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Friday, June 21, 2024

Calling on the Minister of Works…


If a roll call of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s performing Ministers is made today, the likelihood is that the Minister of Works, Dave Umahi, will make the list. The former governor is one of those we can call a square peg in a square hole. I have followed the way he goes about discharging his duties. His on-the-spot assessment of projects under his ministry has revealed the canker-worms of corruption and abuse of office that have eaten very deep into the fabrics of our society.

For anyone familiar with the system, civil servants are, perhaps, the most corrupt section of the society. They are the engine room of corruption but undue attention is, unfortunately, devoted to politicians. Not that those ones, too, are not corrupt but the system works in such a way that without the connivance and active participation of civil servants, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for politicians to steal a dime. Who teaches the politicians how to steal? Who shows them the way? Who leads the way to the common till? Who knows where the pounds and pennies are stored? Who prepares the papers and helps the politicians to cover their tracks? A thieving civil service is the bedrock of corruption in Nigeria.

In one video of Umahi I watched inspecting a road construction project under his watch, the Minister lampooned the site engineer for incompetence, unprofessional conduct, disobedience of lawful orders, connivance at the application of substandard materials, manipulation of relevant information and cover-up – all of which were tailored towards cutting corners to save costs and achieve poor quality delivery to feather the nest of contractors and the collaborating civil servants. Good quality materials are quoted but poor quality materials are used instead. Quality and quantity are compromised and the country is thereby ripped off to the tune of millions, even billions, in local and foreign currencies. What is creamed off is shared between the collaborating and conniving contractors and civil servants.

We pay through the nose for good quality jobs but end up getting poor quality jobs. We lose on both ends. Contracts here are usually inflated. The cost of five, six or even 10 projects elsewhere is the cost of one here. After which we end up with poor quality jobs and get no value for money. A road that is meant to last, say, 10 years hardly lasts ten months – or even weeks! Infrastructure is decrepit here because of over-invoicing and poor quality delivery. In every sector, we should have more to show for the quantum of resources poured into it. Take, for example, the billions in hard currencies that have been poured into power supply, only for us to sink deeper and deeper into the miry clay of power outages!

Sabotage, occasioned usually by those saddled with the onerous but sacred responsibility of watching our back, ensuring that the right thing is done and that we get value for money, is the reason we hear of trillion Naira budgets year-in, year-out but do not see commensurate results. Much of the money budgeted ends up in private pockets. Budget padding is just a tip of the iceberg. Budget round-tripping is worse than budget padding.

What this means is that the same projects are circulated in the budget each year, money is voted and the money so voted is collected and shared but no sod is turned on the said projects. Year-in, year-out, the same ritual is performed. Like Prof. Wole Soyinka’s “Abiku”, such projects keep coming repeatedly, sowing tears and sorrows in the polity while a few elements smile to the bank with looted funds.

Umahi is a politician but it would appear he has a sense of duty. The way he interrogated the site engineers and contractors in one of the videos I watched gave me the impression he did not want to compromise professionalism on the altar of filthy lucre. He may not be an angel but, as they say, there ought to be some honour even among thieves. Honour appears to be glaringly missing among Nigeria’s teeming, thieving population. And this is where the First Republic politicians – and civil servants, to boot – were better, far, far better, than their current counterparts.

Corruption is everywhere but its colouration, texture and intensity differ from place to place. A story is told during COVID-19 to show how the same corrupt act was more damaging to Nigeria than Ghana: A group of foreign investors travelling to both countries forgot to take their COVID-19 vaccine. At the point of entry in Ghana, Ghanaian officials demanded a bribe from the foreigners, after which they were led to the appropriate vaccine centre to take the vaccine before being allowed into the country. On the Nigeria side, the foreigners were allowed to romp into town after settling the officials without being compelled to take the necessary vaccine. The foreigners were the ones demanding to be allowed to take the vaccine but the Nigerian officials insisted there was no need. “God will protect us”, they told the foreigners, and waved them on!

Why am I calling on Umahi here today? It is because I noticed that the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, completed just a few months ago, is already collapsing at no less than three points on the Lagos to Ibadan axis – at Ogere, around Foursquare Church camp at Ajebo and the Guru Maharaj Ji section as you drive into Ibadan. I have driven myself on that road on a couple of occasions in the past two weeks. Recall that this road took decades to complete. Only God knows at what cost eventually. Oh, what road users suffered on that road while construction was ongoing! On a couple of occasions I slept on that road due to traffic standstill. To think that the same road has started collapsing a few months afterwards calls for concern.

What went wrong? Is it poor workmanship? The contractors used were some of the country’s best; so what went wrong? Is this a question of poor quality or substandard materials? A case of cutting corners? The usual Nigerian factor? What exactly went wrong? Is it inappropriate usage that is the problem? The indiscriminate traffic and parking of heavy duty vehicles constitutes a menace not only to other road users but also to the road itself. Every road is built to specification and failure to adhere can ruin such roads before their life span expires. Who exercises such control on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway?

The novice that I am on this subject, I ask questions, like Peter Abelard, so that I may get answers. Said Abelard: “Nothing can be believed unless it is first understood” And I have the confidence Umahi will be willing to look into this matter and offer illumination, like he did on the Lagos – Calabar expressway. The Lagos-Ibadan expressway is said to be the busiest road in the country.

Often, our problem is also the lack of maintenance culture. We allow matters to get to a head before we act, whereas it is said that a stitch in time saves nine. The Ibadan-Ife expressway is another road that Umahi should take a look at. As it is today, that road is a dead trap. Efforts to rehabilitate it has woefully failed. Ditto the Ife-Ilesha junction axis of the same stretch of road. Once a road expires, such as these ones have, the right thing to do is scrap them and lay new asphalt, and not waste money doing patch-patch work that does not work. The cost of bad roads – in lives and limbs, time lost, maintenance and repair of vehicles and inconveniences suffered generally – cannot sufficiently be quantified in Naira and kobo.

Are contractors who do shoddy jobs made to face the music? Are their godfathers called to question? Site engineers who compromise on quality ought to be fired and not given a slap on the wrist like Umahi did to the ones in one of the videos I watched. Until people get punished for doing the wrong thing, we are going nowhere in this country

Fela, Bobrisky: History repeating itself?

I wasn’t surprised when the cross dresser, Bobrisky, was hauled before the court on charges of abuse of the Naira and money laundering. I said in my mind: Giving a dog a bad name…

It is a shame that all the highbrow cases of Naira abuse by the high and mighty have gone unnoticed, even when the attention of the law enforcement agencies were copiously drawn to them.

Sons and daughters of presidents and governors have abused the Naira without any consequence. Obscene Igbo traders, fawning Yoruba socialites, and arrogant children of Northern feudal elites daily abuse the Naira without consequence.

The abuse has happened in presidential jets and in the hallowed walls of the presidency. In Government houses all over the place and at functions by the high and mighty, the Naira is sprayed with relish. The law, always, turns a blind eye. Why make Bobrisky the scapegoat?

Her money laundering charge reminds me of Fela’s money laundering charge fabricated by the Muhammadu Buhari military junta to put the iconoclast Afrobeat king and enfant terrible behind bars and shut him out of circulation. That is also the case here with Bobrisky, in my opinion

There was a Justice Gregory Okoro-Idogu (remember?) and also George Sodeinde Sowemimo and Bassey Ikpeme willing and ready to do the dirty job of the powers-that-be.

All doubts in my mind were erased when Bobrisky was denied the option of fine despite that she was a first offender; not also reckoning with the fact that she was sober and cooperated fully with the law. She did not waste the court’s precious time or the taxpayers money in that she pleaded guilty without being compelled or cajoled.

Maybe she demonstrated naivety or lack of political sophistication. She must be alien to this kind of struggle. So, she was taken on the cheap. Perhaps she was too trusting. Now she knows better!

She should at least have been given the option of a fine. Voltaire said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. I disapprove of Bobrisky’s affront to the natural order of things but I also disapprove of her corner-corner conviction. Be bold! Come straight on!

The sentence imposed on him/her is excessive, in my view. This is naked oppression masquerading as justice. I could never have believed that, in this age and time, we still have men and women on the Bench who can look us straight in the eyes and serve hemlock to the undeserving in broad daylight!

I had thought the tribe of such judges has become extinct; what with the demise of the three justices mentioned above, and the passage of their prompters like Nzeribe, Kashamu and Abimbola Davies! But how mistaken!

* Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers, Chairman of its Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-chief, BOLAWOLE was also the Managing Director/ Editor-in-chief of THE WESTERNER newsmagazine. He writes the ON THE LORD’S DAY column in the Sunday Tribune and TREASURES column in New Telegraph newspaper on Wednesdays. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television.

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