By Nsikak Ekanem
The amount of monies reportedly spent in contravention of Akwa Ibom State Appropriation Act of 2019 are humongous, just as the entirety of what has spontaneously become an outrage in the petrol-dollar-rich state possesses qualities that could brighten its chances in competing for golden prize on scandal of the year 2020 in Nigeria.
The robustly investigative story published recently by The Mail, an Uyo-based tabloid, is said to have been supported by the John D. and Catherine T. Mac Arthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting.
A number of individuals, including yours sincerely, are of the view that, with the story, the newspaper, edited by one Ifreke Nseowo, has what it takes to be considered for award from the Nigeria Media Merit Award (NMMA), among other media award-given organizations.
But it is doubtful whether The Mail is on the radar of the Nigerian Press Council, the regulatory body for newspapers and magazines in Nigeria.Whichever, the newspaper and the two journalists that anchored the story – Ekemini Simon and Abasifreke Effiong – have proven a point that written off local newspapers in Akwa Ibom as being below average might be another faulty generalisation.
A review of the alleged extra budgetary expenditure as reported by the newspaper shows that N4.864 billion was spent on the purchase of vehicles instead of N738 million stipulated by the appropriation law; N5.04 billion against N2.5 billion that was approved for maintenance of the state government-owned aircraft; N2.7 billion for fueling and lubricating generators and vehicles of the state governor and his deputy rather than N1.3 billion appropriated for the purpose; N4.491 billion, and not the approved N3.6 billion, is said to have been spent on what is classified “government special development projects”; N120 million was spent on “security encoded ID cards for those on pilgrimage”, whereas N9 million was earmarked by the law for that; workshops organised for the then intended pilgrims gulped N25 million, exceeding the approved amount by N10 million.
Others are in that trend. Hardly had the matter become the talk of the town than the government’s spokesman, Ini Ememobong, responded through a release that the government’s document through which the newspaper got the bulk of the story from was erroneous and that his acclaimed incorrect report had since been replaced with his version of correct document.
About 24 hours after the press statement, a press conference parading some of the government officials indicted by the media report along the information commissioner was organised and the position of the government earlier stated by Ememobong was reiterated. Since human beings can hardly lay claim to God’s perfection, the excuse that the audited report was affected by “typographical errors” falls within the reality of this world, which is error-prone.
Even so, whether what is commonly referred as the ‘printer’s devil’ in press were caused by slip of pen on paper or slip of finger on computer keyboard, it is noteworthy that the purported mistakes have ignominious ingenuity as it only affected figures and words relating to monies and no amount of money was erroneously brought downward but upward.
Still, the Akwa Ibom State government deserves commendation, not only for its swift response to the matter but for shifting away from the common trend of deploying grandiloquent words or phrases, such as “figment of the imagination of the authors”, “tissues of lies”, in dismissing unfavourable media reports. However, in climes, where free press thrives, journalists, most times, despise press conferences on touchy issue such as this, preferring to independently make their findings from concerned newsmakers.
Two among several reasons that make pressmen to dislike news conferences were visible at the press briefing: it was controlled by the person that packaged it; and it was more of spin than spewing of truths.
As reliably gathered from a number of journalists that were at the press briefing, Ememobong stole the show even to the point of depriving the news hunters from hearing straight from the horses’ mouths. From my monitoring of the briefing on the state-owned television, AKBC, the take of many journalists present at the conference tallies with the interpretation of my eyes and other sense organs. Ememobong, who was not a commissioner at a time the alleged spending beyond the ceiling of the budget was done, just as his office was not involved in the deal, usurped the conference.
While speaking at the conference, the shape of the mouth of the 37-year old lawyer turned obtuse, like someone badly bruised in physical brawl. His lips were on desperate movement for something to lean on. He was stressed up and the strain on his face turned his alluring face to an appalling one at the moment. Granted that the tales told at the press conference by the government officials are worth working on, it only succeeded in raising many questions upon questions. Why was the error and the corrected version of the audited report not make known to the public before the newspaper report?
Why did the concerned government officials not mention the errors to the two journalists that anchored the story in the course of working on the story even when the newsmen deployed the instrument of the law on Freedom of Information? Why is the acclaimed correct document not containing details to avail the public juxtaposing it with the newspaper report?
Beyond perusing Ememobong stance vis-àvis the newspaper report, another authoritative window through which the public could peep to ascertain the truth of the matter had been opened by the Auditor General of the state, Monday Akpan. He told the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly’s Public Account Committee that there was never an error in the audited account his office submitted neither was the report ever withdrawn let alone being substituted as claimed by Ememobong and co.
Outside Africa, especially in the Western world, when illicit acts get to public domain, the perpetrators are usually guided by the dictates of African proverb, which admonishes that when a woman deliver a baby at the market square it is no longer necessary to advise her to close her legs.
That was why Richard Nixon, the 37th US President resigned in 1974 following his involvement in the infamous Watergate scandal. That was why Bill Clinton admitted to having “inappropriate relationship” with the then White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, after his initial denial. He was impeached by the US House of Representatives on December 19, 1998 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, but he survived the impeachment attempt because of partisan leaning of the US Senate, which voted 55 to 45 in his favour.
Often times, information managers at all levels of government in Nigeria misconstrue management of information for propaganda, hence disseminating information and ideas chiefly to induce the populace, distorting facts and seeking passion and prejudice from the people by deliberately misinforming the public. Handling image of government institutions is not the same thing as marketing goods or services of private organisations.
While the latter places premium on organizational interest, the former, especially in democracy, ought to revolve its core concern around the people, since they derive their power from them and are elected or appointed to serve the people. It is also a worrisome situation that a number of those manning information gates of government at the state level either knowingly or unknowingly cannot distinguish their roles from one office to another.
Though their functions could sometimes dovetail to another, there is a clear distinction between image makers of a state governor and that of a state government
Also, in beautifying one of the attributes of presidential system of government against collective responsibility that is prevalent in parliamentary system, there are separate information units for all ministries departments and agencies.
Ememobong’s action on the issue of the spending-beyond the 2019 budget benchmark presupposes that the alleged financial malfeasances have crept beyond the respective offices to the whole executive of the Udom Emmanuel administration. In the Nigerian public life, perfecting in the art of perverting truth is rather seen as virtue and not a vice.
That might be the rationale behind the response from the Udom Emmanuelled government, as deducted from what have been proceeding from the mouth of Ememobong
It is nothing other than tall tales. The more the truth refuses to be cowed and keep forces its way out, the more the spokesman tales gets taller on the matter. Just on this matter alone, Ememobong has thrown his goodwill to the wind and heightened the low popularity that the Udom Emmanuel government has been suffering even after winning his election for second and final term. Believing the Akwa Ibom State government through Ememobong may be close to what the legendary Cassandra was suffering from.
It is doubtful whether admirers of the current administration in Akwa Ibom would even consider taking such tales to the bank. It is gratifying that the Aniekan Bassey-led House of Assembly has constituted an adhoc committee to investigate the matter.
All stakeholders in Akwa Ibom project should take to heart that constant ignoring of truth is to the peril of the society and postponement of evil day, even for those perpetrating the ignoring. Apart from the astronomical amount of money involved, making expenses beyond what is appropriated by authority, both in public and private establishments, is often considered “gross misconduct”.
That is why it could constitute impeachable offence for elected executives and could lead to sacking of persons involved, both in public and private sectors. Even if the amount of monies in question is seen as paltry, the matter deserves not to be treated with glib talk since it has potentials of being a glitch.
Nsikak Ekanem sent this article from Lagos through [email protected]