By NA-ALLAH MOHAMMED ZAGGA
The manner we make heroes of crooks in this country is not only ridiculous but also incredibly disgusting. I ran into some people at Area 3, Garki, Abuja, who were arguing about the Farouk Lawan bribery scandal and to my shock, one of the guys maintained that Lawan is not the only bribe taker in Nigeria and therefore, he should be left alone. He also went on to argue that Lawan would continue to win elections again and again despite the badge of infamy hanging on his neck! The fellow was simply impervious to reason.
On the basis of his theory, I asked him whether it is logical for a thief, about to be sentenced, to tell a Judge that he is not the only thief in the land and for that reason, he should be acquitted! He froze in the face of this simple logic, but insisted on his argument that Lawan is being “set up” and “persecuted” for holding big men accountable. And if he is holding big men accountable, wouldn’t that be the strongest reason he should not morally compromise himself and betray millions of Nigerians cheated by suspected subsidy fraud culprits?
It defies reason why we should celebrate and defend crooks in this country. At the beginning of his corruption and money laundering trial in 2007 in Kaduna, former Delta State governor, James Ibori, was openly celebrated by his people who argued that it was nobody’s business if their man stole their money! A group of women protesters dressed in their birthday suits besieged a federal high court in Kaduna to protest the “persecution” and “humiliation” of their former governor. If our big men cannot be held accountable, how can we justify the persecution of petty offenders? How do you send a student to jail for examination fraud when politicians who rigged elections continue to run our affairs? Are we sick, stupid or lost?
Despite his rapidly shrinking credibility, Lawan is behaving as if he did nothing wrong to millions of Nigerians he has betrayed after being entrusted with the biggest public interest responsibility yet. He keeps insulting our intelligence every day. First, he denied ever visiting Femi Otedola’s house to collect $620,000 bribe but later admitted doing so, after the scandal had leaked to the media. He said he collected the money as “exhibit” against the oil mogul. He also said he told the EFCC chairman about the bribe but the agency denied the claim. Again, he told us that he handed the dollars to Adams Jagaba, chairman, House Committee on Drug/Narcotics and Financial Crimes, but he too denied receiving the dollars. Mallam Lawan also dared Otedola to release the audio evidence of their phone conversation. When the audio tapes were finally released, he claimed that it was not his voice, despite the unmistakable fact that many Nigerians who listened to him were convinced the voice was strikingly his.
In fact, Lawan’s inconsistency did not stop there. He claimed that Otedola was the one that visited him at Protea Hotel at Asokoro, Abuja, to deliver a $250,000 bribe to him. He said he had to collect it to protect himself! Lawan should tell this kind of stories to the Marines! In the first place, why must he allow a man he was investigating pay any visit to his hotel room for any purpose? If he had refused to receive Otedola or alerted the EFCC or the police that the oil magnate was coming to induce him, would that have put his life in danger? Why didn’t he immediately invite the press to show them the bribe in order to clear himself of future “blackmail” and “set-up”? The only way to save his life and reputation was to expose Otedola at once and put the issue in the public domain.
One million senior advocates cannot engraft virtue on vice or make evil look good! Let Lawan hire all the lawyers in the world, he cannot play on our intelligence. Why did he recommend the removal of Zenon Petroleum from the list of companies originally indicted by his committee if there was no deal a night before he submitted his report on the floor of the House? We must get away from the nonsense that we should support crooks because they are one of our own.
The lawmakers argued conveniently, but unconvincingly, that Lawan’s conduct would not in any way affect their collective image, despite the frequency of scandals rocking the House. Maybe they forgot the words of the Indian sage Mahatma Gandhi, who said: “In darkness, all colours seem alike.” It is apparent that the so-called Ethics Committee of the House, headed by Gambo Dan Musa, is trying to protect one of its own in order to safeguard their “collective” image. After hearing Lawan’s side of the story during the secret session they had with him, Dan Musa shocked Nigerians when he told the nation that the committee “was satisfied” by the answers given by Lawan.
Without realising it, Dan Musa has caused more public relations damage to the House by his insistence that the hearing must be in camera. Worse still, he lent credence to the allegations that his committee is determined to protect Lawan. If Otedola is now feeling like a “hero” for refusing to testify behind closed doors, the double standard of the House on open hearing gave him the excuse to do so.
When they wanted to harass and humiliate CBN governor, Lamido Sanusi, or the SEC director-general, Arunma Oteh, they did it publicly. Now that one of their own is involved in a heist against the people, they wanted secrecy. Lawan and Otedola should be made to confront each other in the open to put their credibility to the test.
My greatest worry, however, in this whole drama is the level of our tolerance for crooks. In decent societies, Lawan would have been suspended from the sittings of the House until he is positively cleared of the bribery scandal. Surprisingly, the man shamelessly stormed into the House to attend a plenary session, grinning from ear to ear like a victor in a moment of glory. His is a moment of infamy. Yet, taking advantage of our gullibility or fatalistic submission to criminality, he is now laughing at us.
One is deeply worried by the seeming atrophy of moral standards among our leaders and our stupidity to glorify them even when they engage in dishonourable conduct. In 1999, Robert Maxwell, a British billionaire businessman, committed suicide when it emerged that he had mismanaged the pension funds of his employees. Lest I am misunderstood, there is no suggestion whatsoever that our leaders should commit suicide when their disgraceful conduct is found out. We should however, demand and expect a certain reasonable degree of remorse from those who betray the people or offend against the law. Leaders should be role models but if they let greed and venality supplant their judgment, we should have no reason to celebrate them.
In the wake of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal of 1998, which shook the moral foundation of his office, former President Bill Clinton of the United States ultimately apologised to fellow Americans, his family and friends for the disappointment, distress and disgust his improper conduct had caused them. He did so after realising that the credibility of his denials of the misconduct was disintegrating rapidly, especially after the woman at the centre of the scandal confessed and gave graphic details of the affair.
Therefore, Lawan’s effrontery of not showing any remorse in the face of the moral miasma hanging over the image of the House is not only unbelievable, it also demonstrates the extent to which our leaders treat public opinion with contempt. Even if we are going to run out of voice and breath, we shouldn’t stop to criticise the culture of indifference to public morality.
(Mohammed Zagga is a journalist based in Abuja.)