IDEAS Radio 17 January 2020

IDEAS & the Use or Abuse of Public Power & Property

Rotimi Sankore: And welcome to the Public Square.  I’m Rotimi Sankore. Aghogho Oboh is off sick today.  Get well quick Aghogho! So I’m here alone, with Ayo Obe and our special guest, Chief Guy Ikokwu, who is going to be discussing with us: Fifty Years After the End of the Civil War.  He’s eminently qualified to do that. He’s 83 years old, he’s a veteran of the Civil War. He qualified to practice as a lawyer in 1962, I believe he’s the oldest practising lawyer in Lagos; he’s been practising for 57 years, and he’s Grand Patron of Ohanaeze Ndigbo.  So, welcome Sir.

Chief Guy Ikokwu: Thank you very much sir.

RS: But first the IDEAS segment with Ayo Obe, and today we’re going to be looking at: Misuse of public property by public officials and decision taking that impacts on citizens; and we’re going to be asking the big question: Who or how do we hold officials that do this Accountable.  Welcome Ayo.

Ayo Obe: Hello Rotimi.  But I always like to try and accentuate the positive, so I would rather say that rather than saying we’re going to look at abuse, we are going to look at the IDEAS issues in the use of public property and the use of public power generally.  I mean, the one that springs to mind immediately, the one that I put out on the Twitterfeed, was the question of so many people who were trying to register for JAMB (the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board) examinations, and they were instructed that they would not be able to register unless they had their National Identity Card.  Now, there are issues with the National Identity Card as it is, I’m sure I’ve told you that they awarded me my law partner’s date of birth and said that I can’t change it, even though the Bank Verification Number on which it was based had been changed. So there are issues with the National Identity Card itself. But more to the point, is the issue of whether people have been able to collect it, whether the … it has been prepared, and … the market … nobody should ever pretend that Nigerians don’t know market forces when they arise, because once there was a market in having the National Identity Card, then those who needed it were forced to pay sums which were not necessarily reflected in the Federal Government’s income for the year!  And so, it became a real struggle for them. And people were saying: For goodness sake, why make it a condition when you know people don’t have this National Identity Card? It’s not part of what the government provides…

RS: And that the system won’t be able to provide it within the time.

AO: … within the time frame.  Yes. And the government officials who had had this bright idea, were there saying No, No, No, No.  And people were still protesting. And then suddenly, somebody … maybe a light went on … off in somebody’s head, and they said: You know what?  You don’t need … Just go and register as before. Don’t bother with the NIN. And you know, but some people would have turned up, turned their lives upside down …

RS: Oh, turning up at … at 2 am or 3 am to queue … 

AO: You know, doing all sorts of things …

RS: … travelling from far places where no centre existed.

AO: And so the point is not just … I mean because quite frankly, it may look as though one is talking about it because it has been reversed, and perhaps we should have talked about it before it became … before it was reversed, but the point is that this was obviously an unreasonable demand to make of Nigerian citizens.  And then to just say: Ok, we’ve changed our minds, ‘Ajuwaya’ kind of thing, and … (which means: As you were for those who ‘no fit knack am’) … that: Return to the previous situation. I mean … who in the first place came up with the idea, and what is the penalty, what penalty, what consequences are there for anybody, for the person who came up with that idea?  I mean we shouldn’t have to be being grateful that the Minister stepped in and saved people from the trauma.

And again, we have a … the next immediate example of this question of people who have a bit of public power just making statements that turn the lives of Nigerians upside down, is the issue of the increase in the rate of Value Added Tax (VAT) as we call it.  The President did not sign Money Bill into law until this year, and yet the Accountant-General was proudly telling everybody that: Yes, I saw a bill that had been prepared in December, and I sent it back because blah blah blah. And …

RS: Sent it back and told them that they had to go back and charge 7.5 rather than 5%  when the Bill had not even been signed. So in other words, one public official was arbitrarily backdating …

AO: And meanwhile, the Minister again, as I say, stepped in to save Nigerians.  Now, it’s a little bit …

RS: … and said it takes effect on February 1.

AO: And said it takes effect on February 1st.  Now, I think it’s important, because we should not pretend that Nigerians are all saints when it comes to these things: the words that spring to mind immediately are “back-dated”, and it may be that this is why … but the fact is that even if you were going to say that it takes immediate effect, but-the bill had come and it was received in your office so it had clearly been … the bill had clearly been issued before the cut-off date, so I think that the …

RS: That is, not the Finance Bill, the 

AO: Yes, sorry the invoice …

RS: … the payment, the invoice from the businesses that forwarded it in December. Which is separate from the Finance Bill.

AO: Ok, yes.  I take the point, the Finance Bill had now become an Act actually.  But it was signed into law as legislation on the statute books of Nigeria.

So the point is that: Why do … these officials at different levels making their diktats and … making their pronouncements: where’s the Integrity … the Accountability in this matter?

RS: Because if public officials can do this, make up their own stuff, turn the lives of thousands or even millions of citizens upside down, and then when it is corrected by another public official, everybody just goes on as if nothing had happened.

AO: … had happened, yes.  So I think that that is a question that … it’s about the use of public power, the use of public … I mean I’m going to come to the  public resources, but when it comes to the use of public power, the general consensus is that when you abuse public power, then you are being corrupt.  The tendency of power to corrupt, as we keep on saying, does not relate to merely money and financial matters, but it relates to the fact that you just say: I can say what I like, and do what I like, and …

RS: And regardless of impact you don’t care.

AO: Exactly, you don’t care because there’s no Accountability.  And I do think that particularly when it comes to issues like the JAMB there should be some accountability.  After all … And it’s not just in Nigeria. Governments will always try to pretend that: Well, we did something wrong, but we didn’t do something wrong, and everybody should just move on.  I mean, you saw it recently on a terrible scale in Iran, when some people took it upon themselves to shoot a plane out of the sky, and the government was trying to say: Move on, move along there, nothing to see here.  And then eventually, when it was clear that they could no longer say … they said: Ok yeah, it was a mistake that we made, but still: Move along. People of Iran said: Are you crazy? What do you mean, move along? And they took to the streets.  Same here in Nigeria, people have to start making protests before government officials said: Oh yeah, that thing might be difficult for people to meet. And I think that if we are exercising public power there should be a greater deal of … a greater amount of responsibility.  We shouldn’t be careless in the way that we use public power.

RS: Alright, but there is another issue.

AO: Yeah, because I think also that the issue of use of public power also falls into the issue of use of public property, and of course, what brought this to the fore recently was the report that the President’s daughter had used the presidential jet to travel to Bauchi.  Now, we should say that after the protests, or a lot of adverse comment from the Nigerian people, it later was said that: Oh, she had gone to represent the President in something, something to do with the Emir of Bauchi, or I think the … some traditional …

CGI: Durbar

AO: Durbar, and …

RS: And people said that if she’s going to represent the President, is she an appointed public official?

AO: Well, I mean, as far as I’m concerned, if you are going for cultural matters, the President has a Minister of Culture and his office is full of people.  But I dare say that if they were going to represent the President at such an event, they would have taken public transport in the form of airplanes and so on.  And the argument was brought out that the presidential, the First Family security and so on and so forth. I appreciate that the First Family requires a greater degree of security than ordinary people like you, or Chief … ok, like you or I.  But at the same time, we’re not talking about jumping into a molue at Mushin market. We’re talking about a plane … a flight in a plane, and every one of us, we all go through the security that goes with taking a flight, even … whether a local or an international flight, you have to be checked for weapons and all sorts of things, and we get into the plane!  So if that security is good enough for ordinary plane travellers then I think that it should be good enough for the President’s daughter. I also think …

RS: It’s also worth pointing that there are countries that are well more developed than Nigeria, and …

AO: I’m not interested in the level of development because …

RS: And they don’t have presidential jets!

AO: Well … there are also countries where they do have presidential jets and the president uses them for purposes which are not connected with his official duties, then he has to pay the cost.  So …

RS: He pays the fuel, he pays the overtime for the security, such as in the US.

AO: You see!  So that … now the reason why I thought that we should discuss this from the point of view of Integrity and Ethics, was because so many people who … of course, it divided along political lines, so the supporters of the President were sort of: Well …  I will say that some said that this was a bit of a messy issue for the presidency. But some were, those who are dedicated to support the President were saying that: Nothing to see here, and then resorted to whataboutery. But others were saying: Oh well, in that case … official residence, maybe the President should live there by himself!  Others said: But if you have an official car … why should you live there, and I myself commented that when I was leaving church on Sunday, I had seen a car which had a state government, which had a Secretary to the State Government from outside Lagos and I said I was surprised. But then I said to myself, but, let me – although I think it’s a very different matter to a  presidential jet (for which I really don’t think there’s much excuse) – people were saying: If I have an official car, I shouldn’t use it because I’m going to … Yes, if I had an official car and I were going to my office, I would certainly use it to take my car to school as well. And I thought to myself: Supposing this person who came with the SSG vehicle, had actually come (because it was from outside Lagos, as I said) had come into Lagos, and was going back on Monday or Tuesday and said: I want to go to church on Sunday.  Am I saying that they shouldn’t be able to use the car for that purpose? Not everybody can afford to keep two cars in their compound because one is the official car and the other is my private car. So I think that although my knee-jerk reaction was to say: No, yes, we should all, everybody should say never use an official car for non-official purposes! On second thoughts, I thought it’s not quite as clear cut as all that.

RS: But there are some things that are clear cut, as Michelle Obama said in her book, they had to discourage people from coming to visit them in the White House for frivolous reasons, because they had to remind all those people that every bottle of water, every biscuit or every chocolate r sweet or cake that you eat, if you are not an official of another country, or a Governor coming for a state visit of something …

AO: Official purposes.

RS: … yes, that they pay from their pocket.  That even though they are living in the White House they pay, they are invoiced for it at the end of the month, and when she looks at the invoice and says: Ah ah  soft drink: $700 what’s this? Please please, discourage your friends from coming! You know? So public officials need to understand that …

AO: But the problem is that we don’t actually bill our public officials in that way.

RS: So we need to institute the process.  We probably need an office of … I don’t know, Oversight, Accountability.  Many countries have it.  

AO: Yes.

RS: Nigeria has no such office!

AO:  And that’s why you see this extensive abuse of public goods.  I mean … to go back, when I was sworn in as a member of the Police Service Commission, we were put into an hotel at government expense for the swearing in or the inauguration, and it turned out that … maybe I don’t know how to really chop life in that proper way, but the bills that some people ran up on … during those few days …

RS: On the public purse.

AO: Because … not necessarily their fault, but people were coming to see them in large numbers and expecting to be fed.  It’s not that they were eating six meals or twenty meals, but people were coming to see them, and … by the time meals had been signed for, it became …  and so there’s a mentality that we also have, that: Ah! My brother is there, make I go chop! And we need perhaps to also … because a lot of the excuse that is given for this abuse of public property, is that people, the constituents, they demand it, and that’s why we need it.

RS: We need to explain to the constituents, and we need an Office of Public Accountability.

AO: Once they have that Office of Accountability, legislators and public office holders will learn to speak to … but it’s not just –  I should also, just in closing, say that this happens both in the private and the public sector. We should … we need to check ourselves about these things.

So  I want to thank everybody for listening to IDEAS.  Sometimes the IDEAS issues come from us, we should check ourselves.

RS: Alright.  Thank you so much Ayo Obe.

Stay with us, after the ads and the break: Fifty years after the Civil War, have we learned the lessons?  And indeed, what lessons should we have learned, with Chief Guy Ikokwu.