Getting stuck with prebendalism in Nigeria

Getting stuck with prebendalism in Nigeria

It has been a week of interesting news reports. We saw the continuing saga of Mrs Patience Jonathan’s struggle to claim and keep sums of money (ranging from $15m to $31.4m, depending on which report you read) found in bank accounts allegedly opened by a former presidential domestic aide under her husband, Goodluck Jonathan’s Presidency.

While you would expect a sane society to squirm at the mere audacity of the claimant, not a few persons have dismissed any question as to how she came about such money. One commentator even said the money “was not too much for a woman whose husband served as a deputy governor, governor, Vice-President and President within a period of 16 years”.

What the above argument tells us is that it is to be expected that once people get into public office, their finances must experience a quantum leap and they can become super rich by that very fact. This is because the commentator did not advance argument as to any known work or business that would have fetched Mrs Jonathan such fortunes. The last I remember was a convoluted process by which she was appointed permanent secretary in the Bayelsa State government, a position she at best was holding in an honorary capacity and for which her supporters then said she was doing gratuitously.

Within the same week, news report said another former First Lady, Turai Yar’Adua, lost some N91m cash in her family home and on reporting the case to the police, some of her domestic staff were arrested. Yes, you read that correctly. What was that amount of money (in cash) doing in a private residence? It seems that particular news escaped many commentators for one should also ask what business goes on in the Yar’Adua family home.

Then came the equally baffling report that President Muhammadu Buhari’s wife, Aisha, did not only attend the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York but attended with two of their daughters, Zahra and Amina. This is happening in a government that is expected to show a high level of fiscal responsibility, given the precarious state of the country’s finances, now that we are officially in recession. This last news so incensed Nigerians that they asked questions for which Presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, responded: “None of President Buhari’s children now with the family in New York travelled on government tickets. The family paid their tickets.”

Now that makes it even more curious. Did they board a commercial airline or they flew in a presidential jet? Assuming they flew commercial airline on their private accounts, are we saying no level of state, diplomatic and security services were extended to them during that trip? And if so, how are the costs for such services met? I am equally curious to know what was of so much importance at the UNGA for Buhari’s daughters that the family could not spare a thought to shelling out thousands of hard-earned dollars (at the current exchange rate of about N400 to $1) to attend. What is the guarantee that the family got its dollars at the commercial rate and not some discounted rate? By the way, do those first daughters have a record of attending such events in their private capacities in the past? This is something the investigative bodies in both the executive and legislative arms should consider weighing in. I also expect investigative reporters to take up the cue and unravel how Zahra and Amina made it to the UNGA.

In all the above scenarios, there is something very typically Nigerian about it. The dominant segment of the society believes that it is to be expected that our public officers and those related or connected to them immediately and distantly are entitled to such a change of lifestyle, personal situation and wealth that we couldn’t even question much about them.  This sense of entitlement to public resources and privileges by families and friends of public officers amounts to prebendalism. The public office thus becomes the licence for unrestrained access to public resources. Rather than condemn it, many citizens pray and hope to get connected to the prebend where the resources are shared.

It is thus common place to hear discussions among citizens which justify such unfair, unjust and often criminal acquisition of state resources. For instance, you may see a huge hotel, beautiful or expensive private property or business structure such as a plaza and ask who owns it. You may be told that it belongs to the son or brother-in-law or cousin or spouse or mistress or concubine of a public officer. In many instances, you just end up saying, “Ah, no wonder”. In your “Ah, no wondering”, you simply indicate that the structure is justified. But is it and should it?

This should not be the case. Our laws do not provide for such, but the peculiar humans we have in Nigeria are the type who are good at manipulating the system and using it to overawe the citizens to submission. We have over the years created a system where members of the immediate families of government officials are thrusted upon the society and demand recognition and entitlement. I couldn’t really be bothered much about what happened in undemocratic systems like when Gen. Sani Abacha’s family members became the unofficial cabinet members in his military government. There is however something distasteful in leaders in a democratic government acting the same way.

A clear example is in Cross River State where Governor Ben Ayade’s brother is generally seen and by the society as the “alternate governor” in the absence of the governor. I even saw him inaugurate a general hospital during one of those times the state governor was out of the country. While this continues, the political class is involved in a conspiracy of silence. I am not aware that the opposition political parties in the state, notably the All Progressives Congress, have done much to stand up against the various excesses of Ayade. The APC members from the state are apparently more interested in focusing on what they can get at the federal level where their party is in power. It is thus more beneficial for them to focus on the federal prebend than be worried about what happens locally.

Are we likely to ever overcome some of this openly disruptive and prebendal activities of public officers in Nigeria? It would take a long time but has to be driven by the civil society, not the political class who are all complicit. I have asked on several occasions why previous and current presidents and governors host their political party meetings in state houses, incurring costs on public resources. In fact, many state government houses go to the extent of adorning the governor’s office with the flag of their political parties, in addition to the national and may be state flags and insignias.

Clearly, our National Orientation Agency has more work in its hands than it thinks. This is one area it needs to focus the “Change Begins With Me” message.

Published in The Punch newspaper of Monday September 26, 2016

Written by
Obo Effanga
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