Nigeria: Scandal As Palm Oil of Politics

To posthumously paraphrase Chinua Achebe, scandal is the palm oil with which political words are eaten. Some Nigerians were surprised that a scandal landed rather early on President Bola Tinubu’s desk. He has been in office only seven months when a minister of his, a female one, the youngest one, a beautiful one, a professional one, an energetic one and a favourite one as well, was suddenly embroiled in scandal. She was in the President’s office days earlier to push for the suspension of a top agency head in her ministry, National Coordinator of the National Social Investment Program Agency [NSIPA], who was said to have transferred tens of billions into other accounts.

Papers soon surfaced that Minister Betta Edu was less than what US President Dwight Eisenhower described in 1952 as “to be clean as a hound’s tooth.” She herself had ordered N585million to be transferred to the personal account of a civil servant, said to be the Project Accountant of the Vulnerable Persons’ poverty alleviation scheme. The transfer apparently went ahead even after the Accountant General of the Federation warned that it was improper. Other papers were soon leaked, that Edu approved payment for air tickets for a trip to Lokoja, a city that has no airport. Compassionate commentators later said there is one [unused] airport nearby at Ajaokuta, so the minister probably aimed to land there.

The president quickly appeased restless opposition figures, media and civil society agitators by suspending the minister. Trouble is, newspapers quickly lurched on other leaked documents suggesting that Minister of Interior Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo’s private firm got a N487 million contract from Edu’s ministry. The minister’s defence that he resigned from running the firm four years earlier was quite shaky because he remained a shareholder and his wife still runs the firm while his children serve as its directors. Although some newspapers said the minister “was summoned to the Villa,” he was not suspended, either because the evidence against him was not convincing to the Villa, or because it feared even more official documents could yet leak and create a domino effect on top officials.

Look, will a time ever come in Nigeria when governance will proceed without one scandal or another? Right from my early school years in the 1970s when I used to sit on the doorsteps of our home and wait impatiently for my father to return from work with a sheaf of newspapers, I got the impression that scandal is the palm oil with which Nigerian political and governance words are eaten. Even during the military era when there were no parliaments, no opposition parties, no human rights groups and no social media, hardly a week passed without the newspapers exposing one scandalous behaviour or another by government officials.

One very prominent one, pushed especially hard by Daily Times in 1973, was the case of writer Minire Amakiri, when ADC to the Military Governor of Rivers State ASP Michael Iwowari detained him and had his head shaved with a broken bottle because he published a story that annoyed the Military Governor on his birthday. Ok, there was no money involved there, only normal military men’s excess. But the Gowon regime was rocked by two affidavits in 1974 [as school children we had to rush to the Oxford dictionary to find the meaning of affidavit]. Godwin Daboh filed one against his kinsman and then Federal Commissioner [i.e. Minister] for Communications Joseph Tarka, alleging corruption. That ministry was very visible in those days because it controlled the old P&T [Post and Telegraph], which owned the Post Office and all the telephones. Soon afterwards, fellow Tivman Aper Aku filed another affidavit against then Military Governor of Benue Plateau State, Police Commissioner Joseph Gomwalk. Much like Tunji-Ojo, Gowon did not act on that one, publicly at least.

Soon after Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture [FESTAC] ended in January 1977, the Supreme Military Council led by General Olusegun Obasanjo retired some military officers who were involved in organizing it. Newspapers said there were scandals in the procurement of Scania buses and other items. As a young student at the time, I thought FESTAC was too juicy to escape scandal because New Nigerian newspaper reported at the time that ships arrived at Lagos ports with soft drinks worth N30 million for the dancers and artistes to drink. In those days a bottle of Coke cost 10 kobo, so imagine how many bottles we were talking about.

Not only the Federal Government, but state governments run by military governors were also full of scandals. Almost all the time there were tribunals of inquiry probing one scandal or another. Even local governments were not left out. Chanchaga Local Government of Niger State, which at the time was less than two years old [Local Governments were created in 1976 to replace the old Native Authorities] was embroiled in scandal and everyday the newspapers reported sensational testimonies at the probe panel.

The Second Republic years [1979-83] were replete with official scandals. Some of the most prominent ones were political and had nothing to do with money, such as the deportation to Chad of the GNPP Majority Leader of Borno State House of Assembly, Shugaba Abdurrahman Darman, which was ordered by President Shagari’s Internal Affairs Minister Bello Maitama Yusuf, recently deceased. The uproar that followed made Shagari to do a national broadcast, saying he ordered a judicial commission to determine whether indeed Darman was a Chadian. Newspapers again attacked the presidential response and, if I remember right, a court order stopped the one-man tribunal from sitting.

Some of the most widely publicized scandals were not probed in the Second Republic, such as the allegation that the Commerce Ministry was dishing out Form M [import permits] at rallies of the ruling National Party of Nigeria [NPN], and the allegation that the massive importation of Thai parboiled rice by a presidential task force was reeking of scandal.

In this Republic too, since 1999, presidents have responded to scandalous behaviour by their appointed officials in different ways. The preferred option is to play the ostrich and ignore it until it blows over. Luckily for top officials, Nigerians generally and the mass media in particular have a short attention span and after a short time, they forget about a scandalous issue and move on to another scandal, which is sure to come as night follows day. Some presidents are more impatient than others. In 2005 when the then Minister of Education Prof Fabian Osuji was said to have illegally withdrawn N55 million from his ministry’s coffers and offered it in bags to National Assembly members, including the then Senate President, in order to get his ministry’s budget passed, President Obasanjo took to the airwaves and did a live broadcast. He sacked the minister and engineered the Senate President’s fall. Obasanjo, too, swept some scandals under the carpet, such as the occasion in 2002 when N3 million cash [a huge amount at the time] was hoisted onto House of Representatives Speaker Ghali Na’Abba’s table during plenary, said to be bribe offered by a government official. There was no probe, as far as the public knew, and the culprit was never named.

The reticent President Umaru Yar’adua, too, acted quickly and firmly in 2008 when his Health Minister, her Minister of State and ten senior civil servants were said to have connived and shared out N300 million of the ministry’s funds, because the year was coming to an end and they did not want it returned to the treasury. Yar’adua sacked all of them and ordered their prosecution.

Some top aides have been sacked when they got embroiled in scandal despite their closeness to presidents. President Goodluck Jonathan had to sack his Aviation Minister Stella Oduah after it was revealed that she got an agency under her ministry to procure two bullet-proof cars for her use. Another memorable case was Abdurrashid Maina, head of the Presidential Pensions Task Force under President Jonathan. In the days before Humanitarian Affairs and Social Investment Programs came along, pensioners were the moral equivalent of Betta Edu’s vulnerable persons. Yet, Maina turned the scheme into a total wreck, and Jonathan had to sack him after he fled the country. A second Maina scandal followed when he was surreptitiously smuggled back into the civil service under President Buhari. This led to a public shouting match between the Chief of Staff to the President and the Head of Service of the Federation just before the start of a Federal Executive Council meeting, with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo playing the referee. Buhari had to sack Maina again and I think he is now in jail. Probably more painfully for Buhari, he had to sack his close pal, Secretary to the Government of the Federation Babachir David Lawal, due to the “grasscutter scandal” when he awarded his firm a N200 million contract to remove “invasive weeds” from North East drainage channels.

Presidents must therefore steel themselves and prepare a worst-case-scenario response system to scandals, which will come as sure as night follows day. For top executive officials, another side to scandals is that, as soon as you are embroiled in one, offer your resignation to the president. He may turn it down if he feels the situation is salvageable, but offer it all the same. In the presidential system, only the president is indispensable. Learn to act like the four Cuban burglars during the Watergate scandal, who kept their mouths shut on who sent them. Or like American national security council aide Lt Colonel Oliver North during the Iran/Contra scandal of 1987: insist that you acted on your own even when no one believes it. That way, Presidents will be grateful that you shielded them from scandal and they may find other ways to compensate you.