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[OPINION] Lessons from Adeosungate - Reuben Abati

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Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance (2015-2018), Kemi Adeosun threw in her letter of resignation on Friday, September 14, to bring to a temporary closure, the public outcry and the embarrassment that her possession of a fake National Youth Service Corps Exemption Certificate had generated since July when it was first reported. Her letter of resignation in which she blames “trusted associates” for the mishap and explains her innocence, reads like the abstract of a future memoir in which she is likely to do her utmost best to ensure that her non-participation in the NYSC scheme does not become the defining marker of her public service career.  She will of course in that book do the damage control of telling us that she is a victim of many conspiracies, the breach of trust, and the mischief of a sensitive and heavily politicized Nigerian public, seeking to hurt a holier-than-thou government as it seeks a second term in office. 

 

I have no doubts that Kemi Adeosun was eventually pushed. Since the matter hit the headlines, she had been studiously silent. But her employers having seen that the NYSC scandal may be used against President Buhari during election season, she must have been advised to tender her letter of resignation. No political leader can willingly risk the cost of a serious collateral damage in an election year. It would not have been in President Buhari’s best interest to take the bullet for his own Minister. It must also have been painful for President Buhari to let her go. Out of his entire collection of faceless, impact-less and colourless Ministers, Adeosun was one of the very few whose name and face many Nigerians could recognize, and who could be given some marks for effort and commitment. 

 

Often compared unfairly and sometimes unnecessarily with her more celebrated predecessor, Adeosun could not be accused of sleeping on the job. Under her watch, the Federal Government established an Efficiency Unit (E-Unit) in the last quarter of 2015, to monitor the Ministries, Departments and Agencies of government (MDAs) in order to check wastage and leakages. There was also the initiative on continuous audit, the introduction of a whistleblower policy, the Voluntary Assets and Income Declaration Scheme, a more rigorous insistence on the use of the Treasury Single Account (TSA), and the decision on financial bail-outs for ailing states. These initiatives may not have produced a robust or healthy economy, due to macroeconomic distortions or what the HSBC has identified as “fiscal fault lines’ in the Nigerian economy. Adeosun also borrowed rather heavily, leaving the country with large indebtedness, a choice she defended as the best option out of corrosive recession. 

 

In the course of her work, Adeosun also showed a determination to step on toes, taking on powerful figures and departments such as the leadership of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) for the opaque manner in which those institutions were being run. She further threatened tax defaulters with prosecution, and spoke openly about building a data base of the assets of the wealthy, their failure to pay tax as due, and bring them to justice. Adeosun apparently has lost out in the power game. Her lack of a proper NYSC certificate is her Achillee’s heel. Entrenched interest and groups in Nigeria, as elsewhere, take the power game seriously. There had been whispers about Adeosun’s NYSC certificate. The matter was unearthed to checkmate her. Is she guilty? Yes. The only innocent party is the media house, Premium Times, which saw in this, an opportunity for investigative journalism and chose to do its work as watchdog. Kudos to Premium Times for the determination with which it pursued the story. There are lessons here for all of us, in whom may reside a “Kemi Adeosun.” There is indeed a “Kemi Adeosun” in all of us.

 

The bone of contention is her non-participation in the NYSC, her non-entitlement to an exemption certificate and the possession of a fake exemption certificate. Established in 1973 as a post-civil war strategy for reuniting the country, the NYSC scheme is a creation of law.  It requires Nigerian graduates of higher institutions, at home and abroad, to devote a year of compulsory national service to Nigeria, preferably in a state other than their own state of origin. You cannot seek exemption, except in accordance with Section 2(1) of the NYSC Act. Once you graduate before 30, if you wish, you could still serve at 50 as long as you are a Nigerian citizen. The NYSC certificate is usually required for purposes of employment generally or appointment into public office, if you are a graduate. Nigerian graduates since the establishment of the scheme have participated in it. Even in the face of calls by a few that the scheme should be scrapped, there are also those Nigerians who are happy to be part of it. 

 

Indeed, some persons who graduate at over 30, we are told, smuggle themselves into the scheme, to avoid the stress of the unemployment queue. Some would even willingly serve in the scheme for a second term or a third term if possible. But Adeosun falls into a special category. She belongs to the category of Nigerians who studied abroad, and who were born and raised abroad, in countries where the NYSC is irrelevant and unknown. If she had remained abroad for the rest of her life, and did not take a job in Nigeria, there would have been absolutely no problem. And I believe there are many of her type in the diaspora, who are so established abroad that they may never imagine that they would need Nigeria some day.  Adeosungate says something to such Nigerians: should you hope to work in Nigeria at any point, and you are a graduate, you would be required to undergo a year of the NYSC. Prepare yourself for that, because you never know tomorrow. 

 

The second issue is that of citizenship. Certain commentators on Adeosungate have argued that she was not a Nigerian at the time she graduated. They insist that she took Nigerian visas on her British passport until she was 34. This is a wrong argument, because that was a matter of choice, not the result of a legal hindrance. Citizenship is not by passport. Kemi Adeosun became a Nigerian the very day she was born, in the light of Section 25 (1) (c) of the 1999 Constitution which confers citizenship on “every person born outside Nigeria either of whose parents is a citizen of Nigeria.”. As for her being British, Nigeria indeed recognizes dual citizenship. There are many Nigerian children being brought up overseas today by Nigerian parents, who do not regard themselves as Nigerians. I once met a young lady who told me: “My parents are Nigerians. I am American”. Every effort to convince her that she is a Nigerian was rejected. Some of such children can even lay claim to more than two countries. Their parents are Nigerians, they relocate to the United States and have children there, who may become Americans and they may further relocate to Canada where they also obtain Canadian citizenship. Nigerian parents who bring up their children abroad must always remind them of their roots. Those who are saying Adeosun has gone back to her country after resigning as Minister of Finance are overlooking the law.  She is in every sense a Nigerian. She was not recruited as an expatriate staff. She did not have to renounce her Nigerian citizenship at any time or seek naturalization.  

 

The third issue is that of certificate. Nigerians are very emotional about certificates. The country is blessed with so many educated persons, holding a file-load of certificates. When they hear that someone is holding a fake certificate even if it is that of the NYSC, they become completely hysterical. Kemi Adeosun is not the first highly-placed person to lose her position to a certificate controversy. Her own case is unfortunate because she got into trouble, not because of her academic qualifications, but because of NYSC certificate which some of her sympathizers claim should not be such a big deal. But the emotional attitude out there is: How can I go through NYSC and they will go and make someone who did not, a Minister? Meanwhile, there would most likely be thousands of Nigerians out there who either did not participate in the NYSC or are also holding fake or original exemption certificates that they do not qualify for. Adeosun has used that same certificate as a Company Executive in Nigeria, as a Commissioner in Ogun State and would have survived with it as Minister, if someone did not blow a whistle. This is ironic considering that she was the chief promoter of the whistle-blowing policy. Lesson: always double-check your certificates. You never know. 

 

The fourth issue is that of trust.  One of the points in Adeosun’s letter of resignation is that she was misled by a “trusted associate”. This may not be a strong point when deconstructed, more so as the NYSC exemption Certificate can only be collected in person and not by proxy.  But is it not the case that many of us in Nigeria rely on others to help us sort out a lot of paper work? I don’t know any big man or woman in Nigeria who would go personally to a vehicle licensing office to renew vehicle papers. Or to the tax office to update tax certificates. If it were possible to send a personal assistant to obtain a voter’s card, our big men and women would gladly do so, but they do this by themselves because of biometrics. Perhaps if Adeosun had personally gone to the NYSC office herself at the time she wanted an Exemption Certificate, she would have been able to make necessary enquiries and be properly guided. This should be a lesson to all well-placed persons. There are very few trustworthy aides in Nigeria: drivers cheat, housemaids steal, assistants tell lies, gatemen are often absent-minded, security men sleep on duty, they drive you crazy all the time, and when they mess up, everyone holds you liable. You are told you cannot offer any excuses. “The big man syndrome” comes with its own risks. Stop being big, take charge of your own affairs.             

 

The fifth point to be made is about the power game that I referred to earlier. No matter how conscientious you may be as a public official, there will always be persons who are seeking your downfall. They may not like your style, or they may simply want your job, or they are aggrieved that the job was given to you. If you are a powerful Minister or the architect of policies that they consider unfriendly, you could become the target of an established “Pull-Him-Down-Syndrome” which is the easiest way to destroy anybody seeking to raise his or her head in Nigeria. Whoever blew the whistle on Kemi Adeosun has succeeded in pulling her down. 

 

Power brokers do not moralize; they take advantage of every situation. Remember Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. As Nigeria’s Minister of Finance under the Goodluck Jonathan administration, the moment Okonjo-Iweala led the administrator’s efforts to reform the downstream sector of the oil and gas sector, and the oil subsidy regime, her 82-year old mother was kidnapped and Iweala was asked to resign as Minister of Finance by the kidnappers. She has told her story in a book titled “Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines.” Kemi Adeosun may not be able to make the same claims, because the whistle-blower correctly identified her Achilles’ heel and put her on the spot. The lesson here is that once you are in the public arena, all kinds of stones can be thrown at you. You are vulnerable. 

 

For example, right now in the United States, Brett Kavanaugh, the Presidential nominee for the US Supreme Court, has his fate hanging in the balance. A Californian Professor in her 50s, Christine Blasey Ford, has suddenly shown up, to allege that when she was 15, and Kavanaugh was 17, the latter, having taken a drink too much, had tried to force himself on her. Political gladiators are seizing upon this to say that Kavanaugh should be denied a seat on the US Supreme Court Bench. The matter is phrased as a protection of moral standards, and part of the #Me-Too movement but the truth is that Kavanaugh’s elevation if it happens, could tip the ideological balance in the Supreme Court in favour of the conservatives for a long time to come. If there is a similar #Me-Too finger-pointing in Nigeria, there will be no man fit for public appointment in every part of Nigeria! Back to Adeosungate: So, the question may be asked: who is benefiting from Adeosun’s travails? Who is hiding somewhere saying: we have dealt with her? 

 

Whatever it is, I expected her to apologise publicly in her letter of resignation and as a mark of her penitence and genuineness of purpose, offer to enroll for the NYSC. Rather than jet out after her resignation, she should have stayed back to put a formal closure to the matter. In 1999, Salisu Buhari, then Speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives found himself in a similar situation. He was accused of presenting a fake certificate allegedly obtained from the University of Toronto and a fake NYSC discharge Certificate. He denied the allegations and took The News magazine to court. But he eventually capitulated and apologized. He was charged to court for forgery and perjury (re: Commissioner of Police vs. Alhaji Salisu Ibrahim Buhari, 2000, FWLR (Part 1). In the end, he was granted pardon by President Olusegun Obasanjo. In 2013, Salisu Buhari was appointed a member of the Governing Council of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Ms. Adeosun’s matter needs not necessarily follow the same path. I have no doubt that President Buhari will be most willing to grant Ms Adeosun amnesty. This may be difficult but it is a practical approach to the problem. President Buhari is in the best position to help her in order to prevent a hostile, future government from using her as a scapegoat. She needs that help so she can move on with her life. And let no one jubilate over the fate that has befallen her. 

 

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