The thief, the rich and the public service rot

Written By Bolaji Akinola

When I think of the downtrodden who labour day in day out to make ends meet, I begin to wonder what goes into the heads of those guys who use their positions to steal and loot public funds. These shallow-minded fake ‘big men’ not only use their positions to amass wealth they’ll never need in their entire lives, they also abuse and oppress the very people they are elected or appointed to serve.

The recent revelations coming out of the trial of former Director-General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) is mind-boggling. Many NIMASA staff who knew all along that something was amiss while Akpobolokemi reigned supreme at the Maritime House could not, for the life of them, imagine the level of sleaze in that agency. What with a fashion design paid over N500million for doing nothing and without even submitting any request for contract? This happened at a time the agency staff were owed salaries and allowances.

Akpobolokemi came into NIMASA from a very modest background. He came preaching and sermonising. Every one of his public speeches was preceded by a homily of sort. He would talk about patriotism, the need for prudence, accountability, transparency, fear of God et al.

He slashed the DG office imprest by more than half when he assumed office shortly after his appointment in December 2010. He vowed to fight corruption and entrench Nigerian interests in shipping via strict implementation of the Cabotage Law.

I think he failed on both scores.

Until his disengagement in July 2015, Akpobolokemi rose to become one of the most powerful, controversial and divisive public officials Nigeria has seen in recent times.

He was loved by a few, hated by many. Many employees of the apex maritime regulatory body saw him as unapologetically biased toward his Ijaw ethnic group and sought to turn NIMASA into a second Niger Delta Ministry in defiance of the Federal Character principle. Some others saw him as an overbearing, arrogant man who didn’t care to carry people outside his ethnic stock along. He bestrode the maritime industry like an imperial potentate for 55 dramatic months. He enjoyed direct access to former President Goodluck Jonathan and woe betide any Minister that dared to stand in his way. Yusuf Suleiman was fired as Minister of Transport in 2011 over disagreements with Akpobolokemi. Idris Umar, who succeeded Suleiman cleverly avoided any direct confrontations with the man popularly called Akpos by NIMASA staff. Akpos had the world at his feet.

Several speakers and writers have tried to trace the root of the lootocracy that has eaten deep into the fabric of our public service.

Some have blamed the rot on the steps taken by the regime of former military ruler, the late Gen Murtala Mohammed.

According to this school of thought, the civil service reforms initiated by the then Mohammed-led administration should be blamed for the massive corruption in the public service.

“What happened to the civil service is the handiwork of the military. A typical civil servant back then obeyed financial regulations, general order and civil service rules. And they had targets for each ministry. A civil servant wants to work until his retirement age. He builds his house little by little, he is satisfied.

“But what happened? In 1976, this man Murtala came and started that tsunami. He retired and dismissed people at will. He was just sacking people in the name of reforms. So a new orientation came, it was the fear of the unexpected sack or retirement that led to this corruption.

“Today you see permanent secretaries building hotels everywhere and HoS acquiring property in choice areas. The political class too whether military or civilians are worse. They take their own and civil servants follow suit because nobody can take anything out of the treasury without civil servants knowing,” according to a retired former permamanent secretary in Ogun State, Alhaji Oyewole Egbeyemi.

So let us, for the sake of argument accept that this happened 40 years ago? I think forty is a really long time, long enough to correct observed anomalies in a system. Shall we resign ourselves to fate and throw up our hands in despair while a few who are lucky to get into positions loot the nation dry?

The suffering of the masses and the dysfunctional state of public utilities and infrastructure in the country today is a direct consequence of high level corruption.

Now is the time to change the system and make it impermissible for the kind of thievery and impunity we have seen in Nigeria since the return of civil rule in 1999.

I think our government must work on creating work environments that will make it impossible for anyone to steal. Value reorientation should start from elementary school and should be sustained all through key stages of life. Nigeria must instill a sense of responsibility in its people to discourage corruption from all angles. Parents and teachers should educate their children about corruption and its adverse effects on the society.

The anti-corruption units established during the Obasanjo era should be made effective and dynamic. They should be reconstituted and populated with honest officials to check the corruption from the lowest level to the top of every government agency.

A whistle blower protection law is also important not only to reward but also to protect government officials who expose corruption where they work.

Copyright Ships & Ports Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit given to as the source.