Editorial: Saraki and the Bullet-Proof Range Rover

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The call by Senator Ali Ndume (APC-Borno South) for the Senate Committee on Ethics and Privileges to investigate allegations that a N298 million bullet proof Range Rover sports utility vehicle, which was imported into the country allegedly with fake documents belongs to Senate President Bukola Saraki, is a rigmarole that is begging the issue. The armored SUV was impounded by Nigerian customs on January 17, precipitating a campaign of vendetta against the Customs Service, whose boss, Hameed Ali was ordered to appear before the Senate in his official uniform, after he refused to release the vehicle. Nigerians suspect, with good cause, that the Senate investigating its own president is a mere subterfuge to deflect pressure from Saraki and others involved in the ugly episode. In real terms, the transaction, along with the totality of the circumstances surrounding it, is a sad commentary on the values and quality of those in charge of the affairs of the country. The scandal underscores the yawning disconnect between the government and the governed in terms of priority and need, and why there is so much struggle for political appointment and offices.

A media aide to Saraki, Yusuph Olaniyonu, has denied the Senate president had anything to do with how the SUV was imported, arguing that it was the Senate that contracted out its procurement. “A supplier was engaged by the Senate to supply a vehicle. While transferring the vehicle between Lagos and Abuja, it was impounded by the Customs,” Olaniyonu said. “We believe that is an issue between the supplier and the Customs because the Senate has not taken delivery. So, why is somebody trying to drag in the name of Saraki into the issue?” Apart from the fact that due process was circumscribed; that so much public money was expended on one vehicle, at a time the country is in dire economic straits, the deal is as inexcusable as the reason offered for it. The worries of an average Nigerian are about the basic necessities of life – food, healthcare, quality education, gainful employment and reliable infrastructure, all of which remain hard to come by.

It is pathetic that while the average citizen buckles under the severe yoke of poverty; unemployment and lack, and the failure of government to discharge its statutory and moral responsibility to the populace, public officials would have so much leeway on profligacy and the mundane, which the bullet proof SUV at issue represent. This is more so at a time government revenue is said to be dwindling. When juxtaposed with the worst economic recession in decades characterized by an economy in free-fall; and the simmering insecurity and government’s failure to ensure safety of lives and property of Nigerians, the extent of government’s contempt and disdain for its citizens becomes obvious.

The Senate President went too far with the acquisition of the bullet proof SUV in a country where poverty is on the rampage, where primordial diseases such as cholera and guinea worm still decimate the rank and where infant mortality remains a source of concern to the international community. It is this same intense individualism, buoyed by the rapacious corruption in the country that can make Senators think that what is important for a lawmaking body is the safety of the President of the upper legislative chamber, rather than that of millions of people who depend on the legislators to pass laws that will improve their welfare. Individualism is the only reason the Senate has become the backyard farmland for its members where free funds are harvested as much and as often as they want.

Needless to say, the Senate traded away its integrity and compromised its oversight responsibility in order to please its leader. In so many ways, lawmakers conduct themselves as if they were above the law to the detriment of public service ethics. This pathetic phenomenon has bogged down the nation, as lawmakers would rather serve themselves than serve the Nigerian people who elected them.

Nigerians expect that this scandal should not be swept under the carpet, as many so-called investigations into financial impropriety in the public service have been compromised in the past. By any moral or decent standard, Saraki, who is undergoing trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, ought to have been ushered out of office to allow unfettered investigation by appropriate law enforcement agencies. That is the only way to counter insinuations that this government feels no scruple about corruption; or that no harm would befall anyone accused of corruption, however damning the allegation and its proof, if he belongs to the right ethnic group.

What the time calls for is a comprehensive overhaul of executive privileges at all levels of government. There is no need for any rigmarole, for that is what the Senate investigation or indeed any other panel set up by the government amounts to. There has been too many of such investigations in the past at public expense that turned out to be too much ado about nothing, mere sound without fury. That is not what Nigerians desire at this time as it amounts to an assault on the collective psyche of all citizens. The issues involved, namely morality, ethics and dignity of office are clear. All the culprits in this obscene act should be made to pay a price for their misconduct. Saraki’s continued stay in office is no longer tenable. President should do the right thing by using his office to bring pressure on the lawmakers to replace him with another person. The Senate officials involved in the Range Rover deal should also be thrown out of the system.

Meanwhile, the Police or the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) should open inquiry into the conduct of the culprits with a view to prosecuting them, if necessary. It is time public officials were made to account for their actions. No government that vacillates in a case so obvious and that smacks of massive moral deficit on the part of the Senate President will be deserving of the respect of its people. If government hopes to get away with this, it will not get away with the harsh verdict of history.