(Vanguard of Sunday, December 23, 2007)
A young friend of mine dressed me down at the weekend. He was angry that I have always targeted politicians whenever I asked that Nigeria be restructured. He said politicians had teachers and those teachers are those the politicians meet when they come in and leave behind when they go out. Coming in means assuming office and going out means quitting office. So those who teach them have a different perception of tenure. Their tenure is not four years or eight years. It is limited only by age and years of service. You leave when you are 60 or when you have served 35 years. Once upon a time, you were not limited by years of service, only by age. So we had a case where the child of a railway worker retired before his father who was still 53 years old! The secret was and still is documentation. It is documents people look at to prove the truth or falsehood of every claim. In the absence of birth certificates, all you did was to go to the magistrate’s court and tell the court clerk what you wanted. He had done it before; and he would do it for you within 30 minutes. The old typewriter was there handy. He would type the document all over in every case, but with the advent of the computer, all he does is to insert your name etc in the appropriate place and print out the affidavit within minutes. The recitals were the same then and even now. First you are identified by name, by age, by religion and by place of birth. You then say that when you were born, there were no records of births in your locality, and that your uncle told you, and you verily believed him, that at the time of your birth there was small pox epidemic in your village or that it was a time when locusts ate up all the crops in the community’s farms. Years would then be assigned to these historical community events. If you were ready to play ball, you adjusted this age as many times as you were able to afford it. Relate this to any other situation and you can see the validity of documentation which had grown into an art form. Politicians, says the friend who dressed me down, are green horns in this affair. He asked me why top officials in the ministries do not want to go on leave. Do I know why there is so much activity towards the end of the year? Am I aware that those who are proud that they work in banks and earn tons of money are a subject of joke in the ministries where at the end of the year they make more money than a banker can have access to in five years? He told me to call at any ministry now during this Sallah period and this Christmas. Many of them won’t go on holiday, he roared into the phone. Documents are flying all over the place and money is there to be shared because it is criminal to return money not spent to the treasury. You must look for what to spend the money on. And the specialists have been there in the service. Politicians have no money compared with those in the service. This angry young man was not ready to exclude any arm of the services. It is all over the public service, no exception. Repeat no Exception! I asked him whether he was aware that he was running his service down. He said he was speaking the truth and that I should not think that removing politicians from office would cure the problem of corruption. He said he was only helping my case. He could do so, he said, because he is only 10 years old in the service and as he climbed the ladder, he discovered he has been gradually losing his sense of guilt. He said he is worried because he even finds it difficult to remember any of the commandments of God! He finds himself twisting and turning to find good reasons for doing what he was brought up to know to be wrong. The weeds in the forest now start transforming into beautiful flowers! The system trains you to deaden feelings. What he is gradually growing into is a man who wants to take what they are brought up to believe is no man’s property. And the taking is through documentation which must involve a clique. Once that clique is in place, you are home and dry, and what you do at every opportunity is to harvest the outcome of collusion. He says he is still down the line, but he cannot deny that some oath-taking must be involved in the mass corruption that is going on in every place in the public service where money is spent. He told me corruption cannot be wiped out in Nigeria because there is nobody free from its influence and impact. How much does a civil servant earn, and how much can a politician earn? Politicians are just pushed forward to be the guilty ones, the only guilty ones. No one is innocent. So, he told me, you are involved in a battle that cannot be won. He surprised me by defending Iwu, Prof Maurice Iwu, INEC chairman. How many people does INEC employ as staff on its payroll, and how many people are there to be INEC officials at polling booths, at collation centres? Work it out, he said. There are 774 local government areas, each with at least 10 wards, and each ward having at least five voting units manned by about three strangers to INEC operations but who must bear the guilt of INEC. These INEC agents may never have seen an INEC office. They are recruited and trained a few days before an election and it is what comes out in documentation that is announced. Influential politicians make local arrangements on what to do with documenting the outcome of elections at the polling unit, collating centre etc. Some semblance of order is there in cities and other central places where television cameras show up and observers, local and foreign, go to watch queues that are just a parade, but in the local areas, forming more than 60 per cent of the population, you do not know what is happening. How can you know? But a lot is happening, and what matters is the returns, through documentation which emerges at the collation centres. How do you expect Iwu to know what happened in a remote voting outpost in Bayelsa or Yobe State? This may have been concluded before the elections! Someone pays for it to be done, and there is no way it can be changed without fundamental restructuring of the human person called the Nigerian. What the angry young technocrat was saying was played out last Saturday in some parts of the country where elections were conducted to local government councils. The elections were not conducted by Iwu because the Constitution gives this responsibility to state governments. Instead of INEC, you have SIEC, that is State Independent Electoral Commission. Until retired Justice Okunega said so at a press conference in Benin City, as chairman of the Edo State Independent Electoral Commission, I did not know that INEC had updated the register of voters. Okunega said all the states met in July and they were given cassettes of each state’s register of voters. He said they were updated registers of voters! I do not know when INEC updated its national register of voters from which the state and local government registers derive their existence. But Okunega cannot lie. He assured everyone there would be a level playing ground for those taking part in the elections which took place on Saturday December 15. Three offices of the Edo State INEC were torched in Edo North and there were lots of problems in other parts of the State. The parties confronting themselves and seeking each other’s jugular were the Action Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party. ANPP seems to have disappeared from the face of the Edo earth. Almost one week after the elections, results are still being awaited, and these results can only be announced from documented results. Edo State INEC trained people who now went over to the local government areas to train 4,000 strangers who would man the different centres for the SIEC! But Okunega was not and could not be on the ground, in the hidden places where the arithmetic is done to reflect those who lose and those who win. It is a national chore and each exercise shows an improvement on previous electoral rots. And we are wasting our time on so-called review of electoral laws to make elections in this country more credible. Can’t you get it? The problem is not the law but the people. The electoral process is corrupted, corrupt. There is nothing wrong with the document. There is everything wrong with the people. It is people who steal, not documents. So if you want to tackle stealing, you reach out to the people and tame them. If 400 people die on our roads every month, and that is some 5,000 a year, and the money for roads and for water and for power supply and for education and for industries to provide jobs is routinely shared by public servants, we should attend to this national sore and tackle it with painful surgery. My approach has been a plea for less government and an arrangement where being in government is not running a business but providing a service. Whoever handles this restructuring so that we channel funding to public rather than personal use would be the messiah Nigerians need. The motto of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, we are told in section 15(1) of the Constitution “shall be Unity and faith, Peace and Progress”; and the national ethics, says section 23 “shall be Discipline, Integrity, Dignity of Labour, Social Justice, Religious Tolerance, Self Reliance and Patriotism”. All these have remained a future hope because we have been more comfortable with corruption as our motto. God dey. Barka da Sallah and Merry Christmas.
(Published in Vol. 2 of Democracy Watch, A Monitor’s Diary by Tony Momoh, pages 453 -457; Lagos, 2008).