Speaking up and loud
This is the stuff great people are made of, fearlessness in the face of persecution and boldness to speak truth to power.
I have many a time been perturbed by the cost of our democracy and the stranglehold corruption seems to have on every facet of life in Nigeria.
Yesterday brought in a number of interesting revelations, whilst many sanctimoniously concentrated on the sensational, the bigger issue was the insight into the workings of our legislature, the committee system and the bottom-feeding frenzy of rent-seeking legislators steeped in despicable malfeasance playing to the gallery pretending to unimpeachable conduct.
The Director General of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Ms. Arunma Oteh was appearing before the House Committee on Capital Markets chaired by “Honourable” Herman Hembe – the title must be in quotes until it is regained by a fair assessment of the allegations made and the man is proven completely innocent of the claims.
During the day we were regaled with tales of the profligate excesses of the Ms. Oteh, that she had stayed in 5-star hotel accommodation for 8 months instead of the regulatory one month, that she has spent NGN 850,000 ($5,391) on dinner and everyone ran to town with it. There some dispute as to whether it was NGN 850,000 or NGN 85,000 ($539.10), in either case, this was piffle, almost of no consequence in the scheme of things, the way the country is bilked and milked by all those in political office.
She stoops to conquer
Nigerian politicians are given to bluster and grandiloquence arrogating to themselves privileges, emoluments and untrammelled fiat to bludgeon people who appear before their committees without due courtesies and respect to the attendees.
Ms. Oteh ran the gauntlet of being questioned about her qualifications to fill her position and her ability to perform, it was an inquisition so disgraceful and unbecoming of anyone who deigns to be recognised in polite society but that was Day One.
When Ms. Oteh appeared on Day Two, she was battle-axe ready, fuming, agitated and shooting all guns with deathly accuracy in what might become the biggest political earthquake of our democratic experiment, I should expect aftershocks of similar magnitude to follow.
Explosive political bombshells
She alleged with dates that the Committee Chairman had received moneys to attend a conference that he eventually did not attend and did not refund the expense. She also alleged that he had asked the SEC to fund the activities of the committee to the tune of NGN 39,000,000 ($247,376) and then another demand was made for NGN 5,000,000 ($31,714.80).
She questioned the integrity of the chairman and his credibility to sit in judgement with unclean hands and his maturity in commenting on issues related to the SEC without first verifying the facts possibly with the view to undermine, discredit and contemn Ms. Oteh.
More importantly, she pointedly accused the chairman of corruption and in the court of public opinion challenged the chairman to defend himself against the claims whilst making the case for fairness and better adherence to democratic principles. The raw emotion was palpable as she trembled and her voice quavered with each forceful statement, the discomfiture of the committee was quite evident.
Noisy body talk
The body language of the chairman was like an open book screaming out the words as he swivelled in his chair in pendulumic consonance squirming with embarrassment as he tried to fend off the allegations, twisting Ms. Oteh’s words and playfully making light of the situation but before the whole world, this was a most uncomfortable moment.
In a display of braggadocio he mandated the anti-corruption agencies to investigate the claims, but we Nigerians have very little confidence in the ability of these institutions to follow through to conclusion any allegations, charges or indictments made on senior politicians in Nigeria – it was both a dare and a moot point, if anything comes of it, we will be in for an unusual surprise.
He was obviously rattled that he forgot his manners when he told and not asked Ms. Oteh to turn off her microphone. In a society where character, reputation and integrity matters, where a senior official is besmirched with allegations of corruption, one would expect him to recuse himself and not bring the activities of the committee and the House of Representatives into disrepute, but impunity without consequence is the name of the game in Nigeria, he reasserted his questionable authority and banged the gavel – the seal of authoritative corruption and obvious indifference.
Ms. Oteh – the big spender?
So many things stand out from the events of that day which I will attempt to address one at a time.
Could Ms. Oteh have spent $539 on dinner? Very likely, it would probably have covered a meal with friends and considering the cost of living in Nigeria especially in luxury settings, the prices are unbelievably steep for what we would get at a reasonable cost in Europe. It is quite doubtful that she spent $5,391 at one sitting, it reads like a very tall tale exposed to ridicule and embarrass her – The SEC has asserted the lower figure but why let the truth get in the way of a sensational exposé?
That Ms. Oteh stayed in 5-star accommodation for a whole 8 months is quite beyond the pale but then one can understand that enjoying luxury at the expense of others can be a difficult and herculean task to wean yourself of off, in some ways she was being both a chancer and human – people have done worse, she has been in her position for over two years now, which means alternative lodgings have been arranged for at least 16 months.
Report or proclaim?
Certain people have wondered why Ms. Oteh did not take her allegations of corruption to the anti-corruption agencies. For reasons I have stated before, they have not excelled in their briefs, literally everyone of political clout in Nigerian has gummed up the system and deftly used the judiciary to extricate themselves from the clutches of due process of investigation and administration of justice.
In my view, that public forum was the best place to make those allegations and with it in the open, force many more voices to demand action be taken. If the chairman feels he has been besmirched and libelled he can easily seek redress in the courts but I doubt he has the courage to be exposed to the scrutiny of his cupboard of rampaging skeletons. Compromised legislators grandstanding in public will from now on have to thread carefully.
One area of patronage and source of corruption that needs to be reviewed reformed and better regulated is the use and abuse of estacode - funds intended to cover traveling costs by public servants and politicians. Politicians, especially in Nigeria are quite handsomely remunerated; they should not be receiving hand-outs before they have completed whatever missions they embark on.
In the private sector, a modicum of control is exercised on spending because the money first comes out of the pocket and the person is later reimbursed on the presentation of receipts and audited review of the expenses.
Though that process can also be abused, with the presentation of false documents or through collusion, it will not result in profligacy and excessive pre-compensation and the person will be more accountable for their spend. That the chairman received moneys and did not use it for the intended purpose is at best dishonest, if not fraudulent.
Conflicts of interest
The operation of committees needs to be reviewed, the independence of a committee will always be compromised and the perception of its ability to function transparently and fairly will be suspect if the committee and its members receive favours from the institutions they have oversight of. It is befuddling that the concept of conflict of interest has not become part of the framework of the fabric of our democracy.
The legislature has its budget and it must operate within its means without seeking emoluments and sponsorship of external organisations that can exact influence on the probity, transparency and integrity of the committees in some quid pro quo arrangement – this must be deemed illegal, corrupt and outlawed. Perceptions matter, always.
A new breed of public servant
One other interesting point is that Ms. Oteh appeared to be quite combative and it is interesting that on Day One the proceedings were not given a public hearing and then the damaging allegations of living large seemed to set the stage for the committee to embarrass the lady for not playing ball with a live and televised hearing which now seems to have back-fired on the legislators.
If you are called to public service in Nigeria - Do not be assimilated and do not be intimidated. Arunma Oteh is a class act.
There is no doubt that our legislature would prefer Nigerians were not privy to the machinations of corruption, pay-for-play, bribery and other despicable practices that have been rumoured about but never verified. With Ms. Oteh’s very public assailing of these rent-seekers there is very little damage limitation that can be done to restore the public’s confidence in our democracy.
We need to put the feet of these people to the fire and apply more pressure on the system to change, to reform and to root out the atrocious wolves in sheep’s clothing who are selfish, self-conceited and greedily feeding on the system with ravenously gluttonous appetites.
If we are to learn anything from Ms. Oteh, our democracy is in need of an urgent reset.
Nigeria: Ministries banned from funding National Assembly – Written in 2008 about conflicts of interested between the legislature and executive.