Archive for February 2014

Subsidy fraud, intervention scam and some shadow-boxing

February 25, 2014

 Casmir Igbokwe

For many Nigerians, the temptation to give up on Nigeria is strong. The commonest words on our lexicon today are fraud, scam, and scandal. It appears that the most successful people in the country are those who are crooked. If you are honest and hard-working, your chances of success are limited. And so, many citizens have decided to key into the corruption game. “If you can’t beat them,” as the cliché goes, “you join them.”

Today, the National Assembly is probing kerosene subsidy fraud, as well as airline and power intervention scams. There were sundry similar probes in the past – Halliburton scandal, Siemens scam, $12bn Gulf War oil windfall sleaze, $16bn Independent Power Pranks, Farouk Lawan bribery drama and so on. Don’t ask about the report of these probes and the actions taken yet. That’s another story for another day.

For now, let’s focus attention on kerosene. The Federal Government envisaged that the commonest thing the poor use to cook, outside firewood, is kerosene. And so, it subsidised the product to make it affordable to many Nigerians. It is supposed to be sold at N50 a litre. Speaker Aminu Tambuwal said last week that over N1trn had been spent on kerosene subsidy between 2010 and 2013 without approval. But the product remains elusive and expensive. Where it is found, it sells for between N120 and N200 a litre. I bought at N130 a litre recently at an Oando filling station in Lagos. So, where has the subsidy money gone to? The answer may never be found.

Perhaps, the lawmakers may soon tell us, after their current probe, what has also happened to the N300bn airline and power intervention funds. The funds were meant to rescue the airline industry and probably ensure constant electricity in our homes and offices. But we all know the state of these two important sectors of our economy. Again, where is the money? I laugh.

Where is the $20bn oil revenue said to be missing from our treasury? The just suspended Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, had blown the whistle about the missing money. At first, Sanusi said it was $49.5bn missing. Later, it changed to $10.8bn. Finally, it came to be $20bn. Sanusi’s whistle is yet to die down when the Financial Reporting Council of Nigeria (FRCN) blew its own whistle against the suspended CBN boss. They said he wasted about N168bn on some intervention projects across the country. Part of these projects is building structures in some secondary and tertiary institutions. He allegedly refused to comply with the Public Procurement Act in executing these projects. The President has since suspended him. Shadow-boxing!

While people in power continue to deceive themselves that all is well with our economy, the majority of the citizens are getting despondent and disillusioned. Unemployment rate is over 50 per cent, forget the deceitful official figure. Many able-bodied youths have resorted to crimes as their own source of income. I got a bit jealous when I read a few days ago that the unemployment rate in the United Kingdom is falling. Latest official estimates indicate that the number of unemployed people in the UK fell by 125, 000 to 2.34 million in the three months to December. Generally, unemployment rate in that country now stands at 7.2 per cent and average earnings have also increased by 1.1 per cent. To the UK Employment Minister, Esther McVey, this means “more people have the security of a regular wage and can plan for their future.”

What is the future of our own youths? Just as I was putting this together, I got a text message from a cousin of mine. He is planning to have his traditional marriage ceremony in April. This is long overdue for this young man, but he couldn’t do it as and when due because the wherewithal was not there. Even now, I still wonder how he intends to sustain his future family, for what he earns in his petty trading hardly takes him home. And he is a graduate.

The future I’m seeing is scary. Boko Haram terrorists have taken over the North. Armed robbers and kidnappers have occupied the South. There is impunity everywhere. Our justice system is cash and carry. The civil service reeks of corruption. There is systemic failure in almost every sector of our national life. And this is a country God blessed with abundant resources. Seeing no help anywhere, many of our compatriots have turned to prayers.

In our churches and mosques, they tell us that good people go to heaven and evil doers go to hell. I have a strong feeling that this hell is in Nigeria, nay Africa. Most parts of Africa are on fire – hellfire. There is war in Southern Sudan. Central African Republic is in turmoil. Zimbabwe is not sure what to do with its life-long President, Robert Mugabe. At 90, Mugabe is Africa’s oldest leader who has refused to relinquish power. Last Friday, he was reported to be receiving treatment in Singapore.

Mugabe mismanaged his country and finds Singapore a safe heaven. Nigerian leaders have mismanaged the country and find the US, Europe and the United Arab Emirates their own safe heaven. Yet, these countries do not have half the resources we have. Singapore was once at par with Nigeria. It took a Lee Kuan Yew to transform that country. The man instilled discipline in his citizens. Today, Singapore comes first in the World Bank ease of doing business index. It comes out tops in many other areas.

Let us continue to hope that things will get better. The rot is systemic, so President Goodluck Jonathan cannot do it alone. But he should take the lead. If our leaders at all levels resolve today to stop shadow-boxing and face reality, Nigeria will change.   

         

Citizen Okpaluba and the rough road to prison

February 19, 2014

First published in Hallmark newspaper

You may not know Dr Chidi Okpaluba. He is a young man who, recently, embarked on a journey many Nigerians are familiar with, but dread to experience. 

That trip is worth restating here. On Monday, February 10, 2014, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) arraigned him at a Lagos High Court for alleged equity fraud. He reportedly deceived a man to buy shares in Quartermasters, a brand company he founded some years back. According to online media reports, the complainant claimed that when he demanded his share certificate, he discovered that the company was not registered.

Okpaluba pleaded not guilty but has been remanded in Ikoyi Prisons. The case for his bail application comes up on Wednesday, February 19. Already, because the matter is in the public domain, people have started passing judgement even when trial has not commenced. Our online lynch mob has called for his crucifixion, branding him a fraudster.

But I find it difficult to believe that this same Okpaluba I know could do what he was accused of doing.  In our secondary school days, we called him nkpuru akwukwo (a studious person). He rose to become the senior prefect of Boys Secondary School Uga, in Anambra State. A brilliant chap, he graduated with distinction in veterinary medicine from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and is also an alumnus of the Lagos Business School. He is a life coach and has handled some programmes for youths and the National Youth Service Corps. He has been the managing director of Quartermasters and Citizens Electronics.

I have a feeling that something must have gone wrong somewhere. I’m aware he took EFCC to court for intimidation and harassment over this same matter. The matter is still in court. The same EFCC has taken him to another court. Since the matter is in court, I will reserve my comment for now and watch as events unfold.

What worries me more is that there are many awaiting trial inmates in our prisons. Many of these inmates are innocent of the allegations against them. I particularly remember one Harrison Gwamnishu who has been in Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison for months now. His case is pathetic because he has nobody to defend him. Somehow, I got wind of his story and we got it published in Hallmark last year.

Gwamnishu was a driver to a certain madam. They had accident on their way to Ekpoma in Edo State in October 2012. For this reason, madam withheld his November salary. Harrison resigned in December. Two months after, armed robbers attacked the madam. She suspected Harrison had a hand in it. Pronto, he got him arrested in Delta and thus began his long road to prison.

The police first took him to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Ikeja where they severely tortured him just to make him confess to a crime he said he knew nothing about. From SARS Ikeja, they sent him to Kirikiri to share accommodation with hardened criminals. Not being able to bear the plight of her only son, his mother passed away. His father is down with partial stroke. A lawyer and philanthropist, Chief Gabriel Giwa-Amu, decided to help him. As he put it, “The charge against him is alleged armed robbery. But by my own personal investigation and perception, there is no such thing as armed robbery here. But I think that is better left for the court to decide.” He filed an application on his behalf and regretted that the young man had been in detention for months against the law which stipulates that BPP advice should come out within two months. The Magistrate Court that remanded him based on a holding charge does not have the power to keep him there beyond 60 days.

 Even one of the robbers brought to identify him said he didn’t know him. So far, he is still in detention but has been moved to a prison in Benin.

The question is, what manner of criminal justice system will keep somebody in prison for years without trial? So many people are in our prisons for offences they know nothing about. I am not a lawyer but I know that something is fundamentally wrong with clamping one in prison for long without trial. Amnesty International has had cause to condemn this system many times. The organisation once described our justice system as a conveyor belt of injustice. Many Presidential commissions and committees had recommended reforms. So far, nothing much has been done.

Even, the condition of most of these prisons is another story for another day. Prisoners look very malnourished. Some suffer skin rashes. Some are down with various other ailments. If you have cause to visit any of these prisons, be prepared to pay all manner of bribes to gain access. If you are a privileged prisoner and you pay the right fee, you are given a preferential treatment. The place is an epitome of corruption.

This is partly why Nigerians in better prisons abroad dread being transferred to our prisons. Recently, some Nigerian prisoners in the United Kingdom protested against their planned repatriation to Nigeria.               

As it is now, Okpaluba and Gwamnishu are still sweating it out in prison. But unless the necessary reforms are embarked upon, we are all prisoners of some sort. Let no man call himself free until that day when the key locking the unjust criminal justice system in Nigeria is unlocked.