By: Israel Umoh
The coronavirus pandemic is raging like wildfire across different cities in the world. Lockdowns are the devised means to instill social (physical) distancing among the people as a way of putting at bay the spread of the virus.
In Nigeria, the Federal Government has slammed total lockdown on Abuja, Lagos and Ogun State. This means that private offices, markets, and public offices even churches are under lock-and-key. Everywhere has come to a standstill.
However, reports have it that staffers on essential duties report regularly for duty. Some management staffers in key ministries, departments and parastatals and agencies together with some of their key staffers, depending on the exigency of their offices, occasionally, if not daily, ‘sneak’ into work and dash out.
For the past few weeks now, particularly during the pandemic lockdown, fire incidents have been reported in the Offices of Auditor-General of the Federation, Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) and on Friday, Media Centre, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Headquarters, Abuja. In every sense, these are vital but sensitive offices to the national life.
Usually, the spokespersons of the organization would come to the public glare to talk brashly that the incidents have allegedly been caused by electrical faults, and that the fire did not burn important documents. Does such conceited explanation foreclose conspiracy theories? There is then more than meet the ordinary eyes in all the unfortunate fire incidents visited on public buildings constructed through taxpayers’ money.
This brings to memory the indubitable NECOM House in Lagos, the then tallest building house in the country, in the 80s. It turned out to be the butt of the inferno. The House suffered the incidents in 1983 which caused considerable damage to the building, and in 2015 which affected the top of the building. It was suspected that some rogues purportedly set the edifice ablaze to cover their corrupt practices as some vital documents were reduced to dust.
Similarly, the fate of the once-magnificent house could be replicated in other public buildings because no probe panel was set up, remote or immediate was unknown and nobody was exculpated or implicated punished. So far, the three torched buildings in the country during this lockdown period may not be completely divorced from the institutional corruption virus plaguing the Nigerian public offices for years. It could be accidental or could be man-made. Who knows?
In the 60s, some public office holders indicted for corruption were executed without trial. One of the reasons for the overthrow of the regime of General Yakubu Gowon was corruption. The Federal Government confiscated the assets of most military governors, permanent secretary and other public officers culpable of alleged corrupt practices. The subsequent military regimes that took over the reins of governance from the civilians were also entangled in the corruption cobweb.
Basically, greed, poverty, illiteracy, lack of patriotism, weak institutions, ethnicity, low societal values, ostentatious lifestyles, red-tapism, poor infrastructural facilities, weak economic system occasioned by skyrocketing inflation and inefficient leadership are among causes of corruption. These invariably impede meaningful development in the state and at the grassroots.
On assumption of office, President Muhammadu Buhari pledged to recover looted funds from corrupt officials and has tried in re-opening the soiled files of some rogue persons and ensuring they were and are being drilled by Economic, Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the anti-graft agency, for the looted funds. Despite the accusation that the administration is adopting a selective corruption trial and turning blind eyes on others, taking a plunge on the deep-seated virus is commendable. There is, no doubt, that the fear of Buhari is the beginning of financial propriety.
It is unfortunate that the perpetrators or suspects are wreaking the havocs during the lockdown period. Yet, the argument that vital documents could be affected in the burnt offices is flawed. In this digital age, such documents must properly be saved, passworded and put in other flash drives and files to forestall any unforeseen circumstances- human or machine. So the ‘evil men’ committing the havocs may be forgiven or should see it as a sheer waste of energy and time. But if the staffers concerned the front excuse for not properly saving the documents, then the intention is sinister and diabolically inclined.
It is suspected that in the ensuing months if the lockdown continues, more questionable characters will set ablaze more public buildings to conceal their dastardly intention. The Central Bank of Nigeria, Ministry of Finance, Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), Customs and Excise Office, Immigration Service and others are there. A stick of matches, a little kerosene, or Premium Motor Spirit and the trick is done. It is foolhardy to pretend that since All Progressives Congress is corruption intolerant, the system is corrupt-free. Like a glutton, a perpetrator embezzles money and cleanses his mouth. Who detects the path of a snake on a rock? Who detects the movement of a woman in visiting her lover?
None of the corruption cases initiated by the administration has ended in conviction. A former secretary to Government of the Federation who allegedly diverted N270 million of funds meant for people displaced by Boko Haram has been implicated. Buhari implemented the Treasury Single Account initiative to stop stealing money, yet it is unclear how $1 billion (£775 million) released from the country’s Crude Excess Account to fund the fight against Boko Haram was spent. There has not been the investigation of Alhaji Umar Ganduje, the Kano State governor who was secretly filmed stuffing wads of dollars into his robes. Worried by the deplorable condition of State House Clinic, Abuja, the House of Representatives in January 2019 resolved to investigate how the facility gulped N10.9 billion since 2015. But the ‘investigation’ died naturally. Winnie Oyo-Ita, the immediate Head of Service of the Federation, is standing trial for alleged misappropriation of public funds. And other pockets of corrupt practices prevail.
Obviously, the government alone cannot stem from corruption without the cooperation of the people. It behooves the government to investigate and cause those torching public buildings to pay for repairs. In addition, the government could wield a big stick on the suspects by querying them and those found guilty could be demoted or relieved of their duty.
The government has to rigorously but courageously implement the existing, stringent laws on corruption to try suspects aimed at nipping the virus in the bud.
Since 2013, China has disciplined 1,000,000 million public officials. Since the corrupt in Nigeria could not abide by the oath of office they swore to uphold, the government has to punish them to serve as a deterrent.
In fact, the government at all levels has to pay its employees living wage, pay unemployment benefits, provide enduring social amenities, offer free but quality education, affordable accommodation and affordable health system, force down hyperinflation and make available foodstuffs to its citizens.
The more government remains silent on the rising fire incidents, the more such will increase. Set up a probe panel to unravel the remote and immediate causes, and let the culprits be punished. By this, the incidents would be extirpated in the country.