The scandal that has led to suspension of the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Dr. Betta Edu, has continued to generate ripples. But then I frankly find the whole ruse being made of the matter amusing. The tone and vigour of the reactions may be giving one the certainly misleading impression that the sort of infraction being attributed to Dr. Edu is alien to our clime and for which reason we all are highly scandalised.
On the contrary, what we’ve just seen with the minister is a practice that properly belongs to the amoral way of life characterising our public service, from the political leaders in Aso Rock to the most junior clerk in the civil service. It’s not in any way strange to us.
The difference with Edu’s case is that something went wrong. It’s not difficult to guess that the memos flying round the social media were leaked by persons who have an axe to grind; persons who felt shortchanged in the usual bazaar that takes place in government ministries, departments, and agencies. Based on my experience with civil service in Nigeria, I’m finding it very difficult to be persuaded otherwise. The civil servants in that ministry must have got used to bazars that someone would always feel aggrieved if excluded in any instance. The statement of Dr. Edu’s predecessor, Sadiya Umar Farouq, three years ago, that there was hardly any family in Nigeria that did not benefit from the federal government’s COVID-19 intervention suggested strongly that a big bazar must have taken place among those charged with the responsibility of implementing that intervention. Money must have been released but hardly got to the beneficiaries.
In a country where everyone is looking for an opportunity to steal from public funds, a ministry like humanitarian affairs and poverty alleviation which role includes transferring money directly to accounts of vulnerable individuals must have provided the perfect opportunity for looters to move money to accounts of false beneciaries. We saw this same trend with SURE-P as many public officials profited illegally. This is what one expects in a country that lacks any reliable database that would have helped maintain accountability in terms of who and who actually benefitted from such interventions. This is why nobody may be able to argue with any strong evidence against the claim by Dr. Edu’s predecessor that we all got money from the federal government during the pandemic. If you say you did not get, the ministry of course will furnish you with a long list of “beneficiaries” – real or imagined -.meaning that you must have been among the “few” that did not get the money. Remember the minister never claimed that every single Nigerian benefitted from the intervention; she was only implying that the money got to almost everybody. As the Igbo would say, you may count your teeth with your tongue.
The reason things have failed to work in Nigeria is that governance is daily being sabotaged by a band of criminals in charge of the bureaucracy at all levels. While everyone is crying about the plunder being perpetrated by the hierarchy, lower officials are impatiently waiting for the time they will be promoted to higher positions where they will be better placed to execute their own plunder. A relative of mine working as an administrative personnel in a government higher institution once complained to me about how top officials of the school have been mindlessly enriching themselves with funds meant for the functioning and development of the institution. While I was admiring his sense of accountability and decency, I never knew he was coming with a shocker. The young man concluded his story by adding that he couldn’t wait to become a top official himself so that he would take his turn in the looting. With an air of vengefulness, he said he would not only steal but would empty the entire treasury of the school since others before him were that wicked.
Dr. Betta Edu’s case and the words of this young relative of mine make the point some of us have been labouring to make over the years: that the problem of bad leadership in Nigeria has nothing to do with the age of leaders or even their gender. All the campaign about youth leadership in the country only makes sense to me when the idea is about inclusion of all ages in leadership and not about the clearly misguided belief that younger people have any special magic they can perform to reverse our fortune as a people. The same thing goes with the campaign for inclusion of women in leadership.
While the younger may be more innovative, our problem has never been about innovations. It has been about governing well. A working governance system will naturally harness talents wherever they are; all talented and innovative persons don’t have to be in government for the nation to benefit from their gifts. Many progressive nations have at different times in their history been led by quite old persons. This did not stop innovation and progress. On the contrary, some of the worst leaders the world have known were young people – or at least started when they were young.
Our leadership problem is systemic. Any leader, irrespective of age or gender, will have to contend with the dysfunctional realities of this system once he/she gets into position. This is why most people who get into leadership positions, whether at the political level or in the bureaucracy (civil service), hardly rise above the systemic decay.
Whatever Dr. Edu may have done, she was certainly not alone. The bureaucratic processes of a government ministry are quite intricate. Money does not move without the involvement of a number of officials and departments including the permanent secretary, audit and account units. Rules normally cannot be broken without some of these personnel acting in concert. This is exactly how civil servants get enriched so much so that many are living far above their means.
So, it is clear that our governmental sphere as well as our bureaucracy is immersed in huge criminality. Such a system cannot produce accountable leaders. A good demonstration of this is the fact that while many Nigerians criticise the police for being corrupt, those of them that become police officers in future end up doing exactly those things they criticised. Will all these Nigerians criticising the Immigration for extorting passport applicants do differently if by chance they become immigration officers themselves? Will those castigating the customs for corruption at the borders and ports do any better if they find themselves in the same position?
These questions are important for giving us a better perspective to our problems. It’s not about staying in our comfort zones and pointing accusing fingers. We need to become conscious of the source of our problems so that we can effectively engage it during elections and in our national discourse generally. Our leadership problem is less about individuals than about system. Let’s focus on building system.
We need to move away from our usual tendency of seeking for a messiah in every election year. Of course, every politician will present self as the messiah, but ultimately our leadership will always reflect our system. Let’s rather ask each aspiring leader how he/she intends to change the system. We may not get to the promised land under one particular leader, buy he/she may succeed in giving us a new and healthy system, making it seamless for his/her successors to finally lead us into that promised land. The agenda should be to change the system.
Henry Chigozie Duru, PhD, teaches journalism and mass communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka Nigeria.