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SARS and Proceeds of Crime Agency?

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By Okey Ikechukwu

The ongoing anti-SARS protests, the fluctuating industrial disputes between the government and university teachers, oil workers, doctors, etc., are signs of a deep national crisis. The hundreds of billions of Naira allegedly spent in feeding Nigerian children in school, even while the schools themselves were shut down, is also indicative of a totally unimaginative approach to looting. One thing is becoming increasingly clear by the day: The people are tired of being lied to. The feeling is that everyone is being taken for a ride by a recalcitrant leadership class that has become a danger to the survival of the average Nigerian.

The youths see no future, as things stand today; because the government institutions deliver nothing. The government officials make empty speeches. The privileges of people in office increase by the day. The citizens, on the other hand, are squeezed beyond measure. Harassed, harangued and hounded by SARS in a nation that is being drowned by a doubly reinforced debt bind, the people seem eager to say: “Thus far and no further.”

The fact that the solution the police high commend can think of is to rename its Mayhem Unit and propose a change-of-mindset training for its members shows that we are nowhere near a solution at all. Assuming we take the matter of retraining seriously, why were they not given such training in the first place? If they were initially given the training, what happened along the way? The point is this: there is an “industry”, a massive economy that makes returns, which has been the driving force behind the excesses of SARS.

A contrived change of name, itself a cosmetic measure to disguise oneself and continue what one is doing, does not lead to a change in the DNA of the entity concerned. What needs to happen is that SARS should be comprehensively scrapped and its officers and men reintegrated under the Commissioners of police in their respective states. Its members who are not liable for any crime should be redeployed in less visible roles. The reported, and even video-recorded, cases of the excesses of SARS should be seen to be exhaustively treated and justice done.

But, beyond SARS, there seems to be a more fundamental issue at stake here. People are more informed and also more frustrated in Nigeria today. There is hunger and hopelessness in the land. The nation is in debt, as never before. The debt is also growing. We are still borrowing more; and cheerfully too. And the borrowing is from everyone; on all sides. Worse than the mere fact of borrowing, and even of the disgrace of borrowing from just anyone, is the fact we have been (and still are) borrowing mostly for consumption and not production.

Meanwhile, our external reserves stand irredeemably depleted, even as the borrowings are going on. Irredeemably, because everything needed to improve our chances of repayment and recovery in the short and medium terms are just not there. There is also the matter of the collateral damage these debts are poised to do to the future of the youths. Then, think of the implications of these borrowings for the nation’s economic sovereignty.

In sum, the Nigerian State has been boldly “investing” in folly in recent years. We speak of folly here, because all the borrowings were deployed in non-yielding ventures. The question of the government being able to bring about any likely dramatic turnaround does not even arise at all. We are just spending, taxing the people, watching businesses close down, staring at rising unemployment and making empty speeches about “gains” and “progress.” Whatever little gains were recorded in the economic standing of the nation in the past have been comprehensively and summarily reversed.

The budgetary provisions and expenditure headings of the last twenty years show a benumbing record of dreadfully low performance on all fronts. Roads, health, electricity, national security, education, policy consistency, war against corruption, equipping of the armed forces are all in the red. And there is no coherent explanation for the whereabouts of the hundreds of billions of Naira allegedly recovered from those who looted our patrimony.

In the midst of all the foregoing, and as Nigerians, mostly youths, have been on the streets for days over the SARS menace, youth unemployment, elite irresponsibility, rising food prices, unchallenged insecurity, non-performing institutions of state, unfocused and confounded political parties of no particular ideological persuasion, the major concern of the federal government is the creation of a special agency to receive and manage all monies and assets recovered from corrupt individuals and organisations in the alleged on-going war against corruption.

After five years? Recovery and management of the proceeds of crime as a major executive bill to move the nation forward? There are Transparency Monitoring Units and SERVICOM offices in our MDAs. Then there is the Bureau of Public Procurement. One of them, or all of them put together, should be in the first line of fire whenever cases of inflated, poorly executed, inflated, or unexecuted, contracts are mentioned anywhere in Nigeria.

For instance, SERVICOM (Service Compact with Nigerians) is an agency of government set up to ensure that “Nigerians are well served” whenever a dime is spent in their name. It should ordinarily have been the main, and only, whistle blower in the Federal Republic of Nigeria since it came into existence. But what do you see today in the MDAs? Ask yourself what SERVICOM, and many other agencies of government, bring to the table. Check out their monthly wage bills. Sad, is it not? That over 400 parasatals incur a lot of overhead, for doing nothing. It is actually the failure of government to provide the right environment for the private sector to create jobs has led to the wrong notion that it is the primary business of government to create jobs within its services departments.

That we now have a Bill for the creation of a “Proceeds of Crime (Recovery and Management) agency”, as recently sent to the National Assembly by the Presidency, blows the myopia of the federal government completely out of the water. An agency to receive and manage the proceeds of crime? If established, the Agency will receive and manage all recoveries, including seized properties and assets, on behalf of the federal government.

This is an outright Vote of No Confidence on the existing anti-graft agencies. The assumption, or presumption, is that we need a new agency, rather than that we need to find out how to fix what is wrong with the “processes and methods” within the existing agencies. This habit of tumbling out an epidemic of new agencies, instead of bending down to do things properly, has become the bane of governance in Nigeria. Just consider the killed Bill on Hate Speech. It called for capital punishment, as penalty for hate speech. Hare-brained ideas, everywhere!

Every new agency created by the government must have a Chief Executive. The expenditure profile associated with most heads of agencies comes to an average of five million naira every month; and that is assuming that the fellow does not travel. Each such Chief Executive will also most likely have a bullet proof SUV. This could be in addition to a Pilot Vehicle, escorts, CSO, a media crew and much more. Add a fully staffed outfit, complete with a “befitting” National Headquarters and much more.
What do you get? Consumption and avoidable expenses, with little of lasting value to deliver, everywhere! Look at the Diaspora Commission, for instance. This should actually be a Unit, or Desk, in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But is now has a life of its own. This government, like many before it, has been going about creating a plethora of agencies. The impact of all of this on recurrent expenditure and the ability to retain the cohesiveness of government are not being considered. The question for me is: “Do we need such an agency?” I dare say that we do not. We should also ask how such things are handled in other climes.

The other question to ask here is what we have to show for all the budgets the nation has presumably “executed” in the last twenty years of democracy. Let us look at our roads, for instance. The less-than-two hour drive from Abuja to Kaduna, the nearest metropole to the nation’s capital has had bad patches in the last 20 years of democracy. Ditto for the drive from Abuja to Lokoja. Beyond Lokoja, Ajaokuta and through Ayimgba, the story is the same. Anyone driving to Jos through Bwari, Kafanchan, Manchok, etc. will encounter sections of bad road that have been bad since 1999. You will fair no better if you set out from Abuja to Jos though Keffi, or Akwanga. Try the road from Kaduna to Kano, if you will, or the one from Jos to Bauchi, or the Jigawa and related axis.

The story is not different from Lokoja to Okene, to Ibadan, all the way to Lagos. The Lagos-Badagry road is a 30 years people’s misfortune of indescribable proportions. The roads from Makurdi to Otukpa, Makurdi to Enugu, Enugu to Onitsha, Enugu to Port Harcourt, etc, have all not been fully in commendable conditions all these years. Ikot Ekpene road in the Calabar, Uyo axis and the tiny stretch called Patani road that links Adeje in Delta State to Bayelsa State are no different.

The aforementioned roads are all federal roads. The state roads are no different in most states of the federation. Federal government officials and State Governors have been driving on them for the last twenty years. So have senators and federal and state lawmakers. This means that the designers and implementers of national budgets have been wading through the overwhelming evidence of their non-performance for the last 20 years, without bathing an eyelid?
The governments walks around totally unperturbed by a never-seen integrity deficit. That is why the protests against the menace of SARS may yet birth problems that could have been avoided if the government was a little more honest in serving the genuine interests of the people.

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