The consternation began with the action of Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama, who sacked a minister merely at the whiff of a scandal. I have long harboured suspicions that there is a secret protocol to the ECOWAS Treaty that prohibits exposing the behind of your regional neighbour. By sacking a minister faster than human rights groups can say “probe,” Mahama has violated this protocol and has put his Big Brother on the spot.
There are several levels to the consternation felt by top Nigerian politicians. The first one is the wishy-washy nature of the “evidence” against the victim, Deputy Minister for Communications Ms Victoria Hammah. It consisted of a secretly recorded tape that went viral on the internet. The last time a tape about a Nigerian public officer went viral on the internet here in Nigeria, nothing happened. One thousand viral tapes on the internet cannot bring down a minister in Nigeria where official vouchers, pictures of armoured cars, approved budget document, copious newspaper stories, contradictory testimony of officials, lack of due process certificates and intense parliamentary probes all failed to do so.
The speed with which Mahama sacked the minister is a big embar-rassment to Nigeria’s power elite. She was sacked less than 24 hours after the tape went viral. Mamaha did not wait for the Ghanaian Parliament to start a probe, which he could have stymied by asking the minister to travel abroad and then send a civil servant to represent her. Mahama could also have started a presidential probe of his own in order to take the wind out of the sails of the parliamentary inquiry, but he didn’t.
What in fact was Ms Hamah’s offence? This is the third level of shock for the Nigerian power elite. The Ghanaian minister had not stolen any money; she never got round to. All she did was to express an intention to do so, what in Nigeria we call anticipatory approval of a corrupt act. Victoria Hammah was heard on the leaked tape speaking to another woman. She was telling a story about her colleague the Deputy Minister for Gender, Children and Social Protection Rachel Appoh, who was having a fight with her senior minister Nana Oye Lithur. Victoria Hammah was saying that it was unreasonable for Appor who is a neophyte in politics to take on Lithur, who has a huge reputation and whose husband Tony Lithur is friends with former President Jerry Rawlings and was President Mahama’s lawyer during the 2012 election challenge. “I told Rachel,” she said, “that I really understand politics…I will not quit politics until I make one million dollars. If you have money then you can control people.” That’s all.
The fourth shock for the Nigerian power elite stemming from this affair is the low level of financial aspiration among Ghanaian politicians. A minister aspiring to make only a million dollars at the end of her career, after many years in the minister’s office? A Nigerian local government chairman thinking in this way could be accused of living in the past or of harbouring an unrealistic rural mentality. If a Nigerian politician who has held high office for a few years retires home with only a million dollars and tries to sustain an upper middle class lifestyle in a city such as Abuja or Lagos, he will go flat broke within a few months.
Let us do a rough calculation of what N160 million can do by way of sustaining an upper middle class lifestyle in Nigeria. If a former minister here is retiring with a mere million dollars and does not already own a house in Abuja, he should know that the entire amount could only buy for him a house in Abuja city’s peripheral areas. A modest middle class house at Wuse II, the least place that a former minister should aspire to live in Abuja, would swallow up the entire amount with nothing to spare for furniture. I am not talking about a large, what we call ‘befitting’ house in Wuse II. Houses in high brow Maitama and Asokoro could go for a billion naira or more, so that is out of reach for a former minister who has only a million dollars even though most of his old Cabinet colleagues will be living there.
Now, assuming our former minister already owns a house and a fleet of cars, the cost of maintaining and fuelling them, paying domestic servants, buying diesel for the generator, paying the exhorbitant fees of Abuja’s private schools, paying through the nose for the services of Abuja’s private hospitals, assisting extended family members, former classmates, towns people and others who lurk at mosques or churches to accost VIPs and ask for help would require several million naira a month. At that rate, with only a million dollars he would go broke in less than a year.
A big Nigerian politician cannot have only one house. If he has one in Abuja, he must at least have other ones in his home village and in his state capital. If a Nigerian politician does not have a house in either his village or the state capital, he opens himself to accusations by opponents that he is cut off from the grassroots and does not care for his local community. Similarly, a former minister here must also reckon with donations.
Mosques and churches that he attends are endlessly soliciting for donations to repair some broken section or expand some facility. Vigilante groups are also constantly asking for donation on the grounds that the police cannot offer adequate protection to us these days and it is they who stand between us and annihilation by robbers and kidnappers. Quite often one is unable to draw the line between the vigilantes and the criminals; one should simply pay up and mentally regard it as protection money.
The fact that you are a former minister and not a serving one does not lift from your shoulders the obligation of having to visit your country home every now and then. As soon as your motorcade is sighted in the village, men and women statistically cited by the UN as living on less than a dollar a day [some may not earn a dollar in a month] would flock to the scene and everyone expects to get some money out of you.
We are assuming all the while that our former Nigerian minister is no longer interested in politics and has accepted a life in retirement and on the sidelines of fast social life. In most cases this is not the case. I recently asked a man who has been in politics since the First Republic while he is still in it. He is not a bigwig office holder type but a political floor manager with low education but deep grassroots contacts. He told me that he cannot leave politics because the last thing he wants to see is the front of his house deserted by crowds of people.
Of course that was putting a polite spin to it. People who once tasted power in Nigeria are reluctant to let go and they constantly scheme for a return. There are plenty of former local government chairmen and councillors who are trying to become legislators; many former legislators who are trying to become ministers; plenty of former ministers who are trying to become governors; and plenty of former governors who are trying to become president. This ensures that a man’s financial savings while he held high office depletes much faster than even the scary outline above. Aspiring to earn only one million dollars at the end of a political career looks suicidal to a Nigerian politician.