OUTSIDE THE BOX BY ALEX OTTI
The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything” Albert Einstein.
One of the imperatives of democracy is that the citizens must always be able to engage their representatives in government, asking them questions and holding them to account at all times. In fact, leadership should report to its true employers, the people. Where this is the case, leadership is beholden to the people, knowing fully well that it can be ‘fired’ by its employers.
Unfortunately, the scenario painted above is hardly the case in many African countries. What we find here is that in many cases, leadership turns itself into sit tight despots, threatening, insulting and bullying anyone who dares to ask questions and wants to hold it to any form of accountability. In the course of doing so, it believes that it would silence the people and plunder the patrimony without responsibility and with no consequence. It is, however, instructive that once the people keep quiet, they wittingly or unwittingly consent to the plundering of its resources and therefore are vicariously culpable, like Albert Einstein aptly stated above. The reason why leadership seems not to care about the people is because it can perpetuate itself in power by hook or crook irrespective of what the people do. One of the ways to do this is through a compromised electoral process using compromised members of the society. But that is a story for another day.
A few weeks ago, the immediate past Commissioner for Finance in Abia State, Mr. Obinna Oriaku, was invited and detained by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on the heels of a petition filed before the Commission by a Company called Ziplon Nigeria Ltd, over a contract entered by the State government in 2014, which the government apparently breached. Also invited was his predecessor, Mr. Phillip Nto. The details as released by Mr. Oriaku, is that the former Governor, T.A.Orji, had signed a consultancy contract with two companies, Ziplon Nigeria Ltd and Mauritz Walton Nigeria Ltd, to be paid 20% and 30% fees respectively, on Paris Club refunds received from the Federal Government.
This means that for any money received under this heading, 50%, yes, half of the money realised, would be paid out as fees to these consultants! He further revealed that before he was appointed a commissioner in 2015, some N8.2b was received as Paris Club refund by the previous government. Strangely, there was no record of what happened to the money.
Under his watch, he went on, the government received N22b, out of which the consultants were asking for N11b as fees.
According to his account by implication, he refused to pay the said sum and for that reason, he was dragged before the EFCC.
In my own capacity as a responsible citizen and key stakeholder in the state, when I waited for about ten days and there was no word from the Government of Okezie Ikpeazu on the matter, I issued a press release where I raised pertinent questions and made demands that I expected the government to respond to. In the release titled “Abia Paris Club Refund: Stealing At An Industrial Scale” I wanted to know the following:
1. What was the role of a consultant, and in this case, consultants, in the process of the federal government making refunds to state governments?
2. If there was any other place in the country where consultancy fees were more than 5% of refunds and wondered why anybody would ordinarily sign away 50% of their money as fees to consultants?
3.That granted that the agreement was signed by the previous government, what effort the present government made to cancel the vexatious contract, since if that was done, the contractor wouldn’t have had the legal basis to institute an action in court nor petition the EFCC?
4. What effort the government was making to confirm what the previous government did with the N8.2b refund which the former Finance Commissioner claimed he did not see any record of how it was used?
5. That the government should take more than passing interest in the matters before the EFCC and the High Court to ensure that the matter was not only muddled up but expanded to include recovery of looted funds from the treasury of the state.
Upon the issue of my press statement, Governor Ikpeazu immediately let loose his attack dogs on me simply for daring to ask questions. His Chief Press Secretary went agog and took to the media, abusing me and calling me all sorts of names. A few hours later, his Commissioner of Information took over, lampooning and insulting me for daring to ask his boss questions about his stewardship and social contract with the people. Interestingly, they said practically everything except that they failed to answer the simple questions I posed. Since those questions remain unanswered till date, they will continue to be asked and the public will continue to wait for their answer.
Abia is a state that has been very badly governed since the return of democracy in 1999. Matters have been made worse since this administration started in 2015. The tragedy is that Abia is also a state that receives so much in federal allocation as an oil producing state. In spite of its relatively huge earnings from oil proceeds every month, Abia’s debt profile, according to the Debt Management Office, has more than doubled from N33.53b in 2015 to N70.57b by March 31,2021. This has been under Ikpeazu’s notorious watch. Despite the bail out funds and Paris Club refunds from the federal government all totalling over N36b, the state has taken its record of indebtedness to its workers to an unconscionable high. For instance, as at June 2021, the following Abia State government institutions have outstanding salaries as follows:
1. Abia State Polytechnic, Aba -27months
2. Abia State College of Education, Technical, Arochukwu- 31months
3. Abia State primary school Teachers- 28months
4. Abia State Secondary School teachers- 18months
5. Abia Health Management Board, 13months
6. Abia Local Government Workers- Between 3-7 months
7. Abia State University Teaching Hospital- 19months
8. Abia State Pensioners- 28 months
With teachers’ salaries, both at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels outstanding for several months, one wonders what the government is expecting from the educational sector of the state. What kind of products are we expecting from schools whose teachers are not being paid? It is sad that this is happening in a State that owes its past glory to huge investments in education and manpower development.
Another serious concern is the non-payment of salaries to medical workers in the state even during this period of medical emergency, where health workers elsewhere are paid extra allowances to keep them focused on saving lives. Just a few days ago, the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors, NARD, threatened to terminate the training of medical students at the Abia State University Teaching Hospital, Aba, over protracted industrial action. According to the News Agency of Nigeria, NAN, the first Vice President of NARD, Dr. Aromo Adejo, in an interview disclosed that NARD would instruct all relevant agencies to stop training medical doctors at Abia Teaching Hospital and withdraw their accreditation forthwith. Dr. Adejo asked a very pertinent question namely, that “if Doctors are always on strike, who is training its medical students?” Again, in the tradition of the Ikpeazu government, one would not expect that the issues raised by Dr. Adejo would be addressed, but the vuvuzelas of the government will take to the media in their kneejerk fashion, to attack the gentleman and rain all sorts of abuses on him.
Now, compare the case of Abia to that of Edo state where one Laba Lawani did a video and posted same on social media with respect to a poor road construction going on in Igarra, Akoko- Edo Local Government of the state. In the video, Mr. Lawani exposed the shoddy construction going on as he used his bare hands to remove the asphalt already poured on the road and also dismembered the drains with his bare hands. While doing so, he asked that if the government was not ready to build quality roads, it should not bother at all. This was said to be just a 200-metre road attracted by the Member representing the Akoko-Edo constituency in the Federal House of Representatives, Peter Akpatason at the cost of N360m.
The video naturally went viral. While attempts were made by Mr. Akpatason to defend himself, the governor of Edo State, Mr. Godwin Obaseki, stepped in quickly. He dispatched his deputy for an on-the-spot assessment of the road. He further directed that the state agency take over the construction of the road as he agreed that the construction was indeed substandard. He did not stop there. He ordered the arrest of the contractor for frittering away public funds and asked that the EFCC and ICPC should investigate the scam. He also thanked Mr. Lawani for blowing the whistle on the contractor, without it, the government would not have known. He encouraged citizens to ask questions about the quality of service the government is giving them as it is their right to do so.
From the foregoing, it is evident that Abia and Edo are two administrations in the same country approaching the issue of governance differently. One does not need a soothsayer or analyst to determine that they would achieve different results. The first point to note here is that leaders must realise that they are accountable to the people. Power, they say, belongs to the people. When you muzzle the people or intimidate them such that they cannot ask questions of the government, then the collapse of that Administration is near.
Secondly, it is by asking questions that the attention of government is drawn to issues that it might not have paid attention to. It also encourages dialogue and communication. Except in a despotic government, people must be allowed to express their opinions. The saying that “when you drive people away from the arena where opinions are expressed, they only go to converge at the cellar where revolutions are born” cannot be more apt in the Abia situation. It is also in this light that one fails to see the reason behind all attempts being made by government to regulate the social media and all other forms of communication. Opinion must be free, and people should be allowed to express them. Again, throughout history, attempts to focus on the messenger and not the message has not worked and cannot work in this instance. The only thing is that those who attempt, temporarily take away attention from the subject while the subject refuses to go away.
I must therefore commend Governor Godwin Obaseki for encouraging his citizens to participate in his government by asking questions and also for swiftly dealing with the subject matter. On the other hand, I am still asking Governor Okezie Ikpeazu to provide answers to my questions about the Abia Paris Club refunds. I also will like to draw his attention to the unlikely event of a court pronouncement compelling the government to make those payments since there is an existing contract signed, despite its unreasonableness. This is the reason why he must put up a serious appearance at the court and assure Abia Citizens that no such judgement would be procured by the so-called contractors.
Permit me to use this opportunity to wish my Muslim readers a happy Eid-el-Kabir as they observe the Sallah Celebrations this week.