Sunday, May 28, 2006

OBJ’s sledge hammer and a yellow fly

(Off the cuff published in the Nigerian Tribune edition of Thursday, 5 May 2005)

I don’t know why it seems all so absurd to me that President Obasanjo did a personal letter to the President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki over a gift of N7 500 to members of the House of Representatives by MTN.

As hard as I try to justify this on the strength of the new anti-corruption breeze (make that whirl- wind) blowing across government corridors, I cannot shake off this image in my mind of our beloved president frantically chasing one hapless fly with a sledge hammer.

My friend Everest Amafule of the Punch in an email tried to sell me the trick in this Obasanjo’s presidential letter after I tested my views on technology writers’ discussion platform on the net earlier in the week. The point the president wants to make clear to the international community, according to Everest, is that he is very determined to fight corruption no matter who is involved.

That exactly, happens to be my grouse. The president is desperate to convince the world that he is averse to corruption. The operative word here is ‘desperate’. Desperate people do desperate things. Most of them absurd. Writing a personal letter to the president of South Africa to inquire about the corporate practice of MTN in their home country is one of them.

If anything, it is undeserved glorification of MTN, undue amplification of the issues and a crass attempt at playing to the international gallery. Sadly, the international community would see through it and all the president’s earlier honest efforts would seem like it is all play acting.

If I were to choose between a president who wants to be seen as fighting corruption and a president who is eager to fight corruption, I would choose the latter. Make no mistake about it. They are not the same thing.

A president eager to fight corruption would put in place needed structures to do the work ( as he has done with EFCC and ICPC) and let them do it. He will give them all the encouragement to do the job and carry on doing what presidents do. He does not need to show anything to anybody. When his structures run efficiently, the world will notice.

The president’s letter to President Mbeki dressed the issue in borrowed garment of importance. A gift of N7 500 recharge cards to reps members! What will the president do if we smell that MTN or any other company from SA built a house for a government official to get a licence or something? Summon Mbeki to Aso Rock?

In any event, how much of investigation have we done on our own in Nigeria to establish if this recharge card gift conforms to a pattern we can call the corporate practice of MTN here in Nigeria? Have we looked into the practices of other operators here to see if there is some consistency?

All the operators make a public show of presenting lines and airtime to government officials, public figures and others in key cities they launch. Till date, hundreds of handsets, lines and airtime have been publicly given out to different bodies, government agencies and institutions including the police, customs, national conference people etc. by all the mobile phone companies.
Millions of naira are expended regularly by these companies on handouts, branded gifts etc, sometimes to people in the street. And the operators do this for a motive: to win recipients, usually opinion moulders or influential people to prefer them to the next operator.

When is it corruption? When a recipient says so or when it can be established that there is a motive more dishonourable than the one stated above? Or when one of the beneficiaries is alleged to have sat on some of the PR largesse that they are supposed to pass around?

Don’t get me wrong. It is noble to fight corruption. But don’t get desperate for a scapegoat. Otherwise any sheep will do!
Mail me if you disagree.

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