For all of two weeks, Nigerians have been riveted by the disheartening revelation that Aviation Minister Stella Oduah approved the purchase of two bullet-proof BMW cars at the cost of $1.6 million.
Once SaharaReporters broke the story, we were treated to a predictable game of fibs and obfuscations. First breath: an aviation official denied the report. Second breath: the minister’s spokesman admitted the purchase. He then defended it on the ground that the minister needed the cars to protect her from faceless threats to her life. Third breath: Yet another official said the cars were actually bought for the use of foreign aviation dignitaries on official visits to Nigeria. Fourth breath: Ms. Oduah, appearing last week before a committee of the House of Representatives, disavowed her spokesman’s account of events.
If the varied accounts had any characteristic in common, it was this: each narrator seemed to speak before thinking. If there was a common impression, it was of a desperate bunch trying hard – but failing mightily – to defend a transaction that’s simply impossible to justify.
If Ms. Oduah were an official in a country where ill-thought actions have chastening consequences, she would long have handed in her letter of resignation. Instead, she’s extremely lucky to be a Nigerian, a space where anything-goes is the going style.
Nigerians can’t stand the small crook, won’t forgive the petty thief. If a wretched, starving fellow is spied picking somebody’s pocket for a hundred naira for a meal, you can count on any Nigerian mob to deliver a sentence of death. And that sentence is instantly executed, no appeals for mercy from the hapless thief entertained. But let a Nigerian public official – a governor, say – steal billions of naira of public funds, and the same mob becomes amazingly dovish. Some will rise to the thieving governor’s defense because he’s a “son/daughter of the soil,” a fellow “tribesman/woman.” Some will put much store by the fact that s/he worships in the same church or mosque. Some will declare that the Bible warns, let s/he who is without sin throw the first stone. Some will ask whether you expected a person who had sugar sprinkled on her/his tongue to spit it.
Nigeria is a paradox. It metes out instant capital punishment on pickpockets. Yet, it is the perfect kingdom for the big, bold, audacious embezzler or squanderer. It’s a country where ethics is frequently asked to surrender to ethnicity, principle must cower before sectarian claims, and where institutions are made to shudder in the presence of personalities, the merest achievement of public officials is inflated beyond belief. It is, above all, a country where nothing is ever any body’s fault. In Nigeria, the buck never stops at anybody’s desk; like the Energizer bunny, the buck must keep on going.
Ms. Oduah has benefited from the strange confection of Ethics Nigeriana. Many (I’d even hazard, most) Igbo saw that what the Aviation Minister did was plain wrong – no ifs or buts. But some Igbo groups and individuals rushed to her side, proclaiming her a target of ethnic bigots. Their line of argument, whether deployed by the Efik, the Hausa, the Yoruba, or the Igbo, is exasperating. How does being Igbo lessen the awfulness and scandal of a minister’s decision to buy two BMW cars at a price tag of $1.6 million?
Every inch of Nigeria is bereft of basic facilities. For the vast majority of Nigerians, life is hardly livable. Only recently was the country’s minimum wage raised to N18,000 (about $112) per month. That’s $112 per month to spend on rent, clothing, kerosene/firewood, food, transportation, school fees, healthcare, (tanker-borne) water, (non-existent) electricity, and so on. The federal and state governments were dragged, kicking and screeching, to assent to that minimum. Today, many Nigerian workers are still paid much less than that miserable minimum. Forgive me, but I don’t see how the millions of hapless Igbo are helped by Ms. Oduah’s approval of vulgar sums for bullet-proof cars.
This is not to deny the existence, persistence and power of the ethnic factor. There’s no question that some of the minister’s harshest critics would shed their indignation and sing a different tune were she a member of their ethnic bracket. But that fact, I think, does not validate the use of ethnicity to defend impunity. Instead, it offers a challenge as well as an opportunity for the emergence of a cross-ethnic coalition of enlightened citizens. Such citizens ought to be courageous enough to reject the invocation of ethnicity in defense of nonsense.
In 2007, many commentators went after Patricia Etteh, then Speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, for spending N600 million of public funds on renovating her official residence and her deputy’s. In one piece titled, “A female speaker’s manly vices,” I argued that Ms. Etteh deserved to be banished from her office. I wrote: “She has displayed a quality of arrogance and insensitivity to the national mood that is difficult to stomach from an occupant of her exalted position. In a season of national misery and disquiet, she has proved herself an insouciant fan of revelry, self-aggrandizement and squandermania.”
The title of my piece was provoked, in part, by some misguided apologists who sought to defend the speaker on grounds of gender. Others still raised the ethnic defense. But both the gender and ethnic apologia were hollow in her case. They have no traction in Ms. Oduah’s case, either.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s response to the Oduah scandal was to – in effect – refuse to address it. He achieved his evasion by setting up a panel to look into the matter and report back in two weeks. Is there any information of consequence that the president doesn’t already have? Nobody, least of all Ms. Oduah, has denied that an aviation agency doled out $1.6 million for two cars. That’s a grave enough misjudgment for the minister to merit being fired. The US, Britain, Germany, Norway, France, China, and Canada have lots more money than Nigeria. Yet, it’s a safe bet that no aviation authority in any of those countries would survive the scandal of doling out $1.6 million on two cars! I’d like to know whether Ms. Oduah and Nigeria’s aviation “dignitaries” are driven around in $800,000 bullet-proof BMWs when they visit other (wealthier) nations.
If President Jonathan needs a panel and two weeks to figure out how to respond to the Aviation scandal, then how much time – and how many panels – would he require in order to tackle his country’s ever-worsening climate of insecurity, its education crises, scary healthcare system, horrible roads, and the tattered state of its infrastructure?
It’s a mistake to assume that the president wanted a panel that would exhume the facts to guide his action. No, Mr. Jonathan was merely playing according to the rule book of our mess of a country. One of the rules is to shield, protect and immunize loyal “steakholders” like the Aviation Minister from the consequences of their actions and inactions. The presidential panel’s real, if unstated, mandate is to lull outraged Nigerians to sleep. If it can, the panel must induce us to forget that our “Honorable Minister” blew $1.6 million of our scarce funds on two cars. Once we forget, the president will be able to do what he really wants to do – nothing!
Some of Ms. Oduah’s defenders have pointed to the extensive renovation she initiated at various Nigerian airports. The facts are there, undeniable. But Nigeria is a nation of at least 120 million people – perhaps as many as 170 million. Surely, the president can find another minister from that population capable of continuing – and even expanding – the airport renovation projects. To argue that Ms. Oduah and she alone can oversee that job is to fall back on the Nigerian cult of the individual. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo used that canard when he made a thinly disguised bid to alter Nigeria’s constitution in order to perpetuate himself in office. His shameless acolytes argued, “If Obasanjo is not president, who can do the job?” It was an insulting, brainless question to pose in a country that brims with talent, even if the best of them are carefully, deliberately excluded from the pool. And there was the irony that the question was being posed by the surrogates of a man as ethically wretched, mischievous and bereft of a modern outlook as Mr. Obasanjo.
There’s a good chance that Ms. Oduah will keep her cabinet post, but that outcome would be for all the wrong reasons. It won’t be because she’s a superb performer, or that it made sense to fork over $1.6 million for two cars, or that the purchase met the smell test. It will be because she happens to operate in a country where ethnicity trumps ethics, loyalty to the oga at the top supersedes loyalty to the collectivity, and expediency has far more muscle than adherence to sound principles.
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