Between Oteh and Hembe

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By Jideofor Adibe

 

The salacious revelations at the probe of the Securities and Exchange Commission by the Capital Markets Committee of the House of Representatives provided Nigerians with the sort of infotainment that draw and addict some people to the tabloids. While in countries like the UK and the US celebrity indiscretions and sexual escapades of otherwise dour-looking and family values-touting politicians form the fulcrums of this sadistic form of entertainment, in our dear country, where adultery is no one’s business and promiscuity by the political class is seen as heroic or evidence of one’s virility, rapacious raid on public funds and being silly enough not to cover one’s tracks very well are the gravamen of this infotainment. Which is why the several probes by the House of Representatives centre on public officials being ‘named and shamed’ for dipping their fingers, often all ten of the fingers at a go, in the cookie jars they were supposed to husband.

It all started with the Chairman of the House Committee on Capital Market and other Institutions Herman Hembe who, using mostly innuendos, accused Ms Arunma Oteh, the Director-General of the Securities and Exchange Commission, of not being above board. Among the sundry allegations against Ms Oteh were that the SEC approved the sum of N66.1m to rent an official apartment for her in Maitama after she had spent N30m on hotel accommodation in eight months. She was also accused of spending N42.5m to procure three Toyota vehicles without a tender’s board meeting in breach of the Public Procurement Act 2007 and of spending N850, 000 on food in just one day and N85,000 on another day. I didn’t watch the televised proceedings at the lower chamber but media reports suggested Ms Oteh felt cowed and boxed into a corner. When she appeared at the House the following day, she had re-grouped and decided to go on the offensive.

Unlike Hembe, her allegations of corruption against the Committee chairman were bare-knuckled, if not desperate. She claimed she was being persecuted for her stance on corruption, rehashing the riposte: “I was told upon my appointment that whenever you try to fight corruption, corruption will fight you back.” With this, it became a competitive narrative of who, between Ms Oteh and Hembe, was fighting corruption and who was trying to profit from it. Ms Oteh inferred she was being unfairly treated by the Hembe Committee because she had refused to play ball. “In asking the SEC to contribute N39m for this public hearing, don’t you think that you are undermining your capacity to carry out your duties?” she reportedly asked the chairman. She also alleged that 24 hours before the hearing started on Wednesday March 14, 2012, Hembe had demanded N5m from her. “I question the ability of the chairman to carry out a credible hearing. The reason I say I doubt his credibility is that in October last year, the SEC paid you estacode and a business class ticket to an emerging market conference in Dominican Republic. Please tell Nigerians whether you actually went there and please also tell the Nigerian people if you didn’t go, or you actually returned the money”, she was quoted by the Leadership of March 20 2012 as saying.

There are obvious holes in the accusations and defences by the two. If Ms Oteh spent N850,000 a day or N30m in a hotel accommodation in eight months, what is the comparative expenditure of equivalent officials lodged in a hotel during that period for us to judge the extent of her extravagance? Granted, spending such amounts of money on accommodation and feeding may sound huge, even obscene to some of us, there must be a benchmark for comparing these expenditures or the laws they broke, if these were not meant to play to the gallery. Similarly the defence by Hembe that after ‘collecting’ the estacode to travel to the Dominican, he got up to Texas but did not attend the conference because he was advised it was already winding down reminded one of Bill Clinton’s answer when he was asked if he ever smoked marijuana when he was running for the presidency. Bill Clinton claimed he smoked but did not inhale. Hembe’s explanation of the incident honestly was silly, but even sillier was Ms Oteh’s opportunistic use of the issue as a tool of counter attack. If she was truly being harassed because she was ‘fighting corruption’ why did it take her some six months to realise that Hembe did not travel to the Dominican Republic for the conference and even then only after she was put on the spot for apparent financial indiscretion? I think it is important to establish whether Ms Oteh offered the trip to the conference in the Dominican Republic as a financial inducement to Hembe or whether the latter indeed demanded for it. It is also important to establish whether it is legal or conventional for the SEC to sponsor members of the legislature to such conferences and if so, the amount of estacode such would normally attract.

What came out of the way Ms Oteh came swinging wild counter punches is that the way top officials react under pressure is also an index of leadership. Whether we call it being calm under pressure or emotional intelligence, as Thucydides, the Greek historian would say, nothing impresses people more than self restraint. Obviously restraint does not mean one cannot defend oneself vigorously. More savvy people would probably have maintained a dignified ambience even if they felt unfairly persecuted. And if Ms Oteh really wanted to also rubbish Hembe wouldn’t it have been more effective if such had been leaked to the press? By counter-punching the way she did, she gave the impression her allegations were afterthoughts or that at best she and Hembe were accomplices in crime. With Hembe rightly stepping down as the Chairman of the Capital Markets committee following her allegations of corruption against him, a question is immediately raised on whether Ms Oteh has enough moral capital to continue as the DG of SEC while the allegations against her are being investigated by both the ad hoc committee of the House and possibly by the EFCC and ICPC.

On a broader scale, the spat between Hembe and Ms Oteh underlies the uneasy relationship between accomplished professionals and politicians, especially members of the legislatures who have an oversight functions over MDAs, which are often manned by experienced professionals. While the politicians, many of whom are less accomplished professionals than the Ministers or Director-Generals they supervise tend to be conscious of the fact that they are elected representatives of the people, there is a feeling that some of the professionals feel irritated at being summoned on a ‘whim’ to be ‘humiliated’ or for their professional accomplishments to be rubbished. This could probably explain why quite a number of the professionals summoned by both chambers, especially the lower chamber, try as much as possible to shun such invitations. Hembe, a lawyer from Benue State is just 36. On the other hand, Ms Oteh, from Abia State, made First Class Honours in computer science from the University of Nigeria Nsukka and also holds a Master degree in Business Administration from Harvard Business School. Her CV also indicated that she had worked in various multilateral institutions including the Harvard Institute for International Development and Centre Point Investments Limited of Nigeria. In 1992, she joined the African Development Bank where she rose to become the Vice President for Corporate Management in 2006. She became Director General of the SEC in January 2010.

Another pertinent issue from the Hembe-Oteh spat is the question of whether televised public hearings are geared only for infotainment and the accompanying media trial or for real fact finding. While televising such probes may be aimed at showcasing transparency, the accompanying media and public trial may actually negate the real aim of such probes and in certain instances could lead to playing to the gallery or being overtly defensive. Moreover since a camera cannot capture any choreographed underlying processes of a probe it means that the fact that a proceeding is televised does not necessarily mean that it is transparent. As a matter of fact televised images could be used to legitimate a lie.

Additionally it will also be necessary to interrogate the usefulness of these probes and what they have actually achieved on the ground. We have had so many of such probes – power sector probes, the pensions probe, the probe about the location of GSM base stations by operators, the probe of subsidy payments on premium petroleum products and so on and so forth. Am I the only one who cannot see what these probes have accomplished apart from the momentary fury and sound that they provide?

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