I have some sympathy for Mrs. Stella Odua, the embattled Minister of Aviation. As a primary school student in the 1970s I always took sides with the person in any fight who seemed to need that little support to level up with the one with the physical advantage. This was in an era when big or minor disagreements between two or more contending pupils were often settled by people drawing a big square on the ground and the disputants asked to sort themselves out physically, with even umpires and spectators. Until it went terribly wrong one day, such that both myself and the person I went to assist suffered serious battering, my philosophical drive had been a knee-jerk support, even teaming up, with the under-dog.
As I grew up into an adult and physical fights now seem to belong to the Barbarian era, the instinct to support the underdog, which in politics could be called ‘radical politics’ (as if the underdog is always right, which is not true) competes with another habit of finding myself, quite often being a contrarian in the active controversies of the day. Quite often, and not always through conscious decisions, I find myself swimming against the tide of popular emotions in matters such as the Stella Odua case.
Stellla Odua was alleged to have arm-twisted an agency under her supervision, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, to buy for her two armoured cars for N255 million, a sum that is also allegedly hugely inflated. The popular outpouring of anger is understandable. The two chambers of the National Assembly have vowed to investigate the purchase, which allegedly was also not appropriated in the budget and could possibly have also violated the 2013 Appropriation Act and the Public Procurement Act. The President has, expectedly, reportedly queried the Minister.
I have tried to find possible lines of support or disagreeing with the public emotions – even from the tame defences from her spokesperson and that of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority – if not for anything, just to satisfy my contrarian instincts. Her lines of defence are few and weak. Why will a Minister who knows she is in the eyes of the storm and that daggers are drawn out for her not see that banana peels are laid everywhere, not just for her but for virtually every public official, especially those who dare step on powerful toes? Public stealing also tends to be an art. Some steal and go free while the clumsy and the untutored apparently steal and get caught. Water often gets stuck between the teeth of the unlucky chap.
In countries like the US and the UK, if you want to bring down a public figure, bring in sex scandal. In Nigeria, where philandering by men is regarded as no issue, the salacious item for the media to come out smoking is corruption involving huge sums of money. In this regard, the strategy to mobilize popular anger is simple: remind everyone of the relativity of that stupendous sum – that the alleged theft of public money is taking place at a time of egregious poverty in the land.
But the lessons from the Stella Odua saga, as much as it triggered legitimate anger, go beyond the issue of corruption. The ethnicization of the whole episode is predictable. Any public official in the country – whether the person is content with not ruffling feathers or does not mind stepping on powerful toes – is closely watched by our horde of ‘ethnic watchers’ and any of the official’s moves is analyzed through the prism of our fault lines. Any token, no matter how deserved granted by the public official to his/her ethnic homeland, is blown out of proportion by ethnic watchers. Paradoxically when this happens, the official is immediately appropriated by the ethnic in-group as a star performer who needs to be protected from inter-ethnic jealousy or hatred from others. Ms. Odua was already in this position before her current travails. In other words, because of the depth of our ethnic and religious fissures, you can hardly find a public official doing his or her job who is not accused of favouring his or her own people. For instance when Lamido Sanusi Lamido became the Central Bank Governor and shortly afterwards announced his ‘reforms’ which included the removal of the MDs of some banks, he was roundly accused in some quarters of coming with a Northern agenda. He became immediately appropriated by some people from the North who saw an attack on him as an attack against the North. Similarly Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Onyeabor Azubuike Ihejirika has been accused of ‘Biafranizing’ the Nigerian Army. Most of those who defend him have been Igbos. In the same vein when Stella Odua was accused of favouring Enugu airport against Kano airport in the North; many Igbos saw as part of the inter-ethnic competition and rivalry in the polity and naturally came to her defence. In other words, one of the consequences of ‘ethnic watching’ and filtering every action of a public official through the fault lines of ethnicity and religion is that we will never be able to discuss incidents of alleged corruption dispassionately. In other words, for many Igbos, Stella Odua’s travails, no matter the weight of the evidence, are only because ‘they have eventually found a way to rope her’. This is probably why an Igbo think-tank, Aka Ikenga, has come to the Minister’s defence – as other ethnic outfits do or are sponsored to do in similar circumstances. My suspicion is that as the Odua issue interfaces with our ethnically charged and politicized environment, the issue of the alleged corruption will compete with suspected vendetta and which ethnic groups were behind her ordeals. This is probably why there is no universally accepted hero or villain in Nigeria. Many people also do not know where the fight against corruption ends and where inter-ethnic competition and hatred or plain vendetta begins: Alamieyeseigha might be a villain to many Nigerians, he is, as far as many Ijaws are concerned, a hero who was set up by Obasanjo. Sanni Abach may be the poster boy of corruption for many Nigerians, for many Northerners, it was all Obasanjoi’s fabrication to revenge his being jailed by Abacha. Have we wondered why all the politicians given long jail terms when Buhari was military head of State all came out of prison as heroes. Our environment predisposes officials, , including retired Vice Chancellors, to keep records of how they have advanced the interest of the ethnic homeland. This will often influence their decision on whether to come to the official’s defence or not if he or she gets into trouble.
In all these, and across the world, an important issue that deserves investigation is the system dynamics that blind public officials, who know they are being watched and that they are in the eyes of the storm not to see or choose to match on the banana peels that are carefully laid on their paths. In the US for instance, public office holders or aspirants know that their private lives would be put under the microscope and that any trace of extramarital affairs would be a career killer. Despite this, scores of American politicians have been undone or nearly undone by sex scandal – from Bill Clinton, through Newt Gingrich, to John Edwards, Gary Hart and Hermain Cain. In Nigeria, despite knowing that they are operating in a highly charged environment, with several enemies and the ubiquitous ethnic watchers, not to talk of business interests, several public figures don’t seem to know how to be careful – from Chuba Okadigbo, through Patricia Etteh to Stella Odua. Does anyone need to remind her that like other top Ministers running ‘juicy’ ministries, she has powerful enemies? I am more befuddled that despite knowing the nature of the political environment, Ms Odua did not apparently do enough to avoid the banana peels.
It is gratifying that both Chambers of the National Assembly have vowed to probe the matter. My instinct is that purchases such as the two cars for Stella are often the handiwork of clever civil servants who are eager to show their bosses the way to make money – and in the process also make theirs. I also have a feeling that the culture of top civil servants in MDAs trying to ingratiate themselves to their bosses with expensive gifts is far more widespread than the Odua saga revealed.