The ongoing debate on corruption/accountability was provoked by two major events: the lecture by the immediate past Vice President (Africa) of the World Bank, Dr Oby Ezekwesili at UNN Convocation and a judgment of the Abuja High Court that convicted Mr John Yakubu (who stole N23.3billion from the Pensions Fund) but gave him an option of seven hundred and fifty thousand naira. Both developments would lead to a better outcome for our beloved country if handled properly. But would the right thing be done?
Like many Nigerians, I was very upset when I read that the pension fund thief was given an option of fine. It reminded me of a similar judgment in the case between the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the former governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbinedion; where Federal High Court, Enugu in December 2010 convicted him for embezzling N2.9million and gave an option of N3.5million fine which he paid and walked with a slap on the wrist. The public condemnation that followed the case led to an appeal by EFCC, the outcome has remained unknown to the Nigerian public. I didn’t expect any judge to deliver a similar judgment barely two years after. Is Justice Abubakar Talba legally wrong by giving such judgment? Most like not! The lawmakers are to blame. It is baffling that that the law would provide 2year maximum jail term for looters of public funds in a country where examination malpractice attracts 21year jail term. More so, it is disappointingly paradoxical that same institution is legislating 14year old imprisonment as punishment for gay marriage. In my opinion, Justice Talba is legally correct but morally wrong. I expect the National Assembly to go beyond its directive for an appeal of the judgment; they should apologise to Nigerians and begin the process of amending the law to provide for stiffer penalties for corruption.
On the other hand, Dr Ezekwesili’s call for accountability in governance attracted unsurprising but disappointing responses from senior officials of government. The first response came from the government’s spokesman, Mr Labaran Maku. Rather than provide a responsible answer to the allegation, his statement suggested that Dr Ezekwesili probably mismanaged funds allocated to Education Ministry while she was minister. Presidential aide, Dr Doyin Okupe told the media that Dr Ezekwesili “lied shamelessly”. Presidential spokesman, Dr Reuben Abati in a skillfully written piece explained how “loosely bound group of yesterday’s men” have gone offensive on the administration. His lengthy article also chided the critics but failed to provide answers to the questions raised. Rejoinders have followed from various quarters. Twitter has been busy with varied opinions in favour of “yesterday’s men” and largely against “today’s men”.
It is a universal practice for citizens is to raise allegations of mismanagement of funds rightly or wrongly against government. While some may have genuine intentions others may not. But should we focus on the intention of the accusers? I don’t think so. Should the government attack the personalities of the accusers? A responsible won’t do that. An important requirement for public office holders is tolerance to scathing and sometimes malicious criticisms. I don’t know whether Dr Ezekwesili is right or wrong but I won’t ignore her allegation. She is a respectable woman and a model to lots of young Nigerians. But if government has established any case of official misconduct against her, let them prosecute her. The attempt to smear her reputation appears irresponsible to me. Former ministers like Femi Fani-Kayode and Nasir Elrufai are undergoing prosecution, but that has not denied them their right to ask questions. Personally, I’m not inspired by the duo, but I respect their right to free speech. I respect their right to demand good governance and accountability. I didn’t agree with Elrufai’s disregard of judicial pronouncements as minister but I’m pleased with many of his achievements. It is arguable if any of his successors have matched them.
Furthermore, it is unarguable to an objective mind that the power supply has improved under the present administration, modernization of airports is taking place and the railways system is beginning to work again. These among other achievements are commendable but even the most corrupt administration would still have some good things to its credit. Nigerians are becoming more informed and must not be taken for granted. It is in the interest of the nation for President Jonathan’s administration to create a more transparent system and stronger institutions. Nigerians deserve to know about every kobo that the country earns and how it is expended. That is not too much to ask for. Government officials should begin to respond to issues responsibly and desist from attacking personalities. Reuben Abati was a chronic critic until his appointment as presidential spokesman. I would never have imagined that he would kick the opposition the way and manner he’s doing. All Nigerians, including the opposition deserve some respect. Similarly, critics should also focus on issues, desist from name-calling and making frivolous allegations that may heat up the polity unnecessarily.
Finally, I commend Dr Ezekwesili on her advocacy for accountability. I commend all Nigerians who condemn and stand against corruption. It is my expectation that government will explain how the revenue that has accrued to the country under this administration is being expended. I also expect the National Assembly to make laws that would strengthen the Reward and Punishment System in the polity. God bless Nigeria.
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(First Published February 4, 2013 on my Column on The Newsnest)