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In Nigeria, tragedy often wears the garb of comedy. Last week’s duel featured Arunma Oteh and Herman Hembe as the principal adversaries. Ms. Oteh is the director-general of the Securities and Exchange Commission; Mr. Hembe the chairman of the House of Representatives’ committee on the capital market.
Nigerians – and no doubt many players in the global financial sector – watched as the two antagonists turned a public hearing at the House of Representatives into a slugfest. Each combatant flung allegations of sleazy conduct at the other. It was vintage Nigerian public drama; in the end, there was a lot of heat, but little illumination.
On the opening day, last Wednesday, Mr. Hembe had come out swinging, inflicting devastating uppercuts on the SEC head. He accused her of spending the criminal sum of N850,000 on food; running up N30 million in hotel accommodation, and compromising her commission’s regulatory function by inviting staff of a bank to work for her agency on secondment.
The next day, Ms. Oteh – mistaken by many as pummeled to stupor – came out from her corner of the ring with Amazonian fury. She told the chairman of the committee, in effect, that he was a crook and hypocrite. She accused the committee, especially its chairman, of embarking on a witch hunt. She cast the whole hearing as a vindictive, vengeful exercise triggered by her refusal to accede to the committee’s separate requests for bequests of N39 million and N5 million. Then she disclosed that Mr. Hembe had once received a business class flight ticket and cash from the commission to enable him to attend an emerging markets conference in Dominican Republic. According to her, he neither attended the conference nor returned the funds to the commission.
A friend of mine who had watched videos of the encounter rang me eager to know, one, who won the fight in my opinion and, two, my prediction of the likely outcome of the brouhaha.
The matter of who emerged the victor, who the vanquished, struck me as another way of saying, “Who told the truth?” It’s not only a difficult question; it’s ultimately untenable if not irrelevant. On two questions, I entertained no doubt at all. One: Nigerians, once again and predictably, are the losers. Two: In the final analysis, both ostensible combatants, Ms. Oteh and Mr. Hembe, are playing on the same team. They are partners, if not in crime, in the leisure sport of self-indulgent consumption at the expense of the rest of Nigerians.
This is the way I look at it: Nigeria is designed and run like a criminal enterprise. There’s a broad consensus among the country’s “steakholders” that the gluttonous principles and greedy interests of the criminal elements who misgovern the country must at all times be upheld and protected.
In that kind of arrangement, it doesn’t matter, really, whether Ms. Oteh spent more than $5000 on an epicurean binge. Even if she didn’t, she knows that she may do so with no real consequences. At any rate, there are quite a few people like her who excessively gorge on food and quaff wine, and then burden hapless Nigerians with the bill. If Ms. Oteh didn’t spend N30 million on hotel accommodation, that’s neither here nor there. Many of her counterparts won’t, and don’t, blink an eyelid when they squander such princely sums on hotel accommodation.
Nigeria is a country where (in the words of a friend of mine) absurdity reigns. In such a space, the true heroes and heroines are those who have become experts in wasting public funds. They are the ones who are called “prominent” Nigerians. They are the ones who show up at stakeholders’ congresses. They are the garlanded, the “chiefed” and “Alhajied,” the knighted and “national-honored.” They are the ones courted by powerful pastors and imams. They are the ones “men of God” want to know and pray for.
Do you get the point? If Ms. Oteh had guzzled the unconscionable amounts she was accused of wasting, that would not be a problem, much less a crime, in the organized crime contraption called Nigeria. Rather, it would make her a more prized stakeholder. She would be regarded as somebody who had proved her trustworthiness, fit for elevation to higher tables to dine and wine with even grosser, more wanton gourmands.
Above all, Mr. Hembe must know these basic facts; he’s no (Nigerian) fool. In fact, he is aware that the same rules of unchecked, conspicuous consumption apply to him. He knows that, in the rarefied cocoon that he and Ms. Oteh inhabit, “overeating” and other forms of overindulgence, far from being a crime, demonstrate sagacity. The Nigerian state is informed around the doctrine that its movers and shakers, even when they are too bloated to move or shake, must enjoy unfettered, gluttonous access to the national cake – or national eba, or national goat meat pepper soup.
So, if Mr. Hembe hauled Ms. Oteh before his committee, it was not – it could not be – because she was a reckless spender. If bingeing had become a crime in Nigeria, trust me, the first place to take a sneak would be into the president’s kitchen. How much does the Presidency spend per day on meals? The answer would scandalize the world’s richest nations and kingdoms.
Let’s come, then, to Ms. Oteh’s allegations. Are they true? In one or two words – who cares?
Like the chairman of the committee that questioned her, Ms. Oteh is aware that Nigerian legislators have a “right” to collect funds from the agencies they oversee. It is part and parcel of that massive iniquitous scheme called Nigeria. Reporters who cover Abuja, and many of the city’s political denizens, know full well that overseen commissions and ministries frequently funnel cash to legislative committees. In fact, it is conventional (Nigerian) wisdom that the fattening of legislators’ bank accounts is a task that must be done. Heh, men and women don’t fight dirty to be (s)elected into the National Assembly or state assemblies in order to eat sand!
My verdict, then? Last week’s spat between Oteh and Hembe was a case of “simple misunderstanding.” When all is said and done, both combatants belong to the same side. In the heat of a battle that was staged in error, Ms. Oteh turned sanctimonious. She sought to define her plight as one of a warrior against corruption. When you fight corruption, she said, it fights back.
Not so fast, madam! Neither Ms. Oteh nor her ostensible foe made a convincing case of being on the side of the Nigerian people whose investments in the capital market has been imperiled by the market’s wild swings. Members of the National Assembly commandeer a huge chunk of Nigeria’s recurrent budget. Why then did the SEC, apparently with the approval of Ms. Oteh, purchase a flight ticket and hand cash to Mr. Hembe to attend a conference in Dominican Republican? Is there a record of the SEC director-general writing to Mr. Hembe to return the unutilized ticket and estacode? Did the woman fail to realize that – if Nigeria were not a vast criminal operation – her commission’s gift of a ticket and cash to the chairman of the oversight committee would have raised serious ethical questions?
Mr. Hembe was quick to “rule” that the EFCC should thoroughly investigate the allegations against him. Then he struck his gavel feebly to underscore his “ruling.” It was a sad, if laugh-inducing, moment. Mr. Hembe is aware that the EFCC is, in the end, a toothless irritant at best. In an ordered society, both he and Ms. Oteh would be out of jobs today. But – this being Nigeria – let nobody bet against seeing the two antagonists sharing an expensive lunch soon: after some committee of elders might have settled this whole “quarrel in the family.”
Nigerian workers, students, peasants and professionals must learn to unmask those who overeat together, but occasionally contrive silly caricatures of fights. Unless the contemptible gorgers are confronted, Nigeria will remain a beleaguered space. And this much, too, can be guaranteed: until the people mount a sustained opposition, their lunch will continue to be eaten.
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