By Levi Obijiofor
Some people say that corruption has become the commonest feature of life in Nigeria. They are right. Consider the key stories that made headline news this past week. First, there was the revelation that a permanent secretary in a federal ministry who was involved in the latest scam over police pension fund was also caught with over N2 billion cash in his possession. The news did not stagger a lot of people. Second, stupendous allegations of misappropriation of funds and abuse of office made against the Director-General of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Arunma Oteh, led to fiery exchanges and counter-accusations between Oteh and her accuser — Herman Hembe, the chairperson of the House of Representatives’ Capital Market and Institutions Committee that is investigating the poor performance of the equities’ market.
In a theatrical performance staged during a public hearing, Oteh and Hembe cancelled each other out with reciprocal accusations of corruption. The fact that such highly placed officials accused each other openly of financial misconduct suggested that somehow somewhere there must be a grain of truth in the allegations. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) must now sift the chaff from the grain.
The third news item about corruption was the grant to Nigeria by the European Union of the sum of 98 million euro to aid the nation in its anti-corruption campaign and to strengthen the fight against drug trafficking (see Punch, Tuesday, 20 March 2012). It is odd that Nigeria, a country blemished by corruption, should receive a huge amount of money from a foreign body to fight corruption. That, to me, resembles a Greek gift. It is like offering a dog a piece of bone to help the dog to fight its addiction to bones. We have enough financial and human resources to fight corruption but in a system in which corruption has become an approved way of life, the money received from the European Union could very well be embezzled by a group of light-fingered officials in Abuja.
Let us return to the police pension fund because there is a major scandal unfolding in that unit located in the Office of the Head of Service. Revelations by Abdulrasheed Maina, chairperson of the task force on pension reform, that a syndicate comprising the permanent secretary and other senior officials had been stealing pension funds and thereby swindling the Federal Government of over N3 billion every month could be ranked, in the history of criminal connivance in Nigeria, as the most odious attack not only on the police pension fund but on the nation’s treasury. This is an illustration of how the privileged class steal from the poor in order to enrich themselves.
Maina also reported other disturbing aspects of the findings by his task force. For example, N28 billion that belonged to the police pension fund was found to be lodged in an unidentified account while N15 billion was expended on the acquisition of ostentatious property by some people in the pension unit of the Office of the Head of Service. According to the Daily Sun (Monday, 19 March 2012), Maina, the accuser, is also battling to clear himself of serious allegations by an assistant chief accountant in the Police Pension Office.
What we have at play here, just like the battle between the Director-General of SEC and the chair of the House committee investigating the performance of our equities’ market, are disagreements over the level of corruption identified in the report of a task force that unravelled major scams in the police pension fund and the testimonies given to a Senate committee by an accountant in the Police Pension Office. Would these tangled webs of accusations and counter- accusations ever be unknotted?
Here is more of the sleaze. Maina, the chairperson of the pension reform task force, said that for an indeterminable period of time, the criminal group of senior civil servants collected pensions of more than 70,000 non-existing retired workers, known in popular phraseology as “ghost workers”. The phrase “ghost workers” was used incorrectly by the media. That expression is wrong because ghosts don’t work in any ministry, department or unit. Additionally, Maina said more than 44,000 workers who retired between 1968 and 1975 were found to have been denied their pension benefits. Little wonder that a lot of policemen and women have been walking the streets frustrated, questioning why officials of the police pension fund have continued to give them the run-around without actually paying them their entitlements.
As a measure of their cheekiness, one of the syndicate members was reported to own no fewer than 550 accounts in one bank. Nigerian banks must be held accountable. They seem to be complicit in cases of corruption. Why would one person own and operate such a large number of accounts without drawing the attention of the bank’s senior management? This is a gross violation of the ethical code that guides how banks should conduct business in the country.
When an organised criminal group embezzles uninterruptedly billions of naira meant for payment of pension to retired policemen and women, the group effectively diminishes the ability of the Police Pension Office to pay retired servicemen and women their entitlements in a regular manner. It is unthinkable, in fact astonishing that a permanent secretary in a Federal ministry would be found with N2 billion cash in his possession. It is even more outrageous, according to a report in the Daily Sun of 19 March 2012, that four senior public servants were involved in the scam. The magnitude of the scam is staggering but so should be the degree of public anger.
It is exasperating that a few highly placed men would devise and activate fraudulent schemes designed to deprive retired workers their monthly entitlements and benefits. It is shocking. It is morally unacceptable. It is often said that people who hold high offices should demonstrate responsibility and transparency in their duties. This philosophy does not sit well with members of this criminally-minded group of senior public servants who feel comfortable feeding fat off other people’s money. All civil servants implicated in the fraud must be tried in a court of law and, if convicted, they must be declared unfit to hold public office in any part of the country. They must also be compelled to return the money they stole.
As the nation digests the outcome of the scandal in the police pension fund, there are questions that must be answered. Why would a permanent secretary sacrifice his service track record, his image and reputation (if they mean anything to him) to defraud the government he serves? Involvement in a criminal activity has now overturned this permanent secretary’s career and destroyed his name forever. Are we likely to find more corrupt permanent secretaries and other crooked public servants? It’s a matter of time before more investigations uncover more senior officials involved in corrupt practices in the civil service.
Why is money such a difficult temptation to resist by public servants and indeed by many of us? Is there a culture of corruption among senior public servants in federal ministries? You bet there is. In Nigeria, the fastest path to affluence is usually not through hard work or personal endeavour in business or through groundbreaking innovation in science and technology. It is through fraud, stealing or cheating on a high scale. Everyone wants to be rich. And they want to achieve this lifelong goal in the shortest possible time. There is something unwholesome about a nation in which senior officials constantly feature in corruption scandals.
Corruption in Nigeria is not really about who took what money and when but about who took the greatest amount of money from the state treasury or pension fund or from any illegal source in rapid time. The more senior government officers defraud the system they serve, the more they want to embezzle. It must be a genetic disease.
The public has grown restless with high levels of corruption in the civil service. And the latest revelations by the pension reform task force about how a select group of senior public servants have been defrauding the government of billions of naira in pension funds have given further impetus to public suspicion that there is more corruption going on in the public service than the government has ever admitted.
Improper conduct by senior public servants must be seen as troubling. The civil service code of conduct requires that senior and junior officials who compromise their office or are found guilty of undermining their professional integrity must be disciplined. The senior officers who defrauded the government in this latest scandal must be punished heavily in order to discourage potential offenders. One form of punishment is to dismiss the criminals from the public service without entitlement to any form of benefits.
These undistinguished senior officials must be stopped now by the rightful authority that regulates the conduct of public servants in Nigeria. If these criminals are not disciplined or sacked, we run the risk of granting them a public space and another opportunity to commit worse crimes. This disgraceful behaviour should offer the Federal Government (if there are honest men and women left) an opportunity to sanitise the federal civil service.
A corrupt public servant is an embarrassment to the government and a threat to the ability of other public servants to perform their tasks candidly and dispassionately. Aspersions cast freely on the character of senior public officers tend to impact negatively on the image of the nation, as well as the way the public perceives a few good men and women in the public service.