THE PUBLIC SPHERE with Chido Nwakanma
“The governor’s office is not just the house he sleeps in Lagos. His residences in Abuja, Marina, Alausa, G.R.A., and other offices are all ‘governor’s offices’. If they bought and put in all those offices, I don’t think it is anything.” When government spokesmen do not know when to keep quiet, they keep digging more holes for themselves. The audacity to explain away the wanton waste of public funds in such a casual manner while the people wallow in hunger and penury! – ~An angry Fisayo Soyombo reacting to Lagos CPS Gboyega Akosile on X.
Two events in November deserve the attention of citizens for what they say about these times. Minister of Finance Wale Edun announced a significant boost to government coffers at all levels. Edun said the Federation Account witnessed improved revenue inflow since the subsidy removal, from an average of N650 billion monthly to over N1 trillion in the last four months.
Due to the increased inflow, Edun justified the May 29 fuel tax on Nigerians or the removal of fuel subsidies. He said the subsidy regime eroded revenues that should have been available to fund viable expenditures critical to the populace’s well-being. Edun then made what would be a continuation of audio promises. He said the Tinubu administration was mindful of the needs and welfare of Nigerians and assured that it would continue to implement people-oriented policies.
The ink had hardly dried on Edun’s pontification when various accounting records proved the contrary about government policies and actions or their implementation. The documents from Abia through Ogun and Lagos to Abuja showed spectacular graft and waste in government expenditure. The governments behaved like children with a surfeit of Christmas rice; they scattered it on the floor as proof of excess.
The records of the Lagos State Public Procurement Agency indicted the Sanwo-Olu administration of mindless excess, waste, greed, and incompetence. Lagos State spent billions on sasarobia, our local term for fragrances. Other items caught public attention about the descent to mindless thievery.
Lagos State Procurement records show Governor Sanwo-Olu approved an alarming N3.75 billion for perfumes and N3B for rechargeable fans. The state also approved over N440 million for purchasing a new Lexus LX 600 Bulletproof Sport Utility Vehicle for use in the Office of Chief of Staff pool. The office of the Chief of Staff also got N18.5 million for the supply and distribution of 2,000 chickens across the state’s local government areas and wards. In other words, Lagos State ordered the most expensive chickens in these parts at N92,500 each.
It was the same in Abia State, where records caught Governor Alex Otti with his hands besmirched and his white dress stained with a mix of palm and engine oil.
Media reports on October 22 and 23 reported Governor Alex Otti claiming, “We’ve saved funds by stopping frivolous spending”. One month later, the Abia State Government mounted a defence on frivolous spending, saying it did not spend N927m feeding the governor. Instead, State Finance Commissioner Kingsley Anosike stated that the Abia State government spent “only” N223.39m for “refreshments and meals” over three months. Note that it spent only N25m on the state’s schools. While reacting to the released procurement records, the commissioner explained, “This figure is for the entire state and not for the Office of the Governor, as erroneously portrayed. The stated figure covers expenses for special events, such as retreats, conferences, and related events.
“For welfare, the Abia State Government has so far spent the sum of N397,520,734.84. The Welfare expenditure is in line with the State Fiscal, Transparency, Accountability, and Sustainability Programme, an initiative of the Federal Government.
“Also note that the welfare expenditure covers all the Ministries, Departments, and Agencies and not just the Governor’s Office, as wrongly alleged. Expenses under welfare deal with health, rehabilitation, and public emergencies”.
More funny expenditures in Abia State
The angst over ruinous expenditure has been very loud in Abia State. The opposition leads the charge in repayment to Governor Alex Otti, the most trenchant critic of former governor Okezie Ikpeazu. He deployed every means available, including being a visiting member of the editorial board and columnist for Thisday newspaper.
Otti was aligned with this columnist as a critic of Okezie Ikpeazu, except our goals differed. I criticised and lauded Ikpeazu when and where necessary. While mine focused on good governance in the best traditions of public interest journalism, his was to use journalism to pursue his agenda. However, he cannot now question criticisms of his government in the media space as he did the same.
Critics said they expected Otti to run a whistle-clean administration because of his past assertions on accountability and as the sole gubernatorial representative of the Labour Party. The Labour Party canvassed a break from the old ways of government administration.
The imposed publication of the finance records was a windfall to the opposition. It went to town, releasing the untidy details wherein the Abia State Government has spent more money running the Governor’s Office in Alex Otti’s country home than other governors in the region spent in the proper government houses. The details were not dignified and made erstwhile admirers such as the social critic Liborous Oshioma denounce Otti. At the same time, Arise TV principal Dr Reuben Abati treated the sums spent on “refreshments and meals” with scorn.
Unlike elsewhere, the fireworks have continued in Abia State. The principal combatants are government officials such as Ferdinand Ekeoma, an adviser to Governor Otti, and those of the former regime.
John Okiyi Kalu was a Commissioner for Information later Trade and Investment under Ikpeazu. He plays the Chief Critic of Otti’s role in response to Otti’s position during Ikpeazu’s time. He asserts that John Okiyi has no skeleton from service and, as an Abiriba man, he is ready for battle and does not fear Otti because he is Governor.
Former Chief Press Secretary Onyebuchi Ememanka, aka Ururuaja, had tricky posers for Ekeoma about items captured in the records.
“Ferdinand Ekeoma, can you please explain these for Umu Africa? According to the breakdown of Accounts posted by your administration for July – September 2023, you guys have spent the following on the purchase of cars.
Purchase of vehicles at N738m, vans N46m, trucks N362m, buses N400m, Fuel at N166m, and N36m on maintenance”. He had questions.
What is the difference between vehicles and Trucks and Vans and Buses? What are these different classes of automobiles being used for? I have been in Abia since June 2023 and have not seen any brand-new trucks; where are these trucks, please? What do you even mean by a truck? The buses you people claimed to have spent N400m to buy, are they commercial buses or what exactly? I ask because I have yet to see any anywhere on the road. You claim to have spent 36 Million on the maintenance of vehicles in three months? Were they Tokunboh (second-hand or used) vehicles that you people bought? What manner of maintenance of brand-new cars will gulp 36 Million in three months?”
Ememanka to Ekeoma: I know you have no idea how these figures came up, but you are the one to defend them. Oya, start defending. Have you seen now that your Oga is very far from the financial sainthood you ascribe to him?”
A day after Ememanka’s poser, Umuahia threatened to expose untidy details about the Government House that Ikpeazu completed and handed over to the Otti team. They claimed they would prosecute him!
There is a pronounced difference in approaches between Abia and Lagos states to the same issue. During the inauguration of the Lagos State Building Control Agency building at PWD Ikeja, Sanwo-Olu admitted that “we can make mistakes on some items” and “we are open to criticisms.”
He assured Mr Funso Doherty, gubernatorial candidate of the Action Democratic Congress who drew attention to the figures, that Lagos State would continue to publish its spending and keep it open for public scrutiny. SanwoOlu even suggested that Doherty could play a role in the current government. Deputy Governor Dr Obafemi Hamzat earlier corrected the figure of N2b expenditure on an item attributed to his office to say it was N2m.
Sanwo-Olu’s tone differed significantly from the earlier stance of his Chief Press Secretary, who waved the issue off and drew the ire of investigative journalist Fisayo Soyombo at the top of this essay.
The Abia State Government has been arrogant and blames its enemies in response to the figures published on the state’s website. Some critics, such as Ako Eke, allege intimidation by ABSG officials. Eke is a citizen public interest activist who took on former Governor Dr Ikpeazu and has continued with Otti doing Facebook Live videos interrogating the Abia State figures.
Significantly and unfortunately, the challenge in Abia and the rest of Nigeria is citizen indifference and cynicism. There is no middle class. Those who ordinarily fit that classification are worse than their less educated compatriots in their emotionalism and parochialism.
They are numbed that critics of the governor include a John Okiyi Kalu from the same sub-ethnic divide. A middle-class friend tried to paint that divide as a reason for “developing a bewildering numbness” to the disclosures because, according to him, his friends on the other side were numb and did not voice criticisms of Ikpeazu. Similar parochialism runs through.
I like the point-counterpoint in Abia. It is democracy at work. It should boost democracy. Unfortunately, it is very abrasive and generates more heat than light.
Let democracy thrive in Abia State. The goal should be good government and not merely to pull Governor Alex Otti down a peg and should go beyond showing that he is similar in fiscal approaches to the previous government. Now that the Court of Appeal has confirmed Otti’s governorship, can both parties do better? The buck stops at Government House, wherever it is located within Abia State.
As Bob Marley sang decades ago, “If you wake up and (you) quarrel every day, you are saying prayers to the Devil, I say”. Let positivity reign in Abia State.
Meanwhile, national and subnational-level developments confirm that the Nigerian contribution to statecraft is the paradox of growing debts, misery and waste amid surpluses.