By Michael Chibuzo
Corruption is a word that is as universal as water in its usage. It is a plague that blights nations, albeit, at varying degrees. In Nigeria particularly, the corruption menace has gotten to apocalyptic levels. Every facet of our society is swimming in endemic corruption, both seen and unseen, explicit and implicit. In fact, in the subconscious of most Nigerians, there is this latent acceptance of pervasive corruption as a norm that has come to stay.
The paradox of the Nigerian situation however, is the hypocrisy-laden outrage corruption scandals generate from the populace. It is common to see people take positions or sides in a corruption scandal based on their personal biases that has little to do with zero-tolerance for corruption.
For instance, if a public official is fingered in a corruption allegation, opponents of the government will become deeply interested in the matter and will spend every second calling for the sack and prosecution of the said official while also demonising the entire administration as corrupt. Their major (and probably only) priority is to damage the image of the official and the administration he or she is serving in and in the process pave way for their preferred party or aspiring political leaders to be seen as the better alternative.
Other commentators or anti-corruption advocates may be highly vocal and rightly calling for severe punitive actions against the allegedly corrupt official because they are not beneficiaries of the said corrupt act or because the official in the eye of the storm is not a member of their tribe or religion. This category of anti-corruption crusaders will not hesitate to amplify anything that will eventually see to the downfall of the that allegedly corrupt official.
Then of course, you have the other side of the isle where the defenders of the alleged corrupt official are encamped. On this side, there are two sub-camps. The first sub-camp are squarely focused on countering every allegations against the official the best way they can. Their singular objective is to protect the job of the official and by extension their continued access (if any). Sometimes it may not be for access but borne out of group loyalty. The second sub-camp are those following the facts available in the public domain to defend the said official. They can change course if further information and facts begin to confirm the allegations of corruption against the official.
In all of the hullabaloo that comes with a high profile corruption scandal, conversations centered around needed reforms that will eliminate avenues of corruption or block loopholes that people exploit to embezzle money always take the back seat. This is why the end of a corruption scandal is always the beginning of the next scandal. In fact, today’s anti-corruption activists are tomorrow’s dramatis personae in the next corruption scandal.
One peculiar thing about Nigeria’s corruption menace and one of the reasons it appears to be incurable is the presence of civil servants as the fulcrum of the corruption lever. I have pointed out elsewhere before now that no looting or embezzlement of public funds can succeed without the fingerprint of civil servants. They are the alpha and omega of corruption in Nigeria. Unfortunately, they are largely unseen and away from the firing line. This is largely due to the fact that they have mastered the art of walking on the corruption soft sand without leaving much footprints.
The most visible fingerprints of civil servants in the corruption empire is seen in the budget document of states and the federal government. The budget document is always the foundation of corruption for the year under review. Every MDA has a budget committee comprised almost entirely of civil servants. It is at this stage they lay the groundwork for every potential looting that will occur in the upcoming year.
Budget line items are duplicated, costs padded in addition to inclusion of unnecessary line items in the MDA budgets.
From my observation over the years, it appears the Budget Office of the Federation and by extension the Ministry of Budget and National Planning carry out only compilation of the individual budget proposals sent in by MDAs and then produce the aggregate figures and other parameters for the President to present before the NASS. Same practice likely occurs at the subnational level too. This is why in the same budget document, you will see a line item by an MDA for purchase of say 50 laptops at a cost of N24 million and in another MDA, they will budget N32 million for purchase of the same number of laptops.
During implementation of the budget, the major actors that facilitate sleaze and diversion of funds are the civil servants. They work with the political appointees to navigate through the bureaucratic hurdles needed to release funds and then embezzle the ones they can embezzle. In the public service, there are many bus stops for corruption such as monitoring, evaluation and certification of projects by civil servants before release of funds to contractors, purchase of office furniture and equipment, personnel training expenditure, duty tour allowances etc.
In the recent corruption scandal involving the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Poverty Alleviation and Disaster Management, one of the modus operandi employed by public servants to fleece the treasury was laid bare. You could see an individual mid-level public servant getting more than N2 million in duty tour allowances for just five nights (out of which they may end up spending only one night for the assignment). They made sure they spread the cost including budgeting for exorbitant flight cost even to non-existent airports. The revelation from that saga is just a representation of what is happening in other MDAs.
It becomes even more worrisome when you realise that every MDA has an Auditor and who should flag some of these financial recklessness but in most cases they are part of the corruption empire. In the midst of all these, what should be the way forward some may ask. For me, I believe the way forward starts from having the will at the political level to step on corrupt toes without looking at the face the toes belong to. It is therefore gratifying to note that President Bola Ahmed Tinubu has shown he is willing to step on any toe. That is an impressive signaling.
Beyond political will at the highest levels of both the federal and state governments, it is important to overhaul the civil service work structure to mirror that of the private sector in terms of both personnel efficiency and cost monitoring to eliminate waste and embezzlement as much as possible. For example, procurement of items by the government should be streamlined in line with market realities. The government should maintain a fluid database containing list of items MDAs usually need such as laptops, photocopying machines, office furniture, etc and then put a cap on the cost of each of the items that will be allowed in the budget. Same methodology should also be applied to computation of duty tour allowances in addition to the other cost-saving measures.
By the time we start doing these little things right and severely punishing any infraction/corrupt acts by both civil servants, political appointees and private sector collaborators no matter how minor, we would have taken the first crucial step towards stopping the hemorrhaging of our public treasury. Gradually, we may begin to change the mindset most Nigerians usually have which motivates them to join public service by any means necessary. Perhaps, that may signal the gradual draining of Nigeria’s cesspool of corruption.
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