Of budget padding and fumbling diplomats

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Many thanks to our over-pampered federal legislators, this past week we got a good serving of comic reliefs from the National Assembly. Suddenly, the words “pad” and “padding” have been shoved into our faces and national consciousness.

 The House of Representatives has been mired in its own daub of corruption, owing to the tendency of our political class to cheat, take advantage of the system, apply nepotism and be self-centred, as opposed to having national interest in the conduct of their official assignment. We are being inundated with the controversy of the so-called “budget padding”.

 I initially refused to give it much attention, knowing that little, if anything would come out of it, in the long run, if history serves as guide. This is because there are two main ways the matter could be resolved and whichever way taken, there is a tendency of it being politicised and eventually resolved (read killed) via a “political solution”. The two ways of resolving the matter are through the internal processes of the legislature or through external actions by the investigative bodies of state such as the police, with a view to prosecution.

 If it is the earlier method, the legislators have shown over the years, an embarrassing penchant to be driven by the spirit of camaraderie which makes them operate as a Mafioso-styled confraternity. What we may see at best would be one of those celebrated “probes” in the parliament. If we are lucky enough, they may even make the probe session open to the public and maybe even shown live on television, just to entertain the rest of the country. This is because the legislators know that many Nigerians are so easily drawn to and carried away by such theatrics which could give them short term kicks and highs. But for those of us who have observed happenings in the parliament over the years, we cannot be drawn in by such drama.

 We have seen enough of them over the years. And we have also seen how they often end, leaving the rest of the society high and dry. We may end up with the integrity of the report being questioned and finally rubbished as it happened with the power sector probe by the House of Representatives of 2007-2011. Even if the House ends up indicting and punishing any member, there is a strong possibility of the same House taking a decision later to expunge the indictment and restore the indicted persons back to an assumed state of innocence and they all would live happily ever after. That much happened in the case of the Senate who, after a parliamentary session that witnessed the indictment of a string of its presiding officers, took a decision at the end of the session to cancel all the ‘indictments’.

 Or, who could forget the petroleum subsidy probe so soon and the fraud that followed even that one? At the end of that probe and the pungent fragrance that emitted therefrom, the House did absolutely nothing to its member who was fingered. At best, the House merely filibustered long enough to allow the member sit out the tenure, albeit in an undignified silence for a known vocal member. Given the above scenario, why would anybody bother about what would come out of a potential probe in the House?

 The alternative route to addressing this budget padding imbroglio is to wait for the investigative state agencies like the police, the Department of State Security Services and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to complete their assignment that may lead to prosecution. But there again would be another round of controversy. The legislators would again claim that the executive is interfering in the affairs of the legislature. And many citizens would similarly tow that line. But we cannot allow this incident to go without investigation and punishment. The time is ripe for citizens and citizens’ groups to close ranks speak up and demand this. That would go a long way in re-injecting integrity into our public budgeting processes. This would also help address this unnecessary distraction in the legislature and allow us go back to talking about other matters of public and urgent importance.

But just before we do that, there is yet another embarrassing distraction that stared us in the face during the week from the same National Assembly. It was the screening of the first batch of career diplomats nominated by the President to be appointed ambassadors. Apparently, some of the nominees could not satisfactorily answer some primary school level basic questions on Nigeria. There are video clips of about four of the nominees struggling to sing the National Anthem or recite the National Pledge. I have equally read and heard scathing remarks by many Nigerians about the quality of the nominees.

 Describing those career diplomats as a disgrace is putting it mildly. A diplomat ought to be a repository of knowledge: information, facts and statistics about the country. To that extent, there is absolutely no reason or explanation for why very senior diplomats in Nigeria nay, any Nigerian adult, should not know our National Anthem and the Pledge. If they cannot, then they lack the moral ground to step forward to represent our country. It is as basic as saying that a Christian clergyman or woman should be able to recite the Paternoster.

 But can we trust the Senate to take the bold and firm decision not to confirm the nominees? I cannot wager on it because I have also followed happenings in the Senate long enough not to make such assumption. Not the least is the established precedent of confirming nominees for ambassadorial postings after they had clearly flunked the screening. In March 2011, a similarly embarrassing situation occurred.

 In that case, a certain Ijeoma Chinyere Bristol, a career diplomat was a nominee as an ambassador. Interestingly, her husband was at the time also a Nigerian envoy. You could therefore refer to them as a ‘diplomatic family’. But Madam Career Diplomat did not display the level of intelligence required of such high office of representing the entire country in a foreign mission. She could neither sing nor recite the National Anthem and the Pledge, even after three attempts. Asked to list the means of diplomatic communications, she answered “Notes and memoranda.” She also could not tell the capital of Jigawa state. The clincher was when she was asked to explain the Vienna and Geneva Conventions and she could only say “I am confused. I am confused.”

 The horror of it is that despite the position of the then chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs that the woman should not be approved for the appointment, the Senate agreed to approver her nomination. I recall the embarrassing reason advanced by then Senate President David Mark while urging his colleagues to clear Bristol as an ambassador of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Mark urged the Senators to, “temper justice with mercy” and treat Bristol’s case as “a case of what we call poor pass.”  And on that note, Nigeria actually sent out a diplomat who lacked depth to represent her as an ambassador. Having previously laid such a precedent, what is the guarantee that this present Senate would act differently?

 The truth is that the Senate is more likely to allow all the nominees go; to use a Nigerian lingo, “let my people go”. And that would be a disservice to the country, no matter what anyone says and no matter the justification. It seems, in the diplomatic service (in Nigeria) the peak of the career is being made an ambassador and these nominees have in fact reached the apex of their professional service and are waiting to be crowned ambassadors. Too bad for them, because the times have changed and citizens are the wiser. In what has now been defined as the “Office of Citizen of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”, the Nigerian people now demand ownership of the process of selecting their leaders. This show of shame should serve as a good opportunity for citizens to make the demand and follow through to end this shenanigans and mediocrity in public office.

 It is bad enough that we are faced with various levels of mediocre leadership and representation at home; we can do well not to export that out as the best of us to represent all of us.  To do otherwise is to open our citizens abroad to more mediocre services. Perhaps, this is the kind of thing that led to an embarrassing incident in Libya in March 2011. Then, the Nigeria’s ambassador to Libya, Isah Mohammed Aliyu allegedly abandoned thousands of compatriots and fled the country with his family to Malta while the Libyan war raged on. To date, I am not aware of any action taken by the Nigerian state to punish that irresponsible action which amounted to treachery. We cannot let this present case slip past us.

PUNCH NG


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