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Let them pay

By   /  May 11, 2015  /  No Comments

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During the election campaigns, she was in battle gear. Not her ankara dress beneath a head-tie that mocks the humility of a villager.  Some may see her dressing as part of her armoury though. But her fiery tongue is her battery of attack. Her opponent is dapper, if not so brilliant. The two hotshots threw potshots at each other.

War is about propaganda, and elections in Nigeria are like going to war. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, with her usual gusto debated former Central Bank governor Chukwuma Soludo on the state of the Nigerian economy.

In spite of his exterior of objectivity, Soludo seized an opportunity not only for redemption but revenge. Since he fell flat as a governor candidate and retreated into oblivion, he had been looking for a chance to bait the PDP brass.

Okonjo-Iweala, on the other hand, wanted a moment not only of triumph but of triumphalism, to give the former vicar of our money the Mayweather treatment. With her vintage scarf and emphatic diction, she wanted to pulp Soludo into a PacMan of finance.

Now we know who packed a punch. Soludo said things were pretty bad. Ngozi said things were on course, and a rosy horizon emblazoned the future.

Last week, we had our confession. She said we have already borrowed close to half a trillion Naira to fund our recurrent expenses, like salaries, paying rents, etc. This is barely a quarter into the 2015 budget year.

So, we have it. Ngozi lied to Nigerians then. To be charitable, she probably did not know the facts then, or she knew it differently at the time she squared off with the central banker. Even in her vicarious confession, she did not show the humility of contrition. She threw jibes at governors, thereby blaming others for her own inadequacy.

So the scores are in. Soludo won, Ngozi lost the ball. But winning is not what we are about in this matter. We should be bothered about our economy, and where we are headed as a nation.

What has happened to this country in the past half a decade? Not long ago, oil price soared to its acme at about $110 per barrel. We spent a trillion Naira a year on defence when Boko Haram held sway and other trillions went into a number of sectors, including education, works, presidency, payment of bills, etc. We did not save for the rainy day. We did not account for the money that flooded out of our purses.

We expected things to be rosy permanently. We expected the fat years to burst with juices forever. Suddenly like the prophecy of Joseph that went unheeded, the lean years fell on us. We had no answers as the oil price fell precipitously.

Some are happy that Jonathan did not win. If he won, Ngozi would not have been forced to make a public confession of her government’s recklessness and profligacy. We would have kept borrowing and burrowing with a good face into a crash. Just like the crash that hit the west when Obama took the sceptre as United States president. That was the case with Greece when the bank Goldman Sachs worked with a consortium of finance houses to manipulate the loans and covered up the dreary situation until all that was left were stiches. The rich do not live on stitches.

Today, Greece is paying for the lies of those years that the locust ate. Many Greeks have left their country and close to a quarter of the population don’t have jobs. They are now cajoling and blackmailing Europe to bail them out of the iniquity of their past.

A big task has fallen on Buhari now. We know that recklessness boils down to corruption. So many sinners have taken part in this party of rapine on our patrimony. They have stolen us dizzy, and some of them are either looking for how to distort the books or flee.

Buhari has assured Jonathan that he has nothing to fear. But I wonder if that statement itself can hold our broken dam. If we have to wage a war on corruption, we have to stop the bleeding. But we cannot close our eyes on the recent past, especially when the government’s recent activities still bear significance on today’s life.

Some people have stolen our money, and so we want our money back. I am not interested in how many years a man goes to jail for stealing our money in the past half-decade. I say past half decade because it will be meaningless to go back indefinitely. But we should address the recent past, partly because we experienced the greatest devastation on our resources under Jonathan.

All we need is to look at the various contracts and see what work was done and not done. We should do the math and ask for the money of what is not accounted for. If the work is for N2 billion and it is evident that only N200 million work has been done, we should ask that the job be completed at a certain specified period and ask for the accounts and where the balance of the money is. If the contractor cannot account for it, that person must either by cajolery or force of law or plea bargaining made to give us the balance of the money.  If it means selling the Dubai mansion or the South African estate or the private jets, they must realise that we want the money.

We are in a bad place as a nation. We don’t want to look like the futile dance of the forest in Wole Soyinka’s play, where the past could not save the future. The past is in our hands, and we need to act with boldness. There are many poor who cannot feed, and many ignorant who want good schools. Many die who could have lived with a little help with this drug or that dialysis machine. We have the Second Niger Bridge to build and many homes that need power at night.

Our money stolen in the past few years amounts to trillions, given our budgets and work not done.  I am not calling for revenge, but restoration. It is about restitution, not retribution.  We should save the nation from the crime more than from the criminal. It is not about saving a brother but about being our brother’s keeper.

We need systematic approach lenient to those who cooperate and ruthless to those who huff and run.

Getting our money is not about forgiveness. Getting our money should be a public matter and the stigma and opprobrium should stick to the thief. The word thief is mild. They are robbers. The American outlaw, Jesse James, once caviled at being described as a thief. The offended bandit said he was not a thief but a robber, an armed robber. He belonged to a great class of evil doers rather than the petty aberration of a common criminal. James always came to mind whenever GEJ’s “stealing is not corruption” is referenced. GEJ was dodgy and hypocritical. Jesse James did not conceal his daredevilry.

We should not forgive. This is no time for Christian mercy. It is a practical way to show mercy for the suffering millions who are victims of corruption.

If we look at it as revenge, we shall miss the point, though. It should not come across as punishing a group, tribe or region, but individuals who violated public trust. After the First World War, the Europeans of the Allied nations called for revenge or what was called reparations. Some yelled that they should bleed the Germans till their children squeaked. It followed a revenge policy that alienated Germany, gave birth to a false prosperity known as the Locarno Honeymoon and later the Great Depression. Ultimately came the revanchist rise of Nazi Germany. The Second World War ended that sanguinary hour.

We need the money not to punish the thief but to save the poor and a crawling nation.

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