating official deception percentages.
This is the central issue in Nigeria's public life: absence of character.  As I said of the federal cabinet at the time, "It must be a terrible room to be in when everyone knows what the real problem is, and also that nobody has the commitment to do anything about it.   That room is hell, not purgatory."
It is no surprise that the list of the departing Ministers did not contain the name of Petroleum Minister Diezani Allison-Maduekwe.  It did not contain the name of the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Adoke Bello.
Yet when it comes to corruption, Allison-Madueke is probably the world's most prominent cabinet Minister.  Almost every month, a new burst of ethical allegations envelopes her.
Now, an allegation is not the same as an indictment, but it does not mean innocence either, a point that a transparent government ought to be aware of.  Despite that, not once has the federal government investigated any of the allegations against her, either to prove critics wrong or the Minister right.  Not once has the Minister herself tendered her resignation or demonstrated any concern about her reputation.  Her accusers can therefore not be faulted, and the government comes across as nurturing extensive corruption.
The same scenario applies to Mr. Bello, who has been accused not only of corrupt enrichment but also of manipulating the power of the Ministry of Justice in favour of injustice and impunity.   Again, neither the government nor Minister Bello seems to think that there is a serious problem when the government's Number One lawyer is being accused of unethical and criminal behavior.
It is hardly surprising that these have become two of Nigeria's most powerful cabinet figures.  None has the character to resign.  None is concerned to defend the honour of the family whose name they bear.
Family: Once upon yesterday, families proudly defended their reputation.  You did not do as you pleased outside the home because you had to protect your family's name.
Not today.  Parents do not seem to care when a family member is emptying raw sewage into the living room.  As long as there is plenty of money, men do not prevail on their wives to respect the name they received at marriage.  Women do not care what ailment their husbands bring home as long as it is wrapped in money.
This is why most Nigerian Ministers would rather die than resign: we cannot bear the thought of not continuing in power, even when we know we have lost the ability to serve productively.  We cannot stand not being in power even when it is clear that what is going on is wholesale deception of the people.  Children do not question why their parents are being called terrible names in the press.
Had the motive behind last week's sacking of nine Ministers been the best interest of the Nigerian people, Allison-Madueke and Bello would have led the list. But then, if character and self-respect counted, both Ministers might have resigned their appointments a long time ago and focused on defending their reputation.
Let me end with one more name from the cabinet: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister.  When I wrote elsewhere that she is the weakest link in the room, I was attacked by superficial commentators, including an old friend of mine who describes himself as a journalist by day but moonlights in one of her offices by night.
My point is not complicated: the Double Duty Minister is not the weakest link in the cabinet because of the inadequacy of her preparation for the job.  I labeled her the weakest link because she arrived as the Minister best-suited to make a major impact but chose to compromise with the ethical vacancy that keeps Nigeria underperforming, underachieving and under-developing.
As a result of this ethical emptiness, Oby Ezekwesili, who was Okonjo-Iweala's former colleague in the Olusegun Obasanjo cabinet as well as at the World Bank, has famously challenged the character of the current administration, calling for a debate at one point.  Okonjo-Iweala's response: silence.
Similarly, on allegations of corruption against Allison-Madueke, Okonjo-Iweala's response: silence.
The point is that it is disingenuous to preach economic theory and 'transformation' and pretend your government can succeed despite the ethical vacuum of which it is a key part.  More than anyone else, Minister Okonjo-Iweala knows that "jobs and pro-jobs growth," transformation and Vision 2020 are meaningless clichés in the face of a culture where the locusts tend the farm.
It is a character question.  The central Nigeria dilemma is that if you lack the character to confront the most fundamental issues, it does not matter what you are capable of, or who you think you are.  People such as Usman and Okonjo-Iweala must choose their destiny carefully, because sometimes, retrenchment, like revolution, comes suddenly.


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