What Are Friends For? By Olusegun Adeniyi
If the former First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan claims the billions of Naira found in her bank accounts were gifts from friends and former Group Managing Director (GMD) of Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Mr. Andrew Yakubu also says the $9.77 million found in his house were gifts from friends, it’s high time I changed my present circle of friends. I need friends who can offer me cash gifts in Euro, Pounds and Dollars. So, if you don’t hear from me anymore, it is because I have concluded you do not know how to give what true friends give to their friends!
When the late Dele Giwa wrote more than 30 years ago that Nigerians have been shocked to the state of “unshockability”, he was basing his thesis on the fact that there is hardly any public protest after revelations of scandal, no matter how huge. But then, the Yoruba people have a saying that if you face calamity so big that even your tears would not help, you must use humour to deal with the situation. That, I guess, is what many Nigerians have learnt to do over the years though there is another category of Nigerians who take delight in celebrating their oppressors which is a different matter altogether.
Meanwhile, the lesson from the joke with which I opened the page is that the surest way of “making” stupendous wealth in Nigeria today is to befriend the right kind of people In the right places but such “friends” must also be subversively generous enough to make you a billionaire. The flip side, however, is that a society with a preponderance of such “beneficial owners” of wealth obtained not from work but rather as “gifts from friends” is doomed. That unfortunately is the story of Nigeria today.
It is indeed very telling that at a time the federal government is making a song and dance over the oversubscription of its $1 billion Eurobond, one percent of that sum was retrieved from the residence of just one former career public officer who was not even elected. With the whistle blower policy recently introduced, this may be the season for all ill-treated aides and aggrieved wives to come forward with details of movable and immovable assets got “from their friends” that some fat cats have been hiding from the public.
As I once wrote on this page several years ago, there are inherent lessons in Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” published in her 1974 collection, “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters” that will serve us as a nation, especially in such a time as this. The major theme in the interesting story—which teaches profound lessons–is the place of morality and how different people within a given society accept certain norms while others would simply walk away. Using Omelas as a metaphor for Nigeria today, we can examine the different aspects of our society and the rot within but that is a task for another day.
On Tuesday, a Federal High Court sitting in Kano presided over by Justice Zainab Abubakar ordered the forfeiture to the federal government of the sum of $9,772,000 and £74,000 recovered from Mr. Andrew Yakubu, a former GMD of NNPC. Since the case is already in court, we must wait for Yakubu’s side of the story in this incredible country where even “grass cutters” now attend government-sponsored anti-corruption rallies to talk down on the rest of us!
While I commend the Ibrahim Magu-led Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for its tenacity and the efforts that led to the discovery in Yakubu’s house, there is one quick issue here that we must not gloss over: our society is what it is today because we have imbibed the ethos that wealth is not related to work. So, the corruption we are talking about is far deeper than mere stealing; it is about looking for “miracles” and all sorts of magic formula for illicit “gifts from friends”; after all, what are friends for?
In my presentation titled “Between Waste and Nigerian Work Ethics” at the maiden edition of Pastor Poju Oyemade’s “Platform Nigeria” in Abuja on 1st May 2015, I made allusion to this when I said: “… many of us know the ‘Okada’ rider of yesterday who now owns a fleet of cars simply because he has worked his way to become a pimp for some politicians who conspired to foist him on the rest of the society either as council chairman or a lawmaker. We also know the struggling business man of yesterday who could not even pay his house rent but who is now a subsidy billionaire with Private Jet to boot, just because he is fronting for some unscrupulous powerful political office holders who abuse their public trust. Let us not even talk about the low cadre civil servant who has made it big, after being posted to the Pension office, where he feeds fat on the misery of pensioners…”
Considering the damage corruption has done both to our national psyche and socio-economic well-being, some of the questions I have posed in the past remain: will the sensational stories we read in the media every day lead to the successful prosecution and conviction of some big fish in the pool of corruption to serve as deterrence to others? Are institutional mechanisms being put in place to make it difficult for people to fiddle with public funds and easily get away? What legal/judicial reforms are ongoing to ensure that public officials who steal billions are not asked to pay peanuts in fines to walk free? When are we going to get to a situation in which being invited to serve in public office would not attract celebrations and all manner of expensive social and religious thanksgivings?
It should worry all of us that because of the “gifts from friends”, Nigeria is now defined by majority of the Seven Social Sins identified by Mahatma Gandhi which are: politics without principles; wealth without work; pleasure without conscience; knowledge without character; commerce without morality; science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice.
However, the real issue for me today is not even the magnitude of the money usually stolen from public treasuries in our country but what the “beneficial owners” do with such money. That is where the double jeopardy that has become the lot of our people comes in. After some crooked officials might have cornered to themselves what belongs to the people, the next thing is to lock up such “gifts from friends” either in some bank accounts (home and abroad) or convert them to Dollars and store in some silos or/and overhead/underground tanks. That way, the money does not work for them or the society.
As I wrote in my 23 June, 2013 piece, “The Craze of Dubai Weddings”, having stored up such illicit treasures, they can afford to mark their birthdays in Toronto, keep their mistresses in Alaska, celebrate the weddings of their children in Hong Kong and bury their parents in Baghdad. And when they finish the loot, as they most often do, they then begin to hustle again for contracts or appointments. I saw many of them at the Villa between 2007 and 2010, men and women of yesterday who came to see my late boss for “just anything”. These basically are people who cannot turn N10,000 to N10,010–all they know how to do is spend easy money, “the gifts from friends”!
Imagine if Yakubu had taken half of the money he locked up in his safe to Lagos and spread it by investing in many of those young Nigerian serial entrepreneurs who are creating hubs in the growing tech-ecosystem in the country, employing young people like themselves, generating incomes and making profits. With that, he would have added value to the society, helped to put many of our young citizens to work and on top of that, he would have also be earning huge financial rewards by turning black money into white!
However, like the others like him (and there are still many out there), he had to bury his “talent”. And now, he must face the consequences!
Akufo-Addo and AIG
Simple, unassuming and soft-spoken, Mr Ken Ofori-Attah exhibited his depth of knowledge at the Africa Initiative for Governance (AIG), an initiative of Mr Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede where we both sat on the Advisory Panel chaired by former President Olusegun Obasanjo. It is therefore a delight to learn that he has been appointed the Minister of Finance in Ghana by President Akufo-Addo.
With a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Columbia University and an MBA from the Yale University School of Management, Ofori-Attah, who co-founded Databank in Ghana and is also on the boards of commercial banks in Gambia and Liberia, comes highly recommended for his assignment. I wish him all the best as he serves his country in such an important capacity. But it is also strategic for what Aig-Imoukhuede is trying to achieve with his AIG initiative for both Nigeria and Ghana.
In June last year, the former Access Bank Managing Director signed a five-year partnership with the Blavatnik School of Government (BSG) at the University of Oxford to make available on an annual basis five Scholarships and a Fellowship to outstanding Nigerians and Ghanaians to pursue the Master of Public Policy degree. Former INEC Chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega who is currently in residence at Oxford was our first pick for the Fellowship while the first set of Scholars will soon be announced.
I was privileged to be on the panel that interviewed about 15 brilliant young men and women in December before we eventually shortlisted ten from which Oxford University can admit five, following their own process. The expectation is that such AIG Scholars and Fellows would, on graduation, return to their home country (Nigeria or Ghana) “informed by knowledge and understanding gained through their research into regional and global best practices to help shape and influence policy decisions”.
Yet, as laudable as the idea is, the fact that some Nigerian professionals who were equally exposed to good education both at home and abroad are now building silos not to store grains but to keep illicit cash running into billions of Naira is depressing. But that should not deter Aig-Imoukhuede and other public-spirited individuals who may want to deploy their resources to encourage young men and women with passion to serve in the public arena. It is still a noble calling.
Against The Run of Play
As the countdown to the April release of my book, “Against The Run of Play: How an incumbent president was defeated in Nigeria” continues, interested bookshops and sales outlets should direct all their inquiries by email to email@example.com or call 08077364217. Meanwhile, I have also uploaded on my web portal, olusegunadeniyi.com, materials from the 2003 series of The Verdict for the pleasure of my readers.