Archive for August 2009

In the name of money

August 31, 2009

Casmir Igbokwe

First published August 30, 2009 

The following cars are for sale: Mercedes ML350 2006 model, N2.1m; Toyota Prado 2004 model, N1.5m; and Toyota Highlander 2005 model, N1.4m. Lexus GX470 2005 model is N1.6m while a Honda Accord I-VTec 2004 model goes for N1.3m. Some 2000 and 2002 models go for between N500, 000 and N800, 000. 

 I am not a car dealer. But I considered these prices fantastic. And so, I called 08037575099 to make enquiries as the advertisement published on page 12 of THISDAY, August 24, 2009, stipulated. The man who picked the call said I should apply for allocation to the Customs Area Controller, Federal Operations Unit, Customs House, Federal Secretariat Building, Bodija, Ibadan.

 I discussed this with a few of my colleagues who were excited and wished to apply as well. Not wanting anybody to beat me to this mouth-watering offer, I quickly sent my application through THE PUNCH office in Ibadan. There is no need telling you the one after my heart. But my wife, a woman with eyes for good things, preferred the Highlander.

 The following day, my colleague in Ibadan called from the office of the Public Relations Officer of the Customs. At first, he thought I made a mistake as there is no Customs office at Bodija, Ibadan. Besides, the Area Controller is in Lagos and not Ibadan.

 To clear my doubts, he gave the phone to the PRO who emphasised that the advert was not from the Customs. In the recent past, he said, some people had actually come to collect some cars after certain payments in the banks only to discover that they had been conned. He noted that any such advert from the Customs would have the agency’s logo as well as the name and phone numbers of the officers in charge.

 Just as I was trying to figure out what was going on, I got a text message on my MTN phone. It reads, “You are a winner of (N1, 000, 000 & a free ticket to the W/CUP). Visit (WWW.YELLOFIFA.COM) immediately for verification: code: 462070 (expires after 24hrs.)”

 I know that many people might have fallen victim to this scam. For one, it looks genuine because the message comes with no particular phone number. All you see on your screen is MTN NG. When I called the Corporate Services Executive of MTN, Akinwale Goodluck, to sound him out, he simply said, “It’s those boys (swindlers). They have come again. We have done everything possible to stop them. But they keep formulating new tricks.”

 This same quest to obtain money by tricks is partly behind the current loan crisis in the banking industry.  Sequel to the recent sacking of the managing directors of five banks by the Central Bank of Nigeria over non-performing loans, some big players in the crisis have regaled us with further explanations, outright denials and some comic relief.  

 For instance, the former MD of Union Bank, Barth Ebong, received his spiritual director in detention penultimate Saturday. The former MDs of Intercontinental and Oceanic Banks, Erastus Akingbola and Cecilia Ibru, had been active prayer warriors before the crisis. But while Ibru has surrendered herself to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission after some days of hide-and-seek, Akingbola remains at large.

 Among those contesting their debt profile with the banks, I find the denial of the Director-General of the Nigerian Stock Exchange more interesting. In an advertorial in some national dailies last week, Prof. Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke said she was “not a debtor to any bank worldwide.” This looks more like what I see in business cards of traders at Alaba International Market, Lagos. Something like, “Okwy ventures worldwide limited.”

 Like a woman in the dock, she declared, “In the public interest, I, Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke, solemnly declare that I do not owe any bank in Nigeria or abroad. As a thoroughbred professional, I earn a monthly salary from The Nigerian Stock Exchange and so do not engage in any business whatsoever; therefore, I do not need to borrow money to finance any business…”

 In any case, it’s not a sin to borrow money to finance business. It becomes a crime when the borrower has ulterior motives. From what I have gathered, for instance, some of the debtor companies are not registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission. Some, which started with a capital base of about N1m less than a year ago, got a loan of over N2bn. (See our cover story today.)

 The questions are: Why would a bank approve this type of loan? What collateral did the companies provide? What is the credit history of these companies? Does this not smell like an advanced 419?

 This is why I find the ethnic colouration of the CBN’s action amusing. In spite of the obvious lapses in the conduct of some of these banks, some individuals are ready to swear by Ogun that the CBN Governor, Sanusi Lamido, is only interested in northernising the Nigerian banking system.

 I don’t think this is the correct picture. The tragedy of our situation is that whenever an individual or a group is in trouble, they employ different tricks to divert attention. We seem to have been condemned like Sisyphus to keep rolling a stone up a mountain. The more we try to solve our problems, the more we meet stumbling blocks on the way.

 But we shall not relent because the more we allow some of this perfidy, the more the civilised societies see us as a people whose only business is obtaining by tricks. The sanitisation should go beyond the banking industry.

Traffic thieves, social security and other stories

August 25, 2009

Casmir Igbokwe

First published Aug. 23, 2009 

I had an encounter with a hoodlum last Thursday. I was returning from the National Theatre, Lagos, where I attended the book launch of former Information Minister, Prince Tony Momoh. I was stuck in traffic between Sheraton Hotels and the flyover bridge on Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way, Ikeja. It was about 3pm. After a while, I switched off the engine and wound down my side window.

 I was enjoying Faze’s music, Originality, when suddenly a young man with bloodshot eyes emerged. He was holding an umbrella. He bent towards me and commanded, “Give us money for food.”

 Sensing danger, I quickly dipped into my pocket and brought out some money. It was mainly in N1000 denomination. But I had N500 and N200 in-between the notes. I gave him the N500.

 He collected the money, and with a guttural voice, made some signs as though he was calling some other people. He bent towards me and commanded again, “Give us money for food.”

 I was praying silently that traffic should move. It didn’t. I wondered why the man kept on saying “us” when I saw only him. “I have given you N500 and you are still disturbing me. Is it not only you?” I asked.

 Pointing behind me, he said, “It’s not only me. The rest are over there.”  While this was going on, nobody bothered to find out what was amiss. Everybody stayed glued in their vehicles.

 I felt like giving the idiot a punch. But I checked myself because I have heard many stories of how bandits rob in traffic in Lagos. For instance, a few weeks ago, a colleague of mine became a victim on Oba Akran Avenue, Ikeja. He was going home from work about 6pm when two men on motorcycle pulled up. They showed him their gun and forced him to wind down. They not only took his phones and those of other two people with him in the car, but also collected all the cash on them.

 There is apprehension in many parts of Nigeria today. Nobody feels safe anymore. Politicians, who embezzle public funds, sleep with one eye. The average man who struggles to live a comfortable life, drives with trepidation on the streets. The hoi polloi who have nothing to offer, risk falling victims of ritual killers.

 This type of scenario usually occurs in a nation where there is extreme hardship. The global financial meltdown has not only melted the finances of the poor away, it has also put even the very rich in a state of confusion. The sacking of managing directors of five banks by the Central Bank of Nigeria penultimate week led to the revelation that the near downfall of these banks resulted from bad debts owed by those we call rich men. I never knew that some of them were living large on borrowed money.

 Part of the reasons people indulge in criminal activities is fear of the unknown; the fear of living from grace to grass.

 This is why I support the comments credited to the Vice-President, Goodluck Jonathan, last week. He said that corruption was due to insecurity as most people accumulated wealth for fear of the future. Assuring that the Federal Government would provide social security safety net for Nigerians, Jonathan said, “People have to pay school fees for their children, provide food and other essentials. Some people may not want to be corrupt. But because they want to secure their future, they go the extra mile to get out of the way. If the future is certain, I’m sure some people will not be corrupt.”

 I sincerely hope that this is not part of the mere rhetoric this government has come to be known for. This social security, I guess, was behind the Pension Reform Act enacted during the Olusegun Obasanjo administration in 2004. Every month when I get an sms credit alert from my pension fund administrator, I develop some feeling of safety; that at least, something is being kept aside for my retirement.

 If all Nigerians have this feeling of safety, it will go a long way in reducing crime to the barest minimum. Just last week, the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Farida Waziri, said her commission recovered over N50bn from corrupt politicians within the last one year. This is incredible.

If Jonathan and his colleagues in public office could pledge to serve Nigeria with all their hearts; if they could reduce the amount of money they give their wives for jewellery, there will be more than enough to take care of this social security.

 Even as I pieced this together yesterday, the Bayelsa State people were suffused with militants’ disarmament ceremony. When ‘Field Marshal’ Boyloaf entered the arena, there was wide jubilation. He was ushered in with the royal splendour that even President Umaru Yar’Adua may not have received anywhere in Nigeria. One of the leaders of the militants said he had 20 graduates in his camp. What they want mainly is employment.

 Shortly before the ceremony, I had watched T.B. Joshua’s show on Africa Independent Television. The Synagogue Church prophet gave out Emmanuel TV rice, wheel chairs and N50, 000 each to some disabled people. The way the man and his congregation celebrated the thing made me feel that there was more to the gifts than meets the eye.

 Nevertheless, I wished that the thief who waylaid me in Ikeja were there to collect his own largesse. He was probably driven to do what he did by extreme hunger. When he collected my N500 and still wanted more, I gave him extra N200. He was still not satisfied. I prayed that he should not ask for my phones. But luckily for me, the traffic moved at that point. I sped off. He pursued me to a point, flagging me down with the N200 I gave him saying, “Take, take, take!”

 Good Samaritan! Traffic stopped again at a point. But it was a bit far from the young man. I kept on looking back, hoping and praying that he doesn’t surface again.

 I have since learnt not to put all my money in one pocket. I am also thinking of getting an inferior phone which I could easily give away should I be asked to do so. I hope you have also learnt one or two lessons here. What a country!

Bank tremor and radio frequency freeze

August 17, 2009

Casmir Igbokwe

First published August 16, 2009 

Last week, the Niger Delta women reportedly threatened to go on a special strike. At a roundtable to discuss the problems of the region, the women, at the instance of a group called Gender Action Group, expressed disgust at the plight of the region 53 years after white men discovered crude oil at Oloibiri.

 They advised the Federal Government to exchange every weapon surrendered by militants with jobs, scholarships and other forms of development. Failure to do this, they threatened, “women will have to surrender their pots, pans, buckets of pepper, grinding stones, mortar, pestles etc, as weapons of their warfare.”

 Since we are in a season of strikes – lecturers’ strike, lawmakers’ hunger strike and now women’s strike – I was also tempted to down tools this week. Not that I’m on a negotiation table with anybody, but the speed at which bad news develops and spreads in Nigeria got me sad and confused.

 Last week alone, there was the cancellation of the sale of 2.3GHz radio frequency by President Umaru Yar’Adua. Just as I was ruminating over this and Hillary Clinton’s clincher about corruption and transparency in Nigeria generally, the news came that 14 Nigerians are on death row in Libya for murder, armed robbery, and 419. On top of these were the removal of Bauchi deputy governor from office; the blowing up of  the gas plant in Delta State by suspected militants and the removal of five bank managing directors by the Central Bank of Nigeria.

 At the bottom of all this is lack of transparency. Take the issue of the cancelled 2.3GHz licences, for instance. The Minister of Information and Communications, Prof. Dora Akunyili, had literally cried her eyes out, saying the sale of the frequency did not follow due process. The Nigerian Communications Commission, which supervised the sale, believed it followed due process. At a point, it became a battle of supremacy between Akunyili and the Executive Vice-Chairman of the NCC, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe.

The battle latter shifted to the press. Columnists, opinion writers and sundry analysts wrote for and against the two combatants from Anambra State. In the heat of the problem, I noted on this page (see “Akunyili, Ndukwe and the sale of a radio frequency”, June 21, 2009) that the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Michael Aondoakaa, should have interpreted what the law says and advised the President on what to do. I wondered the quality of advice the A-G was giving to the President and called for the direct intervention of the Presidency to halt the problems trailing the sale of the band.

Aondoakaa did advise the President afterwards. Media reports indicated that he posited that the NCC did not breach any law on the sale of the frequency. Hence, according to Aondoakaa, the transaction should be upheld.

In spite of this advice, the President cancelled the licensing of the band. The Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Olusegun Adeniyi, said, “Having carefully reviewed official reports and representations from stakeholders, and after availing himself of competent advice on the recent licensing of the 2.3GHz Spectrum Band, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua has come to the conclusion that the letters and spirit of the stipulated rules and guidelines were not adequately complied with.”

Which competent advice did Mr. President avail himself of? Certainly, it can’t be Aondoakaa’s. Why he is still keeping him as the A-G leaves much to be desired. This same A-G in August 2007 wanted the anti-graft agencies to get his approval before prosecuting any suspect. That did not work out. He had also wanted to merge the EFCC with other anti-graft agencies. That also failed. He played some ignoble roles in the prosecution of former governors Orji Uzor Kalu of Abia State, Peter Odili of Rivers State and James Ibori of Delta State. Ironically, he bases some of his actions on the “rule of law.”

Mrs. Clinton summarised our problems in her remarks when she visited last week. She faulted our anti-corruption crusade, spoke of the need for transparency in government and urged Nigeria to learn how to tackle corruption and enthrone good governance from Botswana. Rather than heed her advice, the principal functionaries of our ruling party dismissed her with a wave of the hand.

It is dishonesty on the part of those condemning Clinton when it is glaring that Nigeria is tottering. And it is this sort of attitude that has almost undermined the banking industry. Most Nigerians know that all is not well with some of our banks. Some of these banks were busy gathering fake awards from some institutions abroad. They made noises about these awards, but loathed any form of negative mention in the media. It was when the new CBN Governor, Sanusi Lamido, came on board and directed that an audit of these banks be done that the fowl’s rump became exposed.

The outcome of that was the sacking of managing directors of five banks – Erastus Akingbola of Intercontinental Bank, Cecilia Ibru of Oceanic Bank, Sebastian Adigwe of AfriBank, Barth Ebong of Union Bank and Okey Nwosu of Finbank.

There is wisdom in Sanusi’s statement that it’s not a crime to make a loss, but that it’s criminal to lie about it. It’s better, he told bankers, to disclose truthfully that they made a mistake than to deny that there was a problem.

For any individual or organisation that cherishes credibility, this is the right path to follow. And until we resolve to do this, there may not be any end to troubled banks, a troubled nation and incessant strikes of different hues.

Boko Haram, insecurity and lily-livered police

August 10, 2009

Casmir Igbokwe

First published Sunday August 9, 2009

Reacting to my piece on David Mark’s seductive patriotism last week, a reader sent what I consider an interesting text message. He calls it tips for your survival.

It goes thus: “If you want to be angry, watch Obasanjo talk. If you want to be drowsy, listen to Yar’Adua’s speeches. If you want to be bored, watch David Mark’s Senate. If you want to waste a whole day, attend Bankole’s House probes. If you want comedy, tune to Akunyili’s rebranding. If you are allergic to lies, avoid Aondoakaa and Farida’s anti corruption crusade. If you’re disgruntled, join el-Rufai and Ribadu. If you’ve kids learning English, avoid Turai whenever she talks.”

This is called characterisation. And, to borrow from the above tips, if you are allergic to fear and poor performance, avoid the Nigerian Police. I’m not the originator of this particular tip. The Assistant Inspector-General of Police in charge of Zone 9, Mr. Olusegun Efuntayo, is.

Recall that at the meeting called by the immediate past Inspector-General of Police, Mike Okiro, to find solutions to armed robberies and kidnappings in the South-East, Efuntayo described his men as lily-livered. According to him, when they hear the bursting of a vehicle exhaust, they run away.

But are these policemen to blame? Are armed robbers, kidnappers and sundry criminals not getting more sophisticated by the day? Look at the Boko Haram incident, for instance. For days, these Islamic fundamentalists, who believe western education is sin, unleashed mayhem in different parts of the North. Close to 1000 people, if not more, perished in that crisis. Understandably, soldiers intervened to bring the situation under control.

Just as the Boko Haram members were harassing innocent citizens, armed robbers were having a field day in different parts of the country. These days, they are becoming more daring and conscienceless.

Last Wednesday, robbers who were up to 60 in number invaded Ogbomoso in Oyo State. They not only robbed three banks, they also killed and maimed. At the last count, seven people were confirmed dead.

Different gang of bandits waylaid fellow citizens who were on a night travel on Sagamu-Benin Expressway penultimate week. The robbers commanded them to lie on the road while they operated in the bus unhindered. The traumatised victims were obviously pondering over their fate when a truck sped along and crushed them to death. This did not stop the bandits who came back to complete their heinous act. 

In the Niger Delta, criminal elements have infiltrated the ranks of militants. Kidnapping for ransom, which is rampant in the country now, started from there. What started as a just struggle to emancipate the people of the region has turned into a lucrative source of income for some individuals.

The Federal Government has offered them amnesty. Some have taken it. Some have not. Some want N300, 000 paid for each AK-47 riffle they wish to surrender. Some want the government to rent comfortable flats for them. I’m optimistic that peace will eventually reign in that region. But whether this amnesty package will bring that enduring peace remains to be seen.

Generally, the state of insecurity in the country has not been this bad. Many sophisticated arms and ammunition are in wrong hands. This calls for eternal vigilance from every Nigerian.

The task before the new IGP, Ogbonna Onovo, is enormous. He has started well by ordering over 100, 000 policemen attached to private individuals to return to the police headquarters for redeployment or risk dismissal. It is ridiculous that a Force with a total strength of about 312, 223 had almost half that number guarding private individuals. One individual is even reported to have up to 21 police details attached to him. How many of these policemen are in the streets to do the real job they are paid to do?

In any case, employing a police escort does not totally guarantee the security of an individual. One or two policemen attached to a politician, for instance, may never prevent hardened criminals with sophisticated weapons from successfully carrying out their operations.

A friend of mine who is an oil magnate in Port Harcourt had cause to use police escort early this year. Robbers ambushed them on the way and killed the police escort. The police and the deceased family turned round to accuse the oil dealer of killing their man for ritual purposes. He went through a series of detentions and interrogations. Now, he is breathing an air of freedom because the police seem to have discovered that their allegations are baseless. Former Justice Minister, Bola Ige, also had police escort but that did not stop those who assassinated him in his home.

Surely, Onovo knows what to do with the over 100, 000 extra policemen coming back to the police headquarters. He knows that training and retraining of his men are essential ingredients of effective policing. He knows that good welfare packages will enhance their job. He knows that acquiring sophisticated weapons to match the firepower of criminals is desirable. He knows that they need to do more in the areas of crime detection and prevention. He knows that adequate funding is cardinal if the police must move forward.

What Onovo may not know yet is how and where such funding will come. The Federal Government is there no doubt, but with dwindling resources, the prospects of giving more to the police may be a mirage. State governments should help. Wealthy individuals should help. This is the time to say, if you want to hear big donations, attend a police equipment fund-raiser.

David Mark’s seductive patriotism

August 3, 2009

Casmir Igbokwe

First published August 2, 2009 

A mother whose name I wouldn’t want to mention here was excited over a new bra somebody bought for her recently. Thanking the buyer for the wise selection, she enthused, “That bra is cool! It makes my breasts look like a young lady’s.” 

 For some men, the mere sight of a bra or breasts can get the adrenalin flowing. This may be why many women these days tend to flaunt this nature’s gift anyhow. Sometimes, the aim is to seduce.

 Seduction can come in some other ways. For instance, someone’s dream car, or a man’s poetic love notes to his dream bride can become an object of seduction.

 Senate President, David Mark, may not have intended to seduce Nigerians, but his recent patriotic sentiments are literally doing just that. Mark was a soldier; and soldiers are trained to be hard, to divorce emotions and unnecessary sentiments from whatever they do. But life as a civilian may have changed him a lot. Now, where there is war, he seeks peace. Where there is hatred, he desires love. And where there is antagonism, he preaches patriotism.

 One example will suffice here. At the 2009 Diaspora Day held in Abuja last weekend, Mark reportedly said Nigeria was doing well except for some pessimists who enjoyed running down the country from within and without.

 Hear him, “A lot of Britons will never go out to criticise their country elsewhere, but a lot of Nigerians go out and start running down our country. Why can’t they go and start another country.” Ably represented by the Chairman, Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Senator Jubril Aminu, Mark exhorted Nigerians in the Diaspora to let people hear and see only the good side of the country.

 Call it the good sights and sounds of Nigeria if you like. I have made up my mind to follow the Senate President’s advice. And so, since last week, I have been on the lookout for these goodies from Naija.

 Hence, I made a random search in some of our national dailies last week. Last Wednesday’s edition of THE GUARDIAN, for instance, had an editorial on the recent feat of a young Nigerian, Kimberly Anyadike. The 15-year-old girl broke aviation records as the first African-American of her age to fly an aircraft from California to Virginia in the United States. In this 13-day expedition, she landed on 13 cities with great funfair.

 American media reportedly celebrated this girl without any mention of her Nigerian roots. I don’t know Mark’s thoughts on this considering that the same America snubbed us by making Ghana the first country President Barack Obama would visit in Africa. That country even went further to debunk Foreign Affairs Minister, Ojo Maduekwe’s claim that Obama would also visit Nigeria.

 I know that if an American achieves such a feat in Nigeria, we will celebrate him to high heavens. A few months ago, for instance, the Nigerian media celebrated an American researcher who came to Lagos to hawk Gala sausage roll. These days, the number of our own hawkers may have increased with the indefinite strike embarked upon by university lecturers. This is not to say that our undergraduates are hawkers.

 In my further search for good news, I went through last Tuesday’s edition of THE PUNCH. What I saw there convinced me that it’s foreigners and cultists that are painting us in dark colours. Look at the Boko Haram militants, for instance. We all know that it’s mostly the hungry insurgents from Niger and Chad that are fuelling the crisis. Their unwholesome activities have led to the death of scores of people including security men. This came a few days after some frustrated militants attacked Atlas Cove jetty in Lagos.

 The same edition of the newspaper had the story of the renewed fighting that erupted between Ezza and Ezillo communities in Ebonyi State. One military officer was said to be missing while over 10 other people were feared killed. Again, the combatants reportedly invited mercenaries from Benue and Niger Delta, and perhaps Cameroon to fight their battle.

 The next page was a story on corruption being a threat to Customs’ performance. I quickly flipped through and saw a headline which reads, “Armed cultists exchange fire in Port Harcourt.”

 Being a patriotic Nigerian, I ignored the story and devoted my attention to another headline on the same page. It reads, “No winner, no loser in petroleum bill – Mark.” In the story, Mark assured us that the petroleum bill would change the face of the current agitation in the Niger Delta. This was in apparent response to the stiff opposition the governors of the South-South region mounted against the bill.

 If we all emulate Mark, this country will be a better place. Rather than wash our dirty linen in public, we should always project the good image of Nigeria. Foreign media organisations can say anything they like. But it’s not for us to tell the whole world that our mother is not a virgin. Let us always say good things about our country and hide those ones that will bring shame to her.

 On a final note, let’s ignore those who believe that nothing can be done about a sagged breast. With the help of a good bra, as Mark has apparently advised, a sagged breast can become very firm again.