Public servants and Christmas bonus loot

By Casmir Igbokwe
Published: Sunday, 30 Mar 2008
HERE is a story that perfectly illustrates the rot in the entity called Nigeria. It is the story of four men, who own a cat each. A friend e-mailed it to me recently. The men all brag about how smart their cats are. The first man, an engineer, calls on his cat named T-square to demonstrate his smartness first. The cat jumps onto the desk and circles a square and a triangle on a piece of paper.

The second man, an accountant, says his cat can do better. To demonstrate this, his cat, called Spreadsheet, goes to the kitchen and brings a dozen cookies. He divides them into four equal piles of three cookies. The third man is a chemist. His own cat, named Measure, walks to the fridge, takes out a quart of milk, and pours eight ounces into a 10-ounce glass without spilling a drop. Everybody acknowledges the brilliant performances of the cats.

But when it comes to the turn of Coffee-break (for that is the name of the cat belonging to the fourth man, a government employee), he springs up, eats the cookies, drinks the milk, and defecates on the paper. He not only screws the other three cats, but also claims he injured his back in the process. For this, he files a report against unsafe working conditions, asks for compensation, and proceeds on sick leave for the rest of the day.

This is the type of greed that defines public service in Nigeria. Government is the biggest industry in the country today. And for doing little or nothing, some government employees can take home in a day what a private company executive earns in a year.

Civil servants are said to be the engine room of government. But some of them have become the engine room of corruption as well. Without the active support and connivance of some civil servants, the looting of Nigeria‘s resources will not have been possible.

Take the N300m scam in the Health Ministry for instance. That money was supposed to be an unspent 2007 budget of the ministry. President Umaru Yar‘Adua had ordered that such money should be returned to the treasury. But some officials of the ministry thought it would still be business as usual. They allegedly shared the money as Christmas bonus. It is very likely that that was not the first time such a thing would happen. Nigerians only got to know about this because somebody felt aggrieved that he was not given what was due him. He then decided to spill the beans.

This type of scandal is not the exclusive preserve of the Ministry of Health. Recall that a few years ago, a former Senate President, Adolphus Wabara, and an ex-Minister of Education, Prof. Fabian Osuji, were involved in a bribe-for-budget scandal. The allegation was that the Senate leadership then demanded N50m in order to pass the budget for the ministry.

Earlier this month, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission arrested a Deputy Director in the office of the Head of Civil Service of the Federation for corruption. The man was accused of using his position to award a contract worth over N22m for the rehabilitation of rural feeder roads to a company he has substantial interest in. Again, this blew open because somebody who felt short-changed that he was not given the contract, petitioned the ICPC.

The same ICPC is on the trail of some government officials, who diverted over N3bn Universal Basic Education funds in 20 states. The commission noted that some state governments diverted about N3.3bn out of N54.7bn mapped out for the development of primary education in the country. Irregular payments were reportedly made to contractors with fictitious names. In Kebbi State, for instance, about N526m was allegedly paid to 114 fictitious contractors on a Saturday and a Sunday!

In the case of the Health Ministry’s scam, the Senate and House of Representatives Committees on Health also partook in the sharing of the loot. They reportedly collected N10m each. And the money was supposed to be for a capacity building trip to Ghana and for the committees’ oversight functions. But pray, why will a committee of the National Assembly collect money from a ministry it is supposed to oversee? Was about N47bn not voted for the recurrent expenditure of the House in the 2008 budget?

The name of the game is greed. And the strategy is simple: bribe the legislators; rope in the accountants, the auditors, and all those who should act as a check on the corrupt tendencies in the system to cover the tracks. When such people are compromised and weakened, they will not have the moral right to question any fraud in the polity. And so the looting can continue ad infinitum.

We may not be the only corrupt country in the world. But while other nations see it as cardinal sin and have institutionalised checks to control the problem, we pay lip service to it. Last month, for instance, Tanzanian Prime Minister, Edward Lowassa, and two ministers resigned after being implicated in a corruption scandal. In a deal reminiscent of Nigeria’s power sector scandal, Lowassa and Co. were alleged to have improperly awarded a contract to a US-based electricity company called Richmond Development in 2006. In January, the governor of that country’s central bank was sacked because public funds grew wings and disappeared from the bank.

In the United Kingdom, a new rule to ensure greater transparency among Members of Parliament is in the offing. From April 1, the amount of expenses MPs can claim without a receipt will be cut from £250 to £25. The amount of petty cash MPs can use for office expenses will also be reduced from £250 to £50 per month. Some MPs even reportedly suggested random spot-checks to ensure the money had been spent on the purpose intended.

Here, our own MPs are not satisfied with their jumbo salaries and allowances. Some of them still engage in illegal deals to grab more money. Happily, this administration seems to be waking up to the challenge posed to this nation by corruption. Our own Minister of Health, Prof. Adenike Grange, and the Minister of State in the ministry, Mr Gabriel Aduku, have since resigned over the N300m scam. I suspect the Presidency might have forced them to take that action. The President also ordered the suspension of 11 top civil servants in the ministry. Since Grange said she was not to blame for the scam, she and others should be given an opportunity to clear their names at a court of competent jurisdiction. Those found guilty should be made to face the law.

As the ICPC Chairman, Emmanuel Ayoola, reportedly noted recently, the war on corruption must be total if we are to achieve any desirable result. Nigerians must continue to hold their leaders at various levels to account. They must be able to access asset declaration forms of public office holders. This is to find out those who are stealing our money and banking it abroad when it is against the law for public officers to operate foreign accounts. A prompt passage of the Freedom of Information Bill will go a long way to empower whistleblowers.

There is also the need to strengthen the auditing process of public accounts and overhaul the public service. We cannot continue to suffer the sins of a few public servants who have continued to eat our cookies, drink our milk and then take sick leave to go and enjoy the loot.

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